This was my first VOC trip, and thus it fell to me to write the trip report. I’d been meaning to go on a VOC trip pretty much every weekend since September, but somehow there was always something else that came up: it was someone’s birthday, there was a paper due on Monday, or maybe I had a midterm or two the following week. Whatever the reason, I never managed to get my act together enough to commit to a trip. Finally, I decided enough was enough and I was going to get out of the city for the Remembrance Day long weekend, and this trip to the Brian Waddington (Phelix) Hut looked awfully appealing. Part of that appeal was certainly just the promise of a trip to the backcountry, part was the idea of getting out on my skis for the first time this season, and part of the appeal was definitely the gorgeous photos that Nathan used to advertise Phelix in the trip description. As it turned out, those photos were pretty darn close to false advertisement.
At the pre trip meeting Nathan gave us a pretty blunt assessment of the conditions. After the record snowfall in October things had gotten awfully warm. The freezing level had been high for a week and half. We could expect that it had rained at the hut, and probably for quite some ways above the hut too. There had been so much rain that half of Pemberton was flooding. Basically, odds were high that there wouldn’t be a lot of snow, and what snow there was would be pretty sh*tty. The outlook was so bleak that about a third of those who didn’t bail before the pre trip ended up deciding that things just looked too wet, and they didn’t really want to go anymore. There had been lots of interest in the trip before conditions turned mushy, but only 18 ended up coming on the trip. I was pretty determined to get into the mountains for a few days, and the promise of lots of mud and very little snow wasn’t going to deter me. I just made sure to pack lots of spare, dry socks, and lots of food. If the snow is bad, the food had better be excellent to make up for it.
Davide picked me at somewhere around 6:00 am on Friday morning, and I was happy to find that his 1970’s Dodge camper van had ample room to spread out and doze in the back. There was a lot of praise of the super cool, quintessential dirtbag climber van tossed about, and Davide happily explained that everything ran perfectly and there were no problems at all with the van (he had purchased it not that long ago). Really the only issue with the van was that it couldn’t really top about 80 or 90 km/h. We got super excited when we hit 104 once, while going down a hill. Because of the impressive speed of the van, we ended up getting to the Pemberton McDonalds significantly later than the other three cars of our group. When we tried to leave the parking lot to continue on towards Phelix, the perfectly functioning van which works perfectly stopped working perfectly. In fact, it stopped working entirely. It wouldn’t start. Some faff, a call home to consult my dad on how cars work, and some jumper cables later, we had the van running again. To our great relief it got us all the way to the turn off for the 4×4 road. From there Nathan and Tanner used their 4×4 vehicles to shuttle everyone 5 km up the road to the log bridge, effectively cutting the hiking distance in half.
With the kerfuffle from the van and shuttle and final repacking and strapping skis onto packs finished and sorted, we were finally ready to get hiking by 1:30 pm. It rained off and on for the entire hike up. There was a distinct shortage of snow, but no shortage of mud. I’d never really done any significant bootpacking before, and I will admit that the extra weight of my skis and boots on my pack did make me really question if it would be worth it to lug that much extra weight up the entire trail. I also really regretted not bringing plastic bags to cover the tops of my boots to prevent the rain from soaking the insides of my boots. We hit snow about a km before the lake, but it was a few hundred more metres before there was really enough to ski. The snow was hard and crusty from having been rained on, thawed, and refrozen. Skis were quite necessary to travel at this point, to avoid breaking through the crust and sinking up to the knee with every step. As I slipped my feet into the awfully cold and disappointingly damp insides of my ski boots I swore to myself to never forget plastic bags again. Dry boots are just so much nicer to put on than soggy ones. The skinning was pretty easy for the most part, just following along the edge of the semi-frozen lake, however there were a few tricky creek crossings to contend with. Due to some binding troubles we ended up fairly spread out on this final part of the hike, and the last few people arrived just after darkness fell.
18 VOCers and five other people can heat up a hut pretty quickly with body heat. Unfortunately, 18 soggy, rain soaked VOCers also make a hut rather humid, so nothing stood any real chance of drying out. As the evening wore on we ate lots of excellent food, drank lots of whiskey, played lots of President, and there was a noisy game of spoons played with whatever small objects could be found. There were no actual spoons involved. At some point we came to the realization that we may not have brought enough alcohol and things would have to be rationed. There was some brief thought given sending an alcohol resupply team back to Pemberton, but that idea seemed a lot less appealing Saturday morning.
