The Monashee Mountains in southeast British Columbia are probably
best known to skiers for helicopter skiing, as they’re blessed with plentiful
and consistent snow (about 700 inches annually) falling on large and varied
terrain (up to 8000 vertical feet from peaks to valley floors). A heli-ski
guide once told me that 90% of the heli-skiing in the world is done in the Monashees
and nearby Selkirk, Purcell, and Cariboo ranges. These aren’t the Rocky
Mountains with typically light snowfalls and cold temperatures, but rather the
Columbia Mountains that lie to the west, with seemingly infinite snowfields,
glaciers, and deep tree-filled valleys. Another ski guide told me that
he lives in the region because it offers the best skiing in the world, period.
I didn’t debate him on that one, although I’m sure that someone could.
There are no mechanized ski areas here.
I’ve spent the past eight summers in these mountains carrying out geologic
fieldwork, during which I often dreamed about skiing, especially when slogging
over steep snow-covered slopes. I always put work before pleasure, however,
never managing to strap my skis to the helicopter. Upon my recent move
to Calgary, I decided that it was finally time for a spring backcountry ski
trip to the Monashee Mountains, and due to a lean winter snowfall and a warm
Spring we made a relatively early trip. I convinced two friends, Erica
Kotler and Laurent Godin, to drive from Ottawa in their pickup truck to join
me in mid-May, and their truck meant that we could drive to the snow on logging
roads, avoiding a painful hike from the valley floor or an expensive helicopter
set our sights on the slopes adjacent to Bourne Glacier, located 45 km northwest
of Revelstoke (NTS map sheet 82 M/7), because I knew there was a decent logging
road that could be driven to within a day’s hike of terrain that would be excellent
for telemark skiing. We planned on a day of driving from Calgary, a day
of skiing into a base camp, four days of telemark turning on slopes near the
base camp, and a day for skiing back to the truck and returning to Calgary.
It took us all day to drive from Calgary through Revelstoke to Salmon Arm on
the Trans-Canada Highway and then north on logging roads that brought us to
the village of Seymour Arm. The place where we planned on parking the truck
is usually only a six hour drive from Calgary, but we were detoured around the
most direct logging road that was closed due to avalanche debris. The
detour required driving a couple of hundred additional kilometres around Shuswap
Lake, with most of that on bumpy and dusty logging roads. After driving
for eight hours Erica and Laurent began wondering where in the heck I was leading
them, to which I could only reply “trust me, we’re getting closer”. I
think the occasional glimpses of snow-covered mountains were the only thing
that kept them going. We camped at Seymour Arm, a collection of a couple
of dozen cabins, shacks, and nice log houses that are located just about in
the middle of nowhere and 50 km short of the place we had anticipated driving
to that day. We were kept awake much of the night by barking dogs and
partying teenagers (it was Saturday of the Victoria Day weekend).
We left Seymour Arm and drove to the secondary logging road hoping that it
would remain driveable until it became snow-covered at about 5000 feet.
The road was in fine shape when I last drove it a few years ago, but unfortunately
since then a large tree had fallen across the road at 3400 feet. Lacking
a saw, we were forced to park the truck, make our already heavy packs even heavier
by strapping on our skis and boots, and hike until we found snow. It felt
strange starting a ski trip so far from the snow, down amongst the greenery
and the hungry mosquitoes.
We were pleased when the road finally became snow-covered at 4800 feet.
I stashed my running shoes under a rock, hoping that the critters would not
eat them. At the highest logging clearcut at 5400 feet I took a compass
bearing and plunged into the woods. Treeline is at 6200-6500 feet, which
was just a few kilometres away over rather gentle terrain through nicely spaced
trees in an old growth forest. The snowpack was 1-1.5 meters deep, covering
most of the bushes. Traveling was rather easy on the consolidated snow,
dense corn really with only the top few inches soft enough to penetrate with
the skis. We broke through the snowpack only in shallow areas around rocks
and bushes. I looked forward to skiing downhill through these woods on
our return trip, with a lighter pack of course.
We had hoped to travel from our truck to base camp in one day, but the late
start and long hike on foot up the logging road put us behind schedule.
We were forced to camp that night near treeline, at a small lake located just
over halfway to our base camp. Thanks to the warm spring weather and below
normal snowfall, the snowpack was a month or more ahead of its melting schedule,
beneficial to us because it meant that drinking water was easily accessible
in the partially thawed creeks and lakes. It also meant that we could
sit on rock outcrops rather than snow while cooking and eating.
We awoke to thick fog, unwelcome because we still had a couple kilometres to
go to reach our base camp over mostly flat and featureless terrain above treeline.
I’d walked over part of this ground before, but I knew that because everything
looks different on the fog we would have to trust our map, compass, and altimeter.
Our navigational skills served us well, as we skied directly to our base camp.
