Discovering Luxury in the Backcountry
Mention an overnight stay in the BC Backcountry in January and many think of hardened mountaineers huddled inside a small lightweight tent in sleeping bags designed for Antarctic expeditions. This kind of scene from a North Face Steep Series advert leaves many a mere mortal weekend skier heading for the après bar comes dusk rather than a chilly night under canvas surrounded by a howling icy wind.
However, this does not have to be the case. There is another option for the aspirational overnight backcountry adventurer that involves a log burning fire, a 3 course dinner, a pool table and a warm cozy queen bed all served up at 4500 feet surrounded by a cauldron of mountain peaks. The solution for those that fear frost bite or being uncomfortable close to their friends is a night at the Journeymen Lodge in the Callaghan Valley.
The wooden Journeyman Lodge is situated in the Solitude Valley where the tree line meets the alpine all set against the backdrop of the impressive Solitude Glacier. The lodge boosts 8 bedrooms, a well maintained living room (including pool table), kitchen and dinning room. Despite the location, the lodge has all the amenities expected in a city hotel including hot showers, heating, electricity (hours are limited) and a constant supply of freshy made cookies!
The development of the lodge is a fascinating story of human vision, strength and perseverance. With no road access, local craftsman (living in tents) built the lodge using materials delivered by helicopter or snowcat between 1996 and 1998.
Entry to the lodge is through the Callaghan Valley, which is located about an hour’s drive from North Vancouver on Highway 99. The lodge base facilities can be found in the Ski Callaghan car park (turn left at the junction with Whistler Olympic Park).
Check in is between 9am and 11.30am at the Ski Callaghan base where a luggage transfer is provided. The ski into the lodge is between 12.5 to 13.7km km depending on your desired route– a blue run or a black run (Wild Spirit). The later is shorter but involves the steepest pitch for a Nordic run in North America (average 11%). Just remember though it is all downhill on the way back as you claw back your 580m elevation gain!!
Once you are up in elevation, there are some gentle green cross country routes that take you around Conflict Lake. The highlights are some up front and personal views of Solitude Glacier. You can also take out the complimentary snowshoes and break your own trail!
For those that like to earn their turns (ski touring), the surrounding powdery alpine offers some fantastic skiing opportunities without the crowds found at the local ski resorts. The lodge contains a guide on suggested lines to ride.
With tired legs, the lodge boast a rustic wood fired sauna a short 5 minute walk from the front porch. The warm ambiance is complimented by the traditional glacial creek drip and /or snow bank body roll with refreshes both body and mind instantly!!
Dining & Entertainment
While weary backcountry campers are tucking into a can of half heated beans, the guests of Journeyman Lodge are served up a delicious tray of appetizers by the wood burning fire at 5.30 in the lounge. This is followed up by a 3 course dinner served in the candle light dining room!
Post dinner entertainment is by way of good conversation with other guests, a pool table, cards or numerous board games. The lights go out at 10pm literally as the generator goes off to be replaced by lanterns!
- If you plan to visit on a winter weekend, book well ahead at the lodge is a popular destination. There is currently much more availability midweek.
- If you are just heading up for 1 night, it’s worth getting a sled transfer in so you can enjoy the pristine alpine cross country skiing and touring.
- Bring swimwear for the sauna, torches for lights out and your own tipple (no liquor is sold on site).
What makes this lodge unique beyond the luxuries not usually found in the backcountry, is the friendliness of the staff. From Brad the owner, to Darcy who manages the base operations, everyone takes the time to make you feel welcome and answer any questions you have to make your trip as memorable as possible. A truly unique backcountry experience which we intend to make an annual trip!
Losing our Backcountry Virginity at Sundance Lodge, Banff
Having skied various hills in BC and Alberta for the past 5 years, we decided that for the 2015/16 winter season we were going to change up our mountain activities. Inspired by watching mountaineering movies at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and armed with new packs and an unlimited supply of hand warmers we decided we were ready to explore the Canadian Rockies backcountry!
However, with limited avalanche training or experience of the true Canadian winter wilderness, we knew that our first tentative backcountry steps would need to be taken carefully into terrain where the relative risks were low. We did our research and found that the Sundance Lodge in Banff National Park would make for a great first trip given the limited avalanche dangers on the route in.
Getting to Sundance Lodge
There are two starting points to get to the Lodge – either from Banff Trail Riders Stables (16km one way) or from Healy Creek car park (10km). We chose Healy Creek as we had hiked the Sundance Canyon Trail along the banks of the River Bow in the Summer – nothing to do with it being shorter!
