Escaping Reality at the McGillivray Pass Lodge
I lazily trod through camp in my down booties, propelled forward by the scent of sizzling bacon and freshly baked cinnamon rolls wafting from the main lodge. I stop to glance up at the gloriously pink glow of the morning sun, letting the first rays of light warm my cheeks before stumbling inside the lodge behind my sleepy friends.
It’s our last of four mornings at the McGillivray Pass Lodge, a full-service, helicopter-accessed hut, deep in the Coast Range of British Columbia, and you can tell by the look on the dozen faces surrounding me at the breakfast table that some force is going to be required to get us out of here. We’ve spent the last three and a half days earning some of the best turns imaginable, ticking off steep lines that most of us had only seen in the movies, milking every last drop of daylight before returning to the lodge for well-deserved libations and chocolaty indulgences.
Built in 1972, the McGillivray Pass Lodge is one of B.C.’s oldest backcountry huts, managed by father-son duo Ron and Lars Andrews. Lars, a certified IFMGA guide and owner of Whitecap Alpine Adventures, has called this cabin his winter home for over 20 years. He tells me as I chase him up the skin track that he can’t imagine anywhere in the world he’d rather ski. He’s guided trips all over the world, from traverses in the Alps to famously deep Japanuaries, yet nothing can keep him from spending a hefty chunk of his winters guiding fresh faces through his backyard in the South Chilcotins.
Our journey began in the Pemberton airport, about 20 minutes north of Whistler, where Ron greeted us before getting ferried up the valley four at a time. As the helicopter climbed higher and higher, the lush and muddy lowlands transformed before our eyes into the white winter madness we were about to jump into headfirst.
My mom and I both fell in love with backcountry skiing about five years ago and since then have spent almost all of our free time together in high, snowy places. As an incredibly talented endurance athlete she’s got quite the motor and can outlast almost anyone I know on the skin track. She’s taught me to pace myself on the uphill, fuel properly beforehand, and that skiing powder is way more fun when you scream and shout. Nothing can put a smile on my face quite like hearing her whoop and holler her way down a steep, powdery slope. She grabbed my hand as the helicopter lurched towards the ground, eyes wide with nervous excitement.
This was also the first time our group of 14 ladies met each other, and I slowly started to get to know my new teammates as we unloaded our mountain of gear and made our way into the lodge for some hot cider, a safety briefing, and a tour of the facilities. Our chef, Becca, greeted us with warm cookies and an even warmer smile as we stumbled into the main lodge and kicked off our snowy boots. She showed us around the main lodge, pointing out where we could help ourselves to extra snacks, tea, and coffee if she wasn’t around, and told us to make ourselves at home. It won’t be hard, I thought, as I glanced over at my mom double-fisting chocolate chip cookies on the couch.
Four cozy outbuildings complete this rustic winter village, including hot showers and a wood-fired sauna. The 2,000-square foot main lodge is an organizational masterpiece. Every square millimeter of space serves a purpose, but nothing felt cramped. Lars was quick to admit that Ron is the detail-oriented mastermind as I marveled at the carefully places pegs for boot liners, skin racks, and backpack hooks all squeezed into the front drying room.
Lars introduced us to our guides, Veronika and Carla (who occasionally responds to the pseudonym “Gnarla”), and we all headed out for a few companion rescue drills and a quick afternoon tour. Snow started to fall as we bounced through our first powder turns on the low angle pitches above the lodge. It was about to be a good week.
We awoke to fresh snow on our first morning and were eagerly out the door at 8 a.m.—skins on, bellies full, and packs stuffed with sack lunches courtesy of our new mom, Becca. We split into two groups and six of us followed Carla up the snowy ridge into the clouds. Twenty minutes later we ripped skins and dropped into the silky, untouched slopes of the next valley over. “Choose a buddy and don’t lose them,” Carla advised as we dropped into the tight forest below. I followed her pink jacket as she dodged in between trees, bobbing up and down amidst a cloud of cold smoke.
We regrouped at the bottom before heading back up for seconds, then thirds, then fourths, reveling in the pure unadulterated joy that is powder skiing. After a blur of fresh snow, whoops, hollers, accidental airs, and the occasional sandwich break, Carla announced it was time to head back for dinner. We slapped our skins on one more time and made our way across the valley floor to the steaming sauna awaiting us.
I firmly believe that part of the reason that Canadians are so optimistic is because they report their snow totals in centimeters. At breakfast on Thursday Veronika happily told us that five centimeters had fallen over night. “That’s amazing!” a few of us exclaimed before realizing that five centimeters is actually less than two inches. Still, temps had been cold and steady snowfall over the last week promised more of yesterday’s goodness. As we stretched skins over our skis and stuffed our packs with more delicious homemade treats, the sun finally poked out from behind the looming clouds, teasing us with some of the bigger terrain up high. Today we would be skiing with Lars and Veronika and I could tell by the look they exchanged while we geared up that we were in for a treat.
We left the comfort of our cozy village and climbed high onto the ridge, now illuminated by the sparkling morning sun. I quickly learned not to try to keep pace with Lars on the skin track—the man can cover some serious ground and he never seems to need to stop to take a break. Or eat. Or drink water. Or peel a layer. I on the other hand tend to do all of these things quite frequently and had to force myself to ease back a bit.
After scoping it out for a minute, Lars hopped into the entrance of walled in 50-degree couloir called Hangover Chute that ran about 1,200 feet down to the valley floor.
“I’ll take anyone who wants to ski this and Veronika will take you around to a mellower chute if it’s too much.” Lars bellowed up from the platform he’d dug out below. “You’re all totally capable of skiing it, though” he added.
