I'M HALFWAY DONE WITH THIS WRITEUP. check back for more details in a day or two. I'll talk a little about the ski tours and runs for anyone who goes there in the future.
In the middle of March I went to Valhalla Mountain Lodge in Canada for a week. This is one of many unguided, privately owned huts in BC that is fairly well known. There are two owners, who each take turns staying in a smaller caretaker cabin, but they keep to themselves or ski with friends that visit them. Guests take a 10 minute helicopter flight in from Burton BC. The lodge is also accessible by an hour snowmobile ride and then 1.5 hour skin if neccessary or allowed.
I couldn't find much in terms of ski tour details or pictures on the internet before going, so here's some stuff that will help the next person. We had constant snow and clouds, so we didn't get to see the surrounding mountains or go too far from the cabin.
Avalanche danger was rated considerable even BELOW treeline during our entire week, and for all of BC. I found failures quite easily in snow stability tests in places, but we didn't see much avalanche activity. The only beta we could get was a brief conversation with the other lodge owner (caretaker) Leo, who was leaving the day we arrived. We got to hear what had been skied that week. We also found their little makeshift guidebook a few days later lying around the lodge and a few photos of the area, but we didn't have much. That's the cool thing about going for 7 days. You can just ski around and feel out the possibilities, there is no rush.
Here's the book you want to find when you're there. The maps are 1:50,000. Although you'll get it before going, the scale isn't helpful to really understand slope angles and tour possibilities that well. That's true for most of canada apparently.
They let you bring 80 lbs of gear and food each, not including your skis and poles. We had 9 people, and the lodge holds up to 13 or so. We could have brought more, but didn't need to really. They have a great kitchen with a gas stove and running water. There is always hot water if you keep a huge pot full on top of the wood stove.
This is my second short ride in a helicopter. This is one of the coolest things ever.
Leo, the co-owner and caretaker for the previous week gave us an orientation. This is his little cabin, where they have internet access and enough solar power to recharge your camera batteries and small items during the day only. Brian was the caretaker for our week, who had a laptop I used a few times breifly. They also have a satellite phone, and 3 professional grade handheld radios for the group to commuinicate. There is a master VHF radio in the caretaker's cabin that has longer range. They show you how to use them and point out the pre-programmed codes to reach your neighbors in an emergency. I suggested in the future they adjust the wireless routers to reach the main cabin, which they don't right now. You could bring your own solar power for a laptop and be able to check weather and avy reports and email your family.
This is the weather we got 7 days in a row. Clear sky at night, with clouds rolling in around 8am. Then socked in for most of the day and snowing 5-15cm every day. We got at least 60cm of new snow, and it was powder conditions before we even showed up. Snowpack was thin for This area. The lodge was at 6900', and usually has 350cm by March. They had around 200cm when we showed up. Brian spoke of a big avalanche cycle in Janurary, where everything near rocks fell off the mountains due to a deep layer of ground facets. One night he says they all woke up, and everything in sight as a certain elevation went to the ground. Places they probably had been skiing right above the cabin.
It was never very windy, and quite easy to enjoy skiing with new snow falling. Later in the week we had some moderate afternoon winds, and we noticed a few large slab avalanches above treeline near ridges.
I'd compare the size of the terrain you can ski near the cabin to being at Tioga Pass Lodge. You have a few thousand feet of great trees and chutes below you, and aobut 3000' of alpine terrain above you. Each time we got up to one of the passes for a view, or more hopefully a real ski tour...the visibility disappeared almost completely. At one point I was skinning with both ski poles put together like a wand, to see the slope in front of me.
Lots of meadow skipping. We could have skied terrain a little steeper perhaps if we had better visibility, it was hard to see where the terrain was going at times without being in the trees. And with the new snow piling up, the surface slough started running pretty good once it got to be 35 degrees. We had really fun skiing nevertheless, and got to explore a descent amount of terrain.
The trees were beautiful, holding snow from lack of wind, and shedding hair like stuff everywhere.
leaving the cabin
The cabin is in the center of this pic at McKean Lakes. Mt. Woden is on the left. In good visibility, the view beyond these peaks would be amazing, looking at the Devils Range. This clear moment was about 2 hours.
This is looking south at the drainage you would ski and snowmobile out. There were some really nice tree runs descending down this way.
This is looking over Woden Pass at the "forbidden zone". There would have been great north facing runs over here, only 20 minutes from the cabin. It was a bit steep and suspect at the top however, with small couloirs neccessary to access this other side going and coming. Plus no visability until I got this picture on the last day. Mt. Woden would be just to the right of me while taking this picture.
This picture is taken on the ridge to Cabin Peak, an easy 30 minute climb from the cabin. Diving off left from this spot was a great 3000' avalanche path through the trees in kind of an alley. We skied this near the end of the week after it had warmed and crusted unfortunately. There was just not enough visibility or snow stability confidence to blindly ski the routes suggested in their guidebook, until we had been there for awhile.
This is the view from Cabin Peak looking northeast. Woden is on the right.
Woden Peak, with Woden Pass on it's left.
This was Brian, our caretaker. He built the place 22 years ago, and had been a caretaker at another BC lodge for years before that. He was a really cool guy, and happy to talk to us. He was also an organic famer in the Slocan Valley, and grew up skiing in the area it sounds like.
The first afternoon I didn't ski, but dug around in the snow. I did a baseline at the cabin, then went to south facing trees nearby where the area had been fairly skied out. The results were horrifying. There was obvious potential for nearly every layer of snow to fail. The extended column test had the whole layer just sliding out on it's own. My rutchblock test failed 2 layers down when I just barely sat one ski on the test block. Just looking at the snow was scary. The reports all over BC were horrendous. But the previous group skied all this terrain and reported no danger. I couldn't sleep that night, imagining us becoming that story told to future generations in Avy II class....where the new snow just put the snowpack weight over the edge and everything failed suddenly, where it wouldn't fail before. The confidence of the previous group didn't make any sense to me. But that's true for us in our home town ski terrain too. Visitors come from out of town and think you're crazy to just charge into every untracked slope. Only this is California. Canada BC IS typically dangerous.
This shot is the screensaver on Brian's laptop. The run is Voodoo, which we were about to go ski in a whiteout. Looking at the maps we had just couldn't show the degree of trees and slope angle changes. Seeing this picture changed our minds about going. Normally, we'de be looking at the cliffs and couloirs, and certainly not worried about just the snow gully in the middle. Brian wasn't skiing it either, nor were his friends. Daytime temps were rising to near 0 celcius by the end of the week (32f), which is when their snowpack starts to come down on steep terrain.
We had a really great group and lots of laughs.