Wonderland: Wells Gray Nordic Skiing

Wells Gray Nordic Skiing

by Keith Nicol
The “whoomf” caught everyone by surprise. We had just finished eating lunch and were putting on our skins when that whoomf — the sound made by collapsing snow — quickly had everyone’s attention. “Did everyone hear that?” said our guide Ian Eakins. “That means we have some weak snow crystals at depth, and this could create an avalanche if we were on a steeper slope.” Although we had signed up for a ski-touring holiday with Wells Gray Adventures, it also turned out to be a course in avalanche awareness. “The snow is always telling you something you just need to know how to read it to stay safe in avalanche terrain,” Eakins added.

We had joined eight others (plus two guides) for a late-season ski-touring trip with Wells Gray Adventures, which, as the name suggests, operates in Wells Gray Provincial Park. It was late March 2008, and I had expected to be skiing corn snow on the south slopes and maybe a bit of powder on north slopes. But B.C.’s cool spring was in our favour, and we ended up skiing knee-deep powder on most days. Our group ranged in age from mid-thirties to mid-sixties and mostly hailed from the western U.S. and Canada, though there were two skiers from Vermont as well as my wife and I from Newfoundland. Access to Eakins’ Wells Gray cabins is from the community of Clearwater, which is just north of Kamloops, B.C.

Due to a breakdown in Wells Gray Adventure’s 1961 Tucker Snocat, we were pulled up the mountain by snowmobile “water-skier” style. We skinned up the final four kilometres to Trophy Hut, which is at an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet. After the mandatory beacon practice, we got a chance to see what skiing in this part of the Cariboo Mountain Range had to offer. Following Eakins in a northerly direction, we descended through the trees and then the terrain opened up at the same time as it steepened to 35°. Our group was equally split between telemarkers and AT skiers, and it was no problem for the tele skiers to get some great face shots in the deep snow. “Not bad powder for March 23,” said Eakins as he saw grins all around. “Let’s get in another run on Terminator 1 before supper,” he said, and no one needed any convincing.

Trophy Hut was built in 1987 and has two levels. The main floor has a drying room, kitchen and eating area with an attached sauna. Upstairs, there is a sleeping loft divided into small bedrooms. With a total of approximately 1,100 square feet, Trophy Hut is a cozy winter retreat. The next day dawned sunny with temperatures approximately -12°C. We skinned up to ski Terminator 2, and as we climbed, we could see the mountain views unfold. Behind us was Raft Mountain, and as we climbed that, we could see the peak of Trophy Mountain.

Our first run of the day (Terminator 2) was a real adrenaline rush since it started out at more than 40° and dog-legged partway down. “It’s great that we have such a strong group,” said Eakins as we grouped up at the bottom. “We have lots of runs like this, and it’s nice to be able to take advantage of them. Let’s head around the corner to Big Tree before the sun starts to soften it.” We then did two runs at Big Tree, which was a mellower run facing east. By the second run, the snow had started to change so after lunch it was off to East of the Nile. It was much like Terminator 1 and 2, opening up as you ski lower, and this north-facing run gave us the lightest powder so far. I think everyone had to pinch themselves when we considered that we were getting deep January pow at this time of year. “This has been an amazing winter,” said Eakins. “Every other day, we would get 10-15 centimetres, and we now have a three-metre settled base.” We spent one more day at Trophy Hut skiing East of the Nile, Terminator 3 and then ended the day at Lookout Hill. Most of the runs we skied had vertical drops of 800-1,000 feet, and typically we got in between 4,000-5,000 vertical feet per day.

Midweek was a travel day, and we headed out in low cloud and snow for Discovery Hut, eight kilometres away. We had to carry our clothing and some food, and it was generally slow going with the heavy packs. Descending Terminator 1 was now a whole new experience with 35 pounds on our backs, and more than one person did a face plant. We crested over Eagle Pass and gingerly skied a few turns at a time, as the flat light and fog made it hard to determine if we were going up or down. Discovery Hut was built in 1996 and was named for a gold find made by local prospector Bob Miller in the 1930s. Like Trophy Hut, there is great skiing close to the hut, and after arriving at 3:00 p.m., we decided to ski a gladed run called Northern Gold before supper. Over the next two days, we explored some of the very steep runs off Discovery Peak (6,700 feet) and then skied expansive Singing Bowl below Trophy Mountain. My favourite runs of the trip were Heart of Gold and 24 Carat off of Discovery Peak as they were 40°+ and dropped approximately 1,300 vertical feet. “It is amazing all the great skiing this little peak has,” says Eakins. “You would never know it from the topo map.”

All too soon, it was Saturday, March 29 and time for us to ski out. We started out in -20°C under sunny skis and made our way back over Eagle Pass and then to Ptarmigan Pass to the access road. The south-facing descent through the heavy, crusty snow and trees to the road was challenging to say the least, but we had cold beer and a repaired Tucker Snocat waiting to return us to our cars at the base of the mountain.
Wells Gray Adventures has much to recommend for anyone interested in ski touring. It offers great terrain close to its huts, and they can be privately catered or booked for a guided-catered trip, as we did. It offers incredible value for those on a budget, and Eakins offers great insights into safe winter travel. Just don’t get him going on his adventures in the Himalayas and don’t ask to hear his “LEECHES” story

XC Skiing at Helmcken Falls Lodge
There is more to Wells Gray Provincial Park than backcountry hut skiing. Just up the road from Clearwater is the access point to Wells Gray Park, and there is a fine cross-country trail network at Helmcken Falls Lodge. There are more than 40 kilometres of trails, including the Myrtle River Trail, which is one of the most scenic I have skied in several years. Beginners will also like the golf course trails in the valley, and experts will have their hands full negotiating the Blackwater Trail or McLeod Trail. But what makes this area unique is the number of waterfalls that are easy to get to in the winter.

The waterfalls are due to lava flows that occurred in this area 400,000 years ago, and they have since been sculpted by glaciers and now rivers. Spahats Falls is impressive for its huge gorge and Dawson Falls for its ice-caked appearance. But the standout is Helmcken Falls, which has created a huge ice cone at the base. It tumbles more than 400 feet and is spectacular in the winter. There is also a good cross-country ski trail system in Clearwater (at Candle Creek) that is worth exploring.

Mo’ Info

Contact Wells Gray Adventures at www.skihike.com.

For information about Helmcken Falls Lodge, which makes an ideal base for exploring this area in the winter, visit www.helmckenfalls.com.

For info on Clearwater at Candle Creek, visit www.wellsgrayoutdoorsclub.ca