Winter in the mountains is a magical time. The forest is covered in a generous laying of frosting, the snow twinkles in the sun light and the mountains seem to look more majestic. This is why, for the last 5 winters, I’ve flown to western Canada in the winter to chase the snow.
Over the years as I explored the mountains at the ski resorts, I saw people heading to the more rugged and wild *backcountry with envy. I told myself one day, that would be me. Last winter my boyfriend K and I obtained our Avalanche Safety Training Course Level 1, a prerequisite for anyone wishing to venture into the wild mountains. We invested in *backcountry safety gear and this year purchased out very own *splitboards.
Having done many splitboarding day trips into the mountains, K and I always said the ultimate adventure would be to heli into a backcountry hut and spend a few days living the backcountry life. I know this may not sound glamours to everyone but for us, it was heaven.
This winter we finally got our wish when our friends M and E (another avid outdoors couple) invited us to spend 5 days with them at the McMurdo Hut near Golden, BC. We said yes immediately and began planning out ultimate backcountry adventure.
Getting Into the Backcountry
Now backcountry huts and cabins require more effort to get to than most because they’re, well, located in the backcountry! It’s not as simple as driving or taking a short stroll into one. McMurdo Hut was no different.
There are 3 ways one might reach McMurdo Hut (or most backcountry cabins in general). The cheapest way (which is also the longest) is to ski in. There’s a groomed snowmobile trail located at the end of a plowed logging road approx 1 hr drive from Golden. The trail takes you almost all the way to the hut and you could pull a sled with supplies behind you. Distance is approx. 45 km’s which is quite far. It would be a very long day trip and for the fittest athletes only.
The second option is to snowmobile in. This is what my 2 friends M and E did. On the groomed trail it took them about 1 hr to reach the hut. Unless you own your own snowmobiles this is the most expensive option as the cost to rent a machine for 5 days is a bit pricey.
The third way in, which is the fastest and easiest way, is to hire a helicopter to drop you off. Although this is also an expensive option, it’s still cheaper than renting snowmobiles. Since I’ve never been in a helicopter before, K and I decided this was the way to go! With a helicopter it’s also easy to take as many supplies as you like.
Since our friends were taking their snowmobiles, K and I had the heli to ourselves. This was my first heli ride ever so K graciously agreed that I would ride up front with the pilot. For my first time, flying over mountains was an absolutely incredible experience!
During our safety briefing with the pilot he told us that once we landed in the meadow near our hut, he would not be getting out as this would require him to shut the helicopter down. He then proceeded to show us how to unload our gear out of the various compartments. We were then instructed to place our gear on the snow beside the helicopter and give him a thumbs up once we were done. After this we were to simply drape our bodies on top of our gear and wait for him to take off.
At the end of our 5 day adventure, our plan was to ride tandem on our friends snowmobiles (our other option was to book a return heli flight out). With our friends choosing to take their snowmobiles in it also provided us with a emergency evacuation vehicle should be need one.
McMurdo Hut is owned and managed by the Columbia Valley Hut Society and you must make a reservation ahead of time. Due to its popularity, booking far ahead is a must.
At the time we visited the hut was almost completely buried under over 2 meters of snow! Our helicopter pilot circled around it before landing in the near-by meadow to show us where it was located. I almost couldn’t see it due to all the snow!
The hut sat at the end of a long mountain valley with a large open meadow near-by. This meadow was a perfect spot for a helicopter to land and fun place to play with the snowmobiles.
Surrounded by tall spruce trees, this cute little hut was small and basic but provided for a true rugged backcountry experience. The hut is one single room with a wood burning stove to heat the place with a wood shed outside (you must split your own wood with the axe on site).
Inside, there’s a small kitchen area including a 2 burner hot plate (you must supply your own fuel) complete with all the kitchen utensils, plates, bowls and mugs. A picnic table sits opposite the kitchen area and at the back there is 1 single bed and one double bunk bed (sleeps 5). There is no electricity but there are plenty of candles for light. Its a good idea to bring your own flashlights, headlamps and candles as well. An outhouse sits not far from the cabin and there are large buckets and pots to melt snow for water.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at this hut and made it into a comfortable home for our visit. Evenings were spent sitting around the table playing card games and chatting by candle light.
