I arrived in Vancouver in December 2016 with the main purpose of “getting to know the backcountry better” and it was already dumping snow, which I knew to be relatively rare in Vancouver. I wanted to make the most of it but I needed equipment, knowledge, and contacts.
I discovered “Sport Junkies” and the staff, bless them, were very friendly and helpful with my completely vague requirements: “I’m sorry – I really don’t know what I want. I don’t even know if I want skis or a snowboard. I just want to know the Canadian backcountry better…”
Luckily, they just happened to have a pair of touring skis in – a great deal for skis, bindings and skins all in good condition. Done. It had taken me longer to pick the right pair of socks at Mark’s Work Warehouse. And for the heck of it, I bought a snowboard for $60 just because.
Next stop, SportChek for the boots. Found sales on both snowboard and ski boots. I was going to get 28.5 but the salesman insisted, “they should be tight! When you lift your heel, you should still feel your toes.” He insisted I get 27.5. Since I know nothing about ski boots and I hate shopping, I took ‘em and left.
My birthday present to me. My Dad nearly fainted when he saw how much gear I had splurged on in a day. It’s rather unlike me – I’ve been trying all year to simplify my life and reduce my worldly possessions enough to live a truly nomadic lifestyle.
Sport Junkies staff had also mentioned I should look into the VOC as the local backcountry aficionados. When I googled them, looked at the calendar of events, that’s when I first noticed “New Years at Phelix Hut”. Sweet! Sounded like the perfect way to spend the holidays. A cozy hut in the wilderness with a bunch of friendly students.
I first tested my skis at Cypress on Monday December 19. I figured I’d pop by the repair shop and ask them to help me adjust my skis. “Touring skis? We don’t do that. You need special tools.” I hadn’t expected that – nobody at the rental shop, or the retail shop, knew how to adjust touring ski bindings. Damn. I was so mad at myself for not having brought my snowboard – if only I had, then I could have snowboarded instead! Now I had to rent gear?
I decided to just try my bindings as they were without adjusting them and luckily – seemed to work. Boy, what a day. Powder everywhere. I hadn’t skied in 4 years but I was happy to see I still had it in me. The only problem was, at the end of the day, I noticed a tendon (Peroneus brevis? Longus?) on my right foot was sore. Ah well – new boots – what do you expect!
Well I didn’t expect it’d still be sore a week later. And also, though Roland Burton and Nick Hindley had been very useful in getting my membership up and running, I still didn’t have a ride to Phelix Creek. I figured I’d rent a car and offer some spots to others interested. But someone else had the same idea, and one day I received an email from someone called Michael: “Are you wanting to go into Phelix Creek during our holiday break? I may arrange a car rental depending on the interest.”
Everything was falling into place.
Michael and I spoke on the phone and I was shocked to learn this hut wasn’t heated! I’d never been in an unheated hut before, for so many days. I mentioned to Michael, “maybe we can just make a campfire outside!” and I got the feeling he thought I was crazy.
We found a car to rent, discussed what gear and food to bring, made a menu together… and decided to meet at Hertz at 9:30 on Friday December 27th. We drove to his place, got his gear, did some grocery shopping, and finally were off to Birkenhead Lake. After stopping in Squamish for a few last minute items and in Pemberton for our last prepared warm meal (“Backcountry Pizza”, delicious!), we finally arrived at the parking lot at 6pm.
Michael was happy to camp out at the parking lot and start hiking the next day, but I insisted I really wanted to get started, at least get the easy “road” out of the way so we only had the trail to do the next day.
I expected the hike would take 4-5 hours in total. Didn’t look too bad on the map. I also thought to myself I didn’t want to repeat the disappointing experience of not having my snowboard, especially in case my skiboots still hurt, then at least I’d have an alternative up there. Maybe I could just easily drag the snowboard behind me, like a sled. Aha! I could use my hammock to attach it… Genius! Absolutely genius!
Michael’s only words were, “Well – I’ve never seen that before.” And “Geez, your pack’s heavy.”
