By Andy Basabe
I couldn’t afford to go to Japan, but I had to go somewhere. By Christmas 2014, I had spent enough time touring around Twin Lakes Road and needed a road trip. The ski area had opened only a few days prior, claiming 22 inches of snow. It was slim pickings in Washington, where some resorts wouldn’t open all year. Fortunately, lots of people have time off for the holidays, and I convinced my friend Nick to spend half of his yearly vacation sniffing out snow wherever we could find it.
Nick and I used to ride the chairs at Baker together growing up, but a ski company in Seattle snatched him up to make boots, and we don’t get as many opportunities to be in the mountains together as we used to. Knowing nothing about backcountry huts in British Columbia, we packed up everything we thought we might need and drove up to Squamish to confer with another friend who had spent some time in the Coast Mountains. He wasn’t home, but he did have a copy of John Baldwin’s “Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis,” a comprehensive guide to all the public huts in B.C., on his coffee table. We looked through the book, learning that most operated on a reservation system and if one wanted to reserve a spot during the holidays, advance notice was required.
The Varsity Outdoor Club (VOC), a group of University of British Columbia students with outdoor recreation tendencies, runs the Brian Waddington Hut above Phelix Creek north of Pemberton. The hut had a no-reservation policy, although it stated that VOC trips have priority during the holidays. It seemed to be our best shot at sleeping inside, so we hit the road north to Pemberton and beyond. As we drove though Whistler, the rain turned to snow, Iron Maiden pounded the gas pedal and we found the stoke!
Nick carefully drove us up the logging road to the trailhead. We jumped out of the truck and loaded up for a 6-mile skin to the hut. It was cold. As we walked, the sun broke through the clouds, and the trail began to shine. A few miles on an old logging road led us to the beginning of the uphill trail through the trees. This part was fun, with steep corners, heavy packs and reliance on “veggie belay” (pulling on trees and bushes to make it through rough terrain). We had started a bit late, and rounded the last few switchbacks in the glow of our headlamps. The lake opened up before us, and we quickly skinned across to a two-story A-frame building, lit up and inviting. It was December 27 and three other people were using the hut. A storm cycle had just passed over. We were looking ahead to days of cold, clear weather and fresh snow.
Inside, I happily put on my down booties that my mother had given me for Christmas a few days before and laid out my zero degree down bag in preparation for a cold night. Temperatures were predicted to fall below zero – definitely colder than most of my nights out in the Cascades. Nick made some comment about how comfortable my new footwear looked, as he laid out his old 20-degree synthetic sleep sack while wearing his ski boot liners. During the drive up he had told me that he had grabbed new boots to test that would probably hurt a bit as he broke them in. We cooked food in the jetboil, ate hunched into our jackets and chatted with the other guests about snow stability and where to ride.
Our first day out, we skinned back across the lake and hiked up towards Peregrine Peak, planning on riding the north face. Maps in the hut called this area “Cabin Hill.” We found lower-angle tree runs with pillows, very similar to terrain at home, yet the numbing weather kept the snow perfectly poofy. It was good to get my legs moving, as I began to shiver otherwise. The cold made for lots of arm swinging at transitions. The visibility was poor that day, and we were unable to see the rest of the peaks in the area.
Back at the hut, Nick showed me the black spot that had been a toenail that morning. He also mentioned that he had been a “little cold” the night before, and hadn’t really warmed up during the day, but would probably be fine when the sun came out.
We awoke the next morning to sunny skies and popped out of the hut early to scope potential lines. People had begun to arrive for a New Year’s Eve party. A couloir above the hut was clearly the line of the day, and we hustled over to the base. The sun brought some warmth, but our pits indicated stability, and we booted up. The ridge above was wide and flat, providing a vantage point to the surrounding mountains.
The area had been named with a “Lord of the Rings” theme: Shadowfax, Gandalf and Aragorn were the prominent peaks. People at the hut had been telling us about a line called “Return of the King,” leading down from the upper lakes back towards the hut. We could see that line, along with beautiful faces off the top of Peregrine along the high ridge across the valley.
The ride down was sunny, fast and safe. After a quick lunch inside we headed back out to tour behind the hut, an area known as “Northwest Knob.” This was more tree riding, with some great alpine turns above. We caught the sunset, and then headed back inside. The hut was getting crowded, and we listened to a few harrowing approach stories from the newcomers. A ski was broken in half, held together with duct tape, and one man was upstairs sleeping off his 15-hour misadventure getting to the hut.
The call of the party brought people with minimal snow experience, and the trail tore them up a bit. Nick’s discomfort was becoming more and more obvious, and given the crowd, we decided that the following day would be our last. The hut was so full that people were sleeping on and under the tables, and some would have to stay outside.
Our final day was clear and sunny, and we skinned up to the ridge across the valley, leading up to the backside of Peregrine Peak, at 7,402 feet. Ours were the first tracks to the top, and it looked good.
Some hesitant poking around off the summit led us to a line that looked like it went all the way back to the hut, 2,000 feet below. The angle was steeper at the top, pushing 45 degrees, and mellowed out at the bottom. The whole valley is composed of granite, with large erratics littering the open faces, creating takeoffs everywhere. As the face opened up towards the bottom, we hoped to enter a gully littered with these boulders to rip around and over.
Nick took the first few turns off the ridge below the summit to look over the roll and make sure we were where we intended. Stopping at what looked to be the edge of the world, he beckoned for me to ride down, calling impatiently so he could take his turn. I rode down, passing Nick as the slope steepened, rode off a boulder and landed in hero snow, hollering my way down the mountain ripping steep turns in a series of perfect moments. The splitboard was my spaceship, lofting in low gravity. These were the turns that carried me through the rest of winter.
Nick followed, laughing and probably forgetting about the torture pinpoint inside his boot. We continued back to the cabin, playing ‘catch me if you can’ through the gully, riding high on the walls, tearing the snow and leaving our mark.
Back in the cabin, we packed up, picking our way around happy conversations and tired VOC-ers. Once packed, we walked outside, looking up at the line from the day. We were the only ones to let loose from the top, leaving two prominent traces through the snow, arcing in the evening light towards the spaghetti lines of the others lower down the mountain. We skinned down the trail, passing many more partygoers headed up for a raucous night to pass into the New Year, and reached the truck right before dark. Back on the road, Nick admitted the skiing that day had been the best he could have hoped for, but he had been pretty miserable the whole time due to the cold. I smiled, and we spent some time talking about warm sleeping bags on the drive back to Bellingham. x
Quick and dirty details:
Name: Brian Waddington Hut
Location: North of Pemberton, B.C.
Approach: 6.2 miles (10 km) with 3,200 feet (1,000m) elevation gain.
Reservations: Not necessary, but VOC trips take precedent. Check the VOC registration page: ubc-voc.com/wiki/VOC_hut_registration
Fee: $10 donation per person per night. Mail in or leave at site.
Amenities: Water in nearby stream, pit toilet out back. No heat, no beds.
Terrain: Intermediate to expert. Strenuous approach.