I should have discarded two outdated rules years ago: never go with strangers or a guide. Here’s to a growth mindset at the Sunrise Hut with eight strangers and guides, Rob Coppolillo and Nino Guagliano.
It had been years, well over a decade, since I’d taken a deep breath and treated myself to a hut trip. I assure you, but I will spare you the details; I also needed to exhale. While raising two kids, I did the occasional traverse during those years but focused more on practicality: big efforts in a single push.
That is not what I signed up for when I booked a trip at the Sunrise Lodge in early January. I signed up for a catered and guided trip during which I could hopefully unplug and find happiness skiing amidst a group of 9-12 individuals, among which, I knew only one, IFMGA guide Rob Coppolillo.
Some would say I had two strikes against me. The first was inserting myself into a group of strangers. The second, which we’ll get to a bit later, was the atypically weak snowpack in Interior, B.C., which I explored with Grant Statham in an interview after returning from the trip.
Here’s what I’ll say about the group. My closest friends thought it a big gamble to go with strangers. They were wrong. If, at my age, I am unable to be flexible enough in my time, attitude, and willingness to grow; then I might as well keep myself cocooned in my echo chamber.
I strongly encourage folks to go on a guided trip with strangers. (Here’s the disclaimer: I am not advocating going into avalanche terrain unguided and with strangers. I want to be clear about that.)
Some still will say I lucked out. My reply is this: most folks in the ski and splitboard communities are good people and worthy of taking a chance on. Joe, my roommate from Missoula, was a keeper. And so were the seven other guests I want to invite for dinner, toast them over a beer, and wish them well. To be honest, I think I had one moment I would perceive as semi-mild friction with one of the other guests. That was early in the trip. I’m also unsure if this person thought there was friction. I should have asked.
The best ski run I took that week was the next to the last run, I think we were skiing north-facing snow. It was a plum line I could have taken farther than I did, and I still took it too far. As it was treed terrain and deep in the hills, we partnered up. I paired with the skier with the slickest mustache on the trip — the same individual I’d shared my perceived friction with.
We both skied aggressively in steepish terrain, made more forgiving by the deep snow. Drawn like itty bitty iron filings, we leapfrogged intermittently towards the magnet that was the valley bottom.
I’ll take the blame. We considerably overshot our agreed-upon stop point. When we hooted for a response from the group dispersed in the forest, we realized we had descended too far. My partner and I took a moment to revel in how supreme the moment was before breaking trail up towards the group. I shared that run with John, and I’m glad I did. It was a highlight.
Lesson learned; don’t be afraid to jump on a trip with strangers.
Not Outsmarting the Snow
I think I’m being accurate here when I state I’ve never been on a guided trip. When I was 19, I took a weekend course in North Conway, New Hampshire, focused on placing natural protection while rock climbing. That felt much more like a course than being guided.
My aversion to being guided likely stems from a deep and flawed belief that I always need to be self-reliant. The bottom line is no one wants to get hurt, or even worse, and who better to rely on than yourself and trusted partners. I also know myself. I love skiing. I also like to think I’d make sound decisions regarding the terrain I ski, no matter what. But heading into a new zone, an unfamiliar mountain range, mentioning nothing of the snowpack’s vagaries, I know my place.
Had I gone into the hut with my experienced group of regular ski partners, I want to think we would have been patient and emulated the words of the co-lead guide for the trip, IFMGA guide Nino Guagliano. Sunrise Hut sits not too far from Golden, B.C., where Nino currently lives. He knew we’d be easing into the week.
“There was not much that needed to be said as far as me trying to convince everyone on the trip that we’re going to tone it down, said Guagliano of he and Coppolillo’s mindset regarding the snowpack and viable ski terrain going into the trip. “We planned on keeping things very conservative to start; getting a lay of the land, and starting to build from the ground level and floor by floor, and see how it goes by day six or day seven.”
It’s fair to say that had I been unguided in this same situation, I’d likely have skied maybe 30 percent of the terrain we eventually did ski. This is not to say Guagliano and Coppolillo were aggressive in terrain selection or under pressure from the group to ski “the goods.” It is to say that I would have been overly cautious and too afraid of poking around in a snowpack that was, from what I could gather, unlike anything I’d seen in my home mountain range.
Throughout the week, as Rob and Nino collected information from snowpits, daily ski tour observations, and their colleagues in the surrounding hills via the radio and InfoX, we were all too frequently reminded of the consequences: several D3 avalanches were reported.
My only regret about the trip is my oldest child not joining us. He was invited but had adventures elsewhere. This 20-year-old aspires to be a mountain guide. And more than anything, more than the turns and all the bliss that is typical of a hut trip, I wanted him to see two humble guides practice their craft. It’s hard to capture Rob and Nino’s humility in the presence of an unpredictable and uncharacteristic snowpack.