I watched my 53-year-old mom peer into it with wide eyes. “I think I could totally do this” she said, her voice wavering a bit. Everyone else agreed they wanted to give it a shot and one by one we dropped in, ripping some of the steepest and deepest pow turns we all agreed any of us had ever skied.
Veronika and my mom still stood at the top, two miniscule dots dwarfed by the colossal ridgelines surrounding them. I could tell her hesitation meant she was having second thoughts and I wished terribly I could be up there to let her know it wasn’t as scary as it looked. I was worried she might pull the plug, but to my surprise I watched her confidently drop in and carve beautiful turns all the way down, shrieking with childlike joy the whole time.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my whole life!” she screamed as she straight-lined the last two hundred feet towards us. “Can we do it again?”
Lars and Veronika laughed, passed around a few fist bumps, and led the way back up and over the ridge into a new zone, sprinkled with even more playful features than the last. As the day went on, many of us pushed ourselves to ski lines we didn’t think we had in us. I learned the hard way what it was like to get totally taken out by the immense force of my own slough. Panicked for a second, I emerged from my own cloud of smoke with my hand wrapped around the shoulder strap of my airbag, a nanosecond away from pulling the trigger. After a few laughs, Veronika explained to us how to carefully avoid getting consumed by the truck-sized mass of snow that you kick loose on steep slopes.
We all watched in awe as Yuko, a psychiatrist from Seattle in her forties navigated a steep wall of spines, ripping pro-like turns top to bottom. She smiled shyly when we demanded to know where she had learned to ski so well, humbly responding: “I don’t know, I guess I kind of just taught myself.”
It was a strange feeling to head out for the day without studying and selecting terrain ahead of time. Not reading the avalanche bulletin in the morning is akin to the feeling of leaving my coffee on the kitchen counter when I head to work. I typically love the challenge of navigating a new zone and learning to read new terrain. Trip planning is something I look forward to and I enjoy the puzzle of it. But in a foreign area it’s hard to ski quite as much vert in a day when you’re stopping frequently to find your way and scope what’s around each corner. I have to admit it was a nice change of pace to let go of the reigns and just follow.
To say Lars Andrews knows the terrain around McGillivray Pass like the back of his hand would be a colossal understatement. With each nook and cranny of terrain memorized, he guided us through the valley like a proud father eager to share the magic of this enormous winter playground with us. Our guides were happy to share weather observations and forecasts with us when we asked, but ultimately as guests, our jobs were to ski where we were told, eat as much as we could, and steam off in the sauna afterwards. It felt a little unnatural to let go at first, but really, it’s not a bad gig.
It would be easy to write a feature-length article on the food at Whitecap alone. I’ll try and stick to a few paragraphs, but know this isn’t your average ski-bum-looking-to-score-a-free-hut-trip cooking in the kitchen. Seriously some sort of witchcraft had to be going on back there.
Each morning we would awake to heavenly wafts of bacon, coffee, and some sort of cinnamon-sugary goodness coming from the main lodge—I’ve never had such an easy time tearing myself from the cozy cocoon of my sleeping bag. After we’d tucked away our fair share of sausage, eggs, French toast, and whatever else we could get our hands on, sandwiches and a plethora of baked goods would be waiting for us to pack for lunch.
The 5 p.m. après bar could, in my own gluttonous opinion, make a trip up to Whitecap worth it on its own even if you don’t ski. Spicy coconut soup, cheesy toast, charcuterie, homemade toffee, and a freshly tapped keg greeted us each night as we stumbled back into the lodge at the end of the day. Family-style dinner arrived shortly after. Salmon, green beans, and potatoes one night, pork carnitas tacos and heaps of guacamole the next. Just thinking about Becca’s quadruple cheese lasagna still makes my mouth water six months later.
And of course, dessert. As if we hadn’t already eaten enough baked goods. Apple pie, tiramisu, and chocolate cake were doled out in generous portions before we’d ceremoniously crawl over to the couches, succumbing to the comfortable stupor of our post-meal powder comas.
Besides my mom and I, none of the other women knew each other prior to the trip, but the intimate nature of the lodge and general feelings of cameraderie from sliding down snowy slopes on planks of wood quickly transformed us from strangers to teammates. It was an empowering environment to be in, getting to watch such a strong group of ladies push the limits in a safe and comfortable space. Our guides let us surprise ourselves, instilling confidence without putting on the pressure. “I’m fucking scared shitless” my mom vehemently announced more than once. But line after line she’d decline the bailout option, swallow her fear, and come out the other end buzzing with adrenaline in yet another fit of giggles.
It was a rare treat to spend four days in the backcountry with a bunch of rad chicks and the all-female dynamic in the backcountry was new to almost all of us. We bonded over stories of chasing brothers, boyfriends, and husbands all over the hill and commiserated over how hard it was to pee in ski pants. It was a unique experience and it was refreshing to realize that the trip itself wasn’t much different than you’d expect a coed trip to be—we skied big lines, climbed tons of vert, and polished off a respectable amount of beer. We roared with laughter through games of charades and gave each other shit for farting downwind on the skin track. It was a girl’s trip, but the beauty of it was that it didn’t feel like an all-girls trip, just a great ski trip. When it all comes down to it skiing is skiing and we’re all out here for the same reason whether or not you pee standing up. Although one thing’s for sure—women bring way better trail snacks.
Whitecap Alpine offers half and full week trips from late December through mid-April. Packages include guiding, helicopter transport to and from the hut, catered meals, and accommodation. Trips leave from the Pemberton airport off Hwy 99, 33 kilometers north of Whistler. To book your trip to McGillivray Pass Lodge visit whitecapalpine.ca