On our approach we crossed grizzly bear tracks in the snow that looked fresh,
perhaps just an hour old. Over the next three days we saw that the bear
had cruised over much of this area prior to our arrival. I knew that bears
frequented this area because I’d seen them in previous summers, but I naively
thought that they did not visit the alpine until the snow melted.
At our base camp, at a lake at treeline (6300 feet), we had a beautiful view
to the south of the slopes that we were going to ski. This lake, equidistant
by 1 to 2 km from the two main places that we were going to ski, was the perfect
basecamp choice, and I learned of it from a guide from Revelstoke who plans
on building a backcountry ski hut along its shores. His building permit
is presently tied up in bureaucratic process (something about a terrain battle
with heli-skiing operators).
After setting up our tents, we climbed a nearby forested slope to check out
how the snow would respond to our telemark turns. We found it to be rather
soft, not nearly as firm as the corn snow that we skied on at lower elevations.
Nevertheless, we knew it would make for enjoyable turning once we got a feel
for it. By evening the fog had partly dissipated, providing hope for sun
the following day.
View from basecamp of the slopes that the group skied on days 4 and
The day broke with more fog, but were grateful that at least it wasn’t raining.
I’ve learned to be thankful for any rain-free day in the Monashees. We
decided to wait until the fog lifted because we considered it unwise to ski
on previously unseen slopes with limited visibility. We passed the time
by restringing our food cache; during the night a squirrel walked along the
rope that suspended our food-filled stuff sacks and helped itself to some of
our sausage and gorp. We climbed the highest trees in order to get the
food as high off the ground and as far from branches as possible, putting it
out of reach for even the most daring squirrel. We then dug out a metre
of snow from beneath the food in order to put it beyond the reach of bears.
The fog lifted just before noon so we headed toward the snowfields to
En route we came across a nasty little pitch that was overhung by a cornice.
To make matters worse, the snow was so thin in places that it felt like the
entire snowpack could slide off the rocks when we stepped upon it. We
strapped our skis to our packs, took out our ice axes, and plugged in our avalanche
I first tried a route to the left that looked to have deeper snow on a steeper
pitch. About halfway up I decided it was just too steep, as wet snow sloughed
off with each step.
I then tried a route to the right and found that it was negotiable if I walked
onto some rocks that were covered with scrubby trees. Ten minutes later
we were over this pitch and back on reasonable ground. An hour later we
were near the top of a snowfield.
After two days of travel with heavy packs we were eagerly awaiting the
sensation that we’d traveled all this distance for – the carve of a telemark
turn. The surface snow was soft wet corn, but luckily the base was consolidated
and consistent enough that we did not have to worry about breaking through to
the ground. There were islands of rock outcrops that were just plentiful
enough to provide for good obstacles (skiing on completely open slopes is boring
to me). We carved deep troughs in the soft snow, with the rut at the bottom
of each being a foot or so deep. After a couple runs we attained a feel
for the snow and began to enjoy our turns. It actually felt a bit like
powder skiing due to the sinking and rising motion of the skis through the turn
and the plowing of snow by the skis. It was also similar to powder skiing
in that we were able to keep our upper body facing directly down the fall line
and let the heaviness of the snow reduce our momentum as we rotated our hips
and legs back and forth. We found that it was best not to fight this snow
by aggressively pushing it aside; the turns came easiest when we just relaxed,
sat back a bit, kept the tips up, and moved the hips and legs beneath a steady
Snow stability was not a problem on <30 degree slopes, but on >40 degrees
slopes the top couple inches of snow sloughed off as a wet slide. Also,
snowballs up to a metre in diameter built up and rolled away at rather high
speeds. We agreed that it was prudent to avoid the >40 degree slopes until
firmer snow conditions prevailed. On the way back to camp we were able
to avoid the nasty steep section that we encountered on the way up by side-hilling
across a slope that was equally steep but not as corniced. The skies cleared
nicely that evening, giving us hope that a cold night would result in great
snow conditions the following day, when we planned on skiing the best-looking
terrain in the area, the slopes adjacent to Bourne Glacier.
To our delight, we awoke to rock-hard snow, which we knew would soften into
ideal corn as the day warmed. It was the perfect day to ski the big slopes
along Bourne Glacier. We cruised at high speeds on the crusty snow to
the toe of the glacier, stopping briefly to check out a moderately steep
couloir that was just begging to be carved up. We decided that we would
ski it the following morning if it was cold again.
Slopes adjacent to Bourne Glacier. The high point is Feline Peak at 9300 feet and low point is the toe of the glacier.
We were glad to find that the braided river that drained the glacier was covered
by a snow bridge, which meant that we did not have to wade across it as I’ve
done many times in the summer. The glacier was mostly snow-covered with
just a few crevasses showing through. We carried ropes and harnesses for
glacier travel, but because I’ve seen the huge crevasses in the glacier I was
pleased with our decision to ski the snowfields adjacent to the glacier, which
offered just as good or better skiing at a fraction of the risk.
