October Snow in the Wild Purcells

The Purcell mountains stretch on a north-south axis over approximately 400 km in the southeastern corner of British Columbia.

 

With the Columbia river and the Rocky mountains to the right  and Kootenay Lake to the left, this ancient mountain range has been the local’s centre of attention for many years. It also has recently received world-wide consideration in relation to the  most recent developments to the controversial mega-resort project on Jumbo Glacier, a few kilometres west of Invermere.

 

A land of high spiritual value for the Ktunaxa First Nation as well as a sensitive habitat for grizzly bears, these mountains also represent a very special place for the residents of the valley and beyond: an enclave of relatively untouched wilderness of a surreal and mystical beauty. They also offer the significant hope that the term “public land” still means something here in BC and that capitalism won’t have the last word.

 

My  recent and limited experience in these mountains reveals that winter lives there ten or more months of the year.

 

A Labour Day weekend at Jumbo Hut in a total snow blizzard and an October day hike into Monica Meadows in knee-deep snow make me wonder if summer ever gets invited up there and if the wildlife ever gets to enjoy the warmth of sun-filled days and the sweet taste of chlorophyll between snowfalls. The presence of massive glaciated areas proves how temperatures rarely climb above zero and the massive amount of snow these mountains get coated with.

 

This year, cold and snowy weather has arrived early, just as meteorologists predicted. This is certainly received like a promise to an excellent winter for us, backcountry snow sports enthusiasts.

 

And since all the planets seem to align and lead to our greatest enjoyment, my husband, a few friends and I were able to get out for an early season ski outing to Farnham glacier.

 

I would normally be the one to say that a 500km return trip to do one lap in the backcountry is a little excessive.  However, when it comes to visiting the wild and magical Purcell mountains, even for a few hours, I am the first one to say: Let’s go!

 

Dry road and golden larches at the valley bottom
The mighty and impressive Commander glacier under a fresh layer of snow
Such a bliss to start our ski directly in the alpine and forego the usual bushwhack
A little wind effect towards the top
jumbomountain
Jumbo Mountain: in the clouds and wild forever #Jumbowild

 

DCIM100GOPRO
Summit selfie and deep valleys
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My Awesome Cat-Skiing Weekend

It’s 4 am and I am wide awake. I am so excited and anxious I have barely closed my eyes all night. The eight-hour road trip from Kimberley to Monashee Powder, near Cherryville, should have exhausted me (in fact it has!) but the anticipation is just too high. The temperature, which was very high yesterday, has dropped a lot and the rain turned into snow early last night. I look out the window. The sky is clear and I can see some stars. The snow has stopped falling.

Warm and cozy between the soft flannel sheets, I can hear my sister’s regular breathing. I smile. I am here with her for 3 full days to experience cat skiing for the first time and to see with my own eyes what her job is all about. It’s her second season as a Tail Guide here. Her alarm should ring soon; the days start pretty early for MPS’ staff. I smile some more and think about the day ahead. It’s the first time that I will be away from my family for so long. 5 long days of “me time”, which is so precious when you’re a young mom. I feel so grateful to have a wonderful husband who also understands the value of it and also welcomes some alone quality time with our daughter. 

6:30 am. I am granted access to the guides’ morning meeting. I hear them talking temperature, wind, new snowfall, avalanche rating, weather forecast, what runs are “safe” to ski and which ones are to be avoided. Truly fascinating. The guiding team is very knowledgeable and professional and listening to them makes me feel like I am in good hands.

After assisting my sister with some preparation tasks such as checking avalanche beacons, filling up the water bottles for the guests, etc. we fill up on a hearty and delicious breakfast buffet. Not far from there in the dining room, another buffet is set up for the guests to prepare their lunches. Salads of all sorts, meats & cheeses, baked goods, fruit, vegetable sticks, dips and different types of bread make up a very inviting selection. It seems like no one will go hungry today, unless one forgets to take his own lunch bag to the cat!

By 8:30 am sharp, the beacon search training begins, following up to an informative avalanche safety and research technique refresh provided the night before by the Lead Guide. In my group, everyone seems fairly savvy on how avalanche beacons work, yet everyone listens carefully to the instructions and welcomes the refresh.

Then we all load the cat after a few more safety instructions. Once again, guests on my group all listen carefully to the Tail Guide’s speech. As she says, the snowcats are big hard machines with lots of blind spots and we humans are small and soft in comparison…no one wants to be crushed under their oversized tracks.

A 15-minute ride up a steep road takes us to our first run. The other 13 guests in our group are not on their first experience at Monashee or at cat-skiing in general. A few of them even mention they are celebrating their 15th anniversary visiting MPS this year. Now that’s loyalty!

Unloading the skis and poles happens very quickly and within minutes of reaching the “drop off”, we’re all clicked into our bindings and ready to go, smiling with excitement. Our guide assesses the slope and drops in. The fresh powder, nearly 15 cm, flies light and fluffy behind him. This sets the tone to our day.

After one, two, three runs of effortless turns in pure “blower”, we all realize our group is made up of solid and experienced skiers so we are able to step it up a notch. Everyone is paying attention to the Guide’s instructions, staying close by and making the transitions very fast and smooth, which will allow us to link

the runs faster, ski more vertical and more challenging terrain. The visibility being fairly low at this point means steep tree lines will be on the program for the rest of the day.

Monashee Powder’s tenure is huge, 17,000 acres total, and the terrain extremely varied, although the visibility doesn’t allow me to gauge the extent of it on that very first day. The Lodge itself being located at 1600m of elevation, the rain and warm temperatures has only had a moderate effect on the snowpack above it so the skiing is absolutely fabulous. At the end of the day, I am in awe and so stoked about what I just got to experience. I am even happier thinking that I have two more days of this ahead of me. As the forecast predicted, it’s snowing hard again!

Back to the Lodge, guests disperse to soak in the hot tubs, take advantage of the Registered Massage Therapist and Acupuncturist on duty or enjoy some Après in the bar where some tasty appies and cold beverages are served.

A little later, a gourmet 4-course dinner is casually served in the dining room by the Lodge’s friendly staff. Helping bringing the plates really works up my appetite. To the sound of chatter, laughter and tales of the extraordinary day, guests and staff all replenish their energy with a fine albacore tuna tartare, split pea and roasted garlic soup, bison tenderloin cooked to perfection and sweet delicacies crafted by the on-staff pastry chef, all paired with a selection of fine BC wines.

Jokes and stories are flying around and I can tell that a long-lasting friendship links Carolyn and Tom Morgan, the owners of Monashee Powder, to their guests and staff. This extraordinary couple, originally from the oil & gas industry in Calgary, literally got addicted to cat skiing and to this little corner of the Monashee mountains back in the 90’s. Back then, guests were hosted in prospector-type tents (Tom would tell you the exact make and model of those tents!) heated by wood stoves…and skiing long straight skis. The Morgan’s have invested all their heart in this unconventional business, making this place unpretentious, warm, authentic, and extremely welcoming, where people gather around a true passion for skiing. This is certainly the reason why their guests return over and over and the Lodge almost sells out a year in advance.

While guests and staff make their way to the bar for some after-dinner drinks and live music, I head right for my cozy little bed. One thing is certain, tonight my eyes won’t stay open and my dreams will certainly involve some white, fluffy snow and steep untracked lines…