The Canadian Pilgrimage - with Jed Porter

Hut Skiing in the Selkirk Mountains

-Words and Photos by Jed Porter

Canada is where it’s at. As much as we Americans love our local skiing, its our northern neighbors that truly hold the goods. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love skiing in all corners of the United States. We have an amazing diversity of terrain, cultures, and climates in which to practice the white and slippery. If an American ski mountaineer were to assemble a “bucket list” of must do trip types, many could be accomplished on home turf. However, there is one type of ski vacation that is simply better in Canada.

There’s nothing like arriving at a remote backcountry hut after a long day in the uncertain wild. Meagan Buck Porter strips skins. There’s nothing like arriving at a remote backcountry hut after a long day in the uncertain wild. Meagan Buck Porter strips skins.

Western Canada, with its reliable snow and unique land-use patterns and history, is blessed with some of the best backcountry, hut-based ski touring on the planet. If you wish to spend a week in a cozy hut in the midst of amazing snow and mountains, Canada is the place. This is the story of one such trip. However, we bring a unique take on this sort of trip. As it turns out, in order to get into one of the sought after huts, a great deal of advance planning is in order. Like, a year or more.

Hut Life. Many hut trips involve cases of beer, short days, and long nights. Glacier Circle has all the coziness, but the physical and logistical demands of the approach preempt some of the more deluxe creature comforts. Hut Life. Many hut trips involve cases of beer, short days, and long nights. Glacier Circle has all the coziness, but the physical and logistical demands of the approach preempt some of the more deluxe creature comforts.

And our crew of skiers didn’t put in the necessary advance planning this time around. What we lacked in preparedness we made up for in stoke, creativity, motivation, and mountain sense. We found a place that had space for us, and then we made the most of slightly less than ideal circumstances to check off our own version of this bucket-list item.

Scenery and touring near the Glacier Circle Cabin. McKenzie L, Jess H, and Ian M. in front of the DeVille Glacier. Scenery and touring near the Glacier Circle Cabin. McKenzie L, Jess H, and Ian M. in front of the DeVille Glacier.

In the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia the Trans-Canada Highway and railroad both cross Rogers Pass smack in the middle of their Glacier National Park. The Selkirks are steep and wild. The climate is snowy and cold. The road goes high and is well-maintaned. The long transportation history and associated tourism brings with it an excellent network of trails, huts, and institutional knowledge. In short, this zone is the perfect storm of ski touring heaven. On the other hand, convenient accommodations are limited and much-sought-after. Safe, accessible terrain is similarly heavily used.

Climbing onto the Illecillewaet Glacer, soon to leave behind the crowds of day-tripping Rogers Pass skiers. Climbing onto the Illecillewaet Glacer, soon to leave behind the crowds of day-tripping Rogers Pass skiers.

As it turns out, if one is willing to slog a long ways, cross glaciers, and take chances with unknown terrain, there is a solution for escaping the crowds at the last minute. The Glacier Circle Cabin, run by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC), is absolutely spectacular, located in an amazing setting, and blessedly under-utilized. Often, in this internet age, one must give some thought to the potential impact of publicity. I have no such fears with the Glacier Circle cabin. It is really tough to get to, and that will never change, despite how much we might talk it up.

The approach is a spectacular ski mountaineering objective of its own. With good visibility, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better day of high-country glacier touring. The approach is a spectacular ski mountaineering objective of its own. With good visibility, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better day of high-country glacier touring.

Glacier Circle and its tiny cabin is an amazing summer alpine climbing destination and a mandatory stop on the ever-more-popular spring ski traverse from the Bugaboos to Rogers Pass. Its reputation as a ski vacation base camp is far less favorable. Indeed, the approach is difficult. I won’t belabor that point any longer. However, the day-trip skiing around the hut is way under-valued. Guidebook reports indicate nothing short of abysmal skiing. Perhaps it was our blind optimism, but we found more than enough skiing to entertain us for the three full days we had in the Circle. In fact, I’ve assembled a mini-guide to the approach, hut, and skiing in the area at this link: http://www.jediahporter.com/2015/04/glacier-circle-ski-vacation-mini-guide.html Future skiers will go better prepared than us, should they choose to tackle the long approach.

We found skiing near the hut, both “mini-golf” style, as well as huge ski mountaineering terrain. Jess H on what we called “poo view peak”. You can see it right out the door of the outhouse. We found skiing near the hut, both “mini-golf” style, as well as huge ski mountaineering terrain. Jess H on what we called “poo view peak”. You can see it right out the door of the outhouse.

Even in the weird west-coast winter of 2015, we found day-trip terrain big and small, steep and mellow, around the hut. With an average or above average amount of snow, the options would be even greater. On top of that, as glaciers retreat further (and these have been retreating since first viewed in the late 1800s) more options will open up.

McKenzie on a perfect pow slope just above the cabin. Deville Glacier in the background. McKenzie on a perfect pow slope just above the cabin. Deville Glacier in the background.

The hut itself is a historic structure, first constructed early in the 1900s by the railroad department to house guides and climbers on classic backcountry alpine climbing trips. It is not clear when the ACC took it over, nor is it clear exactly why it was almost completely rebuilt in 2006 (fire is one rumor… What a horrible way to interrupt a backcountry vacation. Be careful!). Regardless, the hut stands with minimal usage and amazing opportunity. We enjoyed our time in the hut almost as much as that in the surrounding mountains.

Jess and Ian plan out the next day’s adventure. Jess and Ian plan out the next day’s adventure.
Ian in the cabin loft. Accommodations are quite comfortable! Ian in the cabin loft. Accommodations are quite comfortable!

Over the course of our 5 day trip we skied 13,300 vertical feet and over 35 miles. Much of the mileage was on the approach and exit, but we also had great days on lower slopes of Mount Macoun and Mount Fox.

McKenzie and Meagan climbing Mount Macoun. We had hoped to summit, but flat light and uncertain snow conditions necessitated an early return to the hut. As much as we at FF would like to think that backcountry skiing is all about the down (pun intended), we’re often out there for the whole mountaineering experience as much as the turns. McKenzie and Meagan climbing Mount Macoun. We had hoped to summit, but flat light and uncertain snow conditions necessitated an early return to the hut. As much as we at FF would like to think that backcountry skiing is all about the down (pun intended), we’re often out there for the whole mountaineering experience as much as the turns.

As clear and amazing as it was on the approach, our exit was the polar opposite. We experienced the “best” of what high and wild Canadian ice cap skiing can be. We did the entire trip in either white out or rain. Up high, it was cold and windy with visibility completely shut down.

White out on the Illecillewaet. And not your “Weather Channel” upper mid-west “white out”. This was a legit, “ Walk-inadvertently-in-a-circle-am-I-moving-or-am-I-stopped?” zero visibility situation. White out on the Illecillewaet. And not your “Weather Channel” upper mid-west “white out”. This was a legit, “ Walk-inadvertently-in-a-circle-am-I-moving-or-am-I-stopped?” zero visibility situation.

As soon as we got into terrain and vegetation with more depth perception, it started raining. It’s true, British Columbia skiing isn’t all pillows and bluebird. It’s real mountain weather and ugly snow. It’s sore legs and fear and uncertainty. It is huge vistas and scary cracks in monstrous glaciers. It is profound hut comfort and wind-blasted faces. Give it a try, those Canucks know a thing or two about big mountain skiing!

Drippy trees and sloppy snow on the return to the Trans Canada. Drippy trees and sloppy snow on the return to the Trans Canada.



Check out more of Jed's climbing, skiing and guiding at www.jediahporter.com