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February 05, 2010

The BC Powder Highway: Day 2-3

Day-2-A Valhalla Snowcat Guide and co-founder Martin cuts into one of the region's tighter chutes (Nathan Borchelt)

The Powder Highway continues to look more gray than white. I ask locals whether these conditions are typical and everyone offers an apologetic shrug and says something about to the effect that the only thing predictable about the weather is that it ain’t predictable. But every time, I see a thought bubble floating over the local’s head, reading: “El Nino, that bastard.”

Indeed, the weather pattern that has triggered epic snowfall in Tahoe, Utah, and Jackson Hole has turned British Columbia into their version of an Indian summer. They’re trucking in snow to Whistler for the Olympics, and my aunt and uncle, who live three hours from Nelson (where I’m now staying) are calling the Winter Games the spring Olympics.

The solution for the powder hungry in these conditions? Valhalla Powdercat Skiing.  The valley floor was drizzly and overcast, but after boarding their blue school bus to head up to the snow cats, the gray gave way to white, and when we crossed the frost line, the rain was replaced with snow. Dandruff-sized flakes, but still…snow, falling as we carved up the narrow Passmore Upper Road.  Here you play chicken with logging trucks hauling trees down to the main highway.  It’s a game that the blue bus would lose, so they tap into the same frequency as the trucks so the bus driver knows what’s coming.

When I left D.C.. the city was frozen by a modest snowstorm, and I couldn’t get a taxi to save my life (much less reach the airport). But here, a school bus handles snow-covered roads better than a suburbanite in a Hummer. On day one we actually had to back up a full five minutes to make space for a flatbed rig hauling a bull dozer.  A dicey position, save that our driver and guide Martin had been on this bus for five days a week for almost ten years.

He was co-founder of Valhalla Cats, and stuck around as mountain guide and all-around reliable resource after the company merged with Snowwater Heli Ski a few seasons back.  Arguably the best guy to navigate the 45-minute drive.

After loading into the cat and getting a very thorough avalanche-safety briefing at the Valhalla weather station, you put on loaner transievers and spend the next several hours yo-yo’ing up and down the Valhalla Mountains, taking full advantage of the land that the operation leases from the Crown Lands (think the Canadian version of the U.S. Forest Service). Get an efficient crew of 12 like-minded skiers and riders (the max that can fit in the cat), and you’ll get in between nine and eleven runs before the final turns, with food parsed out as needed throughout the day between fresh lines.

Day-2-B One of Valhallah's powerful snowcats. Think of it as a powder-hound's backcountry limo (Nathan Borchelt)

Day one included a group of enthusiastic Germans on powder skis with mad skills, bracing optimism, and a pension for photo shoots, as well as a handful of locals whose collective hooting and hollering echoed through the mountains. Today, a group of eight Aussie drinking-buddy snowboarders dared each other off cliffs and cornices, with as many face plants as fresh turns.

Each day the visibility shifted from fog-choked flat light to bursts of clarity in the glade runs, with conditions that varied from crust to chalky pockets of slough to loose powder—the latter a result of the ten centimeters that have sporadically dropped over the last few days in the higher elevations.

I had a few impressive recovery/tumbles, a few sloppy runs, and one or two can-do-no-wrong S-shaped turns through loose powder across a vast, snow-covered realm that left me breathless, drunk on the experience, and willing to hike up just to do it all over again.

Trips run daily, and Valhalla has three cats at their disposal, with 12 people per.  With those numbers, you’d think the region would get skied out given the lack of snow right now.  But given the huge terrain that Valhalla’s tenure affords (as well as solid record-keeping), the skilled guides always seem to know where to go to for fresh tracks and nominal risk of avalanches.  Two days, and on the second day I don’t think I crossed the ski marks I’d made the day before.

And for powder hounds, that’s pretty much paradise.  Tomorrow is an off day, first to Ainsworth Spas, and then a heli transport to Snowwater’s high-elevation lodge.

Onto Day 4

Back to Day 1

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Related Topics: Dispatches from the Road · Skiing & Snowboarding


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We've had a ton of snow here in Tahoe this year. It's probably the best ski season we've had since 2004. If anyone is looking to ski Tahoe here's a great deal on lodging with free lift tickets:

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