It was dark, snowing, and with about 2 feet of fresh snow, but after about half an hour of organizing our packs, we set off along the road. Emboldened. Motivated. Courageous. Excited. Adventure-seeking. In rather good spirits.
After about an hour I took a look at my phone’s GPS. I had downloaded the .kml file from the VOC Wiki page so I could track our progress. I couldn’t really believe it. We’d barely moved at all. We were still at the very beginning. I zoomed in a bit more… we’d definitely moved, the GPS seemed to be working… but we clearly weren’t going very fast. Probably because we were breaking trail. Still, I felt we were going at a decent pace. Snowboard wasn’t dragging too much. I had to keep adjusting the hammock around my waist and the backpack for comfort, but we were definitely moving. Well… it was sure gonna take longer than I thought. But I told Michael, “I’m really glad we started today.”
Another hour of hard work and effort went by. I looked at the GPS again. I think I started to cry inside. We’d only done about 1/3 of the “road”. Two hours of hiking uphill, on the easy part, we weren’t even close to the trail. Michael was still in good spirits, “we’ll just go as far as we can today and continue tomorrow. But I’d like to be in my sleeping bag by 10pm.”
After another hour trudging away, we were both tired enough we decided to camp out. We’d done about 1/2 of the “road” part – only about 1/4 of the whole trail. And we’d been hiking for three hours. It was going to take us all day to get there tomorrow.
Still was rather relieved to take off my backpack and noticed Michael creating a little platform of packed snow with his skis. We were going to create a makeshift snow shelter with a tarp roof. I was tired but curious and started helping him to dig a little aisle between our two “beds”. Then tarp came over and we tried to pack the snow around it, but it kept slipping and it turned out the tarp was rather small. We struggled with the whole contraption for about half an hour and then Michael, frustrated, said “it’s not working, screw it” and decided I would sleep under the tarp and he would sleep in his bivouac under the snow.
It was only then that I unwrapped the sleeping mat I’d been excited to find at my Dad’s place to discover that it seemed to be designed for midgets. Michael basically laughed at me and I tried to use my hammock as a base for my feet, but my shitty sleeping bag was basically guaranteed to get wet. At that point, Michael started to panic as he couldn’t find the stove attachment to the white gas bottle. “It was in the pot! Did you move things in the car?” I answered sheepishly that yeah, things had moved from the back… “Well – gotta go back for it. Can’t spend a week without a stove.” “Oh man, seriously? I guess I’ll just wait for you here then. Are you sure?” And he made a last, half-hearted attempt to find it in some other compartment of his bag – Eureka! Found it.
With that crisis averted, we proceeded to have some delicious, well deserved hot chocolate. Snuggled into our sleeping bags. And fell asleep.
I woke up at 4 am with cold feet and knees. I had enough layers on my upper body but my legs were touching the soaking part of my sleeping bag and I started to wait for sunrise so we could get moving again. I also noticed a rather irritating need to urinate but the effort required to get out of the sleeping bag, put my feet in my ski boots and walk out was way too much to fathom. “Come on, kidneys, keep it in.” I dozed in and out of sleep for the following 4 hours as my body fought between the need to pee, the cold, and tiredness. When it started to be light out, I finally mustered the gargantuan effort of putting on my tight, painful ski boots and managed to relieve my poor kidneys.
Michael hadn’t slept all that well either, mumbled something about how he needed another bivouac, spilled some coffee and couldn’t find his glove… but after about an hour of fuffing about and packing our stuff, we were finally “on the road again” around 9am. I couldn’t wait to at least get to the start of the trail, but this “road” – I couldn’t believe it was called that, it looked like a bloody trail to me – was so narrow and there were sticks and branches in the way. The only time it looked like a road were the bridges with signs that said “Max Load 6 Tonnes” and I wondered if I was actually carrying more on my back.
