Wizardry and Mountaincraft at Sorcerer Lodge
Down sloping winds carry short waves of snow along the surface of Nordic Glacier, above Sorcerer Lodge. The weather is downright arctic. We reluctantly march over snow bridges that weave around the gaps in the ice field in the balmy negative 30C temps. While I have never had intentions of visiting the artic circle, I at least now know what it might feel like. There’s cold and there’s miserably cold; at the time we found ourselves dealing with the latter. We eventually rip our skins and make moves across the glacier to where the wind isn’t howling, increasing our likelihood of both survival and finding better skiing.
Nestled along the flanks of Wizard Peak, Sorcerer Lodge lies within the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, Canada and just outside the northern boundary of Glacier National Park and Rogers Pass. The lodge has been operating for thirty-one years, and is well known within the ski touring community as one of the select backcountry lodges that offers massive terrain.
“Good Morning Sorcerer Lodge!” The radio crackled as we mulled over coffee. Tannis Dakin, one of the lodge owners, was a daily fixture during our weeklong stay. Sharing the weather and avalanche info from the Canadian InfoX (providing operational observations and avalanche info from around the province), her voice is a welcomed broadcast across the mountains. Her daily report is also shared on the radio repeater with Campbell Glacier Chalet and throughout the Selkirk mountain range.
“All of this has to do with Tannis,” said Steve Conger. Conger, Dakin’s partner recently came into the mix 14 years ago, by way of his graduate field research on Rogers Pass. “Neither of us wanted anything to do with a blind date, but she said what you’re doing sounds cool.” Conger, who began his career at Utah’s Department of Transportation forecasting for Little Cottonwood Canyon at the Alta Guard Station, has been working on using electrical measuring instruments that accurately measure snow hardness and weak layer identification. “The way she tells it [chuckling], she was really impressed with my shoveling skills.”
Dakin originally began Golden Alpine with her sister Alison and Wayne Bingham in 1989. As Conger mentions, at that time there were only two other commercial backcountry lodges: the Boulder hut and Valhalla. “They were really the first ones to put ski touring on the map as a business,” says Conger. And as their clientele progressed, Tannis wanted to create more of a step up, hence the beginnings of Sorcerer took shape.
“The terrain here was out of most people’s realm at first,” says Conger. One look out the lodge window to what we had been skiing already, and it’s no wonder why. Wizard Peak looms directly above the lodge along with the Nordic Glacier and several mountaineering objectives. Just below the hut are pillow stacks and steep avalanche path tree runs, and up those valleys are more alpine summits such as the famed Iconoclast Peak – it’s the perfect balance of terrain for hard charging skiers. As Conger mentioned, “the terrain at Sorcerer was and still is unique.”
The inevitable deep freeze that morning on Nordic Glacier felt a tad harsher than the first few days of our seven-day trip. Our crew, a collection of friends that partake in a yearly hut trip, had already become accustomed to -20C temps. Following the morning water haul, our days would begin by racing down valley through the trees and pillows before running back up towards the alpine via various drainages—hoping to get the blood pumping and to catch the sun as hit the slopes. Though, persistence and need to explore kept us going that bitter morning, when I honestly thought we were headed to the barn after nearly becoming a museum display akin to the frozen caveman.
Cool dark blue hues filtered the sky as temperatures plummeted with the suns rays disappearing. Who is down for another?The call rang out. After avoiding hypothermia several us were still looking for more, and with a steep roll through some glacial ice, still un-skied, we figured someone should punch it from the top. I glanced into my lunch sack, which was appropriately overstuffed, I had a couple extra cookies—a perfect sugar rush to facilitate the final few laps. Our remaining group soldiered on, sometimes trading out boot heater batteries to help one another rally. We skinned higher simply to gain a little bit of sun and to ski more Selkirk powder. Our skis creaked and crunched before pushing off down the fall line, and in the distance it looked as if a storm was filtering through the range. However it was just the cold high pressure sucking every last bit of moisture out of the sky, which cast large sun dogs around our orb of warmth. Cruising home on the skin track, the lodge’s wood stove and sauna beckoned. Situated just beneath a moraine that looked like a moat around Wizard Peak, the final push home to the lodge was stunning. Looking in every direction is another peak with skiable lines and we toasted with a shot of Sambuca at the front door and then scampered inside to warm up.
There’s a saying in the avalanche world, ‘Never Trust a Hoar’. The reference is of coarse to Surface Hoar—a persistent weak layer that can wreak havoc on the snowpack. It’s a common weak layer in the Selkirks and has been the culprit of many high profile accidents. Prior to our trip, a layer of surface hoar was preserved and then loaded with snow—breaking in slabs around 70-90cm deep with impressive connectivity. The scary and atypical part for our trip was it was all in the trees, around features, and not in the alpine. The layer was downright spooky.
As our week progressed, the layer became less reactive following almost two weeks of no load, but still warranted cautious attention—with Conger tapping out test results with easy shears. We sat patient, not trusting our weak layer too easily and eventually on the final two days were able to send the treeline and sub-alpine runs I’ve heard about at Sorcerer.
Steep avie paths, lined with trees and perfect moraine airs and pillows are littered below the lodge. Some tighter than others, and others with sneaky little entrances through the large cliff bands. We quickly forgot about freezing our asses off on the glacier and lapped until we exhausted ourselves from the fun.
On the final day, after skiing by braille down Critical Thursday—a steep alpine shot off the glacier, our crew of late day missioners assembled again. With most of the group back at the lodge we figured a revisit near tree-line was due, this time Wizard Gully. It was nearing four o’clock and we had the best run of the trip, and radioed up to Conger that we were headed home. “Are you sure?” he says… We looked at each other and pinned it back up for another, there’s no rest for the powder pigs.