A sublime week of skiing in a remote corner of the Canadian backcountry
Burnie Glacier Chalet // Howson Range // British Columbia
The monarch of the Howson Range - Howson Peak/Ts'ihldzikw (2,759 m) towers above the Sandpiper Glacier
Early in 2018 three buddies and I were standing at the narrow summit of T1 at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in the Canadian Rockies on the best ski trip of my life. We gazed out across a viscous layer of clouds blanketing the Rocky Mountain trench far below. Mountains stood like island chains rising from a milky sea as far as the eye could see bathed in stark, slanting mid-winter light. Standing there I distinctly remember thinking; with so much terrain "how did they decide to put the ski hill here?" As I wrote for Freeskier Magazine back in 2020, here: https://freeskier.com/stories/here-and-now-interior-british-columbia, British Columbia is almost entirely mountainous, resulting in ski possibilities that are functionally inexhaustible in the context of a single human lifetime. Since that seminal trip in 2018 I've leapt at every opportunity that's presented itself to ski in BC. And so, it should come as no surprise, that when a couple spots opened up on a trip to Burnie Glacier Chalet - BC's northwestern-most backcountry ski lodge - I sprung at the opportunity.
To say that it's difficult to get into Canadian lodges these days would be an understatement. Coveted lodges outside Revelstoke and Golden book out at least several years in advance and you usually need a local advocate familiar with the operations to increase your odds of weaseling your way onto the schedule. That's the primary reason we ended up at Burnie in the first place. Located outside Smithers, the regional hub for the Bulkley Valley, an area known primarily as a trout fishing destination rather than for its skiing, Burnie retains a lower profile than the lodges in the Selkirks and Kootenays. It's also decidedly more difficult to access. Though once you're physically in Smithers it's a quick fifteen minute heli bump to the lodge where the diverse, big mountain terrain of the Howson Range awaits right outside the lodge door.
Through the Telkwa Mountains on our way to Burnie
The lodge received 100cm of new snow during the week before we arrived leaving us plenty of blank canvas to paint
Tim, our pilot from SilverKing Heli based out of Smithers, BC
Moraines at the base of the Burnie Glacier - if you look closely you can see the lodge just below the middle right side of the image
You'd be forgiven to not be familiar with the Howson Range. I'd never heard of it either. If this blog had any higher a profile than it does I wouldn't mention it at all out of fear of spoiling the secret. In general, BC's geography is divided into two broad classifications- coastal and interior. The mountainous terrain of these two regions differ in terms of the amount of moisture they receive from the Pacific Ocean which influences their ecology, past and current glaciation, and snowpack. Conveniently the Howson Range fit neatly into neither of these broad classifications. It's far enough inland that it's dominated by forest types typically associated with the interior, yet close enough to salt water to harbor a snowpack characteristic of the coast ranges. There are days when storms pummel the coast and the Howson's remain elusively beyond the envelope of their influence. Though the copious snow the range does receive tends to be lighter than that which falls a short distance to the West. It's a unique transition zone, easily overlooked, that isn't well captured by regional weather and avalanche forecasts. This analysis happens on-site in real time by Christoph and the other guides at Burnie.
Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) frame the Telkwa Mountains
The Coast Range is typically enigmatic in the winter - hiding under a stubborn shroud of clouds and blowing snow. When the sun shines the mountains reveal their true character. Peaks alpha, beta, gamma along the backbone of the Howson Range
The construction of the lodge was a feat in itself undertaken by Christoph Dietzfelbinger in 2001. All the material had to be flown in from Smithers. The lodge retains relatively rustic charm and sleeps eleven comfortably and has guides quarters, a workshop, and cedar sauna below. The structure generates nearly all of its power onsite from solar and a pump in the nearby creek.
Burnie Glacier Chalet built in 2001 by Christoph Dietzfelbinger
The terrain directly out the front door
Over the course of seven ski days we endured the full range of weather conditions from clear, sunny skies to cold wind and snow, to full on coastal conditions where the air temps suggest that it should be raining yet, three centimeters an hour of snow stack up. We climbed in excess of 30,000ft over seven plus days and enjoyed dramatic 5,000' glacial descents from the high peaks when weather permitted. On storm days we hunkered down in the trees and enjoyed deep, fresh powder turns on Tom George Mountain.
Each day consisted of long ascents up the glaciers
Uptracking beneath the Solitaire Peaks
Topping out in a whiteout
Kim climbing the final pitch to the top of Loft Peak
Chris Manning makes turns down from Pinorkel col
Cristina descending the Loft Glacier
Tracks down from Loft Peak
Adam de Havenon taking a second lap
Deep in the trees on storm days
Kyle Mahoney rides fresh pow on Tom George
Skiing induced euphoria
Full coastal conditions
Group shot outside Burnie lodge. Left to right: Kim Riley, Cristina Riley, Tereza Turecka, Roy Smith, Kirk Mauthner, Phil Krening, Kyle Mahoney, Christoph Dietzfelbinger, Chris Manning, Russ Vanderwilde, Mark Melberg, Adam de Havenon