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.

Chamonix – autumn colors + brushes with taxidermy

From Paris we hopped on the TGV and headed southeast to Chamonix.  This was another place where I had lived back in the last century. Not long after I left, I ended up buying a miniscule apartment with what was my life savings at the time. I assumed it would be my nest egg.  Said nest egg was sold when N and I bought our first house in Tahoe. That was the only wise investment decision I have ever made.

Chamonix in 2011 is both same same and different different to the place I left twelve years ago.  Like many mountain towns, there are plenty of people I know who are still there.  They might have spouses and kids and mortgages now, but they stay for the same reasons I wanted to.  The mountains.  In the past decade the town has certainly changed and grown. There’s a MacDo now, a few more roundabouts getting into town, underground parking and a Chanel boutique. For me the most revelatory difference was the receding glaciers.  They were quite a bit smaller than I remember.  And I heard that they’ve even covered one.

We were in Chamonix to see friends and do some exploring.  I’d found a small flat in Cham Sud, ironically in the same block as my old studio.  The views of the rental were much better though, looking out towards the Aiguille du Midi.

Views from the bedroom in Chamonix

The mild weather was perfect for hiking, so I took N up to the Lac Blanc, which used to be my favorite hike.  It’s a lot easier when the trams are running, as that shaves off 3000 feet of hiking.  Alas, the off-season meant that the trams were closed, so we ended up climbing 4600 feet up and down.  But the views were well worth it, even if I had difficulty walking the next day.

Lac Blanc's amazing views

Descending from Lac Blanc to Argentiere

Hiking down from Lac Blanc to Argentiere

The following day my friend H suggested we hike up to the top of the Montenvers Tramway, which is on the other side of the valley from Lac Blanc.  It was a great way to see where we had been the day before, but the highlight of that hike was encountering this incongruous sight at the top – a golf cart filled with haphazardly stacked taxidermied creatures.  H’s suggestion of a photo ended up being my favorite photo of the trip.

Dead animals in golf carts at the Montenvers

Dead animals in golf carts in the Alps - bien sur!

And really, after a photo like that, that’s pretty much it.

While it was a brief trip that didn’t include skiing,  it was nice to be in Chamonix during the ‘intersaison’. It was less crowded and much quieter. Which I didn’t mind at all.

Paris – ma nostalgie

Eiffel Tower + Lion

Many years ago I began my adult life here. Straight out of college, cluelessly optimistic, I landed a job with the South Korean delegation to UNESCO. (That’s a story for another time.)

Certainly nostalgia tinges all memories a certain shade of rose, but I remember my two years there as an exhilarating and free time of my life, hangovers notwithstanding. My fondness for the first place I lived as a post-college adult hasn’t lessened. It’s a city I’ve revisited over the years, albeit never often enough.

So a trip back was long overdue, especially since N and I had only spent a day there together the last time. I was excited, because for all the years, I wanted to see if I remembered metro stops, how to get to my friends’ flat, the name of my favorite pastry, and my rusty French.

For the most part my memory surprised me. The French came back, I found my friends’ flat with only a few wrong turns, and navigating the metro felt familiar. A lot felt familiar, which I didn’t expect, but I suppose it’s a form of muscle memory.

It was a lovely three days of catching up with friends, eating more bread and cheese than I should admit, and showing N my Paris. A pedestrian’s Paris. We walked for hours each day, past landmarks, through parks, shopping districts and the odd museum. Our soft mountain feet felt the effects of the concrete and cobblestones at the end of each day, but it’s my favorite way to see this city.

My Paris is unlikely to be everyone’s Paris, but in includes important-to-me places like the Marche de Mouffetard, the Grande Epicerie at the Bon Marche, the Ile St. Louis and the Parc Buttes-Chaumont. It includes crepes from an outdoor stand, lots of café time, and more than a few baguette sandwiches.

This time around it also included N. And that made it much more memorable.

Fini, les vacances

We’re just back from two weeks in France (with a brief stopover in London). It was truly a vacation, as I shut off my work email and didn’t do much besides catch up with old friends, revisit old ‘hoods, speak mangled French and eat a lot of cheese.

I’ll be posting more later this week, once the unwanted souvenirs (jet lag, head cold) subside. But there is one souvenir I will share with you, since I hit the FNAC pretty hard while in Grenoble.  Claude Francois might not be as well known as, say, Yves Montand or Jacques Brel, but he (and his backup dancers, the Claudettes) has a place in French pop, if a decidedly kitsch one.  Surprisingly (or not), his stuff isn’t so easy to find in the U.S.  Go figure.

Big mountains eh?

views from banff

I don’t travel much for work, but each year I do attend a mountain travel conference that’s typically held at some pretty awesome ski destinations.  This year, I went to Banff Lake Louise.  It was my second trip to Banff, having come here in 2004 for the same event.  Both times I was lucky enough to stay at the Fairmont, a tremendous old castle (with a history) that is now a world-class hotel. I can safely say that the combination of the exceptional service of the Fairmont coupled with the spectacular views of the Canadian Rockies makes for a very memorable trip, whether work is involved or not.

