LEADING LIGHT – DAVE ERB
Words by Jeff Schmuck “The concept of being connected to something is what fuels me to be invested in protecting it,” responds...
Peeling off the ground after driving a long, lonely logging road to the middle of nowhere, a group of eager friends shrank out of site, turning into brightly coloured action figures in a diminishing forest of giant evergreens. A stunning river valley passed below, the Incomappleux—its savagely tangled rainforest dividing the woodland hamlet of Beaton from Rogers Pass, British Columbia. In heats of five, we were being delivered by helicopter to a three-storey palatial backcountry hut called Snowfall Lodge: a self-powered, remote ski-touring base planted in the subalpine of the Selkirk Mountains’ mighty Battle Range.
Up in the air, the crackle of the pilot and passengers’ voices over the intercom interrupted the machine’s roar with a treble-y hiss that reminded me of early Bob Dylan recordings. His song, “Seven Days,” came to mind. That’s how long 18 of us would be living off-grid together. Then, breaking the spell, fellow ski pilgrim John Cattie pulled an Egg McMuffin out of his Gore-Tex jacket and craned his neck back, commanding, “Take a picture of me eating McDonald’s in this fucking helicopter!”
As far as assholes go, Cattie was as beautiful as they come, and in good company. Photographer Reuben Krabbe and I had joined a barb-elbowed crew of some of the saltiest ski-tourers in the Interior—none of them fitting the granola stereotype. Not many outsiders would stand a chance in the Thunderdome of snarkiness and sarcasm this group was given to, though a few thick-skinned souls were giving it a go. Americans Lucas Wachs, Andrew Orlich and James Bridges would make up the more soft-spoken portion of the crew: 18 disparate souls brought together by the shared promise of an entire week of remote B.C. powder, without the distraction of wifi, flush toilets, running water, or social decorum.
The snow billowed overhead as Lane Clark laced turns before me, braiding tracks with Nikki Turner in a blinding haze of cold smoke. The 300-vertical-metre run we’d all just dropped in on, dubbed Dilbert’s Dive, ended at an avalanche path that forked right and into the tightening valley below, or left and back to the lodge. In the Incomappleux, you can’t ski too low—and we knew as much. It was mine and Clark’s second time amongst these 2,800 metre peaks, their glacial skirts, old-growth forests and pillow fields.
Larry Dolecki first opened Snowfall Lodge in 2015, to match the grandeur of his ski-mountaineering operation in the Rockies, Icefall Lodge. At first, Snowfall, named for its deep surroundings, was just a small cabin. In January 2018, that cabin became staff quarters, hidden behind the proud and tall new lodge with its eight double bedrooms. There was now a custodian there at all times to keep self-guided groups like us in check. Ours was Lars Kuhle, a rugged and moustachioed late-40s mountain man from Golden, B.C., who made fast work of propositioning all the ladies in our group in one fell swoop. He met with little success, and many snide chuckles, but for the rest of the trip the women amongst us—all in their 20s—would frequently threaten to bunk in Kuhle’s private quarters, to keep their men in line.
With the prospect of cross-generational lodge love triangles mostly out of the way, we used our first days to travel high over alpine passes while stability was good, breaking in our legs, and jockeying for first tracks as we splintered into smaller, more manageable groups. Each night, we’d reconvene in our homestead: dining, drinking and playing cards.
Lodge life is simple: there’s a shitter outside, a pee toilet inside, a fireplace to warm the hut, a drying room, a creek for collecting water, solar-powered lights, a backup generator, and an industrial kitchen full of propane. Teams of two to three get together to make dinner for the whole group each night. Days are dominated by skiing, mornings and nights are gobbled up by communal tasks like getting water, preparing for the next day, stoking the sauna, games, and many wobbly pops.
While out on the mountain, if anything goes wrong, you can reach the hut custodian to call for a helicopter, or use an inReach. But help is a long way away, so you have to take care of each other. Hut life, above all else, breeds closeness.
In the following days, a pounding storm set in and snow stability declined while the sky vomited 60 centimetres. As we fanned across the freshly burnt forests left by summer wildfires, our groups became rival factions—track-setting and competing for up to 1,500 vertical metres each day. Marauding through pillow lines like an insatiable team of mercenaries, group names emerged: The Badgers, The Butt Chuggers and The Snowy Beavers. Turner would frequently chide Clark, “No one wants you to ruin that untouched pillow stack, it’d be embarrassing. I’ll do it.”
She wasn’t alone in her voraciousness. The entire group’s calorie deficit grew each night as we wrung each passing moment of light from the day. Muscles strained and electrolytes depleted, but none of us wanted to miss a single turn— though our legs were giving out bit by bit. “Seven days,” I thought, “just seven days…” The partying at night didn’t help, but seemed unavoidable. When someone gives you a banana costume, loads a turkey baster with booze, and tells you to “open your damn mouth,” what can you do?
The Badgers got first tracks occasion after occasion, so the Butt Chuggers and Snowy Beavers got creative: Wachs threw flat 360s off natural wind scoops, and Orlich greedily ate up all the drops. The rest of us raced down pillow lines howling like demons, both from the ache in our thighs and ecstasy of seven days of powder. All good things must come to an end, though, just like the best ski lines. Bridges had found this out first hand when he accidentally aired 12 metres to an uphill landing right next to us, laughing and yelling back up from his wallowy crater, “I wondered what you guys had stopped for!”