I sort of debated about writing up this trip report.
It’s because I’m selfish.
We found something. Something epic. Something not many people know about.
Good huts are hard to find. Or at least huts that I think are good. I don’t like super expensive, super fancy huts. I’m still a bit of a dirtbag. I’m there to ski and climb pointy things, not lounge around in luxury. Gimme a place to sleep, a place to cook and maybe, a heat source. Everything else is gravy that I’d really rather not pay for if I don’t have to.
Every holiday season I try to go on some sort of hut trip. It’s an opportunity to hang out with some great people, get a bunch of turns in. When I was living on the coast, I spent every New Year’s at the Brian Waddington Hut with 30 or 40 of my closest friends (which you needed since there’s no heat at the hut). Since moving to Calgary three years ago, there hasn’t been a fixed destination, I’ve been trying different things each year.
As anyone who likes spending time at huts knows, booking stuff for New Year’s tends to be a nightmare. If you don’t have your shit together way in advance, basically everything is booked.
This year, Mike and Heather took it upon themselves to organize our New Year’s trip. Heather found a hut none of us had ever heard of. There’s almost no photos of it online. There’s almost no information on it and it’s outside Valemount so it’s not exactly close.
Okay, so here’s the deal. I’m conflicted.
The narcissist in me wants to write up a TR to tell you all the rad skiing we got and to show off a few photos.
The altruist in me wants to advertise this hut because it’s awesome and more people should know about it.
The selfish prick in me wants to not write any of this because right now it’s super easy to book the hut (as in it’s sitting empty as I write this and will be for the next few weeks) and despite being a fly-in hut, it’s not too hideously expensive.
I’ll try to ignore that last guy. He’s a jerk.
Okay, so here’s the deal. A short heli bump out of Valemount there’s a group of little huts called the Swift Creek Huts. There are four buildings on site. An outhouse, a cook/common area hut, a bunk house and a sauna. The place sleeps 6 comfortably, 8 in a pinch and a minimum of 4 are required to book the place out. I think 6 is the right number.
The hut itself is what I would call expensive – it’s about $60/night/person. That gets you a fully equipped kitchen (with an actual working oven) with propane lights and a wood stove along with a bunk house with beds for six equipped with foamies and a wood stove. Oh and a sauna but we never bothered with that. It’s pretty equivalent to staying at an ACC hut, just even more expensive.
That cost though is offset by the relatively low cost of the heli flight. I love suffering, so hauling a silly amount of weight some ridiculous distance isn’t the end of the world – but a cheap heli lets you bring unlimited fresh veggies, a pile of beer for the evenings, a bottle of bubbly for New Year’s, you name it.
So the million dollar question is, is the heli cheap enough to offset the rather expensive hut?
A flight into the hut can be arranged with the hut operator and costs $180/person each way. Oh, and later in the season you can ski out instead of flying. Okay, now it’s getting interesting. You also have a flexible flight schedule – unlike Kokanee or Fairy Meadows, you just fly in and out whenever you want as the pricing is not dependent on dove tailing with another party. That means you can do this for an extra-long weekend pretty easily. Hint. Hint. Please invite me.
Anyway, a few months back, Mike and Heather booked this thing and sent out an email to a few likely participants and I said yes, because I pretty much always say yes to someone organizing a trip.
Swift Creek sounded familiar but I couldn’t find much useful info online. I couldn’t even find a reliable photo of the place. The website for the hut is, uh, limited and google turns up pretty much nothing.
So basically we were going in blind other than the very limited info we got from the operator.
And then they emailed us a few days before we were due to take off to let us know that the snowpack was way lower than normal this year and they’d be willing to refund us the full cost if we wanted to bail.
We seriously considered throwing in the towel, but just days out there was no way we were going to be able to arrange a realistic alternative, so we all decided to roll the dice since we could fly out early if it was a waste of time. We all brought a bunch of books in case we were killing a lot of time at the hut.
The morning of our flight in, we kicked the tires on the Long Ranger we’d be flying in with or pilot Matt and then we were in the air. The flight in was concerning. Things looked super bare and what little snow there was was sliding on steep faces. Super.
We landed, unloaded our gear and went for a bit of a recce. We toured South-East of the hut, gaining elevation to a low pass and got some turns on the back side. Recent storm snow on top of a facetted layer meant that there wasn’t much of a base – and rocks where an omnipresent danger, but it was actually sort of really good skiing. Nothing like the disaster we’d been expecting.
The place is like an abandoned ski resort. Wide open, sparsely treed runs at a variety of angles. Nearly unlimited lines easily accessed from a single up track. A party of six could probably spend a week in this one single area, doing 250-400m laps and not run out of options in a week.
On our first full day, we decided to head North-West across the valley from the hut to an area that we had been told has some of the best skiing. Long lines, varied steepness, trees as thin or dense as you like.
We chose to start off conservatively and toured up a broad ridge to the top of a shoulder and then skied roughly the same line back down. Whumpfing on the way up had us feeling like we wanted to take things a little slowly.