My back was already killing me from the weight, I thought to myself “why on earth did I decide to bring whole tupperwares full of homemade chili con carne and guacamole, dammit” and I started to think, maybe I should offload some weight on the snowboard. After all, I was pulling it with my waist, and my shoulders were in pain. Michael had gone off ahead, but I was in too much pain. I messed around for 20 minutes trying to stuff things between my snowboard boots and finally, satisfied, kept trudging on. That is, until I came to the first creek.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I somehow managed to place my skis across it, it was narrow enough, and then try to slowly pull the snowboard by hand over it. I managed fairly decently the first time. But who knew how many more such painful crossings lie ahead… and already at the second one, my snowboard dove straight into the creek and I struggled for 5 minutes to get it out.
After a while, I felt like I was pulling a cement block. What the hell? Was it all the snow accumulating from the added weight? It was going so well before… Maybe I should put the stuff back on my backpack. So I stopped (again) and spent a few minutes getting all the stuff back onto my backpack, using ropes to tie the helmet and extra bags. Finally started off again, and though slightly better, it was still painful pulling this thing. Maybe it was more uphill. Maybe I was dramatically more tired.
Another creek. Same thing happened. Michael was long gone. But I was completely destroyed.
Out of breath, I got out of my bindings, pulled up the snowboard, and realized that underneath, the water had caused the wet snow to stick to it and become hard slush. I spent about 15 minutes trying to get it all off. Whenever I needed to use my hands, I’d take them out of my gloves. But after a few minutes they’d get cold and I’d have to stick them back into the gloves to warm up.
Snowboard cleaned, I got back in my bindings and trucked along. Much better. But I was spent. 20 minutes later, I came across Michael, who’d sat down and was warming a soup. I definitely needed a break. It was noon, and we hadn’t even arrived at the beginning of the trail yet.
Shortly after I collapsed, we saw the first of the “others” and exchanged a few pleasantries. “You pulling that snowboard for somebody else right?” “Um, no… I uh… It’s a long story.” “Alright well, see you up there! Or maybe later on!” “No, no, you’ll see us up there. Don’t worry, definitely not before!”
Then Elliott showed up, in a T-shirt and brandishing a small hand-saw. He was quickly and adeptly hacking away at any branches in the way, while skiing up. “It’ll make the downhill easier”, he winked. I remember feeling humiliated at the obvious huge difference between our preparedness and experience.
There’s no way I could keep pulling this bloody thing. I told Michael I had decided to leave it behind. Elliott recommended a big tree with a marker at the beginning of the trail, not far away. Sounded good to me. We were almost there. Almost at the beginning. I asked Elliott, embarrassed, if there was any way he could take up some weight off me – I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. He said, his pack was full, and I shouldn’t give him anything I might need (like my sleeping bag) anyways, just in case. I knew he was right. “You’ll see, you’ll be much faster after you ditch the snowboard.” I knew he was wrong.
Still, I was more than happy to plant it firmly in the snow, an hour later, next to the big tree. “That’s not the big tree”, said Michael, “it’s further down!” Well it was big enough for me. “The snowboard shall be dragged no further.” I wrapped the hammock around the top, attached my helmet to it, and, feeling slightly lighter, proceeded up the beginning of the trail. It was 1pm on the 28th, we’d already been hiking for 7 hours, and we were only halfway.
The next 7 hours were some of the most painful hours of the year. I remember delirious thoughts of “This is the worst day of my life. I’m not going to make it. That’s it. I’m going to die of exhaustion, pain from a shitty backpack, and hypothermia from a soaking sleeping bag.” I remember thinking this was the mountain that never ended. Every time Michael would say “oh we must be close now.” The mountain just kept going up. “Hm, I don’t remember the steep part being this long.” Every 20 minutes I’d ache and tell him “I need a break.” He’d reply, “Let’s just get to the hut.” “I’d love to Michael, believe me, I wish for nothing more! But I can’t go on, I need a break, my back is killing me.”
At one point I actually had to take a crap. I couldn’t believe how uncooperative my digestive system was being today, it usually understands when I’m busy with other things. But not today. “Do you happen to have any toilet paper?” “Just use the snow!” Luckily I found some Kleenex in my pocket. As I took off my bindings and headed up behind a tree, Michael decided he’d go on ahead.
