Sunday, 23 March 2014

Valhalla Mountain Lodge 2014

Sat Jan 25th - Sat Feb 1st Valhalla Mountain Lodge, West Kootenays, B.C.
Synopsis: 4 1/2 stars out of 5, one of my favourite back country lodges. Great terrain, the feeling of big country however small enough for multi-pass tours and a lodge that, for me, is the right amount of "rustic".

The 9 of us met up in Nakusp, BC early Saturday morning. Flying out of Burton we are the only lodge so there isn't a lot of other parties around and things are pretty relaxed. We got going in decent time with a little valley fog but blue skies up top.

With four flights in all, we were all moved in, fed and ready to head out at 12:30 pm. It was blue sky day with the temperature just around zero and an avalanche forecast of moderate, low, low. Given the proximity of McKeen pass, we agreed that would be a good afternoon objective and 8 of us headed out, Brad hung out at the hut, nursing a broken toe and sore ribs. He told us it was a "household accident", I wonder? The good news was he was preparing supper while we played in the snow.

Given the low snow year, trail breaking wasn't a real issue and yes, there were plenty of rocks pocking out on the south facing slopes. An hour and a half put us at the col, up 350 metres above the lake, and after a windy de-skinning at the pass we choose a line of descent far climbers right that was soft and had me grinning (it looks like I wasn't the only one)!

It was too early to go in to several of us went back up windy knoll and I skied a steep line off to lookers right of half pipe with Dave and Sharon. Dave was good enough to lead the charge and found some scary faceted snow up high however we persevered and were rewarded with some great, fairly steep turns (the feature is above Chris's toque).

We were back at the hut just after 4:00 pm, which at the end of January was feeling a lot like dusk, and after 550m of skiing felt like we got some exercise. Brad was on for supper and we started with some of the best margaritas I've ever had and a huge bowl of guacamole. I had a good feeling about the week!

Sunday dawned clear blue and not cold, however with a bit of a breeze. Our hut custodian arrived early with the weather and avy forecasts, which became a morning ritual (they've got their own hut, which works well). Moderate, low, low was the order of the day. Plans were made to head up to Chico bowl and we were organized and out the door at 9:30.

Brad was able to join us and the sore toe didn't seem to hold him back. Chico bowl is just to the southwest of Mt McKean and involved heading slightly downhill to Twilight Lake and then climbing through some forest and then out into the bowl itself.

We actually climbed up to the top of a run called Gateway and could look down the backside to Voodoo Child and Rumplestiltskin. The run down Gateway was surprisingly good, nothing too deep but hero none the less.

At the bottom of the run we split into two groups; Brad, Jane and Chris headed back up for another run (if you look closely you can see them below the left hand cliff band in the photo above), and the rest of us headed up to sunshine pass for a look.

Very cool terrain and while windy it was still very comfortable. The top of Sunshine Pass is roughly 2375m and 400 metres above Twilight Lake. It was 1:30 when we went over to the back side and were greeted to a great view of the Valhalla's in the distance!

We checked out the top of Rolling Thunder, the skiing was good but the day was wearing on so we only skied the top portion and headed back up to Sunshine Pass at 3 pm.

We were back at the hut at 4:30, for the ritual beer in the back porch. Sure it would have been nice to be skiing deep pow, but the blue skies, great touring and surprisingly good skiing on north faced terrain had us feeling lucky!

Monday looked to be a carbon copy of Sunday; blue skies, high hovering around freezing and low avy hazard. We had been talking about checking out Valhallaluya ever since arriving and today was the day! All of us were out the door at 9 am and up the familiar territory towards McKean pass. With the bindings adjusted (thanks Dave!) I took out my new K2 Coombacks and skied them the rest of the week, sweet rides but not totally impervious to snow snakes!

And to the folks that give me a hard time about my Whistler/Blackcomb toque complete with pompom, hey it was free! Without any real ski penetration on the way up we made quick progress, gaining the 300 metres up to McKean Pass in an hour.

Off came the skins for a quick 200 metre ski down to Blue Lake. Being north facing it was soft if not deep and after a quick climb up we were at the top of Valhallaluya at 10:30.

We did a full run down skiers right and had some of the best snow of the trip. Great fun, although Jane managed to hit a rock early on and treated us to a bit of a yard sale. It's kind of nice when someone else keeps everyone entertained!