During my interview with Statham after the hut trip, he stated, “It’s always terrain, terrain, terrain; it’s all about terrain. You can’t predict the snow in years like this one.”
I understand now that what Rob and Nino practiced around the Sunrise Hut was the axiom Statham exhorted. Our skintracks flowed throughout the hut’s tenure, with only a few forays into higher, yet safe, alpine terrain. We skied plenty of powder. We skied plenty of slopes tipping beyond the 30-degree threshold. Rob and Nino let the terrain dictate our run selections.
I took nearly two weeks off from big tours upon my arrival home as I was totally spent. Thank goodness for the guides.
Jason Albert comes to WildSnow from Bend, Oregon. After growing up on the East Coast, he migrated from Montana to Colorado and settled in Oregon. Simple pleasures are quiet and long days touring. His gray hair might stem from his first Grand Traverse in 2000 when rented leather boots and 210cm skis were not the speed weapons he had hoped for. Jason survived the transition from free-heel kool-aid drinker to faster and lighter (think AT), and safer, are better.
Hut trip with Strangers: You got lucky, simple as that. Once of the worst experiences of my ski life was stuck in a hut trip with strangers whose skiing ability and outlook on life was completely incompatible with my friend and I. Considered paying for heli to get us out early. I’m staying with your original rule.; No hut trips with strangers: EVER!
Guides: Generally Guides have always increased the ski experience and allowed my to grow and explore terrain I would never venture into. Only bad experiences I have had with guides is with one that was so intent on the mantra that ” positivity is the key to the happiness, ” that by the end of the first day we were all willing to commit suicide to avoid anymore lectures on positivity from her.. The other was with a European guide that nearly killed me.
I figured this piece would elicit some good stories and strong opinions — fun read, Albert!
A few years ago I booked on with a guide I’d never met at Sunrise with 3 days notice, ever buddy was fine. IME hut trips are usually much the same type of people, there is always at least one MD and hopefully nobody needs them
I’ve made the best, most-enduring friendships of my life on trips with “strangers”. Friends-of-friends-from-my-hometown is a more accurate description in those scenarios, and I was young, but wow, what quality people I met. It wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows for me though. There were the trip I joined as a tag-along with a group that had formed from another town. We had an aggressive group leader who demanded that we ski together to all of his primary objectives (thankfully there was a guide on that trip to mitigate his ego), several skiers who had never skied soft snow before (i.e, east coast “intermediate” resort skiers), and one who was reduced to tears at the top of the first low-angle run of the trip. Then, there was a big standoff the night before the longest tour of the trip to the highest peak in the range because the guide demanded that the group stay together even though the ability level of a portion of the group wasn’t up to the task, and the group leader was going to get this goal ticked off, by god. It split the group, ended the trip on a sour note, and was the last time I went into the mountains with people I didn’t know.
But the good times, man, I can remember skiing steep terrain in blower conditions with brand-new ski buddies who felt like they’d been my friends my whole life on that first day. All of us hooting at the bottom about how we were “free-riding”. Following, an older, more experienced skier into the biggest terrain I’ve ever skied in my life, a man who I still call a friend and mentor. I can count on both hands the number of close friends who I’ve retained from those hut trips in my 20’s. I can count on both hands and a few extra toes, maybe, the number of truly close friends I have made in my life under any other circumstances besides skiing.
This, like so much in all of skiing, can be summed up by: “You never know until you go.”
I’ve had great partners, horrible partners. I’ve been a great partner and a bad one too. Each time, I learned something and the events were memorable.
I’m just back from a week at Icefall with a very disparate grouping of cohorts… 5 in total… guided and catered. Once again I wonder at how well folks bond over the course of a week, and become friends and support one another, especially the encouragement for the ‘groms’ that are becoming more common.
The guides are earning their keep this year! Nino is great to work with, and I’ve heard quite a few good things about Rob. My feeling is that the guiding ethos has been transforming over the last decade from a top down directve driven modality towards an interactive one with the clients. Not to say the client is always right, but saying that the client experience and feelings are kept in a higher regard.
Sounds like maybe ‘Gladeiator’ got the better of you! Happens all the time…
First off, are the Wildsnow authors on a vacation? I hope so. Otherwise, I’m pretty worried about the 1-month hiatus in new content.
I did the first of my now annual hut trips in 2020 (LQ Outpost) and joined a bunch of folks that have a 20+ year tradition of going to huts. Most of them were all strangers to me. Now they’re great friends that I only see for a week each winter.
Wild snow was bought by the same folks that own gear junkie.