Words and Photos by Morgan Dinsdale and Mike Wigley
This past September, as the leaves began to change color, Mike “Pow Slashing” Wigley and I went searching for snow up high. After a little Google Earth searching, a mixture of weather reports and a bit of Mike’s vast knowledge of British Columbia’s backcountry, we found our objective 60 kilometers off the beaten path, deep in the Jumbo wilderness. Across a sketchy bridge, past a washed-out overhanging road, next to a rarely visited hut we had a feeling we’d find it – that fluffy good stuff – on a high glacier used as a training ground for the Canadian ski team.
Having just moved to Nelson, I haven’t spent much time ski touring in the interior of British Columbia. But what my time in the mountains elsewhere has taught me to be universally true, regardless of location, is that when the weather swings cold and valley rain settles in, that’s a signal there just might be snow in the alpine. Luckily Mike, a six-foot six red mop-top on an endless search for shred, has spent the last number of years chasing remote peaks, bagging first descents swiftly and silently in the area, and his confidence was high that we’d find turns worth working for in Jumbo.
I’d read about Jumbo many times before, given the heavily publicized proposal for a resort to be developed in the area, but I’d never known its stunning beauty until this adventure. Whiskey rivers, lush valleys and seemingly endless forests of larches that glow brighter and brighter yellow as you climb higher. With altitude, the lushness gives way to rocky, muddy winding roads and peak after pointed peak dusted with snow, the snowline creeping slowly towards the valley floor. Driving to the base of our objective was honestly a highlight of our adventure, complete with rebuilding a road and a bridge and pushing the boundaries of “Merry”, Mike’s ’98 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
We arrived at a little hut nestled underneath the glacier, fully stocked with firewood and mattresses on bunk beds, just as the sun set and a snowstorm closed in around us. We took haven in the warmth of the hut and our veggie curry, content in the knowledge there would be fresh snow in the morning, and that we were the only ones up here!
Waking to sunshine, our collective joy was irrepressible as the fresh coat of white came into focus. After an atypically casual morning (why rush when you’re the only ones around?) and a breakfast of tea and oatmeal, we stepped into our harnesses and boots and began our walk to the toe of the glacier.
From the hut, the road switched back and forth steeply and quickly, with bigger and bigger rock debris until the snowline covered all trace of solid ground below. There’s something a bit larcenous about seeing snow above you while walking on loose gravel, gear on your back. It feels like you’re tricking the seasons into giving up the goods before they’re intend.
After a stream crossing and a little rock hopping we found ourselves at the toe. Crunch, crunch. We must be on snow. We were surprised by the coverage. Looking above us, it could have been late December, with few rocks visible and a white sheet of untouched snow. On his third time to this zone, Mike said he’d never seen such deep snow this time of year. Initial probing showed last night’s snowfall had delivered more than anticipated, likely 5-8cms, landing on an already pretty solid base.
Pulling out our rope and tying ourselves together, we prepared to ascend the glacier field. We were school-kid giddy. There’s something about roping up, throwing your skins on for the first time of the season, feeling those smooth glides as you begin to move up the mountain, that just puts you in a different, wonderful place.
I’ve come to learn that getting out early and practicing your skills with friends is imperative. Experience truly is the best teacher. Trips like these give you a chance to get the lay of the land, to see the terrain before it’s buried in snow, and knock the rust off your teamwork and kick turns. As we took turns breaking trail, learning how best to manage our rope, each step brought us closer to the summit and closer as a team.
The glacier field ahead swept across like an amphitheater, wide open, with a broad ridge above and two small couloirs off to lookers’ right. We chose to ascend on the lookers’ left, away from the vertical crevasses visible in the middle of the field, with minimal hazard overhead. Taking turns breaking trail, handling the rope between us, quieted by the vistas and snow all around, we ascended to 2600m.
As we crested the summit the entire zone opened up around us. I was awestruck. Hundreds of peaks in every direction came into view, skiable lines galore, touched by few. I could have spent all our time daydreaming, entranced by a landscape marked by rugged ridgelines, winding rivers, and green and yellow valleys as far and long as the eye could see. We both took a moment to appreciate Jumbo’s beauty, with gratitude that this area will never become a resort. Some places are just meant to stay wild.
The wind quickly picked up at the summit, pulling me back into the reality of the day. I looked behind to see patches of sunshine swiftly being replaced by snow squalls and an approaching storm front that seemed to be closing in all around us. Weather changes fast in all seasons in the mountains, but somehow fall seems to be the most cunningly quick and unexpected. Milky thick clouds swallowed mountain vistas whole for miles, and very suddenly we found ourselves looking down on a definition-less glacier.
Depth perception is not my forte to begin with, so white-out skiing typically puts me on edge, especially on a glacier. What could go wrong with early season coverage and out-of-date Google Earth images on a glacier 60kms deep into the mountains? We ripped skins, coiled rope, grabbed a sneaky few pieces of chocolate and waited for a light window that would allow us to descend with some visibility. Funny story: visibility never came.
After waiting for what felt like a very long while, but was likely no more than 10 minutes, it became apparent that the storm was only growing stronger and moving in quickly, so skiing along our skin track would have to be our descent path. As Mike took off, his first turns left a rooster tail in his path. It honestly looked like he was dropping in on a mid-winter heli ski run.
We descended in four parts, navigating the cracks we knew, keeping eyes on each other. Deep, powder turns in September, all to ourselves. The swoosh of snow as it sprayed out from under my skis, the fluid movement from edge to edge, the grace of sliding on snow was pure joy. Then rough rock scrapes on my bases brought me back to earth, with a thud.
Loading our gear onto our backs once more, we looked at our tracks above, our smiles wide with the incoming storm behind us and less confronting. Walking down to the car, mud covered the soles of our boots, the wind blew my pigtails wildly and fresh snow caught in our eyelashes. For just tossing everything to the wind and looking for winter, we had found it. With the storm closing around us it was a one-and-done kind of day, but the juice was still worth the squeeze. Definitely.
As the skies turned a darker shade of grey, we picked up the pace, knowing that the drive down from the hut would be as challenging as the way up. In the end it was more nerve-wracking as the 1000-foot drop-offs felt even more exposed in the snowstorm descending upon us. So much so that on two occasions I got out of the Jeep, letting Mike drive while ‘directing’ him, just honestly scared to be in a car that exposed, that remote, that high.
Once we’d passed by the washed-out road and crossed back over the sketchy bridge signaling we’d definitely make it home safely, we took a moment to change out of our ski gear and gaze back upon the mountains. Sometimes a storm chases you out and that’s perfectly fine. Was it the best skiing ever? No. But it was remarkably good for September. Across three seasons, summer just behind, the vibrant leaves of autumn at present, and heading for winter, we’d found an adventure worth searching for again.
Morgan Dinsdale (@MorganInTheMountains) calls Nelson, B.C home. She is a CSGA Level I Ski Guide, freelance writer and Sports Performance Holistic Nutritionist, R.H.N. You can almost always find her scoping big lines, chasing champagne powder through the trees, and laughing while popping pillows like a character from Mario Kart.