At 6:42 am on December 20th, I set a personal backpack-packing speed record in a frantic effort to stuff all my gear into my pack by 6:45, when I anticipated being picked up by Adam Rodrigues and Melissa Bernstein for a three-day post-exam ski trip to the Kees and Claire Hut. As is usual with early-morning pickups, the car arrived several minutes late, which gave me time to throw together a breakfast of oatmeal and Earl Grey for the drive to Whistler. It was still dark as we drove across the Lion’s Gate, but by the time we reached the Tim Hortons in Squamish for a breakfast and bathroom stop, the sun was up. It promised to be a beautiful, clear day.
Adam pulled into the Whistler parking lot beside the other car group, which contained Reid West, Rho Thygesen, Luke Greidanus, and Josh Yip. Hellos were exchanged while gear was organized and ski boots donned, and then we were off to catch the Whistler Village gondola. Josh had to get a pass, so Adam waited with him while the other five of us and our packs crammed into a gondola. It wasn’t long before Adam and Josh joined us at the top of the gondola, but in the intervening time Melissa and I took not one but two pee trips into the Roundhouse Lodge.
A short ski, followed by a sheepish ski-carrying hike because we took slightly the wrong run, brought us to the bottom of Peak chair, which we took to the top of Whistler Mountain. It turns out that getting on and off a chairlift with a heavy backpack is a difficult and daunting feat; the spectacle certainly amused the snowboarder who happened to share a chair with Reid and I.
A series of green runs deposited us in the slopes adjacent to Flute Bowl, where we transitioned and began our hike. I was dismayed when the wax paper I had stuck to one of the skins for storage tore and remained stuck to half the skin, instead of peeling cleanly off. I peeled off as many bits of paper as I could off the skin, and applied it to my ski, hoping it would have enough sticking strength to carry me through. Thankfully, it did, and the skin didn’t cause me any problems during the trip.
The bright sunlight and the steep initial climb to gain the rolling ridge that linked Flute and Oboe peaks caused everyone to stop to strip layers. Once on top, we enjoyed the mellow traverse with amazing views of the shining mountains all around us.
Eventually, we dropped into Singing Pass, with Melissa in the lead. Several people, myself included, struggled to adjust to skiing in the thick snow with a heavy pack. But we all made it down to the valley bottom, where we transitioned for the climb up the opposite side of the pass. During the steep climb, we had to stop a few times for breaks and gear faff involving skins not doing what they’re supposed to do.
Melissa and I forged ahead, following the skin track as it traversed mellower slopes above treeline. We rounded a corner to encounter the hut, dwarfed by the triangular Fissile. We didn’t go inside right away, instead lingering outside to admire the spectacular sunset. With its pointy, snow-covered peak lit up with golden light, Black Tusk resembled a flickering candle.
Once the sun dropped behind the mountains to the south and twilight began to fall, Melissa pulled out a string of purple lights to create a festive welcome for our friends. Unfortunately she had neglected to bring double A batteries for them (what uses double As, anyway??), but she managed to make them work with some triple As and sheer force of will. No sooner were the lights lit than the rest of the group members appeared. We placed our skis on the racks outside and went to check out our accommodations.
We knew the Kees and Claire Hut was a step above the usual VOC digs, but we were still quite impressed by how nice the place was. The hut has a fully outfitted kitchen (including massive woks), a room for drying gear, huge windows that offer incredible views of Fissile, room service, and a shelf of complementary crocs to wear inside (only one of these things is a lie). We claimed one of the downstairs sleeping nooks, unpacking hurriedly since dinner was on everyone’s minds.
During our pre-trip meeting we had decided to have a vegan dinner contest between the two car groups. Rho and Luke, the resident vegans, took over whipping up the African peanut stew they had mastermind for their car group’s dinner. Meanwhile, the non-vegans chowed down on a charcuterie spread of salami and several varieties of cheese. The stew, which was served over rice with cilantro and peanuts, received rave reviews from vegans and non-vegans alike. Chances of winning the dinner contest looked bleak for the curry that Adam, Melissa, and I planned to cook for the second night’s dinner.