In my case, some work was involved, and while I won’t bore you with details here, I did learn that Canada’s DHL service does not work on weekends, and will not drive through sleet, snow or rain to deliver packages,  unlike, say, FedEx, UPS, or the U.S. Postal Service.   .

Lake Louise

Despite package delivery issues and work requirements, I did get out skiing at Lake Louise with some old friends who I met when I first started working in the ski industry in the last century.   It was a blast! The Canadian Rockies are very different from the Sierra, and while they may not see snowfalls measured in feet (it is a metric country after all), the local ski resorts have some legitimately big mountain skiing, with steep lines and chutes that are often in-bounds.  Lake Louise definitely boasted some steep lines, ones  deserving of the expert/double black diamond rating.  I didn’t get a chance to ski Sunshine, but based on the raves I heard from Nils, Delirium Dive is on my list for next time.

And I’m pretty sure there will be a next time – ideally one wholly dedicated to play.  Besides skiing, there are a slew of other things I missed out on, including a chocolate shop whose name made my inner 9 year old boy giggle.

Eastern Sierra Exploration

We had hoped to spend this past weekend huntin’ for corn snow up around Tioga Pass, but the forecasted precip did arrive, and came in wet enough to encourage us to hit Mammoth for some resort skiing instead.

While we knew it would be a wet storm, we didn’t factor in the ridiculous winds that kept most of the mountain shut and made visibility optional.  We skied anyway, but quit midday when goretex layers had become saturated, and headed to our digs at June Lake, where the weather was windy but not so wet.  Since neither of us had really walked around the town of June Lake, we figured a faux-urban hike would be a way to see parts of the area we tend to overlook for the more exciting hiking trails of the nearby Ansel Adams Wilderness.

In doing so we discovered a bit of history – June Lake, like many other Eastern Sierra towns, had a mining history.  Its history was a mere 5 years (1924-29) but resulted in a fair bit of ore from the various shafts located in the slope above Gull Lake.  Who knew?

Entrance to the mine

Coupled with the first pilgrimage of the season to the Whoa Nellie Deli, where we were rewarded with amazing vistas of clouds and the Sierra Wave along with our fish tacos and mango margaritas, it ended up being a lovely escape from Tahoe.

Business Traveler Wimp

Views of home

I have no idea how people like my mother do it – the insane travel itineraries (6 states in 4 days or something like that).  Heck, two cities/states in a week just about did me in this week.  Which is why I’ll never ever be able to work in sales (that and I’m a pretty marginal salesperson).

This week’s travels took me hither and yon to both Keystone (CO) and Fallon (NV).  Two seeming opposite destinations, but the reason for both visits was for travel conferences.  One was for mountain travel, the other rural – you guess which goes with each destination.

While I had been to Keystone once when I was 14, I had no memories of it.  I now know why.  It’s a generally nondescript place, a resort ‘town’ stretched out over a few miles of roadway, peppered primarily with lots of grey and earthtone condos, one or two hotels, and a few restaurants.  And yes, a ski resort.  It was a short trip, and frankly I wasn’t all that fascinated with skiing Keystone, so I left my skis behind.  That this was the first time I didn’t ski at one of these conferences speaks volumes for my uninterest in Keystone (not skiing).

In fact, I was so uninspired by the place that the only photos I took were of Lake Tahoe on the flight back.  The views definitely helped justify the bumpiness the plane encountered flying between the mountains.

Fallon was also a new place for me, and actually had more character than Keystone.  I wasn’t expecting much, but in addition to the strip malls, few casinos and swath of Highway 50 that runs through it, Fallon has a naval air station, a decent Holiday Inn Express, a smallish conference center (one large room), and a pretty groovy art center housed in a renovated schoolhouse.  While the latter may sound more like Oregon, I learned that there’s a pretty rich rural arts community in Northern Nevada.  So Fallon definitely can claim to have more culture than South Lake Tahoe in that respect.

But between the flying, the shuttles, the driving, and the exhaustion of socializing (never something that comes naturally to me), I was pretty wiped out by the time I got home yesterday.  Even after 10 hours of sleep last night I’m not sure I’m quite back to normal.   I truly don’t know how other business travelers do it – years of built up endurance?  I applaud you guys, as it’s not easy.

What Recession?

While there’s talk of recession and even auto companies are trying to get in on the Federal cash giveaway, economic hardship didn’t seem apparent in San Francisco, which was bustling this weekend.  We headed down there for a brief visit, and between the hordes of people we saw everywhere we went (Ferry Building, Union Square, California Academy of Sciences, Ikea, etc.) and the chaos in most of the stores, it didn’t seem to reflect the current economic woes we keep hearing about.

That said, it was also unusually warm – 80 degrees in San Francisco proper on Saturday – so it might just have been the heat that made people crazy to swarm and shop.