INQUIRY – GINNY WHITE
Words by Dani Baker As a freeskier whose style juxtaposes grace with aggression, aspiring guide who’s palpable bond with the mountains speaks...
Words by Matt Coté | Photos by Steve Shannon
In the distance, the sun sets on the Gold Range in its namesake colour. It’s late November in British Columbia’s Monashee Mountains, and the glowing orb doesn’t have much punch, casting afternoon shades of glinting yellow on diamond peaks. All things look precious in the alpine at this time of year, and our crew is spellbound by the vista. Rain and fog sock in the valley bottom below us, but this ridge top feels like a floating domain of powder above.
I point my tips and chase the long shadows of Alex Armstrong, Adam McCraw and Carter McMillan as they weave energetic turns in and out of 4 p.m. penumbra. The short-but-steep slope we follow mellows gradually into a lengthy bench, where small pillows coax twisters and spread eagles in the stress-free features that extend out from Sol Mountain Lodge—our ski base for the next seven days.
Flying by helicopter into a backcountry cabin for a week of earning your turns in untamed mountains can be an intimidating proposal. But Sol is no cabin. Sitting in an alpine meadow at 1,900 metres, it has a plethora of easily managed terrain surrounding it, making it a dreamscape for the uninitiated, or a playground of endless mini golf for the kind of skiers I’m with.
The three-storey, 18-person lodge abutting Monashee Provincial Park was built 16 years ago by Aaron Cooperman, a Canadian-certified ski guide and wily ball of energy who discovered the locale while working for Monashee Powder Snowcats, right across the valley. And while this wonderland is buried in snow all winter—requiring guests to fly in by helicopter from Cherryville, B.C. (just an hour from the Kelowna International Airport)—in the summer, you can access it by truck. That meant Cooperman was able to drive in all the materials needed to build the lodge. Today, it runs on an abundance of micro-hydroelectricity, has hot showers, a sauna, flush toilets, electric lights, a commercial kitchen and satellite internet. The off-grid digs are as inviting as the ski runs they access, which are mind-meltingly deep.
Sol’s tenure receives more than 18 metres of snow each winter, and holds a sprawling 30,000 acres of glades, pillows and chutes. That’s why McCraw and McMillan, with their aerial enthusiasm, come back year after year. But the short-shot skiing doesn’t necessarily mean you get less of it. Cooperman notes that the easier-to-bag laps keep people keen, and a lot of guests often surprise themselves with their biggest total days of vertical ever, because it’s not overwhelming to do “just one more.”
“It’s noncommittal,” he says. “For skiers just getting into the backcountry, they don’t have to walk for three or four hours before they can get skiing. They’re just skiing above and below the lodge. And then there are definitely adventures to be had if you push farther out.”
Cooperman’s model differs from most of the other ski touring lodges in B.C. because he recognizes that not everybody wants to climb Everest, or shiver in a 19th century-style cabin. And while going offline for a week is great for some people, there’s a whole demographic that simply can’t do that.
“As much as we think we want to unplug, the reality is a lot of us have to stay on top of things,” he says. “Whether it’s managing a business or whatever, it enables people to step away from their day-to-day work and still come.”
For Armstrong, whose hard-charging style was forged in the cold and cruel Rocky Mountains, Sol showed her good backcountry skiing doesn’t have to come with suffering.
“The Monashees are notorious for flat, benchy terrain,” she says, beer in hand from the comfort of a leather couch. “But, I’m blown away by the amount of fall-line runs here, treed and alpine alike. There’s a smorgasbord to keep every type of skier happy. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure type of lodge.”
In the days that follow, Armstrong, McCraw and McMillan revel in their early-season finds, namely the easy ascents to the Shiraz and Merlot zones, which reward us with 300- to 400-metre-long runs in low-angle, well-spaced glades. Mid-week, Armstrong drags her slacker teammates even farther afield to Crystal Vision and Barkerville, where the pitches steepen and the runs lengthen. This route also allows us to approach the Burnt Knob, where the terrain gets a bit more complex and exciting.
The more ambitious can push up and over Lodge Notch into Twilight Zone, or C’est Bon for clean 500- to 600-metre runs in more of an alpine setting. Or, if avalanche conditions permit, you can make the bigger push for the distant Mount Fosthall, one of the Monashees’ more iconic peaks at 2,675 metres. But however big or small or jibby your day is, you always come back to a fully catered, full-amenity lodge.
Blanket Glacier Chalet is the only other commercial ski touring lodge in the Monashees, and though equally amazing ski-wise, it chooses not to offer the same level of ritziness. While many people love roughing it for a week in the backcountry, our posse seems pretty happy to have a yoga room and fully stocked bar at its disposal.
For fellow guest Scott Aitken, who’s been coming up to Sol since the beginning, he says Sol simply offers the best skiing he’s ever found. Aitken, who hails from Pemberton, B.C., is a veteran of snow. He spent 31 years working avalanche control on the Duffy Lake Road north of the Sea-to-Sky Corridor.
“I’d say the south Monashees have the best powder skiing,” he tells me. “It’s a snow belt thanks to a weather phenomenon called the ‘Monashee backwash effect.’ It’s better than touring in the Alps.”
Aitken notes he’s been skiing for 55 years, and is 62 now. He’s also had bilateral knee surgery. While he still goes hard, softer snow is easier for him these days, and that’s what this place has in spades. Along with options.
“I gave a powder-skiing lesson to a 78-year-old here, and I’ve watched Carter huck backflips off ridiculous cliffs,” he says.
As he does, I peer out the window to see McMillan and McCraw doing inverts off a hastily stomped-out jump with a blow-up doll on their shoulders, and it’s clear Sol is indeed a place of ridiculous contrasts.
For more on Sol Mountain Lodge, visit solmountain.com.