The Parallels of Isolation

Words and Photos by Xan Marshland, FOW

Our fortress in the woods. Kootenay Range, BC.

I sit here typing this from my former college housemate and lifelong ski partner Liz’s house in Missoula, MT. It’s lightly snowing outside, and the nearby hiking trails are calling. There’s even a 3-month-old puppy to keep us company. I’m happy with my surroundings, but I didn’t exactly end up here on purpose. And strangely enough, I’m not sure how long I’ll be here.

Just last week, we were in paradise.

On March 12th, I flew from California to Montana and met up with Liz for our annual hut trip. We had skied Colorado’s San Juans in 2019, but since Liz recently started her environmental law degree in Missoula, we opted to use her house as our base and head up to interior British Columbia. Our destination was the Huckleberry Hut, a tiny, Frontier-era mining cabin nestled deep in the Kootenays along the Bonnington Traverse.

Built in the late 1800s and looking like it came straight out of a Wes Anderson film, Hotel Ymir was the perfect pit stop before we disappeared into the woods. Art covered nearly every inch of the walls inside, and live bluegrass echoed out of the pub downstairs. Ymir, BC.

Anticipation built for the days ahead. After one last night of frontcountry sleep, we double checked our packs (“beacon-shovel-probe-skins-CHECK!”), and drove from our hotel to the trailhead. We skinned up a logging road full of whoops left behind from snow machines amid high winds and light snowfall, but calm weather and bluebird skies emerged that afternoon.

Strike a pose! Kootenay Range, BC. 

This little shelter would be our home for a while. Kootenay Range, BC. 

Our new home was a sight to behold. Gold miners built the Huckleberry Hut over a century ago, and in the 1970s, the Kootenay Mountaineering Club refurbished and remodeled the cozy cabin. Though the KMC made some notable improvements - a miniature wood stove and a Coleman burner - the hut’s gritty origins show through in its no-frills approach to shelter. Two wide-ish bunks sleep four, with just barely enough room to store gear and hang skins. My favorite part? There’s no room for an actual table on the floor, so one folds out from a wall like a Murphy bed. 

We dropped our extra gear and food off at the hut and went out for a quick reconnaissance lap before dinner. Perhaps we were naive, but going into the trip, we had somehow expected the views here to be less captivating than heavily trafficked spots like Rogers Pass. The lesser-visited Kootenays couldn’t be as spectacular, right?

The landscape quickly squashed our assumptions. Dominion Peak rose up to the sky with glacially carved grandeur, while sharp cliffs protruded from the face of Midday Peak. Lower down, perfectly spaced, featured tree runs flowed across ridges and down into valleys. Crisp, clean air allowed us to see peak after snow-capped peak in every direction.

Plenty of terrain to play on. Kootenay Range, BC.

Our reconnaissance lap also revealed a significant amount of sun and wind affected snow. A few pits showed us the persistent weak layer about 30cm down that we’d seen in avy forecasts in the days prior, as well as some serious wind loading on northern aspects above treeline. Along with one instance of shooting cracks, this data was more than enough to deter us from the burliest and most open terrain available. 

Instead, we found endless joy slashing through the lower angle glades and bouncing off mini pillows between the evergreens. One perfect little cheese wedge caught our eye, so we did a couple laps, sailing into the pristine pow below. 

Floating off the cheese wedge. Kootenay Range, BC.

As temperatures rose, we found melt-freeze corn developing on south-facing terrain, but the shade of the north-facing glades preserved creamy pow for us throughout the trip. Back at the hut, we melted snow, sipped whiskey, and cooked high calorie feasts to prep us for the next day’s laps. Each night, we crawled into our sleeping bags, smiling in satisfaction and serenity, at peace with our surroundings.

At the end of our third day, we stood atop the ridgeline below Cabin Peak and ripped skins. The sun was about to set, illuminating the edges of the evergreen needles in soft, yellow light. All that remained was a brief descent through the trees back to our little mining shelter. 

Temps were dropping, and there was whiskey to finish. The moment ended just as it began and we dropped into the trees. The next day, we would descend from the wilderness back to civilization - back to cell service and the eventual slog back home. I took a deep breath in and smiled, intending to hold this perfect moment with me forever. 

All smiles before the day's last descent. Kootenay Range, BC.

On departure day, the sun was beginning to cook the skin track, so we left our mining shelter early in the morning to avoid hot, sticky snow on the way out. We skinned up above the hut to a gulley we had previously spotted and skied a mixture of sheltered powder and occasional sun crust along the drainage. One semi-sketchy creek crossing and another quick skin dumped us back on our initial logging road. From there, we cruised down to the trailhead, punctuated by the now crusty snow machine-built whoops, which we did our best to double and triple, with varying results. 

We were in for a surprise after these turns. Kootenay Range, BC. 

Back at the car, we cheersed to another hut trip of dreamy lines and good decision making. But when we turned on our phones, we discovered that neither the lines we skied nor the peaks we climbed would define this trip. Rather, we would most remember the state of the world to which we returned.

In the short time we were off the grid, the world had turned upside down.

My home state of California had declared it illegal to go outside, except to exercise or purchase essential supplies. Members of my family no longer felt safe seeing each other and had resorted to Skype diners to stay connected. The U.S.-Canada border soon would close to nonessential traffic, so we opted to hustle south before the countries enacted tighter restrictions.

The return to a new reality slapped us in the face. We had gone off the grid seeking solitude, but the feeling is starkly different when solitude is thrust upon you at the exact moment you choose to return.

In the backcountry, every action we took was isolated in its impact - for the most part, our actions only affected Liz and me. From every pit we dug to every cornice we circumvented, consequences loomed, but we could manage the risks and limit their impact to the confines of the slopes on which we skied.

There are hazards, but the risks are manageable. Kootenay Range, BC.

In the face of a pandemic, everyone is interconnected. The actions we take and our choices to inhabit particular spaces have unforeseeable consequences through invisible chain reactions. Risk and responsibility for one another occurs at an entirely different scale. For this reason, our current global state of affairs is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. So, I’ve opted to stay in Missoula and reduce further risk of exposure and transmission, and of course enjoy the company of an old friend in new surroundings. 

I trust that at this point, you’ve already received plenty of communications on the “rights and wrongs” of how to handle the situation our world faces. As I work remote from my new makeshift residence, I simply suggest that you take care of your own body, spirit, and immune system in every way available to you, while being considerate of your impact on others. While this time may feel isolating, we know that the WNDR Alpine community is still strong. We support you, whether near or far.

 -Xan Marshland, FOW