The well known author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy supposedly died in 1973. However, in a small almost unknown corner of southwestern British Columbia, J. R. R. Tolkien lives on. I know this since I visited his snowy throne. Yes, with my comrades I scaled the steep ice walls of his castle, to stare face to face with the literary giant, and to view his kingdom, or failing that, at least his magnificent creations, notably: Gandalf, the white bearded wizard, his fearless and fast as lightning horse Shadowfax, and Aragorn, the tall warrior. Together, they make quite the bunch, or group of mountains, it depends on your perspective.
The seeds for this trip were sown several months earlier, and that is where this tale begins. A bunch of us, haggard explorers were searching for an adventurous trip for New Year’s. We searched high and low, and finally came up with an ambitious plan to try and visit the mythical Harrison Hut, on the way braving countless boring kilometers of logging road, a raging river, a deep canyon funneling avalanches from the whole area, an untame glacier and a high mountain pass. Alas, a forecast of a large dump of snow, foul weather and heightened avalanche risk, forced us to set our sights slightly lower. Harrison, I will find you some day..
So it happened that we shared almost 100 emails, spent many hours poring over maps, old trip reports and guidebooks, just to eventually end up at Phelix, the location of the traditional VOC New Year’s celebration, well known for culminating in a naked run around the hut. Perhaps not as glorious, but somewhat attractive to those of us that had not partaken in this weird and unexplainable tradition.
On the drive to the trailhead we drove up a slick logging road, reminiscent of an ice rink. On the trail, we spent some time tinkering with ill fitting bindings (Nick’s), pushing pieces of a binding that fell out back into place (Sean’s), admiring a World War II ski helmet (Avery’s), and applying the pink lady (Doris’) to glopped up skins (mine). While approaching the lake, we heard multiple loud “whumpfs” – the dreaded sound that the snow makes when it is settling, usually a sign of instability. Despite having six days of food on my back, we arrived to the hut sooner than I had expected, I guess I remembered it being farther.
The next day we set out cautiously for some skiing. I say cautiously, since by this stage it had already snowed almost 50cm. We headed to Cabin Hill, the normal go-to place for bad weather or avalanche conditions. Even here, we weren’t taking our chances, and dug a snow pit before heading up, to inspect what we would be skiing. We took a few fun runs, but the snow was a bit heavy, and it was snowing and windy the whole time. Back at the hut, we were surprised to see a bobbing red light in the window, a weird fire fly if there ever was one. Turned out it was tall Ben, sporting his red light for better night vision. Ben’s claim to fame was that he had carried a 19 liter keg of home brewed beer (Adam’s) part way up to the hut, and planned to go back down the next day to retrieve it. Being a witty fellow, in order to make sure he would actually go back to get it, he had left three communal dinners with the keg, a cunning move.
We awoke to more new snow, and a bit of blue sky, and decided we could try for something a bit more interesting, but still cautious: the Aragorn Glacier. However, part way up the slope, just as we were getting out of the trees, we heard another two whumpfs from the open slope we were about to get on, and the clouds and snow returned. After having lunch over another snow pit, and the conclusion that the difference between a “weather window” and a “sucker hole” is ever so slight, we decided to ski Cabin Hill instead. This time the snow was much drier, and we all had wide smiles on our faces. Once again, more people showed up at the hut in the evening, and we started wondering if the progression from 5 occupants to 10 and 20 over the past nights would continue with another doubling to 40 the next day (luckily it didn’t).
The next day, we found some excellent tree skiing south of the upper lake (watch out for the cliffs), on a windy day. The group that arrived that evening included Olivier, visiting from Switzerland. With good intentions, he had loaded up his pack with an impressive assortment which had to be divided amongst his partners to make sure he would make it up to the hut in one piece. This included 2kg of cheese (for fondue), several glass wine bottles (for the fondue), foie gra in a glass case, two liters of tea, a bag of blood oranges and several other quality items.
The new people had brought a weather forecast with them, and it spelled clear and cold. After a few days of leaving the hut at 10am (due to the sub par weather), we finally managed to wake up at 7am for an early departure, with the idea of heading to an obscure peak by the name of Tolkien. Tim, who had suggested this idea, joined us, and broke trail the whole day. Through some combination of excellent fitness and efficiency, he seemed to break trail effortlessly in his warm fleece while I was stripping down to my t-shirt behind him, munching on lunch and heaps of dried bananas while he only had two granola bars.
We skinned up to the Frodo-Peregrine col, where Tim pointed out a run nicknamed “Frodo’s Dislocated Shoulder”, after the unfortunate accident of a fellow VOC’er on that run a few years ago. We skied an excellent fall line run south down to a creek, and then skinned up to the shoulder of Tolkien, passing by a small lake and skirting some big cornices. This involved a slightly precarious icy section, where I had images of me hurtling down the slope, out of control. We arrived to the ridge unscathed and left our skis there to boot pack to the summit. The way up included some decidedly forgettable sections of rocks covered with a thin layer of snow, and the heavily snow plastered summit, with excellent views all around. From the summit we had a good view of Tolkien’s creations, Mt. Aragorn, Mt. Gandalf and Shadowfax just barely hidden. We could also see a col to the east, and decided we would incorporate that in our plans to make a nice loop back to the hut. This involved going through this pass, skiing down a valley full of old avalanche debris, and after another climb, a delightful ski through sparse trees back to the upper lake and finally the hut.
Since it was the 31st of December, we were in for a long night – we were used to going to sleep around 9:30pm. I tried to convince a few people that we should shift the new year celebration to 10pm, but there wasn’t much interest. We filled our time with two rounds of Olivier’s amazing cheese fondue, singing the whole song book (twice, at least), and lots of alcohol being passed around. We had a good laugh about an episode from two weekends before, in which one participant had gotten so drunk that he had woken up in the middle of the night, ran to the window and puked out of it directly on the solar panel, and luckily this was not repeated. Finally midnight arrived, we did the naked run, not so tough I thought, but then again I was wearing booties and wasn’t the one breaking trail in crotch deep snow… I was happy to score a spot in a tent, where I could only barely hear the drunken singers and their Russian folk songs in the hut.
On our last day, while the rest of the group was happily snoring and farting away, a few of us wanted to get in another quick run before our departure. We chose the aptly named run “Return of the King”, which conveniently runs directly back to the hut. After a first ecstatic run, we couldn’t resist a rerun, before packing up and skiing down to the car in a record breaking (for me, at least) time of two hours. The ground underneath the car appeared to be pure ice, but the car handled it well, and after a few hours we were back in the mundane world of human beings, far from the fairy tale land we had left behind. I’ll be back…