Hut-to-hut skiing in B.C.’s southern interior
Story and photos by Cory Tarilton
In B.C.’s southern interior south of Nelson, the Bonnington Range holds rewards for those seeking snow. Four cabins, built and renovated in cooperation with the B.C. Ministry of Forests and the Kootenay Mountaineering Club, are spread throughout high valleys near the dividing ridges of the range. Stocked with the basic amenities of stoves, pots, pans, utensils and lanterns, the huts make travel easy, as only light winter camping gear is needed to ski from hut to hut. A 40-mile ski traverse from cabin to cabin offers stunning scenic views of pristine Canadian wilderness along its entire length. Alpine ski lines followed by featured glades from valley to valley complete the trip and make the long drive worthwhile.
The Bonnington traverse is usually done from west to east, leaving from the Bombi Summit parking lot outside of Castlegar and ending at Porto Rico Creek, north of Salmo. Reservations are required and cost $10 per person per night. These can be made through the Kootenay Mountaineering Club’s website. The funds go for upkeep of the cabins, as well as replenishing the firewood. From west to east are the Grassy Hut that sleeps six, the A-frame Steed Hut that can sleep 10 or more, the Copper Hut that can hold a snug eight, and the Huckleberry Hut that holds a cozy four. The traverse is generally done as a one-way trip, so plan in advance to shuttle cars.
The standard route takes you around the rim of Erie Creek, following a high traverse for most of the trip. There are many aspects from which to choose and alpine bowls flank most of the route. With a large potential for cornice growth and huge slide paths, the ability to find a safe route is indispensable. Each hut is most of a day’s hike and ski away from the next. Wood stoves and a cord of seasoned wood greet you at each hut to warm your soul and dry your gear at day’s end.
Our group, Ben Gregory, Jacob Mandell and I, left Bellingham for the eight-hour drive to Nelson after finishing finals week of fall quarter at Western Washington University. Near the U.S. border, we realized that Ben had left a recently re-glued skin in a friend’s workshop and we were set back an hour to grab it. After driving long into the night, cooking dinner on timber hauling equipment, completing the final touches of Ben’s skin repair and getting some shut-eye during a snug bivy in the truck, we set out on the traverse. Our plan was to spend one night in the Huckleberry Hut, three nights at Copper Hut and one night in the Steed Hut before skipping Grassy Hut on our exit. We would swap keys with Ben’s roommate and friends as they headed in the other direction on our second night at the Copper Hut.
After an over-stoked wood stove created a sauna experience in the cozy Huckleberry Hut, we awoke the second morning to valley fog and made slow progress towards the Copper Mountain Hut. By midday the sky had cleared and we could see our objective far off along the snaking ridgeline. Cold, clear daytime skies turned to a frigid, shadowy moonscape as the full moon rose and we plodded on. Arriving in Copper Valley, we were greeted by snow ghosts and the deceiving, hut-shaped shadows they cast. Unable to locate the hut amidst the full moon and white-capped trees, we were forced to make an unplanned bivy. The following morning we made our way to a vantage point. From high on Copper Mountain, Ben spotted a clearing near a large stand of trees and a bulbous mushroom of snow that was the hut’s roof.
We dried our gear and cooked some hot food, and as our friends arrived we took a sunset lap above the hut. Our friends left before light the next day, following our beta on the route that had stymied us in the clouds. In return, they gave advice for the best runs that we could ski as we headed towards Steed Hut. The entire next day we farmed the glades surrounding the hut, finding feature after feature as we set new track every run. The early season coverage lent itself to plentiful small pillows, and on more than one run one of us said, “I think I was in the air more than I was on snow.”
We decided to embark early in the morning for our following two traverse days. On our third travel day as we bid the Copper Hut farewell, the mercury was reading -4° Fahrenheit. Cold temperatures made for fast travel, quick transitions and great, stable snow. As we approached Steed Hut, we saw the bygone tracks made by our friends, partially filled in with snow from the light breeze that morning. We made a feast of bacon, sausages and bean macaroni soup for our last dinner of the trip.
On our last day we covered the remaining 12 miles of rolling ridgeline and were able to ski to our car. A note on the passenger seat, left by Ben’s roommates, thanked us for letting them use our car, but also told us of a melancholy end to their trip. Their Subaru had been broken into at the trailhead and cleaned out of anything valuable. They had preemptively cleared out anything of value from our car, which left us with three fuzzy stations playing nothing but Christmas music as we made the long and weary drive back to Bellingham that night. The goods had been gotten, in more ways than one, but even thievery didn’t overshadow the memories made on our trip to the Bonnington Range. X