The Bonnington mountain range is in south-west British Columbia, between the towns of Castlegar to the west, Nelson to the north and Salmo to the south. The terrain is rolling mountains, with summit elevations around 2300m, and usage of these mountains is shared with snow mobile and heli skiers.
There is an excellent description of the traverse on the Backcountry Skiing Canada website.
The route has been described as an introductory ski tour, and while the mountains are fairly low elevation and the huts comfortable, the route finding in bad weather is certainly complicated and the terrain has an Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) rating of “challenging”.
Here is the Google map showing the route, thanks to Backcountry Skiing Canada.
Day One, Bombi Summit to Grassy Hut
The trip starts with a rather uninspiring slog up a power line and logging road shared with a half a dozen loud, smelly snow machines. The riders are all friendly, its mostly the noise that bothers me – completely shattering the stunning stillness of the wilderness. From the top of the broad pass it’s an easy descent to the Grassy Hut. The hut is almost completely buried by snow, nestled in the forest, and would have been nearly impossible to find without the help of GPS. We have two GPS units on this trip, plus paper maps and old-fashioned compasses, as we are expecting the route-finding (and hut locating) to be challenging, especially if stormy weather comes in as it is forecast to do.
Arriving at the hut we meet up with a group of skiers from the Kootenay Mountaineering Club (KMC) who have come here to inspect the hut. The huts along this traverse are all operated and maintained by volunteers, and it’s great to meet, and thank, some of the people who have made this trip possible.
Genuinely rustic and cosy is how I would describe Grassy Hut. A single-room log cabin with a wood stove for heat and a Coleman stove for cooking, the hut is comfortable for four people, with two bunk-beds and a small table. Water for drinking, cooking and washing comes from snow, melted on the wood stove, and ice for the whiskey comes from icicles on the roof. After dinner we plan tomorrow’s route to the next hut, marking navigational way-points on the map and GPS.
Day Two, Grassy to Steed Hut
The morning dawns clear and beautiful, and when the sun rises it streams into the east-facing cabin. The cabin, buried under around 3m of snow, was dark in the afternoon, and the beautiful morning light filling the cabin is fantastic.
We make breakfast and lunch and then pack up and head out into the stunning white and blue world to ski up the ridge and across to the Steed Hut, which should take between 4 and 6 hours.
This area receives a lot of snow, and tall trees around the hut are caked in heavy loads of snow. As we climb up to the ridge, the forest grows sparser and the trees are smaller.
Nearing the top of the ridge the trees are covered in a thick coating of rime from being continuously blanketed in cloud and freezing fog. These “snow ghosts” are absolutely beautiful, and skiing quietly through them under clear blue skies is magical.
Spring has solidly arrived in these mountains, and the snow is heavy, and crusted from the sun and recent rain. The crust and heavy snow makes the skiing “challenging” – also known as “crappy” – on south, east and west aspects, but we find some really nice turns in soft snow on sheltered north aspect slopes as we descend off the ridge.
Steed hut is further away that we had anticipated, and as we climb up the last big slope before the hut – a slope covered in beautiful, untracked soft snow, we are debating whether we have the time and energy to ski it. Upon reaching the col at the top of the slope, with the hut just on the other side, we decide to actually locate the hut first, and then come back for a ski if we still have time.
It’s never easy finding the hut, even with a GPS, since there is often 100m of error in the location, which is enough to require skiing a grid-search pattern to find the building. When we get to Steed Hut, we find the small, two-story A-frame building buried to the roof under at least 3m of snow, and once again only visible when you’re standing right in front of it.
Before the sun sets, we ski up the ridge to get a view of tomorrow’s route and then settle into the cabin for the evening routine of snow melting, wood chopping, dinner and route-planning for tomorrow.
Day Three, Steed to Copper Hut
The anticipated weather has arrived, and we wake up to cloudy, foggy skies, light snow, and wind. Looks like today is going to be an interesting test of navigation in white-out conditions! The world consists only of shades of white and gray as we head up the small ridge behind the hut and across the open slopes leading to a mellow tree-covered ridge. We are thankful for the trees as they block the wind and provide a sense of perspective and direction in the otherwise white void.
It’s mostly “put your head down and go” today, but we find some good skiing descending off the ridge to a logging road. Following the road for a while, we come across a cabin maintained by the Slocan Snowmobile Club, and stop there for little break.
