My eyes and mind begin to buzz—the type of high you feel from perfect high-speed powder skiing. Is this really happening right now? Snow sprays past my neck while my views are obscured by cold smoke as I arc down a massive avie path deep within interior British Columbia. All I notice is a small pink circle in the distance—my wife’s helmet seemingly looking like a snowplow as powder billows over her head. We’ve just center-punched one of the seven deadly sins at Icefall Lodge. Greed, a 2,000+ foot shot proved its namesake. And like greedy powder skiers there is no stopping, just a feeding frenzy of powder as we dance down the fall-line.
Located in the Canadian Rockies, about 70km north of Golden, BC, Icefall is tucked into the snowy and rugged western corner of the range. Accessed via helicopter, although novice guides have been hazed with having to ski the slog out, the vertical relief of the region is huge. Over 2500m (8,400ft) from peak to valleys greet visitors as you fly into lodge. Owner and guide, Larry Dolecki, discovered the area in 2003 while driving up a logging road. Following additional hikes, he purchased the property and built the lodge in 2005, then upgraded the main lodge in 2008. Totaling 50,000 acres, the area was large enough that two satellite huts were recently built: Lyell and Mons. Featuring some cushy amenities for a remote backcountry lodge such as a sauna heated by wood stove, electricity via a generator, and satellite internet, along with the normal features of cozy bunks and woodstoves; the terrain at Icefall is what sets the lodge apart from others in BC. And while this was my first hut trip to the interior, it’s been said that with regards to terrain at backcountry touring lodges there is Icefall and then everything else…
Cackling at the base of Greed one of our guides, Igor Bernas, looks wide-eyed, “that was pretty good, eh,” he states in his unique Basque/Canadian accent. I laugh, yeah that was probably the best run of my life I’m thinking… Just two hours ago I had the best air of my life—a 25-foot double stager to a bottomless snow landing. Perhaps Icefall makes you ski like a schoolboy, or maybe it’s heaven on earth, but each run of the week was mind blowing. As the rest of our group descends Greed, Corin Lohmann, another of one of our guides explains that this particular descent of the line was also his best of the year.
Our group of 18 took over the remote lodge earlier in the week with a vengeance. Coming in hot, we carted in enough booze to kill a small pachyderm and enough moxie to give our three guides and cook some serious concerns… especially when we told them there was a planned costume party. My good friend organized the trip, which is a yearly occurrence to different backcountry lodges. An eclectic group of ski industry folk, doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, environmental stewards, pilots, a wine maker, and an almond farmer; our group was full of bad-asses who could climb and shred hard. For two years schedule conflicts prevented me from joining in on the fun, but this year the stars aligned. And with 10-20cm of snow each night and a cooling weather pattern, the snowpack gained strength and got deeper throughout our stay.
Approaching the South East ridge of Mt. Kemmel, the skies shift from sun to clouds and grey bird. The pesky wind starts blowing, but it keeps my head down and the focus on skinning rather than the long ridge to the summit. Sitting at 3150m, the upper reaches of Mt. Kemmel typically have a ski-mountaineering feel, but as we click past the sub peak Pierre Hungr (our third and actually lead guide) noticed that the recent snows have caked the upper ridge. “If you want to die, ski to the left of my track,” echoes Pierre as we push off the summit. We’re halfway into our stay and the guides and group are vibing as if we’ve skied together for years, hence the cynicism. Later in the week Corin would skin into the alpine wearing a wig and costume, remnants from the previous night’s costume party… With help from the ambient sun and a cliff band securing visibility, our group approached the top of the Icebox couloir, a 700m shot and wide enough to crank GS powder turns. “I’ll open them, you close them,” I jokingly said to a new friend. He immediately gets the Aspen Extreme reference, and we dive into the rollover and open it up like a teenager stealing his father’s Porsche.
The terrain surrounding Icefall is stunning. The lodge sits at 1920m (6,300ft) with enough options that it would take several trips to scratch the surface on the possibilities, especially when factoring in the satellite huts. Heading down valley are alleys of pillows, tree shots, and large swath avie paths, most notably the seven deadly sins. The experience is akin to watching an edit from Eric Hjorleifson. Pillows of varying size and long avie paths choked with snow dot the horizon line from the lodge’s deck. Behind the lodge are miles of alpine terrain. Glacier runs, epic long tours descending to the valley floor, open faces, to couloirs that run endlessly into neighboring valleys make for long and satisfying days—and questions your sense of place as you feel like you’ve entered the Alps with interior BC quality powder… Icefall’s namesake is due to the regions abundant alpine glaciers. With over 30 separate glaciers, some covering 20 square km, the seracs and yearly fluctuations in glacier formations truly make the landscape unique.
