The Dream Team
My journey as a backcountry skier is told in place and time. Undoubtedly, improvements are made incrementally, but there have always been defined moments and experiences that stand out to me. Sometimes I still feel soaked from the first time I took my touring skis out, fumbling and falling through some laps on Mt. Spokane in 34 degree rain on top of mashed potatoes. I remember the freedom of movement, practically running up Middle Teton solo, moving so quickly that I had time to also ski South Teton and get back to the car by lunch. Who could forget that wonderful day of powder at Sherman Pass, near the end of time in Spokane, when I felt both ready and sentimental to leave such a formative place behind? But possibly the most memorable experience was touring for two days at Grassy Hut in the Bonnington Range of BC with Brant. It was my first real time in the backcountry, my first hut experience, my first mentor. It was the trip that set the hook, that made me fall in love with ski touring. We were not able to complete the entire Bonnington Traverse because of avalanche danger and time constraints, so I vowed one day to come back.
Brant and I had met on a whim at the local crag in Spokane. A few months later, we randomly saw each other at the gym and he invited me on the hut trip a few days later. So it felt only fitting to assemble the 2020 Bonnington squad in a similar hodge-podge manner. I had found Porter through the internet, connecting because of our similar climbing styles. Lael was a mutual friend of Porter. Elle I just luckily met one day at Husky Rock, much like Brant. Jon was the only one who goes back a ways, as we were engineering students together at Gonzaga. I knew it was a diverse group of people, with varying strengths and weaknesses. But I felt confident about how we would vibe and work together. We were all young, fit, competent, and incredibly stoked.
Day 1: Grassy Hut
We awoke to the incessant pacing of someone on the floor above us in the Spokane Motel 6. We had all met the evening before and drove over to Spokane to knock out a large chunk of the drive. After a quick breakfast at Micky D’s, we set off northward towards the promised land.
For me, it was my first time back in the Spokane area since I graduated from college nearly two years ago. I could see myself, running along the falls, walking through the flat grids of the city, staring at myself through the filtered pines. Spokane holds such a special place in my heart, but also such a complicated set of emotions. My memories of this place are so inextricably interwoven with the people, for better or worse. My life has changed in so many ways since I left this place, both good and bad, in ways I expected and never imagined. Over the years, the meaning I get from the mountains has certainly changed, but they still pull me back just as much as ever.
Quickly, we left the meager metropolis of Spokane and entered the wandering world of pines and hills to the north. We drove through Ione and Metaline Falls, towns so small that if you blinked you could miss them. With the windy rivers and sprawling forests, Pend Oreille County has a sense of tranquility and simplicity that betrays the common perception our the Evergreen State. The towering skyscrapers and glaciated peaks of Western Washington are replaced by pines, rivers and roads. We couldn’t have felt further from Seattle, and geographically, we couldn’t have been much further from Seattle in our state.
After a suspicious border guard asked a lot of questions about Elle’s Massachusetts license plate, we crossed into the great white north. The valleys became deeper and the peaks more alpine. A quick stop at the liquor store in Salmo yielded an extra 12 pounds for our already bulging packs and then we were off to set up the car shuttle.
At the Porto Rico Road, we met one of the leaders of the Kootenay Mountaineering Club, the organization that manages the huts. He helped us move some snow to park and gave us some beta on the traverse.
We managed to pile 5 people plus gear into Jon’s Jeep and then it was a party heading off to Bombi Summit. We were pleasantly surprised to be able to drive about 2 miles up the logging road, significantly shortening our approach! Last time, Brant and I had to skin this section, only to find it plowed down to dirt on our return!
We took some time organizing gear, debating who would carry the gallon of wine, and getting our skins on. Jon felt with awe Porter’s new custom skis, made by Lael’s brother Peter. They weighed less than half of Jon’s skis.
With little fanfare, we finally clicked in and started skinning towards Grassy Mountain. We were finally on our way, and all very excited! This was a trip we had been planning and looking forward to for months. As we began to rise, we watched fog float through the lower valleys and filtered sunshine illuminate the slopes above us.
