By Bob Albrecht
In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s October 1976 issue (Volume 5, Issue 2).
The climb up into the mountains to the Stanley Mitchell Hut, located in the Little Yoho Valley of British Columbia, is like a trip back in time to an era when people climbed to ski, and vertical feet was a measure of endurance instead of wealth. Encouraged by the anticipation of runs down miles of untracked snow, the sacrifice of climbing must have seemed a small tribute to pay the mountains in return for the experience. To those who know the joys of alpine ski touring today, where climbing is accomplished with the aid of "skins" or "climbers" attached to the bottoms of the skis, and the skiing down is done on alpine equipment, including slalom-type skis and boots, that feeling of achievement and reward remains.
The mechanized years of lifts and machine-groomed slopes disappear until you are completely involved in an earlier, less competitive, more personal way of skiing, without the conveniences and hassles of the motorized world we've come to accept as normal.
When skiers refer to Little Yoho in the context of alpine ski touring and ski mountaineering, they are talking about a cabin just below the timberline in a peak-bound valley 6,800 feet above sea level. The tops of the surrounding mountains are from 10,000 to 11,000 feet, and most of them can be climbed to or near to the top on skis. The runs are steep by nordic standards, but just right for alpine skiers. The snow varies from real powder to real wind crust, and during any given week, the conditions can be almost anything in between; but from my experience (11 weeks in Little Yoho, one week almost every year since 1964), the majority of the skiing is done on powder, slightly wind-stiffened powder at times, but still, powder.
What differentiates alpine ski touring from other types of alpine skiing (besides the equipment and the cost) is the attitude of the participants. Congeniality is the essence of the Little Yoho experience. It begins the minute you leave your car at the Trans-Canada Highway, and continues all during the strenuous fourteen-mile climb on skis to the hut. The mechanized years of lifts and machine-groomed slopes disappear until you are completely involved in an earlier, less competitive, more personal way of skiing, without the conveniences and hassles of the motorized world we've come to accept as normal. All during the long day of skiing up the valleys to the hut (the first nine miles are relatively flat, and can be done with cross-country wax; the last five miles are steeper and require skins or climbers), even the most jaded sort of lift or helicopter skier begins to realize that he or she is part of a group, dependent upon each other for survival as well as companionship.
The "life support system" in the Little Yoho Valley is the Stanley Mitchell Hut. Owned by the Canadian government, the hut is operated by the alpine club of Canada. Organized ski touring weeks are available to the public through Canadian Mountain Holidays of Banff, Alberta, during February and March, and the package includes expert guide service and extraordinary food. The hut is located at the focal point of the runs from the peaks which surround the valley, and several glaciers constitute a good part of many of the runs accessible from the hut.
Living at the hut, although a lot better than camping out, is like moving back 50 or 75 years. Heat is provided by a wood stove, and cooking is done on a wood range of the same vintage. Washing, if you do any, means using the washbasin Maytag, and sleeping is a floor exercise on a hard, level loft. The toilets are modestly situated outside, one of which carries the cryptic title "Nutcracker Suite"—a description of uncertain musical or very personal significant. Although there is a Coleman lantern for light, few people are even tempted to read in the evenings. The main activity in the hut, other than eating or repairing equipment, is talk. During tea time (with rum), before dinner, during dinner, and after dinner, the old-fashioned art of storytelling is actively revived. Truth soon pales before imagination, and toward midnight, exaggeration and rum force it out of the conversation entirely. Some things never change.
In the early days of alpine ski touring and ski mountaineering, the climbing up was often facilitated with seal skin "climbers" strapped to the bottom of the skis. The hair on the seal skin was oriented in one direction, and the climber was made to be installed so that the hair pointed backwards on the ski. This allowed the ski to glide forward with a minimum of friction and at the same time have a maximum resistance to sliding backwards. We now use a climber which works on exactly the same principle, but is made from a synthetic fur called mohair. The latest advance in climber technology is a truly workable "stick-on" mohair climber. The stick-on climber has several advantages over the old strap-ons. There are no straps going around the edges to cause the ski to slip on crust (which can be a real problem) or to get cut by the ski edges. It is also a definite advantage to have the climber stuck directly to the bottom of the ski so that the snow cannot accumulate between the ski and the climber, and so that the climber cannot suddenly shift sideways on steep, crusted slopes.