At 5pm it was dark and according to the GPS we were about 2/3 up the trail. I finally felt like there was hope, we might actually make it that evening. “Just be like Buddha and ignore the pain,” Michael suggested. “It’s all in your head.” “No it’s not, it’s in my bloody shoulders!” At some point he was talking about “The Power of Now” and went on some sort of philosophical rant and I told him, “I love that you’re thinking about spirituality and the meaning of life, while I’m just focusing on trying to survive and struggle for dear life.”
I honestly couldn’t believe I was thinking of dragging a snowboard up this mountain. What the hell was I thinking?! I had no idea it was going to be so long! Besides which – how the hell was I even going to get it back down from where it was? If I dragged it behind me it downhill it would catch up behind me and crash into me… Anyways – I had more immediate worries, like not dying of exhaustion in the middle of a cold desolate mountain with no cell phone reception.
Michael started singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer…” a rather clear indication of his dire boredom and embarrassment about how long we were taking, and I felt bad and indebted to his patience. “Don’t worry, I’m not in a rush”, he’d chirp.
Looking on the GPS, I could see we were approaching the lake, I was so encouraged I started joining him with the song. “76 bottles of beer on the wall, 76 bottles of beer…” I started counting the trail markers in Spanish – “Five more markers and then we take a break! UNO!”
At 7pm, we made it to the top, to the lake. I was ecstatic with satisfaction. We were so close. A well-deserved break, and one last effort, and we’d make it. Indeed, soon after, we could see the lights in the distance. The hut! We were almost there. I could feel tears of joy and relief welling up. What a bloody day. 14 hours of hiking later – we’d finally arrived at the infamous Phelix Creek Hut. I was so relieved I asked the first person I saw if she’d mind taking a picture. “Not at all! We were wondering if you’d make it!” “So was I! This is the happiest moment of my life!”
Inside the cold hut, we finally managed to take off our packs, our boots, and as the group of 5 francophones played cards, we cooked dinner. I thought we deserved that heavy chili con carne I’d stupidly packed. I thanked Michael profusely for his patience and we finally headed up and got in our sleeping bags.
Unfortunately, my cold, wet sleeping bag wasn’t the refuge I remembered it to be in drier weather. And it didn’t look like it would dry out anytime soon. I awoke again at 4am and spent the remaining hours of the night shuffling around trying to warm up.
In the morning, Michael was a bit distant. Maybe he just wasn’t a morning person. Elliott and Emily performed some tag-team first aid on my blisters, then headed out. Michael asked: “What’s your plan, Marc? Are you going to go ski today?” “That’s the plan.” “With the others then?” “Well… the others are already gone…” But I got the message he didn’t feel like skiing with me. I found out my shuffling had kept him awake. Eventually, we set off together for Cabin Hill.
Halfway up, we ran into the other group. “I was sure you guys would be way ahead!” “Breaking trail is hard work.” Cheerfully I asked them, “Hey! Would you mind if we joined you today then?” And I immediately got the sense that I shouldn’t have asked that. “You know – you guys should ski elsewhere to minimize the risk.” “Oh. Yeah. Ok. Right. Sorry.” But Michael was off ahead. Later on, we were standing at the top of a downhill section, and while the others had gone down, Emily and I were left at the top and she politely explained to me that inviting oneself to one’s group was somewhat contrary to backcountry etiquette, particularly for this New Years trip. I apologized, explained that it was my first time touring and I’d come hoping to make friends, and I’d just met Michael at the rental car place. She immediately understood the situation, warmed up, and eventually the group of 5 accepted to “adopt me” for the day. We had two beautiful runs in so much powder, and then headed home for lunch. I realized I was the only one who’d taken off my skiboots – they were all headed back out for a third run, but I was spent. My left big toe was killing me.
I was alone in the cabin for about 2 hours. I was wet and cold but at peace. I started reading the VOC yearbook. I took a few pictures of the hut. I toyed with the idea of putting a puzzle together. Then two guys arrived, panting. “Hi guys! Welcome! How long did it take you to get up here?” “Four hours and a half! Breaking trail!” I couldn’t believe it. These guys were hardcore, and I was definitely not hardcore.
