By STEVE HINDMAN
A dreamscape of large peaks and velveteen slopes flow into the valley below me. Two thousand feet down from where I sit in the snow is Callaghan Backcountry Lodge, the realization of a dream Brad Sills and Nic Slater have held since they first gazed into this valley from atop Mt. Callaghan in 1981.
Seventy inches of snow have fallen in the last week, adding to the deep snowpack nurtured by the storms that pounded the lodge all winter. Today, however, the dawn has broken clear and cold. To the southeast, in the direction of Garibaldi Provincial Park and the eastern part of the Coast Range, snow-cloaked peaks ripple away to the horizon.
The peaks of the Pacific Range, part of British Columbia's Coast Range, surround Callaghan Backcountry Lodge. A semi-circle of 7,500-foot peaks defines the Callaghan Creek drainage. These high peaks and the unusually broad valley make up what Brad and Nic now call Callaghan Country. The town of Whistler lies 15 miles away, just over the summit of 7,639-foot Rainbow Mountain. From where I sit on the side of Powder Mountain, Whistler's jumble of crowded streets, second homes and long lift lines is another world.
The first day of a backcountry travel clinic has brought four other clients and myself to our snowy perch. Over the course of the morning, we have covered the basics of avalanche and other backcountry hazards, plus transceiver use. Richard and Mark, our two course conductors, move next to the finer points of finding good snow, getting to it with the least effort and even some tips on skiing it. Now, the group ss silent, pondering the possibilities presented by the abundance of perfect ski peaks that ring the valley.
Brad and Nic spent more than a decade pondering the possibilities of a lodge and backcountry ski operation in Callaghan Country before finally securing a lease, or tenure, on 8,600-acres from British Columbia. First they built a log structure that now forms the foundation of the generator building. That structure was built under rules that allow construction on public land classified as "crown land," as long as the builders have provincial approval and the building is open to the public. With a permit to conduct exclusive operations in hand, the partners began work on the current lodge in 1996.
A trip to Callaghan Backcountry Lodge begins less than ten minutes south of Whistler in an unpaved parking lot just off Highway 99. That road, also called the Sea to Sky highway, winds 60 miles from Vancouver to Whistler.
Rain and wind followed us north from Vancouver the day before. Road signs hung on posts drilled horizontally into the cliffs. Streams poured over roadside moss. Manzanitas, sculpted into giant bonsai by wind and rock, peered out of the mists among the granite cliffs.
Sue and I, and Helen and Caroline, the two other guests, loaded our bags into a large sled hooked to the lead snowmobile. Dressed like toddlers heading out for winter play, we readied ourselves for the 13 mile, 45 minute snowmobile ride to the lodge. Richard drove the lead sled. Caroline, fresh off a flight from London, rode behind him. The rest of us rode solo. Negotiating the trail as it wound upward through big stands of old growth timber and across open meadows required all of my attention. The warm yellow glow of the lodge windows was a welcomed sign of our arrival.
The interior of the lodge is handsome. Slate tiles cover the floor. A handcrafted fir banister follows the stairs up to the main floor. Window trim, windowsills, and doors were cut from clear, vertical-grain fir. Pete glowed as I praised the use of fine materials and the craftsmanship apparent in the lodge.
We enjoyed the large stone hearth on the main floor, soaking up the heat from the wood stove. Upstairs, Pete showed off the Hobbit-hole sleeping alcoves in the five double rooms on the top floor.
Pete came to Whistler after years of working construction jobs around the world. Over a glass of wine, he told of nights in the Saudi Arabian desert, where the starlight was so bright it woke him from sleep under the open sky. Pete eventually landed in Whistler, working construction for Brad. Today, he is one of 19 people who have traded labor, materials, or both for shares in the lodge.
The present 3,400-square-foot lodge serves 10 guests comfortably. An expansion is on the works. The first floor of the next phase is in place. A peek inside revealed room for a commercial kitchen and the walls of the what will be the dining room dressed from floor to ceiling in more clear fir. This summer, three new bedrooms will be added. In fact, one of the new rooms will be a suite, with living room, bedroom and loft, as well as a fireplace and a private deck. A sewage treatment facility to be built this summer will allow flush toilets, and all of the new rooms will have their own bathrooms.
During our stay, Pete traveled with us rather than working in the lodge. A lifelong lift-served skier, he became a lodge guest and a participant in the backcountry travel clinic. Brad chugged about in the valley below, plowing through the recent six-foot snowfall in the snowcat, packing the trails that start at the lodge, circle Conflict Lake and meander up a side valley.