The climb up to the saddle went easily enough, and spirits were high. Even though I had been to Grassy before, we had some trouble finding the hut. We descended too low and right initially and had to skin briefly back up to the hut.
For first time hut users, a backcountry hut is like a moment of epiphany. Why would I ever camp in the cold snow again? My skins and liners will be dry in the morning? We have a propane stove?! Board games? Everyone excitedly explored the cute little hut.
However, we didn’t waste too much time, because daylight was fading and there was pow to shred. We knew that temperatures would be warming dramatically the following day, but at least for the moment, the sun was out and the pow was blower.
I set a skin track traversing up towards the summit of Grassy Mountain. I was very familiar with this bowl, as Brant and I skied nearly every aspect last time, so I knew exactly where the best runs were.
With light packs, we surged forward. With every turn, our horizons expanded. The mountains here are much less distinguished than the unique profiles of the Cascades. This creates a sense of Infiniti: just snow, peaks, and valleys for as far as the eye can see.
At the summit of Grassy, there was a cool wind. The sun was lowering, breaking out between high clouds and the valley fog. The rest of the Bonnington Traverse played peek-a-boo to the north. All around, we saw not a single track. It is incredible how accessible this area is, yet still so lonely. It’s the kind of place where you can so easily forget about the rest of the world, lose track of time, and never leave.
We skied south off the summit. The snow was a little windblown up top, but quickly transitioned to some of the finest snow we have ever skied: light, deep yet supportive.
The open glades are a perfect 25-30 degrees, making for effortless, safe skiing. There is something to be said for not having a single concern on your mind as you ski. It allows you to become fully present in the moment, to ski in a way that expresses your freedom of movement.
At the bottom of the glades, we needed only a brief moment to decided that we had time for one more run. So Porter and Lael rocketed back up the slopes, racing the setting sun, while I helped Elle with some icy skins. It is incredible how good skiing can feel so invigorating, or as Porter says, “orgasmic”. Tired legs can feel fresh once again. Walking becomes floating. The old become young.
I hurried up to meet the others, wanting to snag some epic sunset pow shots, but Porter and Lael were beyond reach. Then I saw it: a snowy ramp in the middle of a slope. At that moment, the sun broke out between the layers of the clouds. I shouted to Jon to transition: it was now or never.
Jon transitioned faster than any other Solomon Shift owner in history and lined up the jump. He straight-lined, leaned in, and took flight.
There are some moments that become etched into our minds like tattoos. I see the vision of Dylan silhouetted atop Stilleto Peak against the fading light. I see Anthony descending the knife edge of Eldorado, with only glaciers and mountains beneath. These are moments of transcendence, when everything comes together to create utter perfection. Jon sending this jump, with a flaming tail of cold smoke, out here in BC, during the golden hour; that was perfection.
Then it was my turn to shred some sunset pow.
We all regrouped and skied together down to the trees again. It was a complete party, like no other run I’ve done. We were hooping and hollering, laughing and dancing. The snow was so fast and playful that we would soar in the air 30+ feet horizontally just over a little roll over. It was just so good!
We let our spirits settle with an easy skin back to Grassy Hut. The first order of business was to start a fire. Despite the fact we had three mountain guides and two experienced outdoorsmen, it still took us an hour or more plus a good amount of gasoline to start a fire. We’ll just blame the wet wood for our struggles.
For meals, I had assigned everyone group meals, but the contents were to be a surprise. For the first night, Jon rolled out a “JZ Outdoors” special, Pita Pizzas! He brought two pounds of cheese in addition to an entire container of tomato sauce (despite the fact he is allergic to tomatoes). It was pure gold. Especially with a glass or two (or three) of wine.
As conversation settled in, Jon mentioned that “it seemed to be about that time of day.” I smiled, knowing exactly what he meant, but the others were confused. JZ Outdoors has a tradition of doing “Peaches and Pits” at the end of the day, where we each share a high and low from the day, or “peach” and “pit”. It was really all peaches and smiles. I could tell the group was bonding so well already.