More people started arriving at the hut, and the francophones came back. At some point, I was curious about my throbbing toe so I went upstairs to take a look and to my surprise, noticed it was completely black. No wonder it was throbbing. I took a picture, headed back down and, in the midst of all the party and frolicking, begged Emily for some advice. She told me I’d probably have a black toe for 6 months, but wasn’t a big deal and not much she could do about it. I decided to put some snow in a ziplock and apply it to my toe to try and reduce the swelling.
At 9pm, everyone spontaneously disappeared into their sleeping bags. There were about 20 people sleeping upstairs. And eventually as I slipped into mine, my toe started throbbing particularly intensely. I tried to keep the ziplock with cold water on it, but it leaked all over the sleeping bag. Eventually I was wincing from the pain. I felt bad for my neighbours, wondering if they could hear me trying desperately to breathe calmly. I started trying to distract myself, listening to podcasts. One of the podcasts mentioned anti-inflammatories by coincidence, I decided it was a sign and decided to take one. I headed downstairs for some water. I swallowed the pill and lay on the bench, with my foot on the table, trying to reduce bloodflow. I read a few chapters from Jon Krakauer’s “Into The Air”. It described people suffering at high altitudes, in excruciating pain, vomiting, falling into crevasses, breaking bones, dying… helped me relativize my situation “could be worse!” (and felt even more like a wuss.)
I really had to pee, but there was no way I could head out to the pee tree. I could barely walk, let alone put boots on. All these people had these fancy MEC Down Booties, I didn’t even have my snowboard boots and there was no way in hell I could dream of putting on my skiboots. Desperate times called for desperate measures – I took the empty cylindrical plastic container of Gorp we’d finished, headed outside the door for purposes of discreteness, and peed away. I actually couldn’t believe how much I peed. Must have been 4 litres. I filled the bloody thing. Now all I had to do was wait for the first person who’d get up in the middle of the night to go pee. That person was Caroline.
“Psst – hey. I’m sorry but I have a really strange favour to ask you. Would you mind taking this and emptying it out at the pee tree?” Half-asleep she asked, “what is it?” “It’s my pee! I’m really sorry, I can’t walk there myself!” I think she was too tired to be shocked or grossed out, she just took it and left. A few minutes later she returned and as I thanked her profusely, she shrugged “whatever, it’s just pee.”
The pain had finally subsided enough that I managed to climb back upstairs and half-sleep for 3 hours or so. In the morning everyone woke up, made breakfast, got ready, left… and finally Michael came up to see me and I told him about my toe. “I’m sorry Michael – I’m afraid it’s going to be a long, slow way down as well.”
I took the “day off”. I asked one of the guys if I could borrow their hut booties while they were away, and tried to walk a bit outside. Luckily, slowly but surely, I managed, which was somewhat reassuring. I decided to build steps for the outhouse, cover up the gaping hole just begging people to slide underneath it. It took a surprising amount of snow, but at least I was outside, doing stuff. It was such a beautiful sunny day. Invigorated by the fresh air, I decided to build a snow tunnel – just like when I was a kid. I spent the whole afternoon packing snow and shoveling it out, by 3pm I was completely soaking wet and had to give up. But it was a decent size, I was proud. And my efforts weren’t for naught – later that night, a couple would end up using it for shelter.
That evening was New Years Eve Eve [sic] – a few people had to return on the 31st so they’d brought fireworks and a festive spirit for the evening of the 30th. We managed to play an exciting game of “Big Booty” and added some special rules in which we had to say “Shred the pow / Sleigh the gnar” – which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. Despite the good spirits, shockingly, everyone was suddenly in bed by 11pm – to think, I’d been worried about not being able to sleep because of rowdy drunken students!
Glenn and I were the last ones up, unwilling to give up on the night, we headed outside and took turns playing guitar, warming up our fingers, and star-gazing. The stars were absolutely, breath-takingly stunning that night. We were the last ones in bed and the first ones up the next morning, I’d finally had a decent night’s sleep.