Backcountry lodges are becoming relatively common in the Selkirk, Monashee, and Purcell Ranges farther east in the southern interior of British Columbia. However, the Callaghan operation is the only commercial backcountry lodge to operate in the Coast Range. Callaghan has the advantages of being close to Vancouver and an international airport, 15 miles from Whistler, and within 30 miles of BC's warm coastal waters. Yet abundant snowfall and a reliable snowpack are just about guaranteed in Callaghan Country.
Within a 100-mile radius of the lodge lie 1,800 square miles of glaciated terrain. As the warm, moist air from the coast pushes up and over the Pemberton Ice Cap and the glaciers of Powder and Brandywine Mountains, the air is cooled, creating a microclimate in the Callaghan Valley. The resulting abundance of snow tends to be drier, with a higher loft, than the typically more dense snow at Whistler, just 15 miles to the east.
A series of relatively flat, broad steps climb to that valley of deep, cold snow. It is an unusual feature that offers a variety of options for cross-country skiing, plus groomed trails on the valley floor – more choices than normally found at a British Columbia backcountry ski lodge. The 2010 Vancouver Olympic Bid Corporation has noticed those attributes, and has proposed the Callaghan Valley as the Nordic venue for the games.
Although the main Olympic site is seven miles southeast and 1,500 vertical feet below the lodge, it already frequently hosts Olympic officials who want to tour the area. The proposed site offers an opportunity to stage one of the most authentic Nordic events in decades. With ample snow and varied terrain, trails can head off through and to interesting places, rather than looping back like angel hair pasta. Ski jumping and ski flying facilities would be located on a natural hillside that fits the necessary profile so well that no additional tower construction would be necessary. The Bid Corporation is putting together funding to build everything from scratch.
Currently, Brad and Mike, who is cook, lodge manager and do-whatever-guy, work hard to maintain 32km of trails set when nordic guests are booked into the lodge. The huge snowfalls make it hard to maintain perfect track conditions, but the trails wind through country seldom seen from atop skinny skis..
Richard Haywood, an Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) assistant winter guide and certified ski instructor, rallied us from our reveries to explore the snowpack realities of the moment. After our arrival the previous evening, Richard went outside to add to his season-long snow and weather observations. Standing under the clear night sky as he gathered snow and air temperatures, barometric pressure, and wind speed, I understood why the stars and the constellations have inspired people to name them throughout the ages.
No significant temperature gradients, worrisome shear layers, or suspicious crystals showed up in the snowpack analysis, so we snapped into our skis and headed back to the lodge. Mark Simpson, a leading force in the Canadian Nordic Ski Instructor Association, helped those skiers new to ungroomed snow make their way downhill, back to the lodge.
Although Callaghan Country doesn't offer alcohol at this point, guests are welcome to bring their own. Mark is a former brew master and currently works as a winemaker, so we never lacked a proper accompaniment to Mike's food.. The evening ended with a surprisingly good match between a Cabernet and Mike's Pumpkin Chocolate Cake, a recipe handed down from his mother.
Bacon, eggs, and toast, accompanied by a large selection of British jams, jellies, and marmalades, greeted us the next morning. Richard and Mark lead us further up the valley on the cross-country trails before climbing toward the point at which the large glacier that sits atop Powder Mountain spills into the valley. On this day we concentrated on learning to read the snow surface for clues about where to find the best snow. Our efforts
were rewarded with a descent in a classic couloir filled with wind-deposited snow. Mike had set diagonal tracks on the trail by the time we returned.. Being careful not to mash them with our wide telemark skis, we returned to the lodge to change gear.
With skinny diagonal skis on, we glided down the tracks, through the forest, and around the lakes, soaking up the views of our private mountain wilderness. Brad had groomed the trail from the lodge back to the main logging road just for skating, and he wanted us to ski it before Mike went out on the snowmobile that night. After a return to the lodge for another gear change, we skated down through quick descents and intimate meadows. The track and the terrain pulled us on, but our tired bodies knew that the climb back to the lodge would be worse if we continued. The return trip was easy enough that I turned around and made another circuit, entranced by skating on firm tracks in the middle of a remote and wild place. My final climb to the lodge was lit by the Alpenglow reflected off the surrounding peaks.
