A rolling odyssey through British Columbia’s high alpine passes
I was alone on the col, the last to drop into the milky fishbowl. Shadows of the surrounding peaks floated in and out of view. Massive piles of stone were there for a moment, obscured the next. Far below, Rogers Pass cut a 90-mile line from Revelstoke to Golden, British Columbia, through the vast, glaciated, and alpine terrain of the Selkirk Mountains. Hundreds of peaks hid behind the fog. In between each was a swooping pass or col.
Rogers was the last of three passes that photographer Bruno Long and I would explore on our nine-day trip. It’s also by far the biggest and most rugged. Three hundred miles to our west sat Duffey Lake Pass, where we skied three days before. Two hundred miles due south was Kootenay Pass where we began our tour a week ago. Far below us on the mountain sat Josephine, our exploration vehicle and home for the journey: a 1985 Dodge Okanagan camper van with a sticky accelerator pedal and a hand-rolled blue racing stripe. Josephine was an ideal tool for exploring the three most iconic passes in British Columbia. Bruno and I had just enough shelter and amenities to comfortably live on these roads built for commerce but perfectly situated for unparalleled easy, cheap access to some of the best ski terrain in the world.
We were skiing Bruins Pass, beneath Ursus Minor, which towered 800 feet above. I took a deep breath, tried to soak in the moment, and pushed off. The snow was perfect, bottomless, but up and down had lost all meaning. Vertigo made me dizzy and I let muscle memory take control as I descended into the fog.
The Trans-Canada Highway was 3,800 feet below. It tracks the Canadian Pacific Railway over Rogers Pass. The construction of the railway at the turn of the 20th century facilitated the westward expansion of Canada. In 1881, the only way through the Selkirk Mountains was Yellowhead Pass, a lengthy and costly northerly detour. The Canadian Pacific Railway hired American engineer A.B. Rogers, “The Railway Pathfinder” and a major in the U.S. Cavalry who fought against the uprising of the Dakota Sioux. A notorious roughneck and abuser of employees, Rogers’ face was home to one of the most impressive sideburn mustaches in North American history. Determined to make an eternal name for himself (often at the cost of his crew’s comfort and safety) and unmotivated by the $5,000 incentive to find a way through the mountains (a check he famously never cashed), Rogers approached the range first from Revelstoke in the west and up the Illecillewaet River.
The crew, mostly First Nations people, ran out of supplies and was forced to retreat. The next year, Rogers approached over Kicking Horse Pass from the east, gained a view of the pass he had seen in his previous mission, and declared a route through the Selkirks discovered. Construction began the next year and by November of 1885 the last spike was driven in the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Eventually, Josephine made her temporary home in the Asulkan parking lot, near where Rogers and his crew were initially forced to turn around. But first, we had other ground to cover. I started the trip in Nelson, BC, where I met Long and the van he borrowed. Josephine was hand-painted dirty off-white and baby blue. The passenger side roof was broken and patched with bright red tape, crisscrossed and layered from multiple applications. Her sparkling blue velour curtains were stained, burned, and falling off. In other words, for a couple of dirtbags on a low-budget backcountry ski trip, she was perfect.
Upon arrival, Long and I filled our bellies with food too wholesome and delicious for a remote mountain town bar, had awkward conversation with a couple of hazy locals, filled Josephine with fuel, pilsner, and rye, and headed to Kootenay Pass.
By the time we pulled into the parking lot at the summit of the pass, otherwise known as the Salmo-Creston Highway, it was hammering snow. Huge wet flakes created layers of white motion against the conical yellow streetlights. We put the van in park (remember: pull up on the accelerator pedal with your right toe before taking your foot off the brake with your left) and decided to check out the scene in a cabin a hundred yards or so in the woods. We found two Americans who had made the journey from Alaska, squatting inside the day-use-only abode.
“You mind if I light up in here?” I asked. The guy on the floor, who had been willfully silent for all of our 15-minute presence, bolted upright, looked at us both for the first time, and said, “Ian?! Ian, from Colorado?”
He was a friend from a past lifetime in Boulder. We hugged, talked loudly, and eventually let the excited energy of the coincidence subside. Snow cascaded onto the conifers outside and we smoked and talked and eventually ventured back into the storm. Josephine waited under the streetlight. We climbed inside, prepped for the next day, then crawled into our sleeping bags.
Kootenay Pass is the smallest of the three passes with lesser mountains and a shorter road. Only 11 miles long, compared to Rogers’ 44 miles and Duffey’s 16, the biggest and most obvious difference is the terrain the passes cut through. At 5,840 feet, Kootenay Pass is higher in elevation compared to Rogers’ 4,308 feet and Duffey’s 4,109 feet, yet only hosts a handful of peaks. Because the alpine terrain pales in comparison to the massive peaks on Rogers Pass, the Kootenay Pass avalanche workers, who are Ministry of Transport employees, jokingly refer to their above-treeline terrain as “alpine-like features.” The pass has enough skiing and variety to keep anyone short of the serious ski mountaineer happy with face-fulls of powder.
