Backcountry Skiing at Burnie Glacier

Trip review
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Tom Wolfe

Revelstoke, Whistler, Rogers Pass, the Selkirks, the Rockies. Mention Canadian ski destinations and the eyes of powder hounds glaze over and their minds travel to these hallowed lands, these meccas. Each of these places are jewels in the crown of world-class backcountry skiing: their bounty of views, terrain and powder are known to skiers everywhere.

Mention Northern British Columbia and brows begin to furrow. Mention Smithers and quizzical glances appear. This is not entirely surprising. Sure, Canada is big. British Columbia is big in its own right. For the longest time, paper maps (remember those?) of BC used to cut off the upper half of the province. But there is a northern portion and it’s surprisingly easy to get to. In fact, there’s LESS door-to-door travel time than to the more well-known parts of this Canadian province.

Do you want stunning terrain? Lots of snow? Magnificent, empty country? And relatively easy travel? Northern BC has it all.

Getting to Northern British Columbia

Travel from our home in Vancouver to Northern BC (Smithers) is a 3 hour trip by air. When we compare this to travel time to Revelstoke or Nelson, by car, we’re looking at at least a 6 hour drive. Even with Calgary as a starting point, getting to those two places would take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours.

The time calculus is irrefutable. If you are a destination traveler, getting to Northern BC takes relatively less time door-to-door. That’s one reason to go.

In less than 3 hours we were in Smithers in Northern BC.

Northern BC terrain

The terrain in Northern BC is massive. While BC is relatively underpopulated, over 80% of its 4.8 million people live in its southern parts. This means that when you get to Smithers, not only are you surrounded by huge mountains, you’re also outnumbered by wildlife. Literally. There’s no competition for lines up north. Another reason to go.

Just a hundred meters above the Burnie Glacier Chalet as you gain the moraine is your first view of the alarmingly large Polemic Glacier

The Burnie Glacier Chalet

With the explosion in popularity of backcountry skiing, it’s now hard to get into backcountry huts. People book one year, sometimes two years in advance. It’s easy to understand why: the allure of untracked snow; the contrast between inbound crowds vs. backcountry solitude; the inherent attraction of exploration of new places. But backcountry skiing involves its own particular set of challenges, many of which revolve around maintaining some degree of comfort in a winter environment.

Voilà, the concept of backcountry huts: perfect places to rest and prepare for multiple days of ski touring. The concept of guided and catered backcountry skiing was imported from the European Alps to BC, and the tradition of hut-based touring has flourished ever since.  At the Burnie Glacier Chalet, a group of us joined a backcountry trip guided and organized by Tom Wolfe of Sawback Alpine Adventures for a week of ski touring.

Burnie Glacier Chalet evening
Overhead view of the Chalet and its splendid surroundings
Post-ski beer and chill
Appetizers before dinner

The trip. And lots and lots of pictures

Our trip took place from March 22 through the 29th, 2019 and we booked it almost 16 months in advance! Snow depth was below seasonal averages but our forecast was for exceptionally good (albeit unseasonably warm) weather. Our group had varied backgrounds and backcountry skills, and Sharon and I were among the guests with more experience.

I knew from experience that we were heading to an area with massive glaciation. Glaciers add a considerable layer of uncertainty to other objective hazards present in backcountry skiing (e.g. avalanche hazard, weather, etc.). Also, through experience I knew that time and patience are required to figure out glacier navigation and travel. This made me a little resentful as I had only 7 days to ski-tour in such terrain. After all was said and done, travel conditions were excellent and we got to explore magnificent glaciated summits and icefields. We even scored powder skiing during one of the more remarkable warm spells I’ve encountered in almost 20 years in the backcountry.

We were fortunate to have Tom and Sean show us around and we got to ski and experience terrain we would never done on our own. The pictures tell the rest of the story.

The group skinning up the Solitaire Glacier approaches with a Polemic Peak view
The massively broken Polemic Glacier
Lance skiing off Loft Peak to the Loft Glacier
Andy on Loft Peak looking to the Loft Glacier
Sharon skiing down to Loft Glacier
Paul L. ripping corn slopes on the flanks of Tom George Peak
Sharon and Paul L heading up the Middle Solitaire Glacier
Corn turns for Andy heading to the Burnie Glacier
On Telkwa Glacier shadowed by the overhanging seracs of Kitnayakwa Peak
Daniel traversing Burnie Glacier with a Grand Corner and Kitnayakwa view
Glade on the Middle Solitaire
Georg descending the Nunatak to the Telkwa Glacier
Georg on the Loft Glacier catching pow off NE aspects
Sean on the lower Burnie Glacier
Beautiful Smithers and Hudson Bay Mountain
Smithers Brewing will keep you entertained

Other useful things to know before you go

Northern BC is amazing. Backcountry skiing is amazing. Sawback Alpine (Tom Wolfe) is amazing. These are all reasons to book now. Backcountry skiing is NOT becoming any less popular.

About the author

Lee Lau

Lee Lau

Vancouver-based backcountry skier and mountain biker

Lee Lau is an avid backcountry skier and mountain biker who calls Vancouver, British Columbia, home. He's written prolifically on his ski and MTB adventures and, when going outside doesn't get the better of him, he practices intellectual property law by day. His wife Sharon is an accomplished skier and MTBer, too, who is there with Lee every skin and track along the way. Lee's written for wildsnow.com, singletracks.com and you can read about his and Sharon's extensive tours on leelau.net/

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