Hilda Hut is the new lodge run by Martin and Shelly Glasheen of Valkyr Adventures. It’s a only two years old, and according to Martin, still a “work in progress”. Hilda lodge, like it’s sibling Naumaulten, is a stunning building made of solid wood and provides completely comfortable back-country living with a private rooms, a gas stove and fully-equipped kitchen, electricity, internet, a sauna and even a wood-heated hot tub.
Monday, Dec 30th
I’m on the first flight in with Ray, our pilot, so that somebody can help Martin, who is up at the hut, with loading and unloading the helicopter. We fly in over valleys blotted with logging cut-blocks, and then swing around and suddenly see the lodge, perched in a small clearing with treed cliffs below and treed slopes above. Martin is lying on top of a pile of outgoing gear right next to the heli-pad, and as the we come in to land Martin and gear are blown over by the machine’s powerful down-draft. After unloading our gear we scramble to rescue the scattered bags of laundry, recycling and garbage that were blown all over the place. Its’s great to see Martin again, and we chat about the new lodge between hauling loads to the lodge and he remembers that I’m the guy who took the night shots while at Namaulten last year.
It takes three flights to bring us and our gear in, and we unpack and get settled, get an introduction to the lodge workings from Martin, and then off for ski in trees behind hut. Up to the ridge, just under 300m vertical, and good skiing in boot deep snow on a clean-failing surface that causes us concern but no problems as the top snow is not consolidated. Easy 3 shear at 25cm. Up for another run and we drop 150m below the hut into snow that suddenly has a hard crust about 10cm down, likely from rain, then struggle to get back to the hut through very steep terrain with a cliff band winding through it. According to Sean’s GPS we did 750m vertical. Back in the hut just before dark for spaghetti, drinks and a very hot sauna. Sauna / snow roll / sauna / snow roll – what a great way to wind up the first ski day!
Tuesday, Dec 31st
Up at 6:30, helping out with breakfast, which is porridge mixed with cooked apples and cinnamon, done by Jeremie’s brother Adrien. Excellent! We are one big group today, and all head up towards the slopes below Hilda peak. The tour starts with a traverse through the trees below the lodge towards the upper lake, where Mike nails a sharp tree branch with his leg and needs to head back to the hut for some self-repair. We wait for him to return and then ski up towards Hilda peak until we have climbed into the clouds, and visibility disappears. We contour at this elevation across thin rocky ground then ski down a short and very steep gully that runs out onto a small flat. The gully is a good test of the stability of the near surface storm snow layer that we have seen some reactivity in while digging test pits in the snow.
I ski down first, doing hard turns because of the steepness, and then zoom across the flats to get to a safe spot on the other side. Next down is Gemma, who triggers a small (5m wide) slab, 10cm deep that runs 20m. Isaac is next, and triggers another small slab, followed by Denis and Natalie, a little spooked by the slide. We ski down towards the lake (below the hut) and then up towards the Mead Pot, and down steep open trees. Isaac and I are whooping it up, and figure it’s the best run of the trip.
Up again towards the sub-peak SW of McBride, onto the ridge and up through stunted trees covered with icy rime, on steep ground with a cliff on climbers right, which is quite a tough up track. The resulting run down is steep and a great fall line, with tree islands for safety, and is voted the best one yet, and well worth all the effort. We end up at the edge of the Battlefield, a big slide path coming down from the huge bowl above. Big smiles all around! Back to the hut for dinner and a strong effort to stay up to midnight to celebrate new years. Games of Jungle Speed and some horribly politically incorrect card game, finally Wade fires two firework tubes off the deck and we call it a night. Didn’t quite make it until midnight, but there’s skiing to do tomorrow!
Wednesday, Jan 1st
Exploration day with Gemma and Isaac. The sky is clear when we get up at 7, later than usual due to the (unsuccessful) attempt to stay up until midnight last night. A stunning morning! After some discussion, we decide to head up through the trees immediately behind the hut to the ridge, down Burton Trees, then up into the Broom zone on the other side of the Burton Creek valley. We are all feeling a little slow heading out of the hut and up the slope, and gain the 200m to the ridge top in about 45 minutes. At the top of the ridge we pop into the sun, and decide to drop straight off the back into the trees. The slope is steep – at least 40 degrees – with nicely spaced trees and good boot-deep snow. Skiing powder with friends under blue skies is definitely the best way to start a new year!
Descending the steep trees is challenging, as the slope has small cliffs and rock out-crops of various sizes, from 2 to 15m, scattered about, so we work our way carefully down, linking 5-10 turns before stopping on top of a drop to check out it’s magnitude. We decide to stop at an elevation of about 1700m instead of dropping to valley bottom, and work our way up and around a large, steep, cliffy feature about 240m high near the head of the valley. Difficult climbing up and over many fallen trees and lumpy rocks in the steep terrain. Eventually we work our way above and around the cliffy zone, and find a good descent into the head of the valley, where we then work our way up through alders on the edge of the Boarderland slide path, just south of the Broom. We work our way up through the trees, climbing through a old slide path that runs in a crescent shape down the slope. The slide path has big old trees who’s lower branches have been stripped up to about 10m, but the path is full of trees of the same height, so we figure that it had been 30 years since a slide came down here. The path is a nice mellow blue-run grade, and we are all looking forward to skiing it on the way down.