The Salmo-Creston Highway passes through 47 slide paths in 11 miles. The pass used to be controlled by avalaunchers and 105-millimeter recoilless rifles but a Gazex system was installed in the 1990s with 23 cannons and six Gazex shelters. A staff of five manages the entire pass, with only two full-time, year-round employees.
In addition to controlling the pass, the system has another advantage: someone has to check the guns. The five employees, all ripping skiers, have a heli budget for gun maintenance. It would be hard to argue that these guys haven’t found the best government jobs in the world.
Long and I started our day like an old married couple: quiet, stiff, routine. Fill two pots with water, one for oatmeal, one for coffee; start the stove; make sandwiches; pack lunches. Routine is key to van life.
We walked across the highway and met Mark Talbot, assistant avalanche technician and one of the two full-time Ministry of Transport employees, at the Kootenay Pass Camp, aka “The Lodge.” Long explained the stark contrast between our crack ‘o 10 o’clock morning and the alpine starts I should expect out of the Revelstoke folks when we got to Rogers Pass. We began the day skinning up Lightning Strike Ridge. The new snow felt satisfying underfoot and promised good skiing. When we gained the ridge, the hemlocks and firs separated and made way for old gnarled white pines. From there we could see ski lines on the next ridge.
We skinned the rest of the way to a good drop-in point. Talbot was ahead of us and when we caught up he was already stomping out a takeoff to a 30-foot-plus cliff above some serious terrain. Talbot skated toward the take-off and dropped out of sight upside-down.
We finished the run skiing to Talbot’s slough pile then skinning back up to the col and diving into 1,500 feet of protected blower powder on our way back to The Lodge. We said our goodbyes quickly and saddled Josephine for the 10-hour drive to Duffey Pass.
With the gas pedal pressed to the rusted metal floor, we rattled, bounced, and swayed through mountain passes and cruised heavy and straight across the Okanogan flatlands. The high-beam knob on the floor under the brake took some getting used to and the momentum it had on the downhill was terrifying, but overall Josephine was reliable and steady.
As we approached Lillooet, neither Long nor I had the stamina to push up the pass. We pulled onto the bank of the Fraser River instead and passed out with barely a word spoken. The next morning, still in silence, Long got behind the wheel while I was still in bed above, and started the winding drive to the summit of Duffey Pass to meet our crew.
I pried myself out of bed and began the infuriating process of making our lunches for the day while pinballing around the tiny kitchen. It felt as if I was the contestant on a dramatic and humiliating foreign game show. I could almost hear the host, “Oh no, he’s got the mayonnaise on the bread! The jar is open! This is a dangerous position and here come the S-turns!”
Eventually, sandwich-related disasters averted, we pulled into the upper parking lot and learned that “Duffey Time” is also on Kootenay Time. Duffey has no central building or on-call government employees. There is no check-in procedure or pass that you need to obtain before skiing. The parking lots were filled with a mix of winter recreational enthusiasts. A guide group practiced crevasse rescue drills at one pullout and a couple from Oregon put skins on their fat skis in front of their truck-bed camper at another. We ran into college kids taking photos and skinny guys on randonee gear in the middle of a multi-peak traverse.
We had made plans to meet two well-versed locals, Matty Richard and Austin Ross, to show us around. After a healthy dose of Duffey Time, the crew quickly geared up and headed straight to an aggressive skin route through the forest. We walked past an epic pillow-line zone that had been skied hard the day before but looked like at least half a day’s worth of mini golf fun. As we approached the tree line and Joffre Shoulder ridgeline, Duffey Lake Pass revealed itself: complicated terrain with countless options for us to ski; massive seracs, crawling glaciers, craggy peaks, and seasons upon seasons of amazing skiing options. The area offered pillow lines, high alpine mountaineering, glacier travel, low-angle powder lines, couloirs, and open bowls. No matter what kind of skier you are, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for at Duffey.
We skinned single file looking west and scoping an enormous pillow field. Farther ahead and to the south, the stacked blue ice of the Matier Glacier sparkled under the peaks of Mount Matier, the tallest peak in the area at 9,100 feet. Long and Ross hiked a small zone at the exit of a chute coming off the shoulder and Richard and I pushed up to check out lines higher up. We boot-packed straight up the steep, open chute, took a moment to soak in the epic landscape, then skied incredible powder back to Long and Ross.
After hiking one more line of perfect-consistency snow, we party-skied together down huge, open, rolling fields below tree line. The group drifted effortlessly across the basin past an unnamed frozen lake, glancing back at a protected mini golf zone with at least a day’s worth of fresh tracks. We descended through the forest to beers, high fives, and, without too much ceremony, our warm beds.
