Words and images by Margot Bohanon & Ben Savill
‘Snowpocalypse’ was shutting down Kamloops in British Columbia, as we drove north to Blue River for a ski touring trip into Snowy Mountain Lodge. Driving snow, low visibility and possessed truckies throwing rooster tails of snow and grit, made navigation even more exciting
The plan was to overnight in Blue River - well known as the home of Mike Wiegele Helisking; one of the original heli ski pioneers. Turns out Wiegele owns most of the town. After checking into our modest accommodation we navigated through the snow drifts, in search of beer and dinner.
We chanced upon the main Mike Wiegele Heli Lodge, with its roaring fire and deep leather couches. Noticing the fur coats and clientele, we questioned if we should be here. A quick check of the heli ski packages confirmed the $12,000 per week price tag was well out of our budget! Turned out we had arrived on the change-out day which meant free open bar for the incoming heli ski clients. We managed a few jugs and chicken wings on Mr Wiegele before slipping back into the storm.
Snowy Mountain Lodge is a 10 person shelter deep in the Cariboo Range, north of Blue River. The lodge is accessed from Blue River by snow mobile, via a 30km forestry track; toboggans are towed with supplies and equipment.
Steve Ludwig - the owner of Snowy Mountain Lodge (and a Canadian Mountain Guide), met us at the staging post. He informed us with a cheeky smile that he had some good news, and some bad news. The good news was that the snow height at the lodge was 170cm; it had snowed 50cm in the last 24 hours and another 30cm was expected overnight.
The bad news: we could only sled 25km in, and would have to skin the ski toboggans loaded with supplies, for the last 5km; the northern snow bridge over the Blue River was out. Nothing sounded all that bad after the good news, however we were in for a big mission… On repacking and reassessing the necessities, beers and whiskey were rationed.
It was easy going, until we had to descend with toboggans attached, via a harness which was constantly taking off down the hill in front us. Travelling through the deep, light snow along the river gave us a good idea of what the snow was doing, and a sneak preview of the amazing terrain we would be in for a week.
Steve explained when he was trying to find a location for a ski touring lodge near his home in Blue River, he was bushwhacking and camping. One evening he watched a lightning bolt strike a tree on the site that would later become the lodge - the run leading back to the lodge is now suitably named Lucky Strike.
The lodge sits at 1200m amongst towering cedar and hemlock trees. Officially, Snowy Mountain Lodge requires that every group is guided, however experienced groups are sometimes allowed to be self-guided. Fortunately our old friend and Canadian ski guide Mike Wilson, who worked with us at Temple Basin years ago, arranged the trip (which included our friend Tamsin); the four of us had free reign, and the whole place to ourselves!
Offering simple rustic luxury, the lodge is cosy and comfortable. The main floor area is well-equipped with a kitchen, gas range and raging fire. Water is sourced with 20-litre buckets from a creek 50m from the lodge, and a separate building contained the cedar sauna, which was epic at the end of the day! Communication with the outside world is via VHF radio and satellite phone, and Steve has a standalone Yurt for his private residence.
The total tenure area is more than 10,000ha; shared with Mike Wiegele Heli Ski and the local snow mobile clubs. Due to the remoteness and size, we could occasionally hear helicopters and snow mobiles in the distance, but never saw another person.
Glades begin at the lodge and at 550m uphill, give way to alpine terrain; steep faces, open rolling slopes and technical summits. Many of of the British Columbia backcountry huts are positioned to take advantage of low-angle glades and glaciers, but Snowy Mountain Lodge brings skiers to the foot of steeper terrain.
Due to the large amount of snowfall in a short period, we kept to the glades. After trenching a skin track to the top of the treeline, we had options galore for most of the week; steep, deep, pillows and naturally gladed tree lines which all led either directly back to the lodge, or a quick skin away.
After the snow had settled and the weather cleared, we were able to access the alpine terrain above 1750m. The terrain here was vast; crossing high alpine tarns and saddles. We were able to top out on numerous peaks which offered open bowls, rolling spines, natural half pipes and great skiing on all aspects, with cold temps and no wind affect.
All great things must come to an end eventually. After a week that started with chest-deep, light and dry Cariboo powder, consolidating to waist then knee-deep powder, it was time to load up the ski toboggans (minus the food, beer and whisky) and trudge back out to the sleds that had been cached for the week… Back to reality.