As I lie in bed this morning, I imagine Selkirk powder had built up to our second story window overnight. It almost happened. I am excited for an epic day of human powered pow on the massive pile of new fluff that’s just sitting out there like the best meal you’ve ever anticipated. I pull the covers tighter, but the designated breakfast chef is banging pots and pans downstairs and I know it is time. As a new fire crackles in the wood stove, I don my sophisticated yoga attire and head down to catch room on a mat before the crowds arise. After a bit of stretching in front of the wood heat, I grab a cup of joe and switch to ibu-pilates, a new form that’s quite popular at ski touring huts. Such is the dawn of the day at a Selkirk powder lodge.
So many things to do in a life as a ski mountaineer. I’ve done my share. But until now I’d never enjoyed the Canadian Selkirk powder harvest nor stayed in one of the famous lodges that serve as a grain elevator system for the vast piles of stellar dendrites that accumulate here every winter. A few impressions.
There are a lot of these operations. Backcountry Lodges of BC association has 27 members. The business as a whole comprises an astonishing number of human powered user days. Indeed, you would think the ski and guiding industry in the lower 48 would have taken more notice over past decades on how the backcountry lodge experience enhances the backcountry skiing experience. But a weird set of circumstances has enabled the BC lodges, while making full service U.S. backcountry skiing lodges somewhat rare even in areas where the snowpack could support them. They do exist in the U.S. (commenters feel free to share your favorite), but nothing like the variety they have up here (and a far, far cry from the literally thousands of full service huts in western Europe.
No reason to get into the politics of huts here, except to say that the it appears the public and the government in BC are much more supportive of these operations than they are in the States. For example, the user fee Valhalla Lodge pays the government is an astoundingly low $1 a day. Further, vast tracts of land are available for “tenures,” without restrictions on lodge type uses (as opposed to legal Wilderness in the States, where anything short of hiking or riding horses is prohibited on pain of Sierra Club exorcism.)
So, my impressions from Valhalla Mountain Touring. We’re on what they call a “friends” trip, meaning we’re unguided and bring our own food. We still ski with owners Jasmin Caton and Evan Stevens. They’re just not officially “guiding” us. Most of their trips are catered, meaning they’re guided and a cook prepares all the food.
A typical day for us goes something like this: Our group of 14 people is divided into breakfast and dinner crews who do one morning and night each. The cook gets up and starts banging pans at 6:00 am, and we’re eating breakfast sometime between then and 7:00. During breakfast Evan gives us a weather and avalanche briefing. The lodges all talk to each other about conditions, so in Evan’s short take we’re getting a world of impressions from all over the region.
Plenty of route maps and photos are available and the owners are free with advice. Track up their snow? Sure, it’s all new 24 hours later.
After breakfast the mad scramble of the get-ready ensues. The crowd breaks into informal groups, and the drill basically involves gaining human powered vertical then skiing back down. During avalanche stable periods such as what we’re in now, most strategy involves figuring out where the best snow lies and what’s appropriate in terms of weather exposure. Valhalla’s tenure includes a bit of semi-alpine terrain that’s fun in the sun, but windy and cold during storms. Below that, vast timbered areas are steep enough and just sparsely treed enough to ski, and ski well.
It gets dark early this time of year, so everyone rolls in around two or three in the afternoon. Typical vertical gain for a day’s skiing is from 4,000 to 6,000 vertical feet, with much more possible for those with the cardio, due to low altitude and terrain that lends itself to efficient skin tracks.
As we return, the sauna gets fired up, people stretch and hydrate. A long dinner and social hour leads to early bedtime if everyone is ski motivated (though parties have been known to happen).
It’s really a quite simple life. A few tips if you go:
– Have your gear extra dialed. Temperatures can be cold, and you may be using your gear more than normal. Anything you’ve not figured out back home may be prone to breakage or malfunction. Not being immune to such things, I fiddled with duct tape yesterday while everyone else was out skiing. Unfun.
– Boots need to fit blister free, obviously.
– A conscientious lodge keeper will remind each group to practice good hygiene so germs don’t run free through the crowd. To help, bring your own stash of hand sanitizer.
– In normal Selkirk winter pow conditions, ski width rules. While a good skier can ride anything in Kootenay cold smoke, having a wide platform makes skiing so much easier — so you’ll have more fun on the down and more energy for the up. For example, I brought two skis: 178 cm Manaslu weighs 50.5 ounces each and is 95 cm underfoot; DPS Wailers I’ve got are 99 underfoot and weigh 52.3 ounces each. I’ve been on each ski out the door here. The Manaslu is slightly more nimble on the uphill. On the other hand, I can totally feel those extra few millimeters of platform that the Wailers give me so they’ve been the ski I’m tending to grab in the morning. Either of those skis would be considered too narrow by most folks around here it seems, but I like the way they climb.
– If you tour in storms (hope that you do), you’ll want a full shell ensemble made of the latest ultra-breathable yet waterproof fabrics. For example, I’m using a Westcomb Shift FT Hoody jacket made of Polartec Neoshell. Aamazing stuff. It could be said that while ski width and shape may have revolutionized backcountry powder touring, recent advances in clothing technology have not been far behind in influence.
I know a lot of you readers have way more experience than I do with Canadian lodge backcountry skiing. Any tips you’ve got are appreciated. Comments on! And another big plug for Vallhalla’s Selkirk powder stash. They are fully booked for the season, except for 5 spots during their special yoga ski week for women only, although we heard there may be room for a sauna boy. Guys, if you want to get your WildSnow Girl the ultimate gift, book her in. Gals, bust a last minute move and come to Vahalla to align your chakras. Start of your best year ever. More info here and here.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.