During dinner, we checked the weather forecast. Unfortunately, it looked like a storm was going to hit the following evening (Tuesday evening), earlier than previously predicted. It was supposed to snow up to 50 cm of snow on Tuesday night, and an additional 50 cm on Wednesday. If we stuck to our original plan to ski out on Wednesday, we would likely be have to break trail in a blizzard, through over a meter of new snow. As a result of the storm, the avalanche danger was forecasted to be high below treeline, at treeline, and in the alpine on Wednesday. None of us were happy about the miserable and dangerous conditions we would face if we left Wednesday as planned, so we decided to leave on Tuesday afternoon instead, in order to make it back to Whistler before the storm hit. While this saved my car group from suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Team Peanut Stew, it bummed us out that we would not have as much time to explore the terrain around the hut as we hoped. We resolved to wake up at 6 the next morning to watch the sunrise and get in a solid morning of skiing before packing up to leave. The almost-full moon drew us outside to shiver in our hut crocs and take in the moonlight-bathed mountains for a few minutes, but everyone was pretty tired, so around 10pm we headed downstairs and settled in for the night. It was cozy with all of us in the same sleeping nook, and as I drifted off, I thought about how quickly we had gone from a group of strangers to a team.
Too soon, my phone alarm was jingling. It was 5:45am and my body would have appreciated at least two additional hours of sleep, but we had a sunrise to catch. By 7am, we were out the door. A five-minute skin hike brought us to the small peak overlooking the hut, where we had 360 degree views of the mountains and sky. Any description I write would fail to capture the spectacular, shifting colors of the sunrise, but you can get a good idea from the awesome photos that various people took.
We skied down past the skin track we had climbed the previous afternoon, and Adam and Reid got to work on a snow pit on a slope that we wanted to ski on our next lap. It was fun to examine the layers–we could see the depth of the snow that fell during the storm that had occurred over the weekend, as well as identify the persistent weak layer of faceted snow crystals that formed during a wet period earlier in the month, and test how reactive it was when we applied weight and pressure to the surface snow. We judged that it was safe to ski the slope since it was not steep enough for us to trigger a slide.
We headed back up the skin track, and parted ways with Josh, who was struggling with blisters. At the top of the slope we transitioned, then one by one dropped in hooting and hollering. The descent was pure fun–everyone had a blast making turns in the light, fluffy powder.
At the bottom, we judged that it was time to head back to the hut to eat lunch and pack. Everyone ate a big lunch, to minimize the amount of extra food that we had to schlep out. We left the hut around noon. It was still sunny, but light clouds were beginning to gather.
Adam, Reid, and I still felt like we had enough gas in the tank to hit the slope we had skied earlier in the day. We were almost to the top of the slope when we heard a yell from behind us. Melissa’s ski had escaped down the hill while she was transitioning. Adam went back to help Luke, Rho, Josh and Melissa recover Melissa’s ski; we planned to meet at the bottom.
The second lap was just as fun as the first. Towards the bottom, I shifted my weight for a turn and the heels of both my boots popped out of the bindings, sending me face-first into the snow–I think because I hadn’t properly cleaned the snow out of the bindings before snapping my boots in place. The spill was painless, but I fell in an awkward position with my skis uphill of me–thanks to Reid for helping me get back on my feet.
The clouds were closing in when we rejoined the others and began hiking back up Singing Pass towards the resort. At Oboe peak, the group was momentarily separated due to a miscommunication, but Melissa and I soon joined back with Rho and Luke, and we decided to forge ahead of Josh, Adam, and Reid. The four of us stuck together as we dropped into Flute bowl, since the falling snow made visibility poor. Darkness was falling, our legs were tired, and our packs felt heavier than ever, but we knew that we were not far from the end of our trek. Guided by Melissa’s Gaia map and fortified by her peanut M and M’s, we glided down the empty trails by headlamp light. Thankfully, we didn’t encounter any cats, and we were able to take the Whistler gondola for the last bit of the descent to the village.
After taking a moment to send a status update to the other three members of the group, we power-walked to a pizza restaurant. The waitstaff, bless them, seemed unfazed when we walked in fully clad in our GoreTex and ski boots, and did not seem bothered by our backpacks dripping melting snow onto the floor. The rest of our group arrived at the same time as the first round of pizzas, and soon everyone was occupied by stuffing their mouths with carbs and cheese.
We didn’t linger too long at the restaurant–we were all exhausted and wanted to get on the road before it got too late. But we agreed that it had been a fantastic trip all around, and we all look forward to skiing together and visiting the luxurious Kees and Claire hut again.
Thanks to Melissa for being an awesome trip leader.
Also, thanks to Spearhead Huts for refunding us for the night that we didn’t spend at the hut because of the predicted triple-high avalanche danger on Wednesday. This was our first time visiting the Kees and Claire Hut, but it won’t be the last!