The skiing was good enough that we went back up for another run, not bothering to go all the way to the col. We stopped before the angle kicked back and the shade started, ripping our skins for a second run at 12:15 about 70 metres below the col.

This time we explored a little skiers left and found some great snow, after which we had a celebratory warm lunch basking in the sun. Having said that this was deep in the north and a long ways from home, it did get shaded early, there was a wind picking up and the forecasted clouds starting to move in. We called it a day and started to head towards home.

We all decided to ski back down to Blue Lake with our skins on, which did create some entertainment but no large crashes. The snow above Blue Lake on the way back up to McKean Pass was hard enough that a few chose to boot pack up. We made it back to the pass at 2:40 and were happy to note that it was still sunny on the west side which made for a leisurely ski back with a stop for a chill out in the sun.

Life is good when you can hang around outside at the end of January. Never the less it does get dusk at around 4 this time of year so we eventually headed in after a 1320 metre day.

Tuesday did start to show a shift in the weather. Avy hazard was still moderate, low, low and the temperature still very moderate however high cloud had moved in. After a big day on Monday, some were looking for a slower start to the day. In the end Dave, Marni, Deanna and I headed out about 8:45 am looking to check out just how sun effected a run called Under the Rhino was.

We made our way down familiar territory to Twilight Lake and continued to the south west gaining some elevation. We stopped just over the trees above the run to check it out. Given the committing nature of the run, Dave stopped to dig a pit however it looked good enough to warrant jumping in.

The run was a real mixed bag, some great turns, some sun affected snow and even some alder bashing at the bottom. You could really see the results of a low snow year.

The run does go for a lllooonnnggg way down and 11 am found us at 1500 metres, a full 600 metres below the hut. Needless to say it was a long climb out, fortunately with a well beaten trail the whole way. Not having Garrett around to show us the way resulted in a little back and forth however we eventually found our way to the top of home run and we made our way down some pretty soft snow back to the hut for lunch at around 1:30. The rest of the group had skied largely the same run and made it back to the hut about the same time.

As you can see, it had started to snow although not heavily. After the luxury of a hot bowl of soup for lunch some of us headed out for a lap on home run. Gord, one of the custodians joined us for it and if you searched around soft, boot top powder was there for the taking.

4 o'clock rolled around and given the cloud cover it seemed even darker than usual so we headed in. By now we had settled into the comforting rituals of hut life; eat, drink and enjoy the occasional sauna. One nice thing about skiing in January is you usually do get plenty of sleep given the darkness.

Hump day came along with the first day of real snow, however when I say real the total accumulation amounted to about 12 cm. Deanna took the day off and the rest of us skied down to Twilight Lake to check out the slopes to the east and south draining down to the lake. Trees for viz and the promise of good snow sealed the deal. There was some talk of skiing Forbidden on the north of the ridge coming off Woden Peak however in the end the visibility just wasn't there.

However when we got to the lake just down from the cabin, I realized that I left my pack at the hut! Yikes, and a quick (but not so quick) skate ski back to the hut with a promise to catch everyone up was my reward. Funny enough just as I got close to the hut, D radioed to let me know my pack was sitting on the porch. Thanks for Dave and Brad for waiting for me.

Once we climbed above Twilight Lake, the visibility proved to be not bad. An initial run to skiers right showed some sun effect however the runs directly north facing were actually darn good. We partnered up and I got to chase Sharon down a couple of laps. It's great to ski with people that like to gobble up terrain!

Each run we worked up to Chico bowl a bit more. In all 3 runs were had and great fun. I did have a bit of a garage sale down close to the lake after losing it completely through the deep snow at a bit of a clip. Entertaining once I cleaned the snow out of my ears and nose.

After the third run, some went in and some of us went to check out Cabin Fever. I was starting to slow down a bit on the way up, feeling like it might have been wise to take a 1/2 day off at some point!

The snow was really good down cabin fever, helped by being pretty much north facing. It was pretty moderate terrain and a great way to end the day. We were in right about 4 pm after skiing just about 1200m of fine snow!

Wednesday was Deanna's and my turn to cook, however being the sweetheart she is, my role was really just one of BBQing the fish, oh and eating!

Thursday dawned overcast with light snow at times. The avalanche hazard remained moderate, low, low and by the end of the day there was 20 cm's on the board. Not huge but enough to soften it up and it was a little colder, in the -10C range. There were some ideas floated around and the whole gang left just after 9 up windy knoll and south over to the shoulder of Mt McKean overlooking Twilight Lake.