We ate a quick lunch up top at noon, just as the snow on this northwest-facing
slope started to soften. I proved that the saying “there are no friends
on a powder day” is just as applicable to superb corn snow days when I told
Erica and Laurent, who ski slower than me, that I’d be seeing them later….I
had some serious skiing to do and I couldn’t be slowed down. I felt kinda’
like a jerk for doing that, but then decided that everyone is better off going
their own pace and safety wasn’t an issue because the weather was perfect and
we would be in nearly constant visual contact. I made four runs on the
slope that topped out at 8400 feet and ended at 6900 feet.
Erica and Laurent also made four runs, each with a little less vertical than
mine. They quite often figure-eighted their turns.
On each run we chose different lines through the broad snow boulevards that
were lined by islands of rock outcrops. We left our unnecessary gear at
the bottom of the slope, greatly reducing the weight in our packs. The
best snow conditions were found on the first two runs, during which only the
top centimetre or so of corn snow softened up. The surface was unbelievably
smooth and consistent. There were no sun cups, ice ridges, water runnels,
etc. that typically plague a summer snowpack. I made mostly high speed
turns, with some shorter radius turns on the steeper pitches. The firmness
of the snow meant that the steepness of the slope was not a concern with respect
to stability. It was beyond a doubt the best corn snow I’ve ever skied
and there was not a cloud in the sky. I also drank more water that day
than ever before, as at the bottom of each run I downed 1.5 litres of water
that melted directly out of the snowpack. I also went through lots of
The snow on the last two runs became progressively softer until it was
similar to the previous day’s snow. From our gear stash at 6900 feet we
still had a 700 foot descent to the toe of the glacier. Due to the intense
sun in a cloudless sky, the formerly stiff top layer of the snowpack started
to fail; I broke through to the ground many times before the sun began dropping
behind the ridges and the snow firmed up again. We were all physically
wasted by the time we climbed back up to camp at 7 p.m. Despite numerous
applications of sunscreen and breaks for water at every opportunity, we were
sunburned and dehydrated. There was some kind of jalepeno sauce in the
dinner that evening that tortured our cracked lips.
The night started clear, but unfortunately the clouds rolled in near
dawn, trapping in the Earth’s radiating heat. The snow was already softened
up during breakfast; we knew that another epic day was not in the books.
The good news was that the clouds would give our skin a break from the hot sun.
We decided to spend the day climbing a 8700 foot peak south of camp, with any
turns that we got in during the descent being a bonus. The 2500 foot climb
to the peak passed fairly quickly because by now our bodies were used to climbing.
The uppermost part of the route passed over a shallowly pitched glacier.
A layer of high clouds blocked out the sun, but the visibility was superb.
This was the highest point that I’d ever been in the Monashees. We could
see almost all major peak in the northern Monashee Mountains and many peaks
in the northern Selkirk Mountains. We lounged and ate lunch for over an
hour. We skied down next to a big wind lip, beneath which we could see
the glacial ice and the couple meters of snow on top of it.
We hadn’t bothered with ropes and harnesses because I’d seen this ice in the
summer and knew that it was “dead” ice, no longer connected to the active part
of the glacier, and thus was free of large crevasses. Upon reaching the
snowfield that we skied two days ago the sun broke out from the clouds.
By now we had a good feel for the soft snow and found the turning to be highly
For three runs we skied progressively steeper pitches until Laurent took a
twisting fall that tweaked his chronically tender knee. After seeing his
grimace and realizing that we still had to ski back to our truck the next day
we decided to call it quits and head back to camp.
Firm snow conditions in the morning and clear skies made the ski to the truck
as easy as it could have been. The only unpleasant parts were that Laurent
was in serious pain with his tweaked knee and one of Erica’s bindings ripped
out of her ski. Both of them ended up walking, which worked out fine except
when they occasionally broke through the snowpack. I had lots of fun finding
our route through the trees, making parallel (alpine) turns in a survival mode.
I retrieved my running shoes that I stashed under a rock on way up and noticed
that much of the leather was eaten by the critters. At that point I became
worried that perhaps our truck was chewed upon by porcupines, concerns that
were ultimately unfounded because the truck was unharmed. We were
grateful that the avalanche debris that covered the most direct logging road
back to civilization was cleared while we were skiing. We ate dinner in
Revelstoke and returned to Calgary at 2 a.m.
We had a superb trip during which we became closer friends. Skiing in
the Monashees was everything that I imagined it would be. Of course, four
days of near perfect weather helped. Camping while skiing in the spring
is definitely more pleasant than camping in the winter; the days are long and
warm and the creeks and lakes are mostly open. I hope to make a Monashee
ski trip an annual event, as there’s still lots of terrain accessible from our
base camp that we didn’t ski, and there are lots more places that I know of
that are a day’s hike from decent logging roads. Next time we’ll bring