In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)

In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)

Travel: Quaint mountain lodge tucked away in BC’s Selkirk Mountains

In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the place where slain warriors dwell under the leadership of Odin. The einherjar blissfully hang out in the netherworld, patiently awaiting the arrival of Doomsday. Not my idea of a fun place to winter. Luckily, the Valhalla we visited last March, a quaint mountain lodge tucked away in BC’s Selkirk Mountains, is rather less bleak – and a lot more heavenly. This was our first destination-vacation in over a year and we were giddy with excitement – with a touch of trepidation thrown in. A physically demanding three-day ski touring adventure was on tap. From our home base in Kimberley we enjoyed the leisurely drive – and a peaceful ferry ride across Kootenay Lake – to New Denver on Slocan Lake where we checked into the hospitable and very unique Adventure Domes cottages. (adventuredomes.ca)

In the morning, at our designated pick-up spot on the north end of Slocan, the March snow had deteriorated into that ugly freeze-thaw meringue typical of a strengthening spring sun. Hmmm, how would the skiing be? While we helped load gear into the snow cat, I wondered out loud if it were wise that we’d chosen a slot so late in the season. ‘Ha’, laughed the driver, ‘you’ll find it a little different 1,000 metres up the mountain.’ And indeed, one very steep hour later, we emerged into deep soft snowy white winter. Heavenly Valhalla.

That Valhalla Mountain Touring (vmt.ca) was even operating is a testament to the perseverance of owner Jasmin Caton — and the dedication of the whole Valhalla staff, given the stringent conditions wrought by this rotten pandemic.

Every guided backcountry ski tour begins with terrain orientation, where the guests gather outside in the snow to practice avalanche training, mountain rescue techniques and use of a transceiver beacon to rescue a dummy. We had packed all the necessary gear, but some was borrowed – and apparently outdated. Dan, our lead guide, politely asked me to hand over the ancient probe which I was ineptly attempting to assemble. ‘This is a good example of something not to use when attempting to locate a submerged body; probably more suitable for British mountaineering in low snow-pack.’ I nodded, but failed to mention that I had indeed obtained the feeble tool from a British acquaintance who had proudly lauded its efficacy.

In her 10 years of back-country ski guiding, Jasmin has never had a serious accident to contend with. (On the Kimberley ski hill the day before we left, we watched the ski patrol haul down three stretchers.) Jasmin jokingly complained that she’d never had to use the assortment of fancy gear she hauled up the mountain every day. That would change during our stay.

After orientation we tucked back into the cozy lodge and, as eyeglasses de-fogged, a feast of appetizers appeared, courtesy of chef Annie. These treats did not remain in view long. All nine guests quickly gobbled up the delectables, storing up calories in anticipation of the weight-loss program which would commence in the morning: climbing 1,500 metres up a snowy mountain for three straight days.

My wife Florence and I are relative newbies to ski touring and, although we had put in a respectable amount of pre-arrival training, we were pooped by the end of day one. So after another remarkable meal – Annie’s signature lamb-chops – it was early to bed, where we slept the sleep of the dead.

I assume you’re familiar with the adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Well, the maxim certainly applies to ski-touring. I pride myself (erroneously as is now apparent) on being in pretty good shape for my vintage. As we gathered gear, donned equipment and shot the breeze in the breezeway on day one, I noted the advanced age of some of my fellow guests and, inwardly smirking, thought, ‘I hope that old gal doesn’t hold us all up.’ And… no she did not. As it turns out, neither did I. Utterly exhausted, I had begged-off the last climb of the day and trudged morosely back to the lodge, watching my geriatric friend tirelessly scurry uphill for another run down the pow.

Day two dawned with a mess of fresh snow. We devoured breakfast, packed our pre-made lunches, strapped on skins and strode out across frozen Shannon Lake. As we exited the lake and began a steep ascent to the mountain summit a kilometre above us, Dan stopped, shushed us all and steered off the intended track. A huge yellow-white mountain goat was demanding the right-of-way. The big billy regarded us for a moment, then diverted directly uphill, striding tirelessly through the deep untouched powder. We watched mouths agape as the mighty creature slowly became a speck far up mountain.

It was toward the end of day three – our last – when Dan’s radio crackled an urgent message. Someone in the group below had been hurt. We were only a few hundred metres from the notch where we were to perform our final transition: strip off skins, buckle boots, set heels, point skis downhill, hoot with pleasure. Dan instructed us to stop immediately, huddle up and prepare to descend. ‘Stick together and ski carefully,’ he said, ‘the last thing we need now is another problem.’ Twenty minutes later we came upon the other crew. Jasmin’s mother Lynda had had a nasty spill. Her leg was badly broken. Jasmin had assembled her mom’s skis into a makeshift toboggan, used poles as a splint, wrapped her in the insulating warmth of some spare coats and hauled the bundle up to an access spot where a VMT snowmobile and sled met us. Jasmin jumped aboard and disappeared down the bumpy logging road to rendezvous with an ambulance on the highway far below. The lodge is isolated from the world. There is no margin for error when an emergency arises. The professionalism and expert training demonstrated by the whole VMT team in this serious situation was remarkable.

Later that evening, as we finished dinner and reposed by the roaring fire, Jasmin stepped into the lodge to reassure us that her mom was doing fine. She provided an update on the weather and outlined the plan for the following day. She smiled, non-plussed and said, ‘Well, at least I finally got to use all that stuff I pack.’ Then she ducked out the door. Her two-year-old twins, Spruce and Indigo, were waiting in the staff quarters, ready to spend some quality time with their mom. Just another amazing day in Valhalla.

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer.

 

In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)

In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)

In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)

In ski touring every turn is earned. (Contributed photo by Gerry Feehan)