By Brian Ladd, explorebigsky.com Contributor
Everyone has their own ideal ski lodge. Perhaps it’s a custom timber-frame with picture windows silhouetting Lone Peak, or granite slab countertops from Italy and a wine cellar full of obscure vintages.
It turns out mine comes with a butt-freezing outhouse that features a broken lock on the door while exposing you to the surrounding peaks. Perfect.
Situated in a high mountain cirque in the Devil’s Range, on the precipice of Valhalla Park, lies the manifestation of a ski bum’s dream. Like its founder, Ice Creek Lodge is raw, quirky, with every resource focused on the inspired adventure that is big-mountain backcountry skiing.
In January of this year, a friend and I reconvened with a group from Big Sky in the snow-buried town of Nakusp, British Columbia.
A promise of a helicopter flight charged up the group the first morning, despite my driving hangover that involved hitting a deer with my truck, a three-hour tow truck ride and the ensuing 23-hour drive through a Washington ice storm in a rented Kia. I almost had convinced myself that the trip wasn’t worth the effort, but the icy wind blast from the helicopter rotors invigorated my senses.
In moments we were, only as helicopter can do, transported up a constricted mountain drainage. We floated up the valley, and the pine tree forest was increasingly pushed back with granite walls and peaks, ending in a pristine mountain cirque striated with snowy couloirs. We were delivered to the only building in sight, situated mid-mountain in the heart of spectacular ski terrain.
As the thump of the heli faded in the distance, we were left in the quiet, perfectly cold world of Ice Creek. The silence rung in my earns and the cold nipped at my cheeks as I took in the toothy peaks that surrounded me. A rocky outcropping surrounded the lodge.
A main building had sleeping for eight skiers, a central wood stove, a propane-fired kitchen and water tank fed with 50-pound jugs of creek-fresh water. Our bones were warmed in the evening with the “hippy killer” wood sauna and the generator provided enough power for a few hours of tunes and dimly lit camaraderie—just enough improvements to keep everyone warm, dry and happy.
Our group was led by backcountry guiding legend Joel McBurney. His experience and analytical nature blanketed the group in calm confidence, despite an active avalanche cycle throughout our trip. Activities fell into a rhythm of cooking, sleeping, long skin approaches followed by speedy descents, and requisite storytelling and jovial lodge behavior.
Fresh, cold snow filtered from the sky every day, and our ski lines were varied, full of soft drops, and always untouched. While we were able to occasionally poke into the higher and more exposed slopes, our ability to explore the epic lines was constrained by the avalanche activity in the high peaks.
While our skiing experience was phenomenal, the lines-of-a-lifetime would tease from above, ensuring our return trip next year.
Voile Charger Skis
Despite coming from two countries and three different states, four of our six skiers rode the Chargers. And for very good reason. Simply put, this is the best big mountain touring ski when powder is in the forecast. The skis are feather-light, wide, intelligently designed and charged through wind slab, mixed conditions, tight trees and open powder. After this trip I cannot find reason to go back to the several other skis now sitting in my garage. voile-usa.com
Dynafit TLT Vertical FT Binding
This was my first trip on AT gear after 15+ years on tele. This transition came from my jealousy of the dramatic advances in the safety and weight saving design in AT gear such as these light and strong bindings. In the deep backcountry with the threat of an avalanche, a non-release tele binding is a deal killer for me. The two times these Dynafits released on this trip were proper and possibly saved knee injury as well.
BCA Float 36 Pack
Two kids at home convinced me to pony up and buy an airbag pack. Research led me to this new design by Boulder-based BCA. This is a large step forward in airbag pack design and answers many of the prior complaints of size, weight and usability. While you feel the extra weight of the airbag system, this pack carries plenty well for long tours. A bit too small for an overnight bag, this is a great daypack with plenty of room, great shoulder straps, intelligent accessories like belt pockets, helmet storage, and a goggle pocket. The only quips are the interior pockets don’t hold the bladder system well and my large blade shovel never found a great home. I believe airbags will be standard gear in a few years, but don’t wait to catch on. They save lives. backcountryaccess.com
Black Diamond Quadrant AT Boot
My go-to tele boots are also made by BD and I quickly took to these AT boots. While I fought the sizing a bit, I dialed them in and enjoyed these boots. More than enough power to drive any ski in the backcountry, and after dropping a knee for so long, I can’t imagine needing a stiffer alpine boot at ski areas either. Great weight saving design, plenty of room in the toes for my bear-wide feet, huge range of motion while touring, and neat liners with the boa lacing system. blackdiamondequipment.com