Skiing with Sol: Backcountry touring at the Monashees’ Sol Mountain lodge
October 30, 2015
It didn't take long for the group to get Corvo'd. The verb stands for John Corriveau, the billy goat of our bunch who had helicoptered into British Columbia's Sol Mountain Lodge for five days of skinning and skiing the Monashees. A trite hyper and poster boy for Ritalin, at 54 he's climbed Mt. Rainier the same number of times, power-hiked the 211-mile Muir Trail in five days, and climbed Alaska's Mt. Fairweather to paraglide off.
So the afternoon we arrived, he quickly led a charge of unsuspecting saps 1,000 feet up and over Mission Ridge into the north-facing, socked-in slopes of the Twilight Zone, where his minions cringed atop cliff tops.
Knowing better and venturing elsewhere, we hear about their plight that night back in the lodge, which is reason enough to make the journey. Built in 2004, with beds for 18 and another seven staff, the 3,800-square-foot chalet is a bit better thought-out than Corvo's impulsive route choice, from hooks and cubbies in all right places to peacock artwork dotting the walls. Three showers anchor five fully plumbed bathrooms, two heated by a woodstove and one on-demand — a luxury usually reserved for higher end heli- and cat-skiing lodges. A foosball table sits next to a ski bench in the mud room downstairs, across from a desk where guides monitor weather and avalanche conditions via wifi. Lighting comes from a hydro-electric system piped from a nearby creek.
A large, fir-beam-lined living room borders an honor-system bar serving beer and $2 glasses of wine, while ceiling-high windows afford views of namesake Sol Mountain and Mt. Baldur. Two picnic-stye dining room tables easily fit our group of 17, as well as a Vancouver couple putting up with us.
After sharing and chagrinning Corvo's exploits, we sauna before indulging in sockeye salmon with wild rice prepared by Bernie the cook. We'll need the protein for our climb and ski of namesake Sol Mountain the next morning.
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Homemade granola with fresh fruit and yogurt complement sausage frittatas as the sun rises, as does a bottomless vat of freshly brewed coffee. Pre-made sandwiches and make-your-own snack provisions are laid out on the bar.
Co-owner Aaron Cooperman leads the Vancouver couple to his secret stashes, while our group heads for the high country. First, we drop 800 feet and cross Bill Fraser Lake, named for a 1900s homesteader. Aaron's red canoe is stashed above the snow in a lodgepole pine. From there, we skin up a run called Banana Belt and gain the ridge between Mt. Baldur and Sol Mountain. We then turn right for a couple hour climb to the summit, where 40-mph winds spaghetti our skins into a tangled mess.
Thanks to a warm snap, the ski is a corn-filled cruise straight down the face. We have stability and visibility, two key components of any backcountry excursion. Against a backdrop of ski movie peaks, we funnel into the tight chutes of Tunnel Vision, a gully leading us back to the valley floor. The lure of sunset happy hour outside the lodge fuels our final climb, capping a 5,500-foot day. After a sauna and requisite snow-plunge, we feast on Bernie's homemade pulled pork with gnocchis and butternut squash, marveling at our alpenglow-lit tracks out the window.
In the morning, Aaron analyzes the day's avalanche report, as well as the region's whackiest snowpack in 10 years. "Top 30 cms have gone iso-thermal," he says. "I'd be more concerned down below."
So we go up, this time exploring Zone 4 behind Mission Ridge. There, we uncork runs called Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec and Premium Red, connoisseurs of their wide-open bowls, mini-chutes and pillow-airs.
It's exactly the type of terrain Aaron, a former forestry consultant, and previous partner Dave Flear were looking for when they brainstormed the lodge while stuck in a tent on a ski tour. After hiring helicopters for reconnaissance flights, their search ended in the Monashees. A key caveat: summer road access so they could build something with "the amenities of a cat-skiing lodge, but for the backcountry crowd."
"It's a great location," Aaron maintains. "We get more than 60 feet of snow a year, and it has an endless amount of north-facing glades and high alpine terrain. You can tour to seven different summits and five different drainages right from the lodge."
The lodge's permit area encompasses 30,000 acres, including 18,000 in Monashee Provincial Park (where heli operations are prohibited and they're the only concessionaire) and 12,000 outside the park. "We wanted access for
everyone, to get more people into the backcountry," he adds. "It offers great beginner and intermediate terrain, as well as more aggressive runs."
The easier terrain lures families. This year more than 30 kids have come for their first taste of backcountry touring. The harder terrain fosters its backcountry bread and butter, including annual avalanche courses, split-board weeks, and guided and non-guided bookings.
While we fall into the latter, we heed their suggestions while looking at maps, especially on our last day when we wake up to socked-in snow. It's a day for trees instead of peaks with six inches Zamboni-ing the slate clean.
That night, the third-party Canuck couple, which has blended in admirably with our debauchery, doles out awards in an elaborate presentation. We're called up to accept accolades for everything from Best Business Casual Dress, Biggest Flirt and Closet Stoner to Happiest Smile, Horse to the Barn and Most Enthusiastic (awarded to Dawn, who accidentally climbed into the pilot's seat on the flight in). Mine, if you must know, is none other than Sexiest (and only) Journalist, while buff-armed Bernie takes Kitchen Porn honors.
From there the evening progresses to beer-fueled games of limbo and one-legged-pick-a-bag-up-with-your-teeth before everyone waltzes out to dance under the stars on the snow-packed helicopter pad.
In the morning, we notch a final quick powder lap before the whop-whop of our red, Eurocopter B2 crests the ridge and we fly back to "civilization."
When the pilot banks a turn on the backside of Sol Mountain, I look back to the lodge and our tracks and vow to return, perhaps even with my kids in tow. At our landing pad, Aaron's wife, Sabine, has the same idea: she's already leading their two kids, ages 10 and 12, to the chopper for spring break.
If You Go:
Unlike most other BC huts requiring longer stays, Sol Mountain caters to the working crowd, offering four-, five- and seven-day options. It books 25 trips per year, about half of which are catered and guided. The helicopter LZ is about an hour's drive north of Kelowna, which offers direct flights from most major airports, or a seven-hour drive from Seattle. You can bring your own gear or choose from their rental packages. Info: http://www.solmountain.com
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