We chose snowshoes as the main means of transport for our trip; the tortoise of winter travel methods – slow, steady and safe for unknown routes! Other viable options include cross country skiing with tracks set for the classic technique. Given that the route is packed snow thanks to skidoos ferrying supplies to the Lodge daily, another popular approach is using fat bikes that can be hired from Soul in Banff.
We took about 3.5 hours on snowshoes going at a leisurely pace to reach the Lodge, while those on skis / fat bikes beat us to the best fireside seats at the lodge, taking somewhere been 1.5 and 2 hours.
Starting from Healy Creek Trailhead at the base of the Sunshine Village Access Road, the route starts with a 2.5km flat trek to the junction with Brewster Creek Trail. This initial part of the trail opens up in a couple of sections to provide some great views along the the Bow Valley.
The hard works starts at the junction of Healy Creek and Brewster Creek trails, with a 2km continuous elevation gain of around 175m through the trees. We stopped for a few “rest photos.”
The trail then flattens out, and the winter sunshine starts to hit the route. Anywhere along here is a great time to stop for lunch.
The trail then drops into Brewster Creek, which suffered a lot of damage during the 2013 floods creating a large washout area over which 2 bridges have been built.
With a final 20 minute push, you round the corner to the sight of a warm cozy lodge with smoke bellowing from the chimney against the magnificent backdrop of the Sundance Range.
Our friendly host Steve, greeted us at the door with the welcoming offer of freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate / ice cold beer.
Room selection was on a first come first serve basis. Luckily for us (last to arrive), the 10 rooms in the lodge were only occupied by 3 other groups so we had a good selection of inviting rooms to choose from.
With feet warmed by the fire, a bottle of red purchased and acquaintances made with other guests, we headed to the dinner table for a culinary treat. A creamy mushroom soup, was followed by braised beef finished off with a Lodge made lemon meringue pie. The food was delicious, which was not a surprise when we learned Steve, a gregarious local character, has spent many years working as an executive chief in Canada and the US, and this was now his retirement gig!
The combination of board games, a good book and conversation with the other guests made for an enjoyable evening around the fire, which heats the whole Lodge.
Although the bedrooms had no heating the super thick down duvets kept us very warm in our comfortable beds, while strategically placed lanterns provided assistance to find the washrooms on the bottom level.
For those feeling brave enough to venture out at sunset, the light offers some gorgeous photos of the forest. Given that the Lodge is 16km from the nearest town, the stars on a clear night are also a sight to behold. (nighttime photo credit: @travelswithjonny)
Breakfast was served around 9am – the pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs and the best sausages we have tasted during our 5+ years in Canada, set us up well for the return journey!
- There is no phone signal at the Lodge (or wifi) – the only communication with the outside world is via CV radio (for emergencies only).
- Bring spare camera batteries as there is no way to charge them, and you will take lots of photos!
- The winter hours are short, with the sun disappearing around 5pm during December, so make sure you give yourself enough to get to the Lodge before you are in need of a headlamp!
- Only carry what you need – food and water for the trek in, a toothbrush and some Lodge clothes! A tasty lunch is provided for the journey out!
- Remember to turn the lights off to conserve power as the Lodge is powered by solar power!
- You need a Parks Canada pass for your parked car
- Bring layers and hand/toe warmers as the journey in during winter can be a bit chilly!
Sundance Lodge was a fantastic location for our first backcountry foray combining a moderately challenging trek with the comforts of a comfy warm bed and tasty home cooked food!
Snowshoeing at Louise Creek, Banff National Park
There are two ways to get from Lake Louise Village to Lake Louise itself in winter – the fast way in a car or the better way on snowshoes!
With 30cm of fresh snow on the ground we chose the scenic Louise Creek route (no 14) as that sounded way more fun!
Starting at the Lake Louise Village car park we headed under the railway bridge and across the Bow River Bridge.
The start of the 2.8 km trail (one way) is on your left immediately after the bridge. Within a few meters the road is left behind and a Winter Wonderland awaits!
After a few hundred meters you meet the first of many Louise Creek crossings.
The trail then starts its 200m elevation, which when breaking trail in 30cm of fresh powder is certainly a great workout! Remember snacks!!
However, there are always good spots to take a rest and just capture the magic of a snowy day in the Canadian Rockies!.
Eventually the trail flattens as you reach an intersection with the Tramline cross country skill trail (no 3).
Then it’s time to find a cosy lunch spot by the creek! On a cold day nothing is better than warm soup!!
