Saturday, February 5, 2011

Icefall Lodge- Part 1

Photo by Jeremy Benson

Impressions from a week long haute trip in central British Columbia. Here 3 athletes, a writer and a photographer head up to the Icefall Lodge haute operation with hopes to gain experiences and material to develop an upcoming feature article for Mountain Sports+ Living Magazine.


The helicopter door clanks shut. Seat buckles securely click closed. The pilot in front slips on his helmet and adjusts his chin-strap. The helmet is yellow, completely nondescript, except for a sticker thoughtfully placed on the back, visible to all passengers behind. It reads, “My work is better than your vacation.” I smile and lean over to peer out at the massive mountains before us- our destination. The blades above begin to rotate- ever faster. Our bodies hum as the little aircraft purrs to life. A cloud of snow bursts into the air. We lift off the deck and take to the skies, up into the Canadian Rockies.

The flight is upwards of fifteen minutes. We follow a network of valleys and drainages back into the heart of the range. The massive scale of the terrain dwarfs our delicate little aircraft. I feel like in insect trapped in binoculars. Everything seems alarmingly magnified. From the valley floor, the enormous peaks tower 6,000 ft. above. At the top rugged limestone walls and crags cradle hanging snow fields. Below fingers of snow striate the vegetation as avalanches actively manicure these paths year after year. The aircraft makes its final bend and heads toward a small lodge nestled at the base of these grand peaks.


Purely pleasure. Whether facilitating heavenly sleeping or skiing, pillows are paramount. It is a privilege to ski pillow lines, as they are rare and coveted. Finding a pillowed outcrop in the backcountry is like finally getting a snow day at school- it’s seldom, sweet and some serious playing is in order. These pillowed playgrounds make for fun, dynamic skiing, as well as energetic photos. Luckily Icefall Lodge has a wide array of pillowed terrain. Here there are large bolder gardens that allow for long, gradual pillow runs. While there are also shelfy, stacked rock bands that create steep, short pillow drops. Here there are pillows of all pleasures.

With avalanche conditions considerable and the weather gloomy, we decide to hit up these playgrounds for the first couple days of the trip. Greybird skies drive us to look for defining features, such a trees and rocks, to bring contrast and depth to the photos. Lap after lap, we charge all the available lines in an area. When done we move on to another, getting more innovative as we go. Eventually we find a steep creek bed to play in, with an assortment of fun drops. Here former waterfalls have turned to aprons of ice. Aesthetically the juxtaposition of pillows vs. ice is striking. The skier is merely an object in a greater artistic setting. To amplify the elements we bring out the large flashes and lighting systems. The process is exciting and creative, as there are so many angles, features and possibilities to consider. For a few days we continue to romp around in these playgrounds.


With a few days of high pressure and a settling snow pack, the group decides to make the lengthy journey to the Lyell hut. The traverse is roughly 8 hrs. with 5,000 ft elevation gain total. There are several glacial crossings and a short 400 ft bootpack to reach the defining ridge between the Lyell Icefield and the main Icefall area. The tour sounds epic and I am stoked.

We start early, anticipating a long day. The day is crisp, the sky is flawless and the sun is bold. Everything is vibrant. Step by step we ascend into the mountains. Initially we zig-zag up through the steep wooded terrain, skinning over downed trees and boulders. We then venture above tree line and into the high alpine environment. Our group slinks up the valley, one bench at a time. Like little ducklings we follow our guides around crevasses, through glaciers and away from avalanche hazards. Every now and then I break my rhythmic skinning to turn around and revel at the view down valley. I then get back into stride. After a tasty lunch and a few shots of gu, we strap our skis to our packs and climb the staircase arduously put in by our guides. We ascend up a small shoot to reach Crampon Col. From there we will descend into the neighboring valley. The boot-pack is short and relatively painless following the crew of burley boys. As we crest the ridge an expansive sea of ice and snow appears beyond. The Lyell Icefield placidly lays before us, roughly 1,000 ft. below. We have reached the last leg of the trip with only a few more hours to go. Several miles across the icefield and 1,000 ft up, sitting at the base of Christian Peak, is our charming little corrugated box- the Lyell hut. As we cross the long flats, working towards our final approach, shadows begin to lengthen and narrow. The silhouettes’ of the massive peaks stretch across the valley floor, creating stunning stark formations in the snow. Finally, with darkness chasing us, we make the final climb to our little hut. Just as we get our gear into the hut, the sun begins to set. The rich warm colors of the sunset ignite this icy world, setting it aglow. I stand with some buddies and assimilate the moment. It is all so beautiful.

To be continued…

Erica Laidlaw