The rest of the evening was spent settling into hut life, sipping on wine, listening to music, and telling stories. Laughter, warmth, and light filled our cozy little hut.
Day 2: Steed Hut
The next morning was foggy, with an icy gropple falling from the sky. Our plan was to make it all the way to Copper Hut. We knew this would be a big day, but it seemed reasonable and we wanted to cover as much ground as possible before it started raining.
We skinned back up Grassy and started traversing north. We opted to sidehill around the next prominent ridge line to save elevation. Breaking trail was slow and hard work in the deep, heavy snow. My left leg became exhausted as the uphill leg for miles on end.
We found some good skiing, although we were often focused just on traversing and trying not to lose elevation, which was challenging in tighter trees. The heavy packs made being nimble even more difficult.
As we crossed a pass and headed towards the last climb before Steed Hut, the precipitation started to turn mixed. The water was melting on our hard-shells and I knew everyone was starting to get pretty wet. The last climb to the col above Steed Hut was steep and techy. At the col, I got battered by winds and rain as I waited for the rest of the group to catch up.
We learned our lesson from Grassy and were more attentive as we descended, trying to follow the GPS and spreading out for visibility. Lael spotted it far to our left and we hurried over to the hut, eager to get out of the rain.
We walked soaking wet into Steed Hut around 1:30 in the afternoon. There were two other sledders/snowboarders, Yan and Ryan, who were hanging out. When they saw the puddles around our feet, they immediately offered to let us stay with them overnight, since Copper was still many hours away. We didn’t want to intrude on their space, but it was a pretty easy decision to stay.
It was difficult to leave the warm, cozy hut, but about an hour before dark, Jon, Porter, and I decided to head out and try to find the “kicker” (backcountry jump) that Yan and Ryan said they had built the previous day.
We followed some skin tracks through dense fog and unsurprisingly found Ryan and Yon hucking it. The light was incredibly flat, making it difficult to even see the takeoff. Seeing the landing was hopeless. The kicker was pretty small, but was set on the edge of a steep rollover, so huge air was guaranteed. They were sailing off, sending grabs, tree taps, and even a backflip!
Jon was completely in his element, but Porter and I had never had a “kicker session”. It felt bizarre for two skimo dudes with light skis and tech bindings to go freestyle. But the snow was garbage so what else was there to do? More and more, I have been trying to look at poor conditions not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. The dry fall we had ultimately was an incredible opportunity to do some rad alpine ice routes like Eldo and Dragontail with Porter. When we booked this trip, we didn’t dream of pissing rain, but it really re-focused our attention to what really matters on a trip like this: special friends, trying new things, and having a damn good time. Bad snow just ended up being an opportunity to get shifty in the air and push my comfort zone. Over the last few months, my best friend Daniel has been telling me that maybe heartbreak is just an opportunity to fall in love again. I’m getting there, bud.
Dinner was some tasty Mac and cheese and we shared some of our dessert – crispy tortillas with melted chocolate and marshmallows – with Yan and Ryan, who had never seen such a thing before. They even joined in on our Peaches and Pits, although Yan, a Czech Immigrant, got mostly hung up on the concept of the matter.
After dinner, Elle introduced to us a card game called “Palace”. With the help of some wine, things got pretty heated. Much to her dismay, Elle lost the first two rounds and Porter won, which didn’t help his soaring ego. However, when I switched seats with Porter, I promptly won and even Elle got a W afterwards. I think the game was mostly luck, but it was fun to pretend otherwise.
Out of the seven of us, Elle, Jon, Lael, and Ryan are all really good rock climbers. Steed Hut has some impressive cross beams, so inevitably people were hanging, heel hooking, doing muscle ups, and demonstrating their prowess in any way possible (Yan is good at handstands).
Somehow, no one got burned on the wood stove in the middle of the room. This carried on late into the night. The last thing I remember as I fell asleep was Yan begging Porter to help him finish 4 more beers before bed.