That morning, Michael started giving me some food. “Aren’t we eating together?” “No, I’m heading back today.” “Oh…! Um… what about the rental car?” “Yeah, I found a ride. I have to head back, sorry. But I’m sure you’ll find other people to go back with tomorrow, lots of people are leaving tomorrow.”
I bravely decided to try to put my boots back on that day – and to attempt to head up and down a hill to prepare for the long return journey (on my own?). Luckily, I managed to find a group of people who were similarly “not as hardcore” and didn’t want to go too crazy. My encounters with VOC members thus far had led me to believe this was simply impossible. But I just wanted a short nice up and down to see if I could survive.
Luckily, I managed to go up and down cabin hill and return safely to the Hut. Mission accomplished, I felt reassured that I wouldn’t have to call a helicopter to come rescue me due to my inability to fit my foot in my boot.
At this point, as I was telling more and more people about how it had taken me 14 hours to get to the hut (I’m sure I set the record for the longest ascent this year), people would ask “how?!” and I’d get to the part where I thought it’d be a good idea to drag a snowboard behind… immediately, excited exclamations of “THAT WAS YOU! We were wondering what the hell a snowboard was doing in the middle of the trail… thought maybe some snowboarder had to take a crap and died!” I became the running joke of the hut.
That night, a few people stayed up until 1am (what a record!) but were quickly shushed by people on the top floor exclaiming “Hey! We’re trying to sleep up here!” To these VOCers, skiing was clearly more important than partying. Well, at least nobody puked on anybody else.
The next day was the big day I’d been psyching myself up for – the long, steep return back down. Since Michael was gone, I expected I’d find a few people along the way who would be kind enough to adopt me. But Elliott and Emily were concerned I didn’t have pre-established plans. They were planning to do a bit of skiing and be back at the hut around 11:30, and I told them I’d leave earlier and meet them along the way. A few minutes later Elliott came back and told me, “we’re coming with you. We’ll pack everything and be off.” “Are you sure? I don’t want to screw up your plans.” “No, it’s better this way. We’re tired anyways. Don’t worry about it.” Wow. So nice and unexpected of them, I was both relieved I’d be in good hands on the way down, and embarrassed I’d slow them down.
The way down was not easy. There were some pretty steep bits, and we all fell over at different points. At one point, I was skiing at a decent speed and noticed a log crossing a river up ahead, without thinking I just skied right over the log and when I reached the other side I exclaimed, “holy crap – I can’t believe I just did that.” Luckily my feet were behaving well enough and the pain was bearable. The worst bits were the horizontal ones but luckily there weren’t too many of them. We made it down the steep bit in about 2 hours and stopped for lunch by my abandoned snowboard, which was still there, patiently waiting for me to recover it, ominously foreboding great difficulties ahead.
At that point, Elliott did something unexpected and well beyond the call of duty. He nonchalantly decided he’d strap the board to his backpack. “Are you sure?” I felt a pang of guilt and simultaneous huge relief at not having to deal with my own stupid mistake! “Just don’t do it again. And when you become a backcountry expert, pay it forward and give a beginner a hand.” “Oh my God I promise I will! I WILL!”
Despite the additional weight, the group of 5 were faster than me and Elliott told me he’d leave the snowboard under my car. 2 hours later, when I finally arrived at the parking lot at the bottom of the steeper-than-I-remembered “easy” hill, there it was waiting for me. I was almost as relieved to reach the parking lot as I had been to reach the hut, but the 14-hour ascent was so much more grueling. In the end, it’d taken me 4,5 hours to reach the bottom – the same time it had taken the hardcore VOCers to reach the top from the bottom!
It was a grueling, humbling, life-changing experience, but I met some great people, saw some beautiful scenery, and had a great time. I’m definitely hooked to the backcountry, and as soon as my toes and feet recover from their injuries, I’ll be slapping on the skins and heading out again. I need to return to the Phelix Creek Hut, better equipped, and without dragging a damn snowboard behind me.