Once again, fantastic skiing, but zero real base meant you needed to think light thoughts and be super on guard for sharks just below the surface – heads up skiing, but no one got a core shot or even a terribly bad scratch. I didn’t even regret bringing out my brand-new skis.
We skied almost until dark putting in a 2000m day.
The next day, back in the same area, we decided to try a slightly different aspect and a slightly steeper line.
Wumpfing was near omnipresent, but the layer above the facets was unconsolidated so there was no slab activity.
Near the top of the ridge we were on the windward side of things and I noticed that the wind had firmed the storm layer up into a more cohesive slab. I even said aloud that this was concerning because the weak layer had been reactive and we’d mostly been kept safe by the incohesive snowpack but that the increased stiffness at ridge top eliminated that protection.
I said it, but I skied a drainage line anyway. The line was a compromise – it was a shallow drainage up high that got deeper further down (main advantage was it collected snow mitigating the shallow snowpack) which was an obvious terrain trap – but it was also the gentlest slope around, decreasing odds of something pulling. I opted for lower chance, higher consequence. To be honest, the lowest chance would have been to ski a less fun, but densely treed line, but I was looking forward to ripping some wide open turns.
A few turns into the line my spidey sense starter chattering. I did a couple of shoulder checks to see if my sluff was getting excessive and while there was a fair bit, it was all super manageable, but still, that spidey sense was going off so I rode up the drainage wall to a safe spot by the trees.
I was just in time to watch a powder cloud go by as a class 2 slide I’d remote triggered behind myself silently bore down through the drainage I’d been riding.
It was a serious fuckup mitigated only by instinctively managing the terrain. Had my spidey sense not gone off, I could have been deep enough in the drainage to get caught up and carried into a terrain trap. It was a stupid, stupid mistake. I should have ski cut, or better considered consequence of the terrain trap. I identified the hazard to the point of vocalizing it to the party and then failed to properly manage it. Early season, not on my guard enough, I got lucky. I don’t like having to get lucky.
We kept skiing lines that day until we were pooped and headed back to the hut, but not before we (semi-intentionally) cut out another pocket. The snow on that side of the valley just seemed more reactive, but I think it was also largely just because it was a little steeper than what we skied the first day.
On day three, we decided to go back through the pass South-East of the hut and do a little peak bagging. The weak layers were still there and we really grappled with managing them. A whumpf is a layer failing in terrain too low angle to slide. As we toured up, the terrain got steeper. At what point does a whumpf become a slide? It’s one of those experienced based decisions that we were having to make. It’s easy to say ‘stick to low angle terrain’ but what does that mean? How low angle is low angle enough? Given the obviously unstable snowpack, we pushed as hard as we felt was reasonable, but still backed off of a questionable line before slinking back down to some low angle lines at tree-line.
Day four we were pretty tired of being scared (despite the moderate-moderate-low bulletin) so we bee-lined to some simpler terrain I’d previously noticed that had some beauty (low angle) lines through sparse trees with playful enough terrain to keep things fun. Okay that’s not fair – it makes it seem like it was some sort of concession to ski the safer terrain – yes there was no peak bagging, but the terrain itself was just frickin awesome. Off of a single skin track we could ski wide open tree-line stuff, tight trees, borderline alpine, pillows, you name it. The terrain out there is so limitless that we had buckets of super safe options to ski without having to ski shralped lines.
You aren’t searching for lines out there – you’re picking from nearly limitless options. It’s honestly like having your own, private, ski resort.
For our last full day of skiing at Swift Creek – we ventured back to the scary side of the valley, but avoided steep terrain like the plague as we worked our way up into the alpine. The idea was to try and climb a couple of pointy things while keeping risk as low as possible. Other than one short ramp, we faced almost no exposure that day.
We did however notice that a whole bunch of stuff had pulled which made us feel pretty good about deciding to back off and ski more conservative lines the previous couple of days.
Anyway, we bagged a peak with great views of Mt. Robson and then completed a horseshoe traverse of the cirque standing on every little pointy thing we could find along the way. Then, because it was -20oC out and we were fricking cold, we called it an early day and headed back to the hut.
We made a valiant effort to finish consuming all the food and booze we’d flown in, but still ended up carrying out a bunch on the flight the next morning.
So here’s the tl;dr of the whole thing:
The Swift Creek Huts are awesome. They’re relatively unknown so they’re easy to book. They aren’t cheap as huts go, but they are cheap as fly-in destinations go. They’re well stocked, comfortable and there’s a sauna if you want to hang out.
The really great part? The terrain. Almost unlimited options. There’s a killer couloir I plan on going back to check out. There’s pillows, open mellow lines, tight steep trees, big alpine stuff, small protected faces, there’s peaks to bag, powder to slay, everything you could possible want.
That said, if I ever try to book the hut and can’t because one of you read this and decided to experience it for yourself – I’m crashing your party.