Day 3: Copper Hut
It was nice to wake to no alarm, as we had a short day ahead of us. Yan and Ryan were also planning on limping out with Yan’s broken sled. We watched with much envy as Yan made himself a breakfast bagel with meat, peppers, avocado, and other fresh ingredients. As luxurious as hut life is, sledder life is even better.
As we were packing up, five other sledders showed up, ready to help Yan fix up his broken shock and get him out. All had strong eastern BC accents. It was fun to learn more about snowmobiling – the terrain they can cover, how to steer, the main challenges. Mostly, it seemed like they spent a lot of time extracting their sleds from bad situations. It gave us more appreciation for their sport.
Around mid morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and continued traversing around Siwash Mountain. Porter led us on a long traverse in downhill mode, expertly holding elevation and contouring around two basins before descending to a frozen lake. A large avalanche cycle had occurred the previous afternoon and evening and the evidence was widespread.
We raced up a short climb to the next pass. The wind was absolutely crazy, blowing snow into near white-out conditions and pelting our faces. Elle and Lael reveled in the gnar as I struggled to keep my eyes open to take photos. Those are two tough ladies!
We descended to the north and quickly entered the protection of trees. This section featured long low angle descents, and for once, we were glad to have such hard snow conditions.
The terrain dipped into a steeper gully. Porter came in a little hot and nearly wiped out into a tree, but was able to bail at the last minute. When he got up, he discovered that both his brand-new skis had snapped! One snapped in front of the toe and one snapped behind the heel. They weren’t in two pieces, but there was no way he would be putting any downhill weight on them.
The lighthearted vibe was immediately extinguished. We were close to the bail route and had to seriously consider heading out with no real way of fixing the skis. Porter tested some skinning, and it seemed fine. Ultimately, we decided to continue, figuring that Porter could stay in uphill mode nearly the entire rest of the way. Worst case, he could boot. Porter was the one who most wanted to continue.
We carried on cautiously down to a snowmobiler’s hut. Porter was disappointed to find that some special substances were not in a specific place, but Jon did find an old sausage and some whisky on the grill.
With Porter on Injured Reserve, it was now my sole responsibility to break trail through the soft mush. I led another left-leg-burning traverse towards Copper Mountain. The skies had begun to clear, but there were still passing squalls of hail. We knew the worst of the weather was behind us. We were all starting to feel tired again, but the improving weather and expanding views made the skin moderately enjoyable.
Elle once again had skin problems, but the snow was so sticky that somehow she was able to ascend the skin track with no skins at all! In a brief moment where I hung back to help with skins, Jon managed to find Copper Hut amongst the glades without a GPS. What a find!
Copper is a smaller hut, much like Grassy. The Hobbit door made even Jon look tall! Our spirits were high and we set about getting ready for the evening. Elle and I dug through three feet of snow to expose the outhouse. Lael and Jon chopped firewood and Porter built the fire.
Our ambitions were limited by both the bad snow and Porter’s broken skis, so Jon and I figured, why not build our own kicker? We scoped the area around the cabin and found a nice slot through the trees where we could build a ramp. It was a blind entrance, which only added to the fun.
After a half hour of work, it was ready to test. Jon had one practice approach to figure out the speed and then he was ready. Standing next to the take off, it seemed like he was going to soar over the cabin and into the endless mountains of BC.
All around, the clouds were breaking and soft light creeping its way across the sky. It was so peaceful, so perfect.
Lael and I also took turns on the kicker. Lael is probably the least experienced as a skier and the youngest in the group. I don’t think Lael had ever left the ground before on skis, but Jon did a great job coaching her and encouraging her. So much of skiing – and life – is approaching with confidence and a willingness to fail. Lael had more stoke than any of us to get some air, and it was so fun to watch her get out of her comfort zone. She has such a great attitude, she will become so proficient at anything she is passionate about. The sky’s the limit.
We kept the party going until the sun went down and the moon came out. It was time to return to our home for the evening.
For the final dinner, we had some chili and mashed potatoes. Interestingly, chili has no tomatoes. Jon has always been suspicious and thus always avoided chili, but we triple checked the ingredients list and it seemed fine. So Jon got his first ever taste of chili. For dessert we had some delicious apple cobbler.
