Return to Powder Creek

Powder Creek Lodge panorama

View from the lodge helipad

A couple years ago, N surprised me with what was the Best. Gift. Ever. for this skier – a week long trip to Powder Creek Lodge, a backcountry lodge located in British Columbia.  It was a fantastic trip, and we both hoped we could do it again.  When one of the folks we met that week let us know that he was organizing a trip for this past January, we didn’t hesitate.

Skier in Powder Creek Drainage, Purcells

N found his backcountry legs pretty quickly

What was even better this time around was that my brother came along.  He’s become a backcountry skier – I’d like to think in part because of the many tales that N and I have recounted, but I can’t be sure – and since he had a significant birthday recently, he wanted to fete it in a significant way.  We all agreed that a week of backcountry skiing in Canada was significant.

Views from Powder Creek, Purcells, British Columbia

Views like this never get old.

Cue to this winter.  Or rather, non-winter.  We’d had no opportunities to backcountry ski prior to the trip, thanks to little precipitation at Lake Tahoe.  We were not alone, since many of the folks going on the trip were from Oregon, which had also seen little snow by January.    It meant excitement ran high, even if ski fitness ran low.

powder creek lodge sunset views

The views from the lodge weren’t too shabby either

Our timing was perfect this year.  While our helicopter flight in was delayed a few hours due to weather, and while said flight in was much bumpier than I would have preferred, we got into the lodge on arrival day just before the real weather moved in, leaving us with over 3 feet of new snow in the first two days.

Skiers climbing up slope

Ridiculously beautiful scenery made the uphill part less painful

One of the many things I love about Powder Creek Lodge is the location.  It’s situated at 7000 feet, just above treeline.  There are low angle slopes in the trees, along with a variety of slopes in the alpine, ranging from wide open gentle slopes to steeper chutes.  So we had ample options even when avalanche danger was high.  It meant we skied 5-6 hours a day in search of untracked snow, which wasn’t hard to find.

Throw in running water, solar electricity, hot showers and a sauna, a full kitchen (we were self-catered, so this was important), stunning views and comfortable beds, and you can understand why Powder Creek Lodge is my perfect vacation.  I’m pretty sure it became my brother’s as well, as he had a big grin the whole time – especially when he got turns like this.

Powder Creek powder skier

Living up to the name at Powder Creek.

Overall it was another great week.  The group got along well, and had no real gear issues or injuries outside of some colorful blisters.  And we found out later that it didn’t snow again there for another two weeks.  Confirming that our timing could not have been more perfect.

If You Go

Powder Creek Lodge – This popular alpine style ski lodge offers both catered and self-catered options.  Plan to book out a year in advance at a minimum.

Getting there – From Spokane it’s approximately a 3 hour drive to Nelson, where Powder Creek Lodge’s helicopter transportation is located.   There is a shuttle service that goes from Spokane to Nelson if you don’t want to rent a car.

Hume Hotel – This recently renovated historic hotel in central Nelson is my favorite place to stay.

Mountain Hound Inn – These affordable accommodations are located on Nelson’s main drag, and the combination of location and price make it popular with skiers.

The Outer Clove – Groovy garlic themed restaurant with a pretty extensive menu and the ability to accommodate a large group makes it our go-to spot for dinner before we leave for Powder Creek.   Two words – quasar burger.

Oso Negro Coffee – Nelson’s best coffee roaster and café.  Your lodge mates will love you if you bring a pound or so of their beans with you.

Full Circle Café – Tasty breakfasts, and the fact that it opens at 6.30 am makes it a great option if you have to be at the helipad at 8 am.

Fresh Tracks Café – Located at Whitewater Ski Resort, it’s got an amazingly diverse menu (my favorite is the yam poutine with miso mushroom gravy).  Perfect place for lunch on your way back home (assuming you’re not taking the shuttle).  Also worth exploring if you have an extra day to ski or ride before or after your trip.

Backcountry Skiing in Canada

Skinning above Powder Creek Lodge

Skinning above Powder Creek Lodge

Last week N and I packed up our skis, avalungs, skins & assorted backcountry gear and headed north to Canada. You see, we had reservations at the Powder Creek Lodge, a backcountry lodge located in the Purcells in southern British Columbia.

Skinning to the back door

Skinning to the 'back door'

We’d talked about doing a backcountry hut trip for years, but never quite got around to it. After all, with such excellent terrain and conditions here, we got distracted. So I was grateful that N took the initiative and found a group that had 2 spots available. That he happened to pick one of the drier snow years at Lake Tahoe only made this trip more awesome.

The group we joined up with was primarily from Calgary, and many of them had been doing these trips together for years. Apparently there is no shortage of backcountry huts and lodges in this part of the world, so you can do a trip like this once a year and never stay at the same place twice! The Powder Creek Lodge is definitely a gem, located at about 7000 feet in a drainage east of Kootenay Lake, with electricity, heat, a fully functioning kitchen, and a sauna.  And super comfortable beds.

The heli at Powder Creek Lodge

The heli

To get there, we flew to Spokane, and then drove onto Nelson, a funky little town that N told me was where the film Roxanne was filmed. The evening we arrived gave us just enough time to grab dinner with the group and then sprint through the local supermarket to stock up on supplies. You see, our group was self-catered, which meant that each couple was responsible for cooking one dinner (including the ever-present ‘appies’, or appetizers) and one breakfast for 14. The next morning we were up early to rendezvouz with the helicopter, which met us at a location near the town of Kaslo north of Nelson, and from there it was a super short ride into Powder Creek.