Much like Friday, Saturday was grey and drizzly. A group of us got out to try and ski a couple runs on the atrocious rain crust while the rest of the crew (mainly the snowshoers) stayed around the hut. I had never ski toured in the rain before, but there’s a first for everything. The skiing group headed up past the upper lake, navigated some half covered boulder fields, and went up a north-ish facing slope above the lake, hoping that the north aspect would have better snow than everything else. It might have been a bit better, but that certainly doesn’t mean it was high quality snow. The one major saving grace of the refrozen nature of the snow was that because it was so hard we were unlikely to hit stuff underneath and damage our skis. After one run, we made the decision that one run on that snow was enough. We could say we’d skied. It was time to head back to the hut for lunch. On the way back to the hut, Marie became unfortunately closely acquainted with a creek which we had to cross. The crew that stuck around the hut had managed to construct most of an igloo and practice their tele turns on a shallow slope. That afternoon a huge kicker was built on a roughly 10° slope behind the hut. If you poled really hard and skated a bit to get up some speed you could get like a foot and a half of air off it. It was pretty epic.
In the evening the songbooks came out, and between us there was enough talent on a guitar to play most of the songs. I thought we sounded excellent, but I also have the distinct feeling that we probably didn’t sound quite so good to someone who was not actually belting out the lyrics with us. After many more rounds of President, and the end of the alcohol supplies, we decided that a swim in the lake was necessary. There were a few mistakes made here, and I hope any readers can learn from them. Firstly, it would be wise to wear one’s clothes to the edge of the lake instead of stripping naked in the hut and running across the roughly 15 metres to the water. Secondly, wearing boots of some kind between the hut and the lake can make the whole situation a lot less painful. Running barefoot through super crusty, icy, knee deep snow hurts. Thirdly, if you have to break through the ice to get to the lake water, it might be rather chilly. My feet didn’t quite recover from the jaunt to the lake until Sunday morning.
Sunday morning we awoke to snow! Finally, it was not raining, but actually snowing. After breakfast we got out to try another run, but found pretty quickly that the crust was frozen even harder than the day before and the dusting of new snow didn’t do much to soften it. While a few of the group did persevere and push on to try and get a half decent run, I gave it up as hopeless and helped finish the igloo instead. The hike out was much quicker than the hike up, and it was quite pleasant that it was snowing instead of raining. Of course it turned to rain lower down, but the snow was nice while it lasted. By the time we arrived back at the cars at the head of the logging road everything was nice and wet, and it was raining the kind of rain that soaks everything within about 5 minutes. The van had to be jumped to life, and we finally got going after darkness had fallen. Things went fairly smoothly until we got to the end of the forest service road, and tried to rejoin the highway. At this point the van stalled out and died. There was a brief moment where we thought that it had breathed its last and completely given up the ghost, but it turned out that the manual choke control hadn’t been adjusted quite properly. Nathan jumped the van back to life yet again, and we were off towards Pemberton. I am far from an expert on cars, but as far as I could figure out the alternator had failed, which means that the battery was not charging while we drove. That was why we had jump it every time the engine shut off, and why our headlights got dimmer and dimmer and dimmer… The battery wasn’t charging, which meant that the headlights were running down what little charge there was left, and they gave out entirely about half an hour out of Pemberton. We were out of cell service, and out of options, so Will did the logical thing. He held a headlamp out the passenger window to try and illuminate the road at least a little bit. It hardly needs to be said, but a headlamp doesn’t really cut it when it comes to illuminating the wet pavement well enough to drive. This was hands down the scariest ride I’ve had in ages, and without a doubt the most dangerous thing I’ve done in a while. That half hour to Pemberton felt like an awful lot longer than half an hour. Two of the cars were long gone ahead of us, but Nathan had hung back with us to make sure that his car was available to jump the van if we needed it, so he saw our predicament. I have never been so happy to see a McDonalds as I was when we got to the Pemberton McDonalds, safe and in one piece. We got some food, and considered our options. It was a Sunday evening, so there were no mechanics or garages open, so we were on our own to figure out how to get the van running well enough to get us home. Luckily, because it’s a camper, there was a second battery to run the interior lights and minifridge. Davide managed to swap out the dead battery for this second battery, and we just had to hope that it had enough charge in it to run the headlights till we got to Vancouver. Nathan jumped us one last time, and we finally got back on the road. The headlights did get kind of dim, but they stayed on, and we all got home safe, sound, and thoroughly exhausted.
In spite of — perhaps because of — the lack of good snow and the harrowing drive in a dying van, I have not had that much fun in ages. This was my first VOC trip, but I can guarantee that it will not be my last.