A Skin Track Meditation
As we roll into D’Arcy, a secluded town 200 kilometres north of Vancouver, there is an uneasy feeling in the van. No, it isn’t because we are in the middle of absolute nowhere, no longer have cell service and can’t update our social media feeds. The uneasiness is because it is mid-April, and there is not a single snowflake in sight. However, Hayden Robbins, a long-time guide at Whitecap Alpine Adventures, assures us that it is still winter up at the lodge.
Still, it feels odd to transition from flip-flops and t-shirts into our base layers, hard shells, and ski boots along the shores of Anderson Lake. However, as the distant thumping in the air becomes progressively louder, our Canadian crew consisting of riders Jordy Kidner, Anna Segal and Alex Armstrong, filmer Peter Wojnar and guide Simon Thompson, suspect it won’t be long before we are thankful to be wearing our winter gear.
Unlike many backcountry huts in Europe, accessed via ski lifts or touring from the valley floor, getting to lodges in British Columbia often requires a helicopter. We pile in skis, gear and food for the week, and the pilot lifts off, headed across the lake to higher ground where McGillivray Pass Lodge is the home base for Whitecap Alpine Adventures. Sure enough, the valley is a snow-covered expanse of skiable terrain, tempting you with incredible lines on every aspect. It is easy to see why someone would pick this valley to settle down and build a ski lodge. But as we will later find out, “easy” is a relative term regarding McGillivray Pass.
Our team is greeted at the lodge by a warm and friendly staff, including Ron Andrews, Whitecap’s owner and operator, along with his son and IFMGA guide Lars. The Andrews family has been involved with the lodge for over four decades, and it became a second home for Lars and his sister as they grew up. Now it is a full-fledged backcountry operation, hosting guests in both summer and winter. So, when Ron invites you inside to warm up, he isn’t just welcoming you to the lodge but also his home. And herein lies the beauty of Whitecap; we are more than guests. We are welcomed like family.
After the obligatory safety meeting with our guide Simon, the crew is ready to seek out powder close to the lodge to take advantage of the limited daylight left. A skin track is already set to one of the adjacent ridges, so we make quick work of the ascent. In contrast to the valley bottom, winter is in full effect here, with blustery winds swirling snow in all directions and dark clouds building above us — a convective flurry of weather typical in late spring. Jordy, Anna, and Alex survey the terrain for features and lines they may want to ski as the week progresses. But for starters, we ski some gentle slopes down to the bottom of the narrow valley. It is easy to imagine that the lines on either side would be intimidating in the right conditions, with the potential for avalanches looming above you. But until I sat down with Ron to discuss the history of the McGillivray Pass Lodge, I had no idea how much this same thought shaped the lodge’s past.
In the 1920s, the pass was used as a throughway for a telegraph line that stretched from the gold mines in nearby Bralorne down to the railway line running to Vancouver. The telegraph line required regular maintenance in all seasons, so naturally, people often travelled into the area on skis. One pair, in particular, fell in love with the site — an Austrian couple named Helmut and Krista Weinhold. Helmut was a mining engineer in Bralorne but dreamed of starting a ski resort in the valley. In the late 1950s, he and Krista took advantage of a long-closed loophole to convince the government to sell them 40 acres of Crown land to build a lodge. In an ironic twist of fate, the couple was killed just a few years later in an avalanche not far from the slopes our crew had just skied. A group of skiers from the Lower Mainland eventually bought the land and built a log cabin in 1972 — the same cabin that still stands today. Around the same time, Ron had his first trip to McGillivray Pass and quickly fell in love with the area like the Austrian couple decades before. It took a decade, but he eventually convinced the owners to sell. There wasn’t another building for miles in any direction, deep in the Bendor Mountains at an elevation of approximately 1 800 meters and surrounded by over 8 500 hectares of skiable terrain. Needless to say, there are few family cabins like it on the planet.
As our crew explores the expansive terrain surrounding the lodge, we encounter obstacles ranging from ever-changing weather, variable snow conditions, massive cornices along most ridges, and tricky terrain management for the group. This area doesn’t give away its secrets easily, but Simon points us in the right direction to find terrain where all three skiers are eager to make their mark. Steep chutes, technical pillow lines and exposed faces pepper the mountains around us. Each skier scouts out potential lines based on their preferred skiing style. Cornices are safely skirted, ropes are used to maneuver into a few entrances, and cliff sizes are estimated carefully.
The five days spent in the alpine are a treat for all of us, but we barely scratch the surface of the available terrain. And yet skiing is only part of the experience that makes Whitecap Alpine Adventures so great. Returning home at the end of the day, skiing down slopes above the lodge, and watching smoke billowing out of the chimney, you cannot help but feel you are coming home to your own cabin. This intensifies as you are greeted by the friendly cook who has prepared a family-style dinner for all the guests — just like your mom might have done. The family vibe continues as you enjoy the meal around a large table, sharing stories and laughter with guests you’ve only known for a few days. In this environment, it is impossible not to feel the place’s strong connection with nature and people.
Sitting in the lounge on our last evening, the old-school record player gently playing music in the background, Ron Andrews regales us with stories. He has a tack-sharp memory at the age of 79 and reminisces about his days as a veterinarian, skiing from the lodge back to the railway and hitching a ride, teaching his children to ski, and many other tales. All these years later, his energy, work and dedication to the cabin show his energy and zeal for life. It also shows in his son Lars, who has helped grow the family cabin into a successful guiding operation that has become their living. And it shows in the staff, who return yearly, giving the Andrews family the same loyalty they are given. When you boil it all down, it comes down to family first. And even when your family grows to the size it has at McGillivray Pass Lodge, you can’t help but look forward to the next reunion.