Images by Jim Harris
Is there a more unique ski experience in the lower 48 states? If there is, I’m unaware of it. The adventure starts with a scenic 40-mile ferry ride across a deep mountain rimmed lake. The extraordinary journey continues on the dock where your gear is loaded onto, of all things, an old school bus. The buses tire chains churn through the snow and deliver you to an old mining town surrounded by steep forests and huge snowy peaks. As if this weren’t magical enough, a genuinely friendly Lutheran community representative who braves the cold to shake hands and make you know you are welcome then greets you. Top it all off with deep snow and first descents just a short tour from the doorstep, and it becomes almost too hard to believe. But this place is real; this place is Holden Village on Lake Chelan in Washington’s North Cascade Mountains.
Ending up in Holden was our “Plan B”. We were supposed to be filming for the next Powderwhore film at Snowy Mountain Lodge in British Columbia. Photographer Jim Harris put the trip together and invited us to tag along. The Canadian Border Patrol had other plans for us however as they denied our entry because we were planning on trading lodging for video content. Evidently, trading is considered the same as working, for which you need a permit. Of course, none of this was supposed to come to light. We were just visiting our neighbors to the north if anybody asked. However, their interrogation tactics proved effective and Michele cracked and mentioned “filming”. But that’s another story for another time. The wound is still too fresh. The good thing about life is it’s not afraid to get in the way of your well-laid plans and, slap you back into reality. You can then fight it, or adapt.
After driving 16 hours from Salt Lake City we weren’t about to turn around so quickly and just head home. We looked at the regional weather and noticed some healthy storms making their way toward the North Cascades, specifically the Lake Chelan area. Some friends had skied there a few years before and it had been added to the “places of interest” list we keep. Not that much was known and the little beta we had was vague and incomplete. A religious village? Rumors of mandatory attendance to church services? No thanks. Tales of great terrain and easy access? Yes please! The single party that had visited encountered stormy weather, high avalanche hazard, and they hadn’t explored very much.
The little info we had was enough to draw in this expert group of desperate powder fiends. As I drove south, our bloodhound gang went to work. Neil Provo was downloading topographical maps of the area onto his phone, Jonah was booking lodging and ferry tickets, Jim Harris and Allison Schwam were researching the few previous trip reports and blog posts online, and Michele Manning was apologizing profusely for her pivotal role in our international border incident. Morale was quickly resurrected with the new promise of snow and exploration.
Our elation was short lived. When we arrived in the town of Chelan, it was dry. Correction: it was bone dry. Still hopeful for the storm to come, we boarded the ferry. Motoring along on the water we could see the mountains slowly appearing. They were dry as well, no sign of snow. It looked so bad in fact, that we were already inquiring about the next return ferry out of there. Shut out of Canada and now shut out of snow, it seemed. Oh we of little faith. A bit further north and glimpses through the fog revealed some snow, which led to patches of hope. Thank God! It wasn’t until the bus came rolling onto the dock and we noticed the snow chains on the school bus that our thoughts of retreat left us. Then word spread that it had snowed in town a week ago and there was a significant amount more on the way. Hallelujah!
From the late 1930’s until the mid 1950’s, at its height of mining operations, Holden Village cranked out two thousand tons of copper ore daily. The town was home to hundreds of people and included dormitories, a gymnasium, bowling alley, mess hall, school, and a hospital. The end of WWII created a drastic decrease in the price of metal, leaving the mine unprofitable and the town in shambles. In 1957, operations ceased and it went on sale for $100,000. Eventually it sold for $1 to the Lutheran Bible Institute who promised to turn it into a spiritual retreat.
A small army of Lutheran volunteers came to clean up and repair the ramshackle buildings and returned it to a safe and functioning town. It is now running on hydroelectric power from the nearby river and operated year round by a mostly volunteer staff. The mindless and extensive damage caused from the mining era earned it superfund site status. There have since been several rounds of cleanups and during the summer months large improvement efforts are still underway.
As we drove into the heart of this Lutheran town, we realized that none of us knew much about their religion. As we pulled in, it felt like we had arrived at the haunted old lodge from the movie The Shining. Instead of an axe-wielding madman, however, the village was inhabited by some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. They welcomed us warmly and were very interested in how on earth had we discovered their Shangri-La, and even more interested in what the hell we were doing there with skis. Surprisingly, only a chosen few had ever visited this Promised Land with the intent of skiing. Our intentions were made clear when we changed right into our ski gear and went slipping off into the nearest woods making turns until dusk.
The heavens dropped light and dry powder on us over the next few days. Stability was good. We toured up two prominent valleys north and south of Copper Peak making tracks through well-spaced trees, down stacked pillows, in steep chutes, and on avalanche paths. Our trail breaking and hard work paid off and we reaped what it snowed.
Neil’s recon paid off and we worked the terrain according to the weather. Chutes and bigger lines were skied when we had visibility and tight trees when it was socked in. All was forgiven when Michele clicked in and showed us how she earned her Freeskiing Championship. Even our cameramen Jonah and Jim laid down their lenses to lay down a few good lines. The highlight for all was nailing a huge couloir off Copper Peak in a foot of virgin powder. The skiing truly was amazing. Trying to describe how good it was could be considered blasphemous. Jim’s images do it more justice so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Each night we returned to the quiet village where we shared dinner in the large commissary. We followed this up with a few beers on the back porch, and followed that up with alternating cold dips in the baptismal font and roasting in the sauna, thus completing the holy trinity of après- food, beer, and sauna (or hot tub).
Community talent night came around, because what else are you going to do on long winter nights? There was singing, some jokes, and story telling as you would expect. Some of it was good and some was really bad. Judge not lest thou be judged, I know. Jim gathered select photos we’d captured in their backyard and put together an impromptu slideshow for the local congregation. They were astounded. They couldn’t believe that we had hiked and skied the peaks and chutes that to them, seemed so impossibly removed. It was fun to see it through their eyes, this incredible thing we do, but take for granted at times. They loved that we were enjoying the mountains which they only knew and loved from far down on the valley floor.
As great as the mountains and the skiing were, it was the people that left the lasting impression. They were so open and accepting of our strange little group of skiers. Growing up and recovering from Mormonism has jaded my view of what it means to be religious. It was refreshing to discover folks that haven’t let their beliefs in archaic rules and dogma get in the way of truly accepting and genuinely loving their fellow men. We never felt pressure from them, or sensed a hidden agenda to convert or change us. They inspired us and maybe we inspired them to get out and explore their world on skis.
As we skied down to town on our final day, the temps increased to the point where the snow was having a hard time convincing itself that it wasn’t rain. Our gracious hosts gathered to see us off, pelting the bus with snowballs, and waving goodbye. As we drove back down to the dock there was no more debate, rain it was. Were we just lucky to nail it in great conditions? Or, was Ullr providing the great blessings we deserved due to our prayers for snow and devotion to our faith in powder? Only God knows. Either way, our timing was divine.
When we got home we heard that the lodge in British Columbia that we had been planning to visit was smothered in four feet of snow that week.
I often get asked, “Where’s the coolest place you’ve skied”. Before this trip, there was usually a hem and haw. I’d revisit Antarctica and Svalbard and throw out a few different places and add caveats like, “depends on the snow” and “there are so many cool places”. Now I just answer “Holden Village.”
A few tips:
-Bring your own beer and or alcohol, but keep it on the down low. It is allowed, but they prefer you drink it outside.
-Bring your own everything really. There is a small “store” for toothpaste and souvenirs, but other than that it’s all up to you.
-Make sure you time it right with the weather. The village is at a low elevation and often right at or below the rain/snow line.
-Come prepared for talent night!