We’ve set a 2:00 turnaround, which will give us 2.5 hours to get back to the hut by dark. At 1:30 we have climbed into a steep zone, close to the ridge top, and decide to turn back as upward progress is minimal and I’m feeling that it will be good to have some extra time. The descent is excellent, easy fun turns in creamy, warm powder through the open trees. Then the ski turns in to fighting with alders the creek, and deadfall – big downed trees perpendicular to our direction of travel force us to zigzag around, up and over them. We don’t quite make it back by dark, but we all have headlamps, and are able to get back to well-known territory, and an established ski-track, before dark. The sky briefly clears in the early evening, and then the clouds come in and it snows a bit.
Thursday, Jan 2nd
Hut day. Snowing consistently but lightly all day. Hanging out reading, relaxing and chatting with Isaac and Martin. Hut days turn a ski trip into an actual vacation, and I love them!
Talk with Martin about the frequency of avalanches on these slopes. The Battlefield is a huge slide path that ran in 2007. The avalanche started in the large bowl between Mt. McBride and Mt. Prough, likely triggered by a cornice fall, crossed a large low-angle zone at the base of the bowl and roared through the forest below, down to the lake. Martin said that it took out 100 year old trees, a truly massive and rare slide. The Norns (named after the female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men in Norse mythology) are a series of slide-paths just down the valley from the Battlefield, and run roughly once a year.
Friday, Jan 3rd
Powder, powder! 20+cm in the last 24 hours and strong gusting winds pushed the avie hazard in the overall region up to high in the alpine, high at treeline, and considerable below treeline – very serious conditions. We head down from the hut towards the upper lake, and head up towards the Mead Pot, an area of nicely spaced steep trees just across the valley. Gemma, Adrien and I, then joined by Jeremie and Isaac. The terrain forces us across a couple avi paths and we move quickly, and then up through trees and across another slide path before reaching the top of the trees. Not the most comfortable place to be, but we move quickly through the exposed areas. The wind is strong and its snowing consistently, pretty unpleasant conditions, but when we get to the top of the trees and look down the slope at the gorgeous snow our spirits soar!
Folks are in a mellow mood after four days of skiing, and I’ve taking the SLR out for a ski today, which means that I get first tracks so that I can shoot people skiing from below – and what sweet tracks they are! Maybe 30cm of penetration, that beautiful soft floating sensation, and regular face shots. Best snow of the week by far! We do two more laps of the Mead Pot, the second one finishing near the bottom of the large slide path called the Battlefield. We quickly traverse across that, then head up through trees on the southern edge of The Norns, getting up to the col. There is surprisingly little wind affect up here. We dig a pit, which shows two layers failing in the storm snow at 15 and 25cm in the easy range, unconsolidated, and moderate failures with clean failure surfaces at 60 and 75cm. None of the layers pop out, and we are surprised at the numerous layers and relatively easy failures, given that we have not seen any signs of instability today, despite hitting steep rolls and slopes in the trees. We ski the ridge crest and don’t have any issues, then find the awesome line in the trees known as Secret Lover, a consistent 30 degree opening, about 10m wide, dropping through the forest. Wow, perhaps the best line of the week!
Saturday, Jan 4th
Had been planning a relaxed day but end up going out with Isaac, Sean and Mike. We ski two runs in the Norns, from the ridge top, and end up doing about 1100m total vertical. Spectacular morning; I was contemplating taking a hut day as my back is sore, but the clearing sky gave me a bad case of FOMO (fear of missing out)! The top of the ridge is sunny but very windy and cold and we work our way through the beautiful rim-encrusted trees along the ridge to the start of the good skiing. As the wind howls over the ridge-top, it deposits snow on the lee (north) side, where we are going to be skiing, resulting in soft, deep, beautiful snow.
We dig a pit and do an extended column test, which shows very good stability and no signs of propagating failures on the various layers in the 170cm snowpack. We drop down through the beautifully spaced trees, whooping with joy in the perfect snow. About 50m down from the ridge we come across a large open area, that spans the top of the Norn avalanche paths – the start zone. We are pretty confident about the stability of the snowpack, having tested it extensively and continuously over the last few days, but this large, steep opening in the forest makes us all nervous. We scout for the safest line down from the top to the nearest safe-zone, and ski it gently, one at a time. No issues, and it’s a beautiful, exhilarating run.