3 Days of Powder Bliss
Every morning we’d assess the snow conditions as best we could from our hut and make a plan on where to ski tour for the day. There were so many options to choose from but due to high avalanche risk our choices were limited. Despite this, we had 3 incredible days exploring the mountains with stunning views.
We’d often stop during our ascent, once we began moving our of the high alpine trees, to perform snow tests. Anyone in the backcountry should be fully equipped with avalanche safety gear and have an avalanche safety course under their belt.
At the end of the day we’d ski right back to the front door of our little hut and spend the evenings enjoying good food, beers and a game of cards. The little wood burning stove gave off so much heat, we’d often have to open the windows to cool the place down.
Getting Out of the Backcountry
As I mentioned before our plan was to double up on the 2 snowmobiles our friends M and E had brought in, towing a supply sled behind us. On our last morning we were packed up and ready to go by 9:00 am. Another group would be arriving at the hut around mid-day and we had a long snowmobile ride out (about 45 km’s that would take approx 1 hr to complete). Little did we know this was just the beginning of a 10 hr ordeal to get back to the car.
I won’t go into too much detail here (trust me, its a loonnnngggg story) but I’ll summarize instead. Basically, we had a lot of snowmobile mechanical issues. First neither would start. Once they started (around mid-day) one ran out of gas and oil which should not have happened (this was purely due to a mechanical issue). Poor M made a few runs alone on the working snowmobile, back to his truck for fuel. This ended up being futile when the one snowmobile completely broke down in the middle of nowhere anyway.
By this time it was late afternoon. With the sun sinking low on the horizon we had 4 people, 2 snowboards, 1 loaded toboggan and 1 working snowmobile. We had about 20 km’s behind us and still had 30 kms to go. At this point it was decided that M and E wold ride tandem on the working snowmobile while I would be towed behind on my snowboard. K was elected to remain behind with the toboggan of supplies and his splitboard. M would take E and I to the parking lot and then come back for K.
Now you might think that snowboarding behind a snowmobile would be fun. And it was! For the first 5 min. After that the next 30 km’s were very tiring. I had to keep carving back and forth across the groomed trail so that I wouldn’t catch an edge. This was hands down the longest snowboard run of my life.
Arriving at the parking lot as darkness settled in, we quickly topped up the fuel on the snowmobile and M took off back down the trail to fetch K and our toboggan of supplies. I’m happy to report they made it safely back to the truck, where E and I had been waiting, around 7 pm. A full 10 hrs after the ordeal had begun we were back at the parking lot (minus one snowmobile which we’d ditched on the trail to be recovered later).
With everyone safe and sound we began the hour long drive back to Golden. After picking up our car at the airport and making a quick dinner stop at McDonalds, K and I drove another 2 hrs back to my parents home in Revelstoke, thus ending our first backcountry hut experience.
So how was our first experience? Amazing! Would I do it again? That’s a definite yes! I’ve done overnight winter glamping in the past. This trip just took me a bit further into the backcountry wilderness than I’ve ever been. Spending a full 5 days in the heart of the mountains in the winter was an experience I’d like to repeat and one I’ll never forget.
Backcountry: sparsely inhabited rural areas; wilderness.
Backcountry Safety Gear: You should never venture into the backcountry without your safety gear. The bear minimum includes an avalanche beacon, collapsible shovel and probe.
The beacon must be worn directly on the persons body and turned on from the time you leave the hut/parking lot until you return. In the event that you become buried in an avalanche, others can use their beacon to search for you. Or you can use your beacon to search for someone else who has been buried.
The collapsible shovel is used to dig a buried person out of the snow and used to perform snow tests.
The probe is used when searching for a buried person and to check snow stability.
Splitboard: A snowboard that can split into 2 pieces to be used as ski’s for ascending with the use of skins, the same way alpine ski touring ski’s are used.
Climbing Skins: Strips that are stuck onto the bottom of ski’s that allow for ascending slopes. They have directional fibers so that the ski’s will not slide backwards. They are to be removed before descending or “skiing down” the mountain. They are called “skins” because they function the same as and look similar to the very first ski skins which were made out of sealskin.