The next day was a slow, three-coffee start as weather swirled around the pass, hiding the peaks. Despite great snow and an immense amount of top-notch skiing, there were never more than a few cars and friendly faces in the parking lot.
Richard and Ross rolled in late morning with a big group and we skinned directly back to the mini golf zone. We spent a few hours sessioning a cliff band below tree line. We sent our bodies off perfect granite ledges into velvety maritime-style snow perfect for stomping landings a handful of times before giving in to the weather and starting a quintessential van-life version of après. Back at the van we rigged a tarp system out of touring poles and ski ties between Josephine and Richard’s old Volvo, launched an ambitious wood-gathering expedition, and built a parking lot bonfire.
The next three hours were filled with beers, whiskey, and jokes in between second and third helpings of rosemary chicken breast appetizers, steaks cooked on a homemade wood-gas stove with ski poles for legs, bacon-wrapped scallops, and overflowing plates of spaghetti bolognaise. Some Pemberton locals graced our parking lot party; Daryl Treadway and a small crew visited to swap stories of skiing, hunting, and sledding in the surrounding mountains around a crackling fire that had burned itself down to the pavement. The snow fell harder as the night went on; our woodpile dwindled, as did the whiskey. Our new friends made their way to their Pemberton beds; us to our beds on wheels.
The next morning, we weighed our options and decided to break camp and make the big push to Rogers Pass. We drove toward Lillooet through a foggy monochromatic mountain world emblematic of the BC coast and emerged at Seton Lake. From there we turned east through the heart of the province: Savona, Kamloops, Salmon Arm, and dozens of towns consisting of little more than a mile marker or petrol station.
Rogers Pass is Bruno’s de facto backyard, the perfect finale for our journey. Rogers has a more serious and weighted feeling than the other two. The place is huge in every respect. It cuts a swath through more than 250 miles of nearly uninterrupted peaks. (For comparison, the Tetons are about 40 miles end-to-end.) It is dangerous, too. Two of Canada’s largest avalanche accidents have occurred here. In 1910, 62 men were killed while clearing railroad tracks from a previous slide. In 2003, a massive avalanche killed seven 10th-graders from the prestigious Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School (STS). It was a spooky feeling traveling through a place permeated with so much death, and it made us travel with a heightened sense of awareness and caution.
Rogers Pass is also a proving ground and place of legends. It is widely regarded as the birthplace of North American Mountaineering—Swiss guides helped the region establish tourism. In 1888, Reverend William Spotswood Green and Reverend Henry Swanzy of Ireland were the first documented tourists to enter the area for recreation. They wrote and published the first guidebook, Among the Selkirk Glaciers, and shortly after, the Canadian Pacific Railway began actively promoting the mountains of BC as a place to find adventure.
One of the most recent and notable mountain men around is Greg Hill. In 2010, he skied two million vertical feet in one season, mostly on Rogers Pass. He stopped by our van in the morning to check in. Exuberant and ready to ski, his energy overpowered our morning bleariness. We suited up and headed to the Rogers Pass Discovery Center. You have to purchase a pass and check in with a plan before skiing Rogers—home to the world’s largest mobile avalanche-control system. The Canadian Armed Forces have a bunkhouse on the summit where 17 officers fire an average of 700 105-millimeters shells from 17 gun positions at 134 different avalanche paths and approximately 270 artillery targets. Checking in seemed like a good idea.
From the Discovery Center we skinned up Connaught Creek behind Hill, sometimes forebodingly referred to as “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” We veered left toward the towering Cheops Mountain instead of right toward Bruins Pass. The weather was less spooky and socked in than the day before but it wasn’t sunny.
Cheops was fittingly named after a fourth dynasty Egyptian pharaoh generally accepted as having built the Great Pyramid of Giza. We followed Hill’s track up a steep shoulder and onto the sloping side of the pyramid. The ski from the summit, which everyone in the group besides me had skied the year prior, requires a rappel (and balls of steel), so we chose to ski STS, a chute named after the second-worst avalanche accident in the pass’s history.
Hill and Bruno crept toward the edge to find a safe way into the line. A cornice hanging like a gargoyle obscured the route. The fog below made it look like they were peering into an infinite chasm of nothingness. We regrouped, made final preparations, and dropped in one at a time. The entrance was steep and exposed, but the snow was perfect. Hill went first, skiing fast in the fall line and looking over his shoulder for moving snow with every turn. I followed. Immediately, I knew that every step, every slip of the skin, every drop of sweat, every travel disaster, and mile of monotonous road time was worth it to ski this line. Of course, if you are going to get deep, those moments are all worthwhile in themselves, but this was smooth, creamy snow on 2,000 steep, vertical feet.
I rolled over the cornice, made a heavy ski cut, and looked down the barrel before putting my tips in the fall-line. Then I dropped in.