The trail gradually makes its way up to Lake Louise, a crown jewel in the Canadian Rockies.
The fun part is heading back downhill on your newly-made trail finding new spots you missed on the way up!
Best to be quick though as the sun goes down earlier in winter!
Hanes Valley Trail – North Shore Trophy Hiking
The toughest hike of our lives all started in the safe and cosy suburban surroundings of a friend’s BBQ. As the beers disappeared war stories of sporting and physical achievements were traded until one bright spark asked if we had done the Hanes Valley Trail on Vancouver’s North Shore?
We had not, but being young and keen to experience all that Canada has to offer we joyfully accepted the invitation to join our Canadian friends for what we thought was a casual day hike….
Having hiked in the Lynn Valley before, we were aware that there would be no concession stands so decided to make sure we were prepared for what lay ahead and packed the bag with an English survival kit consisting of cans of coke, chips (aka crisps) and some Cadbury’s chocolate!
We dropped the first vehicle off at the base of Grouse Mountain around 9.30am, and struggled to find a spot thanks to the super keen summer Grouse Grinders! Eventually we found an unused bank at the end of the free dirt car park (we had a bad feeling we would regret that extra 500m walk back to the car later on that day!).
Our nice friends met us, and we were soon whisked off to the Lynn Valley Headwaters Car Park to start the walk in the summer sunshine. As soon as we hit the start of trail our phone signal disappeared.
Lynn Valley Trail
The first 6km or so of the hike through rain forest was relatively flat, although you had to keep your eye out for raised roots and large rocks on the trail, and the endless stream of super fit trail runners speeding past.
The main highlight of this first part of the hike came at Novern Falls, a 10 minute detour from the main trail. It’s a good photo spot and an excellent lunch location.
First Steps into the Backcountry
We crossed a metal suspension bridge which is the gateway into the Hanes Valley and marks the start of the ”Backcountry.” The trail steepens through the forest before a narrow descent down to Lynn Canyon Creek which offered a place to get ‘refreshed’ in the summer heat.
Next came the first sign that this hike might be more than a walk in the woods….what should have been a bridge was actually a 20ft fallen log crossing, with a 10ft drop in to the icy water below. Crossing techniques varied from an inch by inch bum slide approach to a more confident quick stroll, don’t-look-down manoeuvre. With that obstacle overcome, there was no turning back and we were now committed to what lay ahead!
The trail then meandered through some pleasant grassland, forest and bushes. With the berries evident we busted out the bear bells, unpacked the bear spray and made as much noise as possible by shouting “hey bear” at any blind corner to ward off any four legged friends.
We eventually made out it out of the bush to a helicopter pad and a strange looking cylinder, which is apparently is where North Shore Rescue keep their equipment. An ominous sign given what we were about to discover….
The first climb was a 500m scramble up a loose scree slope to Crown Pass which took the best part of 2 hours in the summer heat, and converted our hike to minor mountaineering status!
There was no marked trail, it was find your own way and hope the rocks did not give way!
Feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, we soon realised more challenges lay ahead thanks to the snow which had yet to melt despite it being late July and the clouds of bugs which seemed to get thicker with altitude!
We quickly had to make improvised hiking poles out of dead branches in order to maintain our balance on the slippery conditions as we made our way to the summit of Goat Mountain.
The hardest part of the final climb was certainly the 50m chain ladder which felt like it was on a 45 degree pitch!
Finding Grouse Mt
Having conquered Goat Mountain, and nearing the end of the hike we managed to lose the orange markers and so were unable to find the official trail back down to Grouse Mountain which was visible below us. In the end, we followed a creek bed down, which brought our soaked feet out onto a path below the Eye of the Wind.
Exhausted, from 8 hours of solid hiking involving 1300m of climbing, we emerged back in civilisation and we were greeted by the welcome sight of Coola and Grinder, the resident Grouse Mountain Grizzly Bears, bathing in the sunshine.
As we staggered towards the Grouse Mountain Day Lodge, we noticed a large sign saying the Hanes Valley trail was closed due to winter conditions, something we wish we had seen at the start of the hike at the other end. This may explain why we saw no one else all day!
Make sure you bring enough water, we had 5 litres between 2 and it was all gone by the time we reached Grouse Mountain. In addition, gloves and hiking poles would have been great extras!
Do your research first for this “trophy hike” so you know what to expect. Here’s a few articles we probably should have read first:
In summary, a challenging summer day hike with lots of geographic variation which is well suited to experienced hikers who are well prepared and have done their research!
