One of the challenges of being a skier stuck in Australia is having to plan Northern Hemisphere trips so far in advance. I’d grabbed a ticket to conference in Seattle back in August 2018 and had spent a few months after that trying to corral friends into an Alaska trip before the event itself, as all the flights up to Anchorage initiate out of SeaTac.
The flaccid Australian dollar was making AK look insanely expensive, and friends’ initial enthusiasm waned as the weeks went on, so I started to shift my focus to a side trip that was a bit more accessible.
Having spent January 2017 in Revelstoke, I felt there was unfinished business in that part of the world, particularly when it came to ski touring. Revy is on the doorstep of Roger’s Pass and the hub for many of BC’s touring lodges – not really trips you can do when the whole family’s in tow – so I decided to look into these as my preferred option for a solo adventure.
By this stage it was November and the mild panic I had was that most touring lodges were already booked solid. What I since discovered is that people tend to just rebook with their friends for the same week each year leaving only a few slots available here and there. Luckily, Icefall Lodge had a couple of spare spaces for the week I could go and had fantastic reviews and what looked like incredible terrain in its huge tenure, coupled with the high elevation that would be a better bet for good snow in late March.
Getting to Icefall from Sydney was no easy task in itself: 5 hrs from home to Sydney airport; 13hrs to Los Angeles; 4hrs waiting between flights; 3hrs up to Calgary; then a 4hr drive to Golden BC. I made the most of a couple of days around Kicking Horse resort to get my ski legs back in and reacclimatise to the mountains after a couple of months of sweltering through the Sydney summer.
The Canadian Rockies had just been through a couple of weeks of heat themselves, so I’d set my expectations low for the snow quality up at Icefall. The group for the touring week all met up at the staging area and took one of the 20 minute heli flights shuttling out to the lodge itself – about 45kms North of Donald and a couple of ranges over from Chatter Creek’s cat skiing tenure.
Once you land at Icefall you quickly realise how remote you are, the only reminder of civilisation being the occasional flight path overhead. The lodge itself is comprised of one main building with a central kitchen and dining area, with a smaller sleeping quarters off to the side. While there’s running water from the adjacent stream and power from a water-driven generator, hot water is boiled on top of the various wood fired stoves that provide heating a and a couple of out-houses serve as toilets. Compared to the remote lodges in NZ it’s total luxury, especially with its wood-fired sauna, but the set up is still pretty basic despite having everything you need for a very comfortable week.
Our first afternoon was spent doing a couple of quick laps behind the lodge on Home Run, I presume primarily so the guides could see everyone’s pace up the hill and ski technique. My pre-trip training had involved a couple of hikes up the hill behind our Sydney house, so I was fully prepared for a couple of days of hard slog before getting my mountain legs back in shape. I figured as long as I kept up with the people in their late 50s and early 60s I’d be doing well!
The lodge crew consisted of Australian Alex Geary as Lead Guide, backed by Canadians Tim & Greg and three “Practicums” working as tail guides to get some experience on their resumés – Hannes and Filip from Czech Republic and Sam, also from Australia. Jeff rounded out this team as the lodge Chef and provided amazingly tasty and healthy food for week.
Our first full day out started off in warm, overcast conditions with a long skin up to the pass that gave us access to Diamond Glacier. The light was flat and the south facing slopes were holding pretty hard snow or breakable crust – the kind of conditions I was prepared for following the warm sunny days in the prior week. Everyone was in “survival mode” skiing this type of snow, but the day was more about the adventure of exploring the amazing chutes and tunnels through the glacier than laying big turns. We probably covered about 10km distance over 1200m of vertical as a good warm up day, and got to ski some great soft snow on the North facing slopes on the way back to the lodge.
The next morning we woke up to some soft flakes falling and the groups all self selected into the pace they were comfortable with. Our group headed off to Alien Bowl, relatively close to the lodge but on a good North facing slope holding good snow. The visibility was still pretty closed in, but we skied right down to the bottom of the gully through some nice gladed trees before skiing back to the lodge by lunchtime. I took this as a good opportunity to tap out for the afternoon and make sure I had the stamina to get the most out of the good snow we were likely to ski the next morning.
