Backcountry Skiing at the Burnie Glacier Chalet
By Alesha Damerville
Image courtesy of Kyle Endres
By Cathy Wiedemer
I have loved skiing ever since I can remember. My dream was to someday live in the Colorado mountains and I’m happy to say I’ve realized that dream, living in Steamboat Springs for most of my life. Beyond the Steamboat ski dream was the desire to ski steep lines in the big mountains of British Columbia. My BC ski dream came true at the Burnie Glacier Chalet from March 29-April 4, 2019, and on so many levels it was more than I ever thought imaginable.
When you receive a phone call on a hot afternoon in June inviting you and your husband on a Canadian heli-hut trip for the following March, what do you do? You say, “Yes!” and figure out the logistics later.
Our Ski Posse
My husband, Glenn, and I would be joining nine others for the week’s ski adventure: long-time Steamboat friends Jill and Jan, former Steamboatians Kyle and Seth, Kyle’s buddy Blake, Seth’s cousin Morgan, Seth’s friend’s son Noah and Roel and Hans from the Netherlands.
The Burnie Glacier Chalet is British Columbia’s most northwesterly mountain lodge. It’s located high in the Kitimat Range of the Coast Mountains, 690 miles north of Vancouver, halfway up the province. The hand-crafted lodge was built in 2001 with permission of the First Nations on whose territory it sits. Bavarian Christoph Dietzfelbinger, an International Federation of Mountain Guides guide and Smithers/Bulkey Valley resident of more than ten years at the time, wanted a non-motorized area for year-round recreation. The Wit’suwet’en (“People of the lower hills”) House of Kwees agreed to Christoph’s plan to build the hut in their territory with one caveat: the hut had to remain in his family and was not to be bought or sold.
Smithers and Hudson Bay Mountain Resort
Our home base before and after the heli-hut excursion was Smithers, a small mountain town of approximately 10,000 people, sitting at 1,610 feet within the Bulkey Valley. Smithers is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise, offering access to a myriad of pursuits year-round. Shortly after take-off on the three-hour flight from Vancouver to Smithers, all I could see in every direction were snow-encrusted peaks, fiords, glaciers, glacial lakes and ice falls. Shortly after landing in Smithers, we transitioned from travelers to skiers for an afternoon on the slopes under bluebird skies at Hudson Bay Mountain Resort.
The next morning, we awoke to another bluebird day. We enjoyed a cooked-to-order breakfast at The Stork’s Nest Inn and began packing our bags to ensure they didn’t exceed the 35 lb. maximum weight limit (not including ski equipment) for the helicopter. As we were bustling around, we were met by Christoph and one of our guides, Evan, who’s also a IFMGA mountain guide. Christoph wouldn’t be joining us on the trip, as he was off to Europe in a couple days. Introductions, more coffee, lots of questions about weather, terrain and snow conditions, rechecking gear bags, and last-minute trips to the bank, grocery and liquor stores filled the morning before Christoph and his staff shuttled us to the heliport.
SilverKing Helicopters would be our chariot to the Burnie Glacier Chalet. We met second guide Nicolas, then an Association of Canadian Ski Guides apprentice, and Monika, our cook, at SilverKing’s well-appointed office and heli-pad. We took off floating over the town of Smithers towards the Howson Range. The terrain was getting bigger and more snow-covered with every minute. Equipped with headphones and mics, we could hear and communicate with the pilot and each other. I’m not sure I said much during the 20-minute ride, as I was in pure awe looking at the scenery and wondering what lines we would be skiing and when the chalet would come into view. Just as we were flying straight towards the Burnie and Polemic Glaciers, suddenly the pilot took a sweeping left-hand turn and there it was: the Burnie Glacier Chalet.
Christoph designed a practical, comfortable, and efficient solar-powered three-story lodge complete with an extra-large mud room for boots, packs, helmets, etc.; a spacious kitchen and dining room; guide office and one bedroom on the main level. Upstairs are three additional bunk rooms (with assorted bed configurations). The ground level houses the wood-fired sauna;,shower (cold water only), workshop, equipment racks, pantry storage and three single-bunk rooms for the guides and cook. Waiting for the rest of our group to arrive via two additional heli trips, I kept gazing up at the spectacular, impressive peaks and terrain surrounding the hut. It was like we’d been dropped onto a page in National Geographic. Once everyone arrived, we donned our ski gear and packs for an afternoon session practicing avalanche and rescue skills. After dinner, we reviewed additional hut protocol, shared chores, and learned what the daily routine would be in the coming days.