The new snow looked good and we elected to give the south facing slopes down to the lake a try. Unfortunately, it was still pretty sun effected and essentially dust on breakable crust. A few bits in the trees were good but we thought we could do better. Given Chico bowl was right around the corner up we went.

Visibility kind of came and went and we made it to the top of Gateway/Voodoo Child/Rumpelstiltskin at 11:30 am. We all agreed the snow was likely better down Rumpelstiltskin so we descended 100 metres down the backside, however as soon as we got down to the point of commitment the visibility got decidedly poor.

A bit of faffing about transpired, as it often does at these times, so we sat down and had some lunch. The entry in felt a little intimidating in the lack of viz and slowly 5 of our party headed back down to ski Gateway. However, Sharon, Garrett, Brad and I hung it out and wouldn't you know it - viz improved and the "committing" entry wasn't really much at all.

The skiing was great, especially when Sharon got the great idea to stay high and access Voodoo Child (unfortunately, I wasn't so high and had to climb a bit but well worth while). Great, great skiing and Voodoo Child eventually joins Under the Rhino which was familiar territory.

We didn't go all the way past the alders and stopped just above them, but still 500 metres below the hut. Another long climb out, with a food stop along the way. We climbed all the way up to home run and had a great last run down to the hut.

It was a 1300 metre day and on the last bit of the climb I was definitely dogging it. Sharon was good enough to hang back and chat as I struggled up the last bit however the snow was worth it!

Thursday night in the hut was pictionary night, a great game although it dashed my plans for any kind of artistic endeavors in a future life. Apparently the moon is a different shape than the sun! Hey it was a stressful situation!

There had been some talk earlier in the week of doing a big tour; up Chico Bowl, over sunshine pass, down Rolling Thunder and back up the backside to McKean Pass and down Mainline to the cabin. The day dawned clear and cool, -15 C to be exact - perfect!

7 of us set out, Chris and Jane stayed back to have a more chilled out day (and beautifully, do a bunch of the clean up of the cabin). Out the door at 8:45 and down familiar terrain to Twilight Lake.

Once we broke out of the trees into Chico Bowl and into the sun, with fresh snow and blue sky, it was just spectacular!

The day was a great one, but I was playing back of the bus charlie on the way up. Paying the price for a great week and not being in great shape. To add to it, I couldn't resist the lure of taking some photo's on the way to Sunshine Pass.

I got to the top of the pass at 10 am and immediately felt the shame of realizing I was holding the group back. Deanna and Sharon helped me rip skins and get with the program. We jumped down the back side and traversed hard skiers right to get to Rolling Thunder.

Dave jumped out ahead and gingerly tested the snow pack. There was a fair amount of faceting on the skiers right and the decision was made to head down without climbing up for the full run. 

Hero snow that just seemed to go on forever! Dave was good enough to point out a steeper slope that was big time fun. However a little lower I paid for my exuberance after coming over a roll with a bit too much speed (like there is such a thing!), found it a little crusty and completely lost it.

I actually took a bit of a hit to the head and came upright with a bit of a leak. I soon figured out it was just a bleeding nose and Sharon came to my aid with her bandana.

Fortunately, Dave and Marni got caught in some ugly terrain just to the left of the photo above and allowed a bit of a rest and a chance to remember my name...

We then had the big huff climbing out of the back of beyond. It was shortly after noon when we started climbing and it took a little over 2 hours, including a lunch stop, to climb the roughly 800 metres up to McKean Pass.

I was a bit slow and tailed the group, however Deanna kept me company as we wound through the trees.  

As we stopped short of the pass for some late lunch we had a bit of a surreal experience as a lone woman popped up out of no where, going light without a daypack or much of anything. She chatted briefly, let us know she accessed the area on a sled and disappeared. It left me rubbing my eyes!

We then made the pass and had a great last run down of the week. It was a fantastic tour, with some great turns and a fantastic way to end the week!

Overall, it was an awesome week that went by just a little too quickly. Thanks to Chris, Jane, Marni, Deanna, Garrett, Brad, Sharon and Dave for making it so! Special thanks go to Garrett who knew the lay of the land and was good enough to show us all around.

Coolest toque of the week award has to go to Chris, gnarly!