If the Olympics come, development in the valley will allow guests to drive within 7.5 miles of the lodge, making it possible to ski in for lunch. Snowcat shuttle service also would be possible, allowing the lodge to host large luncheon gatherings or even weddings. Any nordic trails built for the Olympics probably would appeal to most to fitness-oriented skiers. Callaghan hopes to link up with any Olympic trails to serve the more casual skier. Winding up through grand trees and open meadows, surrounded by towering peaks and quiet wilderness, the trails would lead to warm espresso, a fresh croissant, a hot sandwich or a cold beer.
Lodge elevation: 4,500 feet
Average annual snowfall: 36 feet
Average annual snowpack: 12 feet
Guaranteed snowpack: November 15 – May 1
Average Alpine temperature:
December – February: Low – 11 F, High 23 F. March – May: Low - 19 F, High 42 F.
Rates, packages, and programs
Callaghan offers a variety of programs throughout the year, including summer heli-hiking, overnight getaways, day trips to the lodge for lunch, and heli-skiing. The following packages and programs are offered as a sample. All prices are per
person, based on double or twin occupancy. Prices are in Canadian dollars, and do not include 7percent GST, or the 7 pecent Provincial Sales Tax charged on accommodation costs only. Canadian dollars have been worth about 63 United States cents for several years. Prices and exchange rates are subject to change.
Basic Multi-Day Packages – Standard package includes snowmobile transportation to and from the lodge, deluxe includes helicopter, sno-cat or snowmobile transport depending on the weather. Standard includes three meals per day; deluxe features a sumptuous menu. Round trip transfers from Whistler Village to the staging areas is included in all packages. Upon request, ACMG certified guides or nordic instruction can be arranged by the day or by the trip.
Sunday – Friday (6 days/5 nights) $1,223 $990
Friday – Sunday (3 days/2 nights) N/A $492
Touring Package –
6 days/5 nights of touring with an ACMG certified ski guide. $1,705 $1,470
Backcountry Travel Clinic – 1 night accommodation, all meals, and snowmobile transportation to and from the lodge.
2 days/1 night, covering the basic of backcountry safety, travel, and skiing - $420
3 day Nordic Camp – 2 nights accommodations, all meals, and snowmobile transportation to and from the lodge
Classic and skate clinics, distance training,waxing and stretching for intermediate and advanced skiers. Conducted by Mark Simpson, CANSI Level 4 certified coach. - $565
Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures
P.O. Box 284
Whistler, BC V0N 1B0
Weather Information: Environment Canada – www.weatheroffice.ec.gc.ca
Backcountry Conditions: Canadian Avalanche Association – www.avalanche.ca
Excellent links for local weather and snow conditions, resort information – www.whistlerblackcomb.com
Map: Brandywine Falls, 92 J/3, 3rd Edition. Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources, Ottawa, Canada.
Local Attractions and Items of Interest
Lost Lake Nordic Trails – 30 km of excellent trails, impeccably groomed for classic and skating, 4 km with lights, starting right in Whistler Village. Rentals and lessons available. Call 604-938-7275 for trail conditions and more information.
High Mountain Brewing – located across the large day use parking lot adjacent to the village trailhead. Local brews, excellent food, quick service, casual atmosphere. An excellent place to stop after an afternoon on the trails. 604-905-2739 or www.highmountainbrewing.com/restbrew/brewhouse/brewhouse.html.
Spearhead Whistler Mountain Guides – the company that guides for Callaghan also offers numerous backcountry ski trips in the area. 604-905-9033 or www.spearheadwhistlermountainguides.com
Vancouver 2010 Olympic bid – keep track of the progress of the process at www.winter2010.com and www.whistlerolympics.ca
Provincial Parks – Garibaldi is the largest provincial park in the region, but there are many others in the area. Visit wlapwww.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/regional_maps/pemberton.htm to investigate.
Sunshine Baking - The town of Squamish, home to one of the premier granite walls in the west, also happens to be your best choice for a stop enroute to Whistler. For a quick sugar hit, stop by Sunshine Baking on Cleveland Avenue, 604-892-2231. For more information on climbing at Squamish, visit the amazing on-line climbing guide at www.chiefguide.com.
Hollyburn Ridge – If you lay over in Vancouver on your way to or from Callaghan, be sure to take some time to ski here. Located barely ten miles from downtown Vancouver. 19km of exciting, well-maintained trails, with 7 km lit for night skiing. After skiing, view the lights of the city and watch the sun set over the freighters in the harbor as you wind down the access road to Chinatown or the Italian district for a cosmopolitan night out. Contact 604-922-0825 or www.cypressmountain.com/xc.html.