I should have discarded two outdated rules years ago: never go with strangers or a guide. Here’s to a growth mindset at the Sunrise Hut with eight strangers and guides, Rob Coppolillo and Nino Guagliano.
It had been years, well over a decade, since I’d taken a deep breath and treated myself to a hut trip. I assure you, but I will spare you the details; I also needed to exhale. While raising two kids, I did the occasional traverse during those years but focused more on practicality: big efforts in a single push.
That is not what I signed up for when I booked a trip at the Sunrise Lodge in early January. I signed up for a catered and guided trip during which I could hopefully unplug and find happiness skiing amidst a group of 9-12 individuals, among which, I knew only one, IFMGA guide Rob Coppolillo.
Some would say I had two strikes against me. The first was inserting myself into a group of strangers. The second, which we’ll get to a bit later, was the atypically weak snowpack in Interior, B.C., which I explored with Grant Statham in an interview after returning from the trip.
Here’s what I’ll say about the group. My closest friends thought it a big gamble to go with strangers. They were wrong. If, at my age, I am unable to be flexible enough in my time, attitude, and willingness to grow; then I might as well keep myself cocooned in my echo chamber.
I strongly encourage folks to go on a guided trip with strangers. (Here’s the disclaimer: I am not advocating going into avalanche terrain unguided and with strangers. I want to be clear about that.)
Some still will say I lucked out. My reply is this: most folks in the ski and splitboard communities are good people and worthy of taking a chance on. Joe, my roommate from Missoula, was a keeper. And so were the seven other guests I want to invite for dinner, toast them over a beer, and wish them well. To be honest, I think I had one moment I would perceive as semi-mild friction with one of the other guests. That was early in the trip. I’m also unsure if this person thought there was friction. I should have asked.
The best ski run I took that week was the next to the last run, I think we were skiing north-facing snow. It was a plum line I could have taken farther than I did, and I still took it too far. As it was treed terrain and deep in the hills, we partnered up. I paired with the skier with the slickest mustache on the trip — the same individual I’d shared my perceived friction with.
We both skied aggressively in steepish terrain, made more forgiving by the deep snow. Drawn like itty bitty iron filings, we leapfrogged intermittently towards the magnet that was the valley bottom.
I’ll take the blame. We considerably overshot our agreed-upon stop point. When we hooted for a response from the group dispersed in the forest, we realized we had descended too far. My partner and I took a moment to revel in how supreme the moment was before breaking trail up towards the group. I shared that run with John, and I’m glad I did. It was a highlight.
Lesson learned; don’t be afraid to jump on a trip with strangers.
Not Outsmarting the Snow
I think I’m being accurate here when I state I’ve never been on a guided trip. When I was 19, I took a weekend course in North Conway, New Hampshire, focused on placing natural protection while rock climbing. That felt much more like a course than being guided.
My aversion to being guided likely stems from a deep and flawed belief that I always need to be self-reliant. The bottom line is no one wants to get hurt, or even worse, and who better to rely on than yourself and trusted partners. I also know myself. I love skiing. I also like to think I’d make sound decisions regarding the terrain I ski, no matter what. But heading into a new zone, an unfamiliar mountain range, mentioning nothing of the snowpack’s vagaries, I know my place.
Had I gone into the hut with my experienced group of regular ski partners, I want to think we would have been patient and emulated the words of the co-lead guide for the trip, IFMGA guide Nino Guagliano. Sunrise Hut sits not too far from Golden, B.C., where Nino currently lives. He knew we’d be easing into the week.
“There was not much that needed to be said as far as me trying to convince everyone on the trip that we’re going to tone it down, said Guagliano of he and Coppolillo’s mindset regarding the snowpack and viable ski terrain going into the trip. “We planned on keeping things very conservative to start; getting a lay of the land, and starting to build from the ground level and floor by floor, and see how it goes by day six or day seven.”
It’s fair to say that had I been unguided in this same situation, I’d likely have skied maybe 30 percent of the terrain we eventually did ski. This is not to say Guagliano and Coppolillo were aggressive in terrain selection or under pressure from the group to ski “the goods.” It is to say that I would have been overly cautious and too afraid of poking around in a snowpack that was, from what I could gather, unlike anything I’d seen in my home mountain range.
Throughout the week, as Rob and Nino collected information from snowpits, daily ski tour observations, and their colleagues in the surrounding hills via the radio and InfoX, we were all too frequently reminded of the consequences: several D3 avalanches were reported.
My only regret about the trip is my oldest child not joining us. He was invited but had adventures elsewhere. This 20-year-old aspires to be a mountain guide. And more than anything, more than the turns and all the bliss that is typical of a hut trip, I wanted him to see two humble guides practice their craft. It’s hard to capture Rob and Nino’s humility in the presence of an unpredictable and uncharacteristic snowpack.
During my interview with Statham after the hut trip, he stated, “It’s always terrain, terrain, terrain; it’s all about terrain. You can’t predict the snow in years like this one.”
I understand now that what Rob and Nino practiced around the Sunrise Hut was the axiom Statham exhorted. Our skintracks flowed throughout the hut’s tenure, with only a few forays into higher, yet safe, alpine terrain. We skied plenty of powder. We skied plenty of slopes tipping beyond the 30-degree threshold. Rob and Nino let the terrain dictate our run selections.
I took nearly two weeks off from big tours upon my arrival home as I was totally spent. Thank goodness for the guides.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.