Cross Country Skiing at Lost Lake, Whistler
If the fresh powder gods have gone on strike for the past two weeks over pay and conditions in heaven, or Mother Nature has decided that the ski hill should be covered in thick mist so that you can’t tell the difference between up and down, then the fair weather downhill skier can often find themselves asking ‘what shall I do now?’
Well if you’re in Whistler, a possible answer is to try cross country skiing! It’s not just for those ultra-fit good looking Scandinavian types who regularly model see-through lyrca for Lululemon – downhill skiers who rely lazily on gravity for their perpetual motion are also allowed to join in the fun provided they are fit enough!
So one day when the snow report said “hard packed,” (which for seasoned users of this code means “ice”), we decided to give cross country skiing a go knowing it at least would mean we would be able to justify a 3000 calorie lunch!
Based in the Lost Lake Passivhaus Daylodge, Cross Country Connections offers Whistler Village’s only centrally maintained cross country ski tracks (as well as snowshoe trails). Other marked trails are available at Whistler Olympic Park, known as Callaghan Country (16km south of Whistler Village) and for the more experienced cross country skiers there is a small place called the Backcountry (not for us just yet!).
Reasons to try Cross Country Skiing at Lost Lake
– Great value beginner lesson packages – $89 (plus tax of course) for a 75 minute group lesson (max of 6 people but we lucked out and had an instructor for just the 2 of us), all day rental package of boots (so much more comfortable than ski boots) and skis (really light and thin), and a full day ski-pass (unless you are an ironman competitor or have an advanced energy saving technique 3 hours is definitely enough). If you know what you are doing full day passes are around $20, with rentals at $25 per day. See the website for more details.
– Lost Lake Cross Country Park has lots of different trails to choose from ranging from green (easy) to black (Canadian) in difficulty, and they are only for cross country skiers….those on snowshoes have their own trails and hikers are banned!
– The athletic lycra clad folks that go cross country skiing tend not to rip past you at 90kph with their pants around their legs spraying you with snow – participants are much more mellow (in their attitude not their agility), polite and happy to help you up if you have fallen down (something you do quite often within 10 minutes of putting on a ski which is only attached at the toe).
– We discovered quickly there are two types of cross country skiing…”classic” which follows carved train like tracks and “skating” which is more free form (it’s meant to be like ice skating on skis) and uses the whole path!
– Our instructor was excellent – Jarka (we hope we spelt it correctly) from the Czech Republic was super encouraging and did not laugh at us too much as we ate snow a few times after comedy errors, including stabbing our poles into the ground in front of us in a desperate attempt to slow down, but which only resulted in us spearing ourselves in the midriff and hitting the deck! Not one to try at home!
– Going uphill was surprisingly easy as the skis feature special grips on the bottom which are initiated under pressure (when you get good you can do something we like to call the Haribo – apparently its actually Herringbone). Going downhill was a little more challenging….you could either get in the train tracks, leave your fear at the start line and just go for it ski jumper style and hope for an uphill section, or you could snow plough (pizza wedge for North Americans) and hope that your one inch skis will find enough grip to slow you down!
– The final reason to give Cross Country Connections a go is that the staff are very helpful, flexible and friendly – nothing is too much trouble and you leave with the impression that they really enjoyed having you try out their sport! We will be back to upgrade to the blue runs next time!
– Leave your rucksack at home, as when learning this affects your weight and therefore your balance and therefore your ability to stay upright….in short rucksack = eat snow!
– If you get thirsty (and don’t have your rucksack) there is a drinking fountain near the Lost Lake Warming Hut (which strangely seemed closed even on a busy Saturday)
– After cross country skiing you will be incredibly hungry……the Cross Country Connection Café at the Passivhaus Daylodge offers energy replenishing and very reasonably priced “energy food”..chili, paninis, baked goods, gelato…..yum!
– We tried to turn at speed, we fell over. Probably best to slow down using the snow plough and turn at the speed of coastal erosion until you have mastered the technique of turning on a pin head, well one inch wide ski!
– You can park for free just 100m walk away in lot 5, but be warned that the surface is not covered so the car park can be a little bumpy with pot holes!
– You don’t need to wear a helmet (as speeds are lower and the etiquette is for those behind you to go around you rather than through you), and you don’t need too many layers as you get hot quickly…2 is probably enough up top!
– Don’t forget your camera, some great opportunities for photos of the frozen Lost Lake with Whistler Mountain in the background.
So all in all, a great value day out, which is very good exercise and offers some fantastic views of the mountains and Lost Lake. A new sport for us to try and maybe even progress into touring….watch this space!