Copper Hut is stocked with “Cards Against Humanity”, which made for a fun evening. Jon, with his aged wisdom, brought home the “W”.
Throughout the evening, it started to hit us that this was the last night of the trip. Time seemed to just fly by and we had all grown so much closer. It was incredible how each person brought unique perspectives and talents, but we came together and complimented each other so well. Hut life has a way of allowing the hustle bustle – social obligations, politics, responsibilities – fall away and the truly important things in life – friendship, joy, adventure – rise to the forefront. It felt bittersweet to let that go, but it wasn’t quite over yet…
Day 4: The Ridge Traverse
The final leg of the trip is a spectacular ridge traverse over many peaks and out to Porto Rico. Or as Porter simply says, “just 4 miles on the ridge and then we pop down”. Regardless, good visibility was paramount and thankfully, the weather gods came through. We woke up to temperatures in the single digits and not a single cloud in the sky. For all the terrible rain we got, at least the weather came through when it mattered most.
Our morning start was delayed by having to use the stove to melt ice off our skis, but once we were on our way, we were flying up the hero skinning snow: an inch of dust on firm crust.
We broke out into the sun at the ridge line and it was one of those magical moments where everyone bathes in sunlit glory.
We started skinning up the broad, windswept ridge. The distant Valhallas, Koakanee Glacier, and Ymir Peaks were crystal clear. The views kept opening up. We knew this would be a good day.
The top of the first peak was so wide that it offered practically a flat runway to stride across. We were all moving effortlessly, soaking in the incredible scenery. There was no better way to start the day.
It was evident that rain and high winds had blasted the southern aspects of these peaks. Cornices forced us to stay on this icy, textured southern aspect, which often made for difficult travel conditions. We could only imagine how good all the ski lines off to the north would be, but I guess we’ll have to come back for that.
On the second peak, the ridge got narrower and steeper, and I was forced to boot for a bit. I wallowed through terrible breakable crust, but at least the others were able to complete the boot with a smile on their face. This was a wake up call to how bad the booting conditions would be, but we knew that we would unfortunately have to boot some later sections, since we were lacking ski crampons.
To avoid the more gnarly ridge line, we decided to traverse a southerly aspect over to the final ridge to Territory Peak. It was pure edging terrain, with barely a skin track left behind in the bullet proof ice. Elle’s toe piece kept popping off against the pressure. It wasn’t until I cleaned out the bindings of ice that we could get them to fully lock. Lael slipped once and watched her ski slide down the mountain, only to stop in a tree well luckily. It was a literal shit-show.
When we finally made it to the north ridge of Territory, people were a little shaken. Jon just wanted to “get the hell of this ridge” but Porter and I knew that the ridge line was still the safest and fastest option. It could get better just as quickly as it got worse. Jon wanted to descend off the ridge and bypass Territory Peak, but we convinced him it was better to go up and over.
From a distance, the north ridge of Territory Peak looked massively corniced and steep. But once on the ridge, we found absolutely perfect, firm booting conditions. Porter and I were flying up the ridge, imitating our idol, Killian Jornet. Back in the ski mountaineering world, we were completely in our element. It was pure movement, pure joy.
The others handled the exposed booting with ease and we all took a break on the summit of Territory Peak, the high point for the trip. It was incredible to look back at the distance we had already covered and how relatively little distance remained. Even with the sun, temps were cool, but at least the air was perfectly still.
For the next few short descents, we opted to just boot down the steep ridge lines instead of trying to ski icy exposed wind lips. It wasn’t skiing, but that’s ski mountaineering, right?
Colony Peak was even icier than the others and even I gave up on skinning and booted the last bit to the summit. We were all, at one point or another, “Bambi on ice”.
The traverse between Colony and Empire is the “mandatory boot”. It is a very narrow, exposed ridge line. It is nothing technical, but could be intimidating for some and certainly not the place to skin under normal conditions.
