Between Borders Ski Touring Campbell Icefield Chalet
By Erme Catino
Photos by Lance Koudele
“We’re going to pay for this.” My buddy Mark Longfield and I link up for the second time after yo-yoing down the Blue Water Chutes. Guide and friend Corin Lohmann is with two others, cackling to make sure we are in the vicinity as we take turns slashing down the old growth forest and avalanche paths. The line kept going, pitch after pitch dropping us just under 2,500 feet. After a long tour the day prior—and five days already into our trip at Campbell Icefield Chalet, a lodge situated between British Columbia and Alberta, most of our crew decided against the monster run to cap off the day. However, already lured by two gladed, pillow laden runs, there was no way we were passing it up, even if we had to slog home.
Located within the Freshfield Range of the Rocky Mountains just north of Golden, Campbell Icefield Chalet was built in 2002. A seemingly new operation, it actually replaced the older hut that was flown in from Freshfield Icefields during the late 80ǯs after Parks Canada decided the Freshfield hut, built by Bernie Schiesser and Eric Lomas, was to be removed to keep the area in a wilderness setting. Schiesser and Lomas then began developing the area as a backcountry touring destination. Campbell Icefield Chalet isnǯt that well known amongst the more traditional backcountry lodges. Out the door south aspects, spatial variability in the snowpack typical of the Canadian Rockies, and a couple obscure closures from the owners—for fear of avalanches—can create some tip-toeing exercises around the peaks and long days searching for big vertical and powder. Nevertheless, our posse –a collection of friends that make a yearly BC hut pilgrimage – need only three things to have a good time: Snow, friends, and time to après…
Corin spots two more pillow drops for Longfield and I. The powder puff marshmallows have nothing on the consecutive 12 footers and the landings feel effortless as I hear a soft thud from Markǯs stomp to my left. Darting and diving into the forest, we regroup at the second cliff bench. This time the runsǯ remoteness from the lodge comes into play as we bushwhack and billy-goat our way into the slots that feed into the main flow and avalanche path. Our buddy Ned unweights from a left footer and soars into a powerful GS powder turn that casts a wavy plume of snow. Spotting an airplane turn entrance I push off next. Iǯm in the air shifting my skis down the fall-line and through the slot. Coming in hot, the swath opens up at least 50 yards allowing me to carry my speed. I yelp for joy, hearing Ned soon after. He dove into the trees unsure if we were supposed to keep tracking down, but was soon on my tails as we rallied to the bottom of creek. Oh yeah, we’re paying for this. We slap skins on at the bottom, put our heads down, smile, and begin to kick and glide home.
Ski boots clamor into the Bavarian-style chalet, with painted edelweiss flowers along its exterior. Smells of warm home cooked food fills the air—which is quickly changed by the dank odors of skiers arriving home. Grabbing a beer and heading outside weǯre all smoked from the daysǯ journey. A couple days earlier, and during our first chance to visit the alpine terrain, we ventured up The Saddle and across the ridge down into Waitabit bowl—peeling skins while looking across to Alberta. However a sustained avalanche path down valley caught our eye, it was the aspect of choice given snow stability and we placed it in our mental bank.
The radio crackles from one of the Campbell Icefield Chalet’s owners during our evening briefing. I’ve never been down there before… Guides Marty Schaffer, Corin Lohmann, and Troy Leahey smile and laugh silently as a few of us eavesdropping laugh over beers. Essentially no one in our group of friends, nor guides, had visited Campbell Icefield Chalet before. Having known the guides from previous trips together, with the exception of Troy—a look-alike of a younger Neil Young with legend status in the town of Revelstoke whom became a blast to ski with. We were all exploring the area and learning the lay of the land. It also helped to share the repeater radio with Sorcerer Lodge for avalanche activity and weather. However, the two caretakers Mike and Leah were frequent visitors to the lodge. Mikeǯs Canadian crass attitude explaining the importance of no shitting in the pisserǯ was hilarious—at least we knew our way around the chalet upon arrival.
Dubbed the Waitabit chute or avalanche path, the line that caught our attention a couple days ago was well worth the haul. Up The Saddle we went again, gazing across to The Dome, which we skied the prior day—fun, but was pretty short, and down the adjacent valley we went. Rolling with each pitch and trying to utilize gravity for all its worth, until re-donning skins to climb the next ridge. A classic BC avalanche path with conditions that warranted to be skied—it was our first longer run of the trip. After hearing audibles, seeing slough avalanches run off cliffs, and waking up one morning to crowns scattered throughout the alpine while sipping coffee. Finally, we were able to get some bigger lines.
I frigging hate airplanes yelps Marty in a funny and sarcastic tone. Working our way up the path through the trees, following switchbacks and a quick pit from Troy, another airplane—assumingly out of or heading towards Calgary flies overhead and out of sight. Not the most comforting sound after hearing avalanche audibles a few days ago. Luckily it was just another commercial airliner and we perched out on the ridge while looking across the next valley. More lines appeared and itǯs clear that if you arrive here in the spring, once the Canadian Rockies snowpack settles, you could really tee off. We then cascaded down the run, one at a time. Practically in the air just as much as on the ground, flowing with the bulging rocks and rollovers as if we were water.
Then came the type two fun, the long walk back up to The Saddle and the shred home. Luckily for us, the Waitabit Valley and glacier run-off from above was a perfect location to replenish ourselves with ice cold water, and we tossed containers to Corin as he dipped empty water bottles into the stream. Back at the lodge the après beer outside the front door turned into a sunset party on the back deck. We toasted to a long day, deep snow and the general camaraderie that comes with this great sport. It was a scene that got replicated on our final evening.
With the spring sun high in the sky my wife and I took advantage of the golden hour. It was quiet, and the red hues of the approaching sunset were already casting a shaded glow along the rock walls above the Bluewater Glacier. The North Columbia mountains were far in the distance to our right. With every trip to British Columbia, Iǯm amazed by the abundance of terrain that exists here. Staged to fly out the next morning and with temperatures warming while the solar aspects began their annual metamorphism from a winter to spring snowpack, a sunset shred was in order. The other groups were already filtering home, beginning the debauchery that exists on most final hut evenings. Yet right then, it that solace moment, we laughed—a little tanner in the face than we began the trip and with tired legs we pushed off for another lap. The touchy Canadian Rockiesǯ snowpack allowed us to play, and we were grateful for it.