FACETS AND FACESHOTS:
BACKCOUNTRY LEARNING AT
PURCELL MOUNTAIN LODGE
Words by Juliette Recompsat
Photos by Ryan Creary
It’s an intensive course that doesn’t feel intense. Like the layers of an unpredictable snowpack, the lessons of an immersive AST 2 course in the backcountry settle gradually. Here at Purcell Mountain Lodge, you don’t learn behind a desk. The lessons seep into the stories you swap around the dining table and in the pause for thought on the uptrack, where a few feet to the left makes all the difference…
“Sunrise on Sir Don!”
At this announcement from Purcell guide Burke Duncan we move faster than our lodge hosts thought possible. By the third morning of our Avalanche Skills Training (AST) 2 course at Purcell Mountain Lodge, our genial hosts have come to accept that we are lingerers. We’ve developed quite an affinity for the huge wooden dining table that is our gathering place and our classroom.
The tranquil morning erupts into an almighty racket as we’re pulled in two directions by the glowing sunrise and the last bites of Chef Peter’s huevos rancheros. It may be the first clear morning we’ve had, but you can’t just walk away from eggs and potato latke with homemade jalapeno honey salsa and cilantro chutney.
We stumble eagerly upstairs and spill out of bedroom doors onto the balcony that wraps around the lodge. Quiet settles in again as we take in an epic sunrise on Mount Sir Donald and the Swiss Peaks of Rogers Pass. The sun lights up the 30 centimetres of storm snow that have drifted down in the last two days.
Untouched lines are beckoning us.
LODGE LUXURY AT 2,000 METRES
On our first evening, I watch as the lodge hosts briefly debate whether to squeeze us all around the main table. Within a few moments, 16 chairs encircle every side so that our group, lodge guests, guides and caretakers could share the gourmet, family-style meal.
Our hosts, Hugh and Cheryl Burton, were here at the lodge before even the table was. They first visited for the lodge’s inaugural New Year’s Eve in 1989. Cheryl tells me that the dining area and lounge were a plywood shell, better suited to a game of floor hockey than a glass of wine by the fire. “We came every winter for about six years,” she says with a smile, “and somehow we always seemed to run into the same people up here.”
Nearly two decades after their last visit, three years ago the Burtons were reunited with the lodge. They now have regular shifts in the rotating cast of mountain characters who volunteer as caretakers for two weeks at a time. The hosts’ and owner’s regard for the lodge is apparent in the details; I spend ages sampling the ample tea selection, browsing the shelves of well-loved books and sitting cozy by the fire.
The lodge operates as a fully-functioning alpine ecosystem. Drinking water and power come from an unassuming stream that powers a generator, and there is a custom-built wastewater treatment plant on site. Soap and shampoo products are locally sourced from the Rocky Mountain Soap Company, free of toxins that could make their way into this mountain oasis.
Assistant hiking guide and kitchen wizard Peter Kusnierz is awfully modest about his three-course meals, attributing the success of his creations to the well-equipped industrial kitchen. He describes how the oven range was actually flown in by helicopter and dropped in place, with the exterior wall then built around it.
“Food is a really important part of the experience here,” Kusnierz says. “To get outside, go hard all day, and then be able to recover and do it all the next day.”
This isn’t your average AST 2 course, and it’s not your average crew, either. Diversity in a group, says our Yamnuska Mountain Adventures instructor Darcy Chilton, is what makes teaching a course like this both rewarding and challenging. From a grandfather to a semi-pro skier, our group spans four decades of ages and a full range of levels of experience. Tucked away as we are in the remote backcountry of the northern Purcell mountains, the lodge is our world and the boundaries that normally exist between strangers don’t factor in.
Quiksilver team skier Carter McMillan has spent more days on skis than most of us dream of. He tells me that taking this course has long been on his list. “Everyone is here for different reasons, but it all comes together,” he says. “From the beginners to the experts, we’re all here together and we’re all on the same level playing field.” The snow gods don’t discriminate – whether things are going right or wrong.
Last year, 12 people lost their lives in avalanche incidents in Canada. It’s a tragic number, in line with the 10-year average of just over 13 deaths per year. As backcountry education has become increasingly valued within mountain communities, it’s important to ask the question: Why are we still losing skiers? As Avalanche Canada put it in their 2016-17 annual report, “Not everything that counts can be counted.” We have no measure of just how many backcountry users venture out every year.