As we rose towards the summit of Empire, the ridge narrowed even more, to the point we were walking just on a knife edged wind lip. Porter and Lael were plowing ahead, having the times of their lives. I was a little more worried about Jon, who doesn’t like exposure when not on his skis. But when I looked back, he was screaming in ecstasy. It was incredible to see the transition in his comfort level from just a few hours before. Jon had come full circle, and was embracing the ski mountaineering! Elle, of course, was totally cool and calm, just having a good ‘ol time.
During the whole trip, we had joked about going through one of the snow ghosts tunnels, so right before the summit, Lael and Peter did exactly that with the bootpack. Elle and Jon gladly followed.
We topped out on Empire Peak, the end of the traverse, in the early afternoon. The traverse had kicked our butts a little more than we expected, but that made it all the more adventurous. Very little actual skiing was done, but we all agreed it was incredibly beautiful and fun.
We milked a few minutes on the summit, but knew we still had a long ski out and then long drive home ahead of us. Porter left early, booting down towards Barrett Lake.
The top part of the run was quite icy, but as we got lower, we actually found some dust on a consistent crust. It was like skiing a few inches of pow on a groomer through widely spaced 35 degree glades. Jon and I were really able to open up and fly. Even Porter got some impressive boot skis!
Down at the snowmobile road, we realized the last 5-6 miles out would not be a breeze. The snowmobile track was deep and narrow, making doing a “pizza” (or “power wedge, as Lael and Elle like to call it) very difficult. The snow was icy and grabby and it was easy to pick up speed with no real way of stopping.
Porter wanted to save his skis for when the road got wider and so jogged down in ski boots. He was actually moving pretty fast. Thank god it was Porter in this situation, as anyone else would have been much slower and complaining. However, we quickly outpaced him. So as a group, we decided that Jon and I would race ahead to the cars and start the car shuttle while Elle and Lael stayed back with Porter. So Jon and I took off, going as fast as we safely could, flying down to Porto Rico. I had some pretty big wipeouts in the terrible snow and caught a snag and ripped my pack, but no injuries were sustained.
Jon and I got going, and about an hour later, around sunset, we arrived back in Porto Rico to reunite the group with both our vehicles. In yet another bizarre Canadian theft incident, we found that Elle’s car had indeed been broken into. The person appeared to have napped or hid in the car because the seat was reclined, taken an aux cord and Lael’s favorite sweater, but left other more valuable stuff and even gave us a nice flannel in exchange! Oh, Canadians, I will never understand you…
The drive back home was long and I think we were all slightly dead at class or work the next day, but well worth it. Our hearts were full and after burgers in Spokane, so were our bellies. Until next time, Canada.
After getting thwarted the first time, it was great to come back and complete the Bonnington Traverse. While it is certainly a “beginner” backcountry traverse with relatively little avalanche terrain, it still has such incredible ski terrain and beautiful scenery. In good snow (which is the norm), the moderate skiing would be amazing. The length of the days between huts is very manageable and leaves time for good skiing. Any bigger traverse would have been challenging in such poor conditions, but this trip was just right.
On the drive home, Elle kept saying over and over just how much fun this trip was, and I think we all felt that way. I’ve gone on a lot of trips, but I think this one was possibly the most fun trip I have ever had. The accommodations and scenery were nice, but really, it was all about the people. This was the dream team. There was so much positivity, stoke, connection, and passion together. Each person brought something different to the table, and so we always had energy, wisdom, or creativity to tap into, no matter the situation.
Over the fall months, I really struggled emotionally with the challenging conditions. It made me realize that I had too much of my identity and self-worth tied up into sending big routes and doing huge objectives. Sometimes it felt like it was the only thing I had left. Anthony always reminds me that I’m no different than a drug addict. My addiction to the mountains can lead me to greatness, but also can be emotionally and physically destructive. On the Bonnington Traverse, I didn’t set any speed records and send some crazy lines. But it was the happiest I’ve felt in a long, long time, and that’s ultimately what we’re all after.
Thank you Jon, Porter, Elle, and Lael for making this trip so special.