In the old days, everybody used soft leather boots and cable bindings. The cable bindings were made so that during the climb up, the heels would have more upward freedom and could be somewhat clamped down for the descent. A few years ago, like most alpine skiers, we started using plastic boots. When we went ski touring, we were reluctant to forego the control and comfort afforded by the high plastic boots. Fortunately, about the same time that the plastic boots evolved, a new breed of touring bindings was developed. Most of these were adaptations of first-rate downhill bindings such as the Gertsch and the Marker binding. These touring-adapted, downhill bindings allowed much more freedom of vertical heel movement than the old cable bindings. New dual-purpose bindings such as those made by Ramer, Esser, Gertsch, and Marker have opened the door to alpine ski touring even further with increased control, convenience and versatility. People who are now familiar with the advances in boot and binding technology often ask us how we can stand to go on long tours with high plastic boots like Nordica Slaloms. The answer is that we have fewer problems on a ski tour with high plastic boots and the touring adaptation of a regular step-in-type downhill binding than we ever did with leather boots and cable bindings.
You have time to experience your surroundings and let your exercise-heightened senses absorb it until the sights and sounds and feelings become a part of you. This is where alpine ski touring has it all over helicopter skiing. People go helicopter skiing all the time and never completely realize where they are.
As in the early days of skiing, about 70 percent of the time you spend on an alpine ski tour is taken by the climb up. However, it's a well-kept secret from the uninitiated that climbing up is fun, maybe not as much fun as skiing down, but fun nevertheless. For one thing, it's during the climb up that you really get to see the scenery. In fact, you do more than see it. You have time to experience your surroundings and let your exercise-heightened senses absorb it until the sights and sounds and feelings become a part of you. This is where alpine ski touring has it all over helicopter skiing. People go helicopter skiing all the time and never completely realize where they are.
When you climb up on an alpine ski tour, you not only know where you are, because you just spent several hours looking at every inch of it, but you are familiar with the terrain you will be skiing down, and even more important, you know exactly what the snow conditions are. If you watch experienced alpine ski tourers as they climb up, you will see them feeling the snow with the tips of their skis and testing the snow off to the side of their tracks with their ski poles. Skiing untracked snow is a lot more enjoyable when you can relax and rely on your newly acquired knowledge of the run.
Still, it is the downhill part of an alpine ski tour that you look forward to. It's what you tell yourself all the climbing is for, even though you may remember the climb up long after the ski down. The timeless exhilaration of skiing good snow with close friends is the same now as always, but the general level of skiing ability has improved drastically with the advent of better equipment and more advanced techniques. The alpine skiing enthusiast has applied these improvements to his particular enjoyment of the sport, and nowhere is the level of ski touring ability better expressed than on the runs of Little Yoho.
The slopes vary from about 18 degrees to about 35 degrees, with a few even a little steeper. Most of the skiing is done on wide-open slopes, mostly above the timberline, where the snow conditions are anything from the best snow you've ever skied to the worst crud you've ever imagined. The total vertical feet you might get in Little Yoho (since that is the one question helicopter skiers will always ask you) is apt to be around 30-to 35,000 feet for a week of ski touring. That sounds almost insignificant compared to the vertical most people get in a week of helicopter skiing, but the point is that 1,000 feet of good quality, climbed-for skiing is worth at least four thousand feet of helicopter skiing in terms of what you feel and remember, and how much you learn from the runs. The experiences are much more vivid and the memories much more long lasting. And no matter how good the snow and the terrain are, there isn't much danger that you'll become bored by too much good skiing when every run down is preceded by a slow climb up.
After the first day or so of climbing and skiing in Little Yoho, I have had people who had never been there before ask, "Is this it? Is this Little Yoho?" At that point, they were, no doubt, still suffering the ache and pain aftereffects of the long hike in. The dimensions of the trip in time, spaciousness, and the rediscovery of wonder had not yet become evident. I have heard the same person, on the fifth or sixth day say, "So this is Little Yoho!" For them, at that instant, the time machine had taken them away.