While our group was self-catered, Powder Creek does provide a custodian for groups like ours, who handles important responsibilities like getting the wood-fired sauna ready in the afternoon, and monitoring the propane incinerating outhouse. Chris, our custodian, offered plenty of value adds, including hilarious stories and amazing samosas, and even helmet cam footage. The group itself was a varied lot, including 3 other women, which was a huge relief for me, as I had fears of trying to keep up with a pack of super-fit guys.

Some amazing views from the skin track (photo: S Thorson)

Ridgeline skin track leads to deep powder

There is some very interesting topography around Powder Creek, which meant we could find everything from longer descents in neighboring drainages, steep pitches above treeline and gentle meadow-skipping runs through forested areas, all within a short-ish distance of the lodge. We traversed ridgelines and skied wide open bowls, and I learned to farm turns, something we don’t need to do much of at Lake Tahoe. While we saw little new snow during our week there, the conditions were surprisingly good, with cold winter snow on most northerly aspects, and a snow pack that stabilized as the week went on. We had no weather days, so I was only limited by my physical fitness. I skied all 7 days, though I’ll be the first to admit that there were more than a few afternoons where I was eager to get back to the lodge, kick off my ski boots and enjoy the views from the comfort of the couches.

Views of the Purcells

Views of the Purcells

It was truly a fantastic week. I boarded the outbound helicopter feeling like I gotten my backcountry powder skiing fix, along with 12 new friends and a slew of terrific memories.

And a desire to do it all over again next year.

More photos from the trip can be seen on Flickr.

Endless Powder

After a bit of a lull in the storm cycles (which was timed perfectly for my recent trip to Redding), Tahoe returned to winter last week, just in time for my brother’s visit.   Like me, he’s a passionate skier, and has worked hard to share his love of the sport with his family.  So he was pretty stoked to encounter all this untracked deep snow throughout the weekend, though he’s not accustomed to breathing through the face shots.

Smiling because I didn't break trail

They left on Monday, and with one day of non-snow in the forecast for Tuesday, Nils and I decided to see what backcountry powder conditions were like.  We knew that there had been wind loading and instability in the snow layers, so we agreed to go only as high as we felt was prudent.  Nils even broke out his inclinometer app for this trip, and proved that I know very little about geometry and angles, as I overestimated every slope measurement he took.  Clearly I don’t ski real steep terrain anymore.

Nils gets first tracks

For all its depth (and it was deep), the snow felt more stable than expected, with no cracking or whumping sounds.  We did see some wind loading towards the top, but stayed away from exposed ridgelines for that very reason.

Powder turns on the descent were so fun that we did another lap off the top before heading down the bonus run.  Nils’ captured a few of the turns on the first lap, and since I’ve learned to slow down a bit, you actually do see me in the frames.

More snow through Friday night (and another storm forecast for Saturday/Sunday) means that there will be some deep trailbreaking by the weekend…

Finding powder days after a storm

It takes a special kind of skill to sniff out powder snow days after a storm.  Knowing aspect and elevation certainly help, as does having one of those water-finder forks that you sometimes see in the desert.  Not having one of those forks, I’ve had to resort to the former, and it usually works well enough during the winter months, when days are shorter and there’s less of that glorious California sunshine to affect the snow quality.

This morning’s first dawn-ish patrol (closer to mid-morning, really), which was a number of days after the last snowfall, did pay off at the upper elevations.  You could call it spring powder, that slightly compacted fresh snow that’s makes for fun turns, especially when it’s untracked.

Things got a little more spicy below about 8000 feet, when low snow coverage and springlike conditions required faster reflexes.  But that was a small price to pay for about 1700 feet of backcountry fun before heading into the office.

Attempting Freel

View from our summit

I am not a peak bagger, so thus summiting Freel Peak, located in the Carson Range at about 10,880 feet, has never been on my list of 1,000 Things to Do Before My Knees Give Out.  That said, it’s spring here at the lake, which means longer days, and ostensibly the famed Sierra corn snow is getting close to harvest time.  So when a friend let us know he was going to take advantage of Heavenly’s last day of lift operations to attempt skiing (in his case, snowboarding) Freel, N and I were interested, if only for the potential to ski 3,000 feet of corn snow and the chance to see the top of one of the highest peaks in the area.

Corn snow on the first descent

A trip of this caliber is not for the weak.  Clocking in at close to 12 miles of skinning up and skiing down, our route took us from the Heavenly boundary line, followed the Tahoe Rim Trail roughly from Monument Peak to Star Lake, and then veered sharply upward as we skinned to the saddle at 10,000 feet.  While the 6 of us (3 skiers, 3 snowboarders) started out together, it became quickly apparent that we would have to split up, as our ideal routes differed greatly due to our equipment. So we continued contouring our way towards Freel, while our friends figured a more direct path would be easier on snowshoes.

Approaching Freel Saddle

Our friend K had to be at work that night so we decided to not try for the summit when we hit the saddle around 1 pm, which was a good call.  The descent, which was not the corn snow we’d hoped for, included quite a bit of intimacy with shrubs and plant life as we crossed and recrossed creeks and drainages looking for the dirt road to our rescue car.  Seven and a half hours after we left Heavenly we arrived at the truck.  Never has a bottle of water and a seat looked so inviting.

It's all down from here.

Knowing the routefinding now, I’d like to reattempt this when snow levels are a bit lower, as the terrain looks like a lot of fun in powder.  And the views, well – they’re unparalleled, making every minute of the climb up *well* worth it.