This strategy turned out to be a good one, as we woke up on Wednesday morning to around 20cm at the lodge and cold temperatures. We started a bit earlier to make the most of the day and skinned about 5km to the top of the Portal Glacier beneath La Clytte and Kemmel Mountain peaks. The snow up high on the North facing slopes was as good as you could hope for – skiing knee deep and still nice and dry. The run down the glacier was 3km over about 800m of vertical in conditions you could completely let rip and everyone got to the bottom calling it one of the runs of their lives. You can watch seven seconds of powder glory in the video below, but just imagine another 500 turns just like this the whole way down!
Of course, what goes down must come back up again, as we’d dropped way down into the valley behind the lodge. This meant slapping our skins back on for a solid two hour hike back up to the pass through the steep terrain we’d just skied. Greg as the Ski Guide was breaking trail the entire way back up which gave me a new appreciation of how hard these guys need to work on a trip like this.
The snow had been relatively stable on our ski down, but as the sun started hitting the cornices 1.5km above us on Kemmel Mountain peak, chunks started melting off and creating sluffs that ran down the immense face above us. These were largely harmless until a big chunk must have dropped that set off a double-tongued avalanche that swept down into the valley floor we’d just skinned up. How much danger we would have been in is debatable, but when we skied through the same spot a few days later the sheer force of the wind off the plume had scoured about 50m up the opposing valley wall. The video below looks like it’s in slow motion, but it’s simply due to the immense scale of the wall the avalanche is tumbling down.
Our ski back to the lodge once we’d cleared the pass was a mix of sun affected South facing slopes and North facing aspects that were still skiing well. My general philosophy on a trip like this is if you get one epic day, then it’s all been worthwhile, and this was that day!
There was no rest for the wicked on Thursday morning with another early start to go even further afield to the Shark’s Gate in the valley adjacent to the Portal. The weather was perfect so Alex had arranged for the heli to come and meet us that afternoon so we could maximise the amount of time far away from the lodge. The Southern aspects were a quite sun affected and our only potential disaster of the trip was trying to navigate a steep rocky section when Matt slipped from above, landed on top of me and toppled down through the rocks below himself. Amazingly, neither of us was hurt despite me snapping a ski pole that was a quick fix with some gaffer tape.
Once we were back on the North facing glacier slopes the snow was still in great condition and we skied way down into the tree line. Alex’s group had already powered back up to the peak for another lap, so we followed but only made it a bit over half way before skiing back down for the heli bump. This dropped us back on Zen Glacier for more sweet North facing pow.
Friday was shaping up as a big day, with the goal to summit the 3200m peak of Mount Kemmel – just under 2km of vertical above the lodge. The actual terrain to get there wasn’t too difficult, but the sheer scale and exposure on some slopes and traverses was a definite psychological challenge if you suffer any healthy fear of heights, like I do. We summited by lunchtime and had a flawless clear view what seemed like hundreds of kilometres in every direction – each filled to the brim with endless peaks.
Up until now I hadn’t really appreciated the sheer scale of the BC ranges. If you just visit a resort you’re going to top out around 2500m and get a nice view of the immediate peaks. From 3200m you’re looking down on most peaks and might have close to 3km of vertical to the valley floor – on par with most big relief in the European Alps.
For the grand finale on the Saturday, our group headed to the infamous Vitamin P chute that apparently only gets skied a few times a season when the snow is stable enough. The entrance is a notch below Kemmel Mountain and drops over 300m vertically onto Portal Glacier. The top section had been skied by Alex’s group the day before, so involved a few survival turns on the steeps, but then opened out into a long consistent pitch all the way to the valley floor. As you can see in the video below, you could put a couple of hundred turns in before you reached the bottom!
We ended up skiing even further down Portal Glacier on this run, through the avy debris from couple of days earlier and with a huge 3hr skin to get back out and home safely.
By the end of the week we must have come close to skinning up 10km of vertical and around 75km of horizontal distance. Any hesitation I’d had about my fitness at the beginning of the week had disappeared by Day 3 and you just settled into your own pace and got the job done. The guides did a great job of balancing keeping us safe whilst pushing us right to the edge of our comfort zones on both the ascents and descents.
I’ve since told friends that the week at Icefall was easily the hardest physical challenge I’ve had on any ski trip, but easily the most satisfying. We did a couple of days cat skiing at Chatter Creek the following week and it just felt like we were cheating on the uphill in comparison!
You can read more about my comparison of a touring lodge trip compared to cat or heli skiing at Snowsbest.com.