Background

Winter ’23/’24 has been off to a grim start. Across the entire Lower 48 the snowpack has been thin. Alaska seems to be the only state not in a below average snowpack for this time of year. Washington has been particularly sad, with periods of snow followed by warm rains.

Lane and I had been scheming on a trip up to Canada for the week between Christmas and New Years’. We had been oscillating between Rogers Pass and the Coast Range (Whistler/Pemberton); after looking at avalanche forecasts around Dec 18 or so, we opted for the Coast Range. Rogers seemed to have a persistent problem that we didn’t really want to mess with and at the time the extended forecast for the Pemberton area looked promising. We knew conditions would be thin, comparatively, but figured we could find higher elevation powder.

We searched last minute and found open spots at the Wendy Thompson Hut in the Duffey Lake region. Surprising, given the time of year/holiday season. So cheap too, only 25CAD/person/night.

Trip Report

The forecast for Tuesday looked to clear in the afternoon so we set out from Whistler early in the morning. The drive up through Pemberton was a bit depressing, with absolutely no snow on the road switchbacks up to the pass. Parking at Sandy Shed our expectations were low…this might be bad.

The logging road approach had a few open water/creek spots and there was seemingly no new snow, even though Whistler telemetry was reporting 10-15cm of new snow. Huh…this might be really bad.

The approach got a little more grim once we reached the end of the logging road and hit the trail which climbs up through the forest. Plenty of rocks, branches, and roots exposed. Hmmm…

Finally, once we hit about 1600m or so we started to see new snow. Soft snow. And 15-20cm of it. PHEW! Our smiles began to widen and optimism grew.

Lane breaking trail amongst the boulders.

The cloud deck rose a bit as we entered the meadow beneath the hut and we could see some of the huge terrain surrounding the hut. Definitely thin, plenty of rocks around, but there was skiing to be had. We’d be able to make the best of the conditions; it wouldn’t be a total skunk.

We dropped off overnight gear at the hut and immediately headed higher for some skiing. We opted to do some recon first, heading up north of the hut to a perch that would give us a view of the upper reaches of the basin. From the top of the point we could see the northern reaches of the basin were all scoured, rocky, and not great. The alpine wasn’t holding much snow, the subalpine would be the move.

Honey Bronzed and Very Very Desirable is the most famous run just to the southwest of the hut. It’s a large bowl that runs for a few thousand feet from a col around 2,200m. It’s NE facing and stays shaded most of the day. We looked over around 1 PM and saw the clouds parting that way. Well, let’s go over and have a look.

Me skinning up towards Honey Bronzed. PC: Lane Aasen.

Around 500m from the top we dug a pit to see what lay beneath the surface. We found unremarkable results: CT13 with nonplanar fracture in the top 10cm and ECTN. Felt like a green light to keep on going higher.

As we approached ridgeline we saw a lot of wind texturing and snow deposits. The winds were clearly out of the SW and we were on the leeward side, as large cornices loomed above. There was a small natural slide that had run from the col, with surface level debris. We continued up cautiously, setting a skintrack that zigzagged back and forth avoiding the overhead cornices.

We made it to ridgeline and continued on to the north on the windward side of the ridge giving the cornices plenty of berth. Lane and I tried to kick off a cornice but with no luck. At one point I got a little closer to the ridgeline and WHUMPF…the sound you don’t love to hear. It sounded like a huge cornice failure but we couldn’t see anything dropping off to our side. We continued on a bit more along the ridge and looked back. There was a huge slide, around 1m deep and 100m wide that ran 200m long, covering up our skin track. We could see bare ground underneath; whatever cornice failure I had triggered ran on a layer near the base of the snowpack. Our tails were now between our legs a bit. Basal facets? Buried surface hoar? There was no mention of a persistent problem in the forecast nor had we seen any weak grains of note in our snow profile. Alpine environments are just different and this was a reminder of that.

Lane inspecting the slide later on in the day.

We opted to ski a SW aspect from the top of the point down into the Cayoosh Creek drainage. The bowl was lower angle and windward; we felt more comfortable with that setup that the leeward aspect that we had just triggered. We skied down in the sunlight below Cayoosh, its huge north facing glacial icefall looming above. Meadow skipping felt pretty damn fun.

Lane skiing down the SW bowl amongst cloud cover.
Looking back at our tracks on the SW bowl. PC: Lane Aasen

We skinned back up our ski run to the ridgeline above Honey Bronzed. We tiptoed our way along the ridgeline, entering the leeward bowl via the slide path we had triggered. A hard ice layer with facets, interesting. Lane and I took some photos, scraped our way down the short steeper pitch to where the slope angle dipped below 30 degrees, and continued down to the hut. The light was flat and even though the snow was good the emotion of the day had changed. While we were not directly in the line of fire, it was a close call. Never a great feeling. We debriefed on what had happened, wrote down notes, and recounted lessons learned. It’s not always that the mountains give you opportunities to learn without consequence.

We made a delicious dinner in the hut of chicken masala with naan. Hut life sure is nice. Maybe I’m getting soft. The hut was quiet, just 6 of us total in a hut marked as fully booked to 15. Everyone must have been turned away by the low snow coverage.

The next day we planned to head up to 7 Mile Bowl to the NW of the hut. Visibility was low, in-and-out, and winds were ripping. We dodged rocks and made it to the top. Peering in, there was very very little coverage. It didn’t seem worth it to drop onto the other side of the ridgeline back into the Cayoosh drainge with potential whiteout coming in.

We skied back to the shorter tree runs just NE of the hut and lapped them for the rest of the evening. The snow was on the heavier side, for Canadian standards, but for us PNW boys it felt like delightful spongy pow. We kept on going, ‘2 more skip the last’.

The exit went surprisingly well. We left the hut around 3PM and made it out in 1hr20 mins. We didn’t quite need our headlamps but it was certainly dusk. As we walked back to the car, soggy, we felt we’d made lemonade from lemons. We had good, mellow skiing…a close call that reminded us we didn’t know everything…and enjoyed some hut life.