We do know that the number is rising and that every season someone’s best day becomes their worst.
In the two decades that Chilton has been guiding, he has witnessed a changing tide around snow safety and awareness of dynamic influences like the ever-present ‘human factor.’ “This has been one of those major shifts that we’ve seen in the industry,” he says. “The more information we all have, the better off we’ll be in the backcountry.”
“You can reduce risk. Understand the terrain and the factors at play. But you’ll never eliminate risk in the backcountry. And if we could – would it still have the same draw?”
Our usually boisterous group is quiet as we blink at each other across the table, our minds drifting with the wind outside.
It’s evening and we’re settled back around the table, embroiled in the characteristics of facets and surface hoar – not where you might expect to find a group at 9 pm after a solid day in the backcountry. We’ve felt the apprehension of a mock rescue scenario and shovelled our way through two metres of snow to interpret the stories held within. We’ve explored new territory in the northern Purcell mountains and tasted champagne powder. We’re feeling revived by a level of luxury unexpected in the backcountry – arugula pine nut pesto pizza with roasted pear, blue cheese and prosciutto (just the après-ski snack), the wood-fired sauna and hot showers.
Now, our conversations wind around our experiences skiing in the backcountry, stories about being both in control and out of control in the wilderness. We talk about why we’re here, striving to understand something that mother nature did not intend for us to ever fully comprehend.
“It’s a puzzle,” says Chilton. “We’re searching, constantly, for the pieces.”
We’re deep in conversation about the various elements that make up a snowpack and its formidable layers. This is how we’ve found ourselves sipping wine around the table as the snow twists around the lodge on the upper slopes of Bald Mountain. Chilton brings stickmen skiers and snowflakes to life on a flipchart, illustrating his answers to the questions that fly back and forth across the table about terrain traps, temperature changes, and everything in between.
LEARNING BETWEEN THE TURNS
Our week at Purcell Mountain Lodge coincides with a significant avalanche cycle and the slopes are ripe for learning. There’s a collective sharp intake of breath when our compression test releases a slab after less than a dozen hits. The sobriety of the knowledge we’ve gained over the past days stays with me as we ski a conservative run.
Crossing the valley bottom, a whumpf echoes loudly through the snowpack and stops us in our tracks. Knowing that we’re not in high-risk terrain provides only mild reassurance in the face of a sound that never fails to send a chill up my spine. We watch silently as the settlement dislodges snow from the trees that are 5, 10, 15 metres away. I’m happy to skin back towards the lodge, our island of safety.
On the final day of our course the snowflakes align, the sun comes out and the snowpack settles a little. The bright sun takes the chill off the crisp air, and we shovel hard to clear the way for an extended column test. We’ve learned by now that the results of our test won’t give us a clear go-ahead. In this dance of changing elements, the answer is never black and white. But Chilton has taught us how to read the signals within the grey area, and that’s a start.
A traditional course is laid out as blocks of classroom and field time that we barely make time for between work, family and constant commitments. In this backcountry haven at Purcell Mountain Lodge, awareness and education have been our constant focus. Lessons and learning have drifted down like snowflakes throughout the last 100 hours. Turns out, all they needed to build up was time.
“When you take a bite of cake, you take a minute to eat it. You think ‘that was really good.’ You don’t just shove the whole cake in your mouth,” Chilton grins at us. “That’s how we learn – gaining experience in small bites.”
We whip off our skins and click in for our last run. Dropping into the trees of “Knee Grinder” feels like anything but. Curtains of powder rise up with every turn as my skis float through the snow. We sail through the steep glades, and the trademark whooping and hollering of stoked skiers and boarders echoes all around me.
Thanks to Purcell Mountain Lodge and Yamnuska Mountain Adventures for making this article possible! A note to our readers that neither company had the opportunity to review the post prior to publication.
Raised in the Rockies, Juliette Recompsat travelled to every continent before her roots drew her back to the mountains. Home is where the peaks are!
Ryan Creary is a commercial and editorial photographer based in the Canadian Rockies – specializing in mountain sports and lifestyle photography.
The views and opinions expressed in the articles on CrowfootMedia.com are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the editor, the editorial team or the publishers.