Lodge living is the simple life. It’s a backcountry skiers dream house where daily mundane tasks are relished in avoidance of the real world cloaked in technology overload. While the guides took care of most of the work, our group would take turns washing the dishes, and fetching water from the spring, a chore in which the local pine marten tried to sneak into the lodge. The simplicity, abundant snow, and collection of friends are the cornerstone of these trips.
Anticipation builds as we zigzag up a treed spine on an avie path below the lodge. Pierre’s group has just reached the top of an adjacent run. We hear as he calls out in an echoing yodel—his university trained opera voice was the signal of either summiting or singing upon a safe descent. On two of our days down valley, stoke overtook the group as we worked through the sins. Lust, Greed, Wrath, Gluttony, and on… Our taste for deep powder and airs couldn’t be satiated as the sinning continued. By 4pm, with minimal water and most of our snacks gobbled up, rather than touring up the valley, and home for soup; our dwindling group size would zip another notch down valley and walk up for more—returning to the lodge just in time for a hearty dinner.
Hanging lichens from the pines gave an enchanted feel to the forest grove that protected our exposure on the up-track. Corin, leading the charge was fresh off a vitamin B/energy Voke Tab. Needless to say we were moving, and putting in some wild skin tracks that eventually navigated a steep pillow zone. With a bit of shuffling and some tree holds, the slip and slide game was well worth it as we crested a bit higher onto the avie path. Atop the line Igor and I recognize a slot we viewed from below. With the majority of the group heading into tighter trees and a diagonal stash to the right, we make one turn over our skin track and shoot directly fall-line. Rolling pockets of trees with small popping airs rockets us into the main avie slot. Diving into the turns, I taste the final faceshots of the day as we view our group cutting into the path from our right. Elated and exhausted we stroll back up, via the dubbed ‘trail of tears,’ to the lodge for food and brews.
We met the ‘trail of tears,’ on our second day of the trip with a visit to Tempest Glacier. Tempest is one of the classic tours at Icefall lodge, and one of the most majestic tours I’ve ever experienced. Being our second day, and the promise of sun until the mega-pow arrived later that evening, the guides gave the option for one group to head there. As we ventured into the alpenglow, we caught our first glimpse of the vast alpine terrain, the saying lets get small finally had meaning. The route begins with a climb out the back door. Cresting the sub-alpine, views of the peaks emerge. Large and small couloirs, flanked by curved rocky features resembling a half clamshell dotted the skyline—leaving the possibilities to the imagination. Touring through Ice Pass, with Mt. Kemmel to our right, we de-skin and schuss a mellow glacier into the Rostrum valley. From Rostrum valley the big peaks show their cards, and a spine face near Icefall peak still haunts my dreams. Donning skins again, this time with harnesses, we traveled through the crevasses and skin up Diamond Glacier. Views of rock slabs and hanging seracs kept us on our toes yet melted the mind in beauty. The glacier had a blue resonance that reflected the snow and looked like the sky above. It was an ocean blue frozen in time. At Icefall, 40km of the terrain is glaciated, and receives more snow in the winter than melts in the summer.
One by one our crew soldiered towards Diamond Peak, pictures abound and energy chews guzzled as after the ski there was a lot of ground to cover to reach the cozy confines of the lodge. Experiencing every snow condition as we descended the 5,000 feet through the pipeline and onto the valley floor, our group reconvened along a summer logging road. Then the fun began, hence the name ‘trail of tears’—a slog through the flats and up the drainage towards the lodge. The saving grace was a natural spring where we refilled our water bottles with glacial runoff. With heads down, slow striding, and skin glopping due to drastic changes in temperature, when we finally reached the lodge every cell in my body absorbed the soup, food, and beer. A 14,400’ day replete with views for a lifetime.
Slowly the week faded and we were faced with one last morning of pillow drops and sunny skies before the helicopter ride out in the afternoon. The notion, was this really happening never left. From the long powder filled chutes such as Vitamin P, dropping us into a valley that looked like the Swiss Alps—a potential hut expansion site once Larry finds the appropriate water source, to tree chutes with pillow poppers along the side. After all the booze was drunk and powder pillaged, the first heli left the remote lodge. It didn’t set it in that we actually were leaving until part of the next group arrived. Sitting on the 20 minute heli-trip out, I snap a few photos of Mount Arras and glance left to view a cirque of glacial moraines and waterfalls. The setting is something out of a fantasy novel. Perhaps experiencing Icefall is the eighth sin… Overindulged in serenity, deep powder, and good times, it’s a sin from the real world and a portal into euphoria.
Erme Catino is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City. He moved from Vermont to ski Alta blower, and his trip to Icefall was his first to the powder mecca of BC.