Later in the evening the sky is clearing, and I’m out there shooting the stars, with Orion rising beautifully above Hilda. There are still high clouds and light haze, but the sky around Orion and Taurus seems to be fairly clear, and I’m keen to test out some new camera gear. The resulting image has fuzzy, bloated stars as a result of the sky-haze, which ends up making the bright stars that define the constellations stand out more. Fingers crossed for a truly clear night this week! Trying not to stay out too late as we have an early morning tomorrow…
Sunday Jan 5th
Stunning morning, not a cloud in the sky. Our plan is to go up to Hilda high col, ski Hilda East, then go up Broom to the ridge and then down and out the valley. Different entrance, but same destination as we had tried to do on Wednesday, but not getting lost or finishing in the dark this time!
The route up to the Hilda col is the through the area known as Ramparts, and is heavily wind-blasted. Following the ridge-lines and high points, we work our way easily up to the col. We are in the shadow of Hilda Peak, but the other side of the col is in full sun, and the ridge-line has a gorgeous, glowing sunlit edge of rime-coated rock. Close to the top is a boot-pack up a steep, narrow gully that keeps the route high and avoids skiing up lower gullies that are exposed to avalanches from above.
We reach the col and pop out into the glorious sunshine. The rock and small trees are all covered in rime and the view down into the Burton Creek valley is stunning. The back side of the col has a cliff on the left side dropping to the slopes below, but there is a good ski line to the right. We enjoy the view and snap photos while grabbing a quick bite and drink and getting ready to ski the gorgeous slope.
Jeremie has brought his camera with a big lens, and he and Adrien take shots of us coming down from Hilda col under blue skies. What a sweet run!
At the bottom we traverse right to get through some cliff-bands near the valley bottom, which still requires navigating a steep, narrow gully, then head up through the forest towards the Broom area and the ridge above. We get to the top and bask in warm sun, having lunch and gazing the fantastic views of Hilda Peak, the Burton Trees, and the Narns across the valley – most of the terrain we’ve been skiing this week, all laid out in front of us.
The run down Broom trees is very fun, soft creamy snow and nicely spaced trees. Lower in the valley the early-season conditions make the skiing very interesting as we work our way through areas with large blown-down trees before finally getting to valley bottom. On the way back we go through the stand of magnificent cedars, some over 2m in diameter, which Martin says are very unusual at this elevation.
The day dawned clear, then in the afternoon a small storm system came through, and in the evening it clears again – excellent! I’ve been waiting all week for good clear night skies, and it finally happens. It’s dark by 5:00, and there is a thin crescent moon out that lights up the terrain beautifully. I forgo the sauna to get out to capture the beautiful landscape lit up by moonlight.
The moon is lighting the bowl of McBride, as well as the excellent skiing in the Narns slide-paths, and if you look closely in this image, you can see ski tracks off the ridge on the right.
Head back in for dinner (not my turn to cook tonight!) after the moonlit shots. After dinner we all sit around, working hard on finishing the last of the alcohol, and working equally hard on composing an epic poem for the hut log book. Laughs all around, and the poem ends up being a page and half. Around 10:30 I’m back out, after the moon has gone down and the sky has become truly dark. The sky is magnificent!
It’s a tough balancing act between the mostly solitary hobby of astro-photography, and the desire to party it up with my friends. Life is full of compromises, and this one involves running inside every few minutes to drink a bit of wine and catch a snippet of conversation while the camera sits outside in the cold, shutter open doing a long exposure capturing photons that have been traveling for 1000s of years just to get here and land on this particular spot on Earth. Quite a surreal experience, as I jump between the inside world of warm, friendly laughter and the outside world filled with the incredible beauty and immensity of the Universe.
Every time I come in the conversation has changed and there are one or two fewer people as folks retire for the night. At the end, around 1am, there are the just die-hards (you know who you are!) left standing. Meanwhile, outside, the stars keep shining and the camera keeps capturing 1-3 minute exposures.
Orion is rising magnificently above Hilda Peak, and the Milky Way is arching beautifully over the peaks to the south. First shoot an all-encompassing panorama with the wide, wide lens, and then a detailed mosaic of the hut with Orion and Taurus behind. One of the magical things about the night sky is that the harder you look (zooming in with a bigger lens, longer exposures, complicated photographic techniques and processing) the more you see. And what there is to see is… well, the entire Universe!
Click to zoom into the high-resolution (100 megapixel) mosaic of Hilda lodge and the night sky above, built from 25 frames taken with a 50mm lens. Sky frames are guided 2-minute exposures, ground frames are 4 seconds.
And suddenly it’s over. After a late night last night and just a few hours of sleep, we are up at 6:00 to pack up our gear and left-over food, clean up the hut, have a bite of breakfast, and get ready to fly out by 9:00. Some of us comment that we’re just getting warmed up, and would love to spend another week here.
A quick group shot on the balcony after we have all the chores done and the gear is heaped by the helipad and then we wait a bit, and suddenly it’s time to fly and after an roughly 8 minute flight we are deposited back at our cars and the vacation is over.
Thanks again, Martin and Shelly, for the incredible hospitality and comfort of Hilda, your newest lodge, to Jeremie for organizing this trip, and for everybody for making it a fantastic week!
– Darren Foltinek