The Daily Routine
Up at 5 a.m., breakfast at 6 a.m., skis and skins on (and beacon check) at 7 a.m. sharp, ski tour upwards of 4,000 vertical feet until 3 p.m. (with the option to return to the Chalet or continue on), return to the Chalet for Monika’s homemade soup and snacks, enjoy a beer or two, sauna, cold shower, dinner at 6 p.m., chores, read or play cards and finally snuggle underneath the down duvets with lights out at 8 p.m
We’d begin our ski tour each morning on frozen crust with skins, and then shortly stop to put on ski crampons. Ski crampons? I never knew these even existed, never mind how essential they would prove throughout the week. Ski crampons are small, lightweight metal attachments that mount underfoot on the toe piece of the ski binding (they’re binding-specific). With each step, pointy-edged “teeth” punch through the frozen crust, providing additional grip and stability when coupled with skins on frozen and/or very steep terrain.
Evan and Nicolas were incredible route finders. Despite the region’s below-average snowpack – no new measurable snow in days – coupled with warm afternoon temps, they always delivered a fantastic day of skiing and exploring. The high-pressure weather system brought crystal-clear blue skies and freezing cold nights making for next best thing to BC powder: BC corn.
Loft Peak and Solitaire Glacier
Each day was a true adventure, sometimes more on the uphill than the down. The treks to Loft Peak (which I aptly nicknamed Panic Peak) and Solitaire Glacier stand out above the rest as the challenges were well worth the rewards. I’m speaking for myself as I’m very skittish when it comes to heights, ledges, and staring down bottomless-looking inclines. On the ascent we maneuvered precipitously tight switchbacks (gotta love kick turns on a dime!) through trees and on the edge of cliffs (some with no room for error and on rotting snow), incredibly steep and lengthy skin tracks, and several boot-pack climbs.
I was only a few switchbacks from the top of Loft Peak (think inverted ice cream cone) on an extremely exposed section of skin track when I froze – and not from the cold. The view from the skin track until this point was one enormously vast, untracked snow field. No big deal. But once I could see the drop-offs on either side, that was it – I was done. Guide Nicolas came to my rescue, popping off my skis, and I hiked up to the summit. Back on solid footing, we enjoyed lunch and taking it all in on the tiny summit of Loft Peak. The initial ski down from Loft Peak was perfect corn snow, and quite possibly the longest continuous ski run of my life. It had to be well over 100 turns. Our ski skills were continually tested as we skied the remainder of the descent through frozen crud and thick mashed potatoes. The day’s ski concluded with a very pleasant ski tour alongside the creek back to the hut.
The utmost section of Solitaire Glacier provided us with best powder skiing of the entire trip. It took a little coaxing from Nicolas for me to continue up the last section of the off-camber skin track with an extreme drop to the left, but I made it. We transitioned at the tiny keyhole notch in the rock before savoring each soft turn of the nearly perpendicular pitch, careful not to ski below the guides where a seemingly endless gulley laid below.
Touring on the Chalet’s namesake, the Burnie Glacier was surreal. Being able to ski on an incredibly thick, ancient ice mass that’s still moving was impressive. High above our route on the Burnie Glacier, several times the Polemic Glacier calved, sending out a cloud of white “dust” and sounding much like there was an aircraft overhead. Prime corn snow made for a creamy-smooth ski down the glacier, where Evan brought us to a mammoth ice cave ingrained with intricate patterns and layers. The glacial, cobalt-blue ice was mesmerizing, with colors akin to sports drinks, Windex, or tropical sea water. Skiing past an accessible ice chunk a few days later, Nicolas chipped off a centuries-old “ice cube” that perfectly chilled our whiskey drinks later that night.
We did a short tour the last day as weather moved in. Gone were the bluebird skies and endless views; nature was letting us know it was time to head home. Back in Smithers, we cheered to a fabulous week at the Smithers Brewing Company before boarding the flight to Vancouver. Bittersweet to leave, but so grateful to have been invited on this adventure.
The week ski touring at Burnie Glacier Chalet reinforced the importance of simplifying life and focusing on the present. My confidence to overcome my insecurities with heights and drop-offs certainly increased. Seven days in the Northern BC backcountry was beyond my dreams, and I’m thankful to have experienced this unbelievably gorgeous part of the world and create a bond with people who will forever enhance my life.
Burnie Glacier Chalet: https://bearmountaineering.ca
The Stork Nest Inn: http://www.storknestinn.com
Hudson Bay Mountain Resort: https://hudsonbaymountain.ca