Leaving the hut, we head up a treed bowl and into very convoluted terrain of steep, treed ridges and small and large open slopes. It’s very tricky to navigate in the stormy conditions, which provides only 100-200m of visibility, and would be nearly impossible to find our way without the GPS telling us where are, plus the way-points that we had mapped out the previous night, combined with using the compass to keep us on the correct heading.
After about 6 hours we are at the last ridge to climb before the hut, and it is steep terrain, with the snow sculpted by the wind around the few trees into long, 2-3m high drifts that make for interesting small-scale route finding. The weather is completely crappy now, the falling snow from this morning having turned into fog and mist, and the wind still blowing. Our packs and clothes are wet and freeze in the wind on the exposed ridge, and once we finally get off the ridge and ski the kilometer to where the hut should be we are all exhausted and frozen. We split up into four directions (up, down, left and right) to find the hut, and are all very relieved when Marc soon shouts “found it!”. Very, very happy to have found this place!
The Copper Hut is similar construction to the Grassy Hut – a traditional log cabin with a wood stove for heat and a small covered porch. We laugh at the funny hobbit-sized door, but it feels so good to get inside, get the fire going and warm up and dry off. The packs go in a heap by the door, where their coating of ice melts into a big puddle, while our wet jackets and pants get hung up around the stove to dry. A big pot of soup does a great job of warming us from the inside, and we are finally able to relax. There is no comfort like coming in from the wet cold and warming up by a fire with a bowl of soup!
Day Four, Copper Hut to Empire Peak and Out
A few centimeters of snow has fallen overnight, and it’s foggy and calm in the morning. Today is meant to have the best views of the traverse, as the route takes us along a high, undulating ridge, that narrows at one point to knife-edge, then climbing one more peak and dropping down to Barrett Lake. With the fog and cloud, we are anticipating some adventurous navigation but not much in the way of views today!
Our mood is pretty much “let’s get it done” as we leave the warm hut and start uphill into the calm, quiet fog that envelopes the forest. The world is soft and colors, textures and sounds are all muted today. Visibility is only 100m or so, but thanks to last night’s careful route planning we have a series of GPS way-points to follow up and across the series of small peaks that connect to form our route today.
As we climb up from the hut, the trees change from being blanketed in snow to being covered in a thick layer of hard, ice crystals. These crystals can be huge, often 30-40cm long, and always facing into the prevailing winds. These ice-caked trees, combined with the thick fog and limited visibility, result in a surreal environment. The series of peaks goes on for quite a ways, over 5km, and we work our way, almost in a dream-like state, up one small peak, down the wind-sculpted snow on the other side, repeating, moving but not really feeling the movement without having a distant reference point. A continuous sense of vertigo, moving but not moving.
The ridge becomes narrower as we approach the knifedge section, and now we are skiing on the very peak of a triangular wedge of snow, one ski pole on each side of the wedge. The slopes on either side drop off very steeply into the fog, 45-60 degrees, but the snow is solid and there’s no real danger of falling as long as you ski smoothly, carefully and keep your focus. We wonder if the fog makes it mentally easier – not being able to clearly see the big drop on either side – or more difficult. Undecided.
At the end of the narrow ski section, the ridge broadens again, briefly climbing steeply, before quickly turning into the obvious “bootpack” section, where we need to take the skis off, strap them to our packs, and hike up through steep snow and rocks. Not too difficult, but with very steep “no fall” zones on either side, we carefully plant each footstep and use the ski poles for balance to work our way up this section.
Suddenly the narrow part is over, and we are standing top of the broad, rounded summit of Empire Peak. The traverse is over, and it’s time for a group photo before descending the beautifully spaced trees of the long slope down to Barrett Lake. The snow is hard and icy at the top, but as we descent it gets softer, changing to a very fun creamy consistency for about 200m of excellent skiing, and then as we approach the lake elevation the snow gets heavy and wet from the warmth, and the fun skiing ends. At the lake we find another tiny cabin, buried to the roof under the thick snow.
Our car, parked at the Porto Rico Road parking lot on Highway #6, is still about 10km away and 1000m below us, but there’s a logging / snowmobile road the whole way and the cruise down through the thick, mushy snow doesn’t take too long.
Great trip, thanks Josef, Andre and Marc!
Darren Foltinek, March 2013