It’s 4 am, on Christmas morning and I have just woken up. I’m not very hungry but I try to eat a little bit of breakfast and put on a coffee to help wake us up. My housemates Arno and Sam come out of their rooms dressed in their thermal layers. They sling their bags from over their shoulders and place them by the back door and join me in my strategic breakfast. In an hour we will be driving to a trail head just past Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, British Columbia (30k north west of Pemberton).
This is my first Christmas away from home. It also happens to be the first Christmas away from home for both Arno and Sam. Seeing as we are already breaking our own traditions we decided to do something slightly less traditional. There’s going to be no turkey, no gift giving and goodness, no Brussel Sprouts (much to the dismay of the Belgian). Instead we are going to snowshoe in Pemberton. Our destination was the Wendy Thompson Hut, which is run by the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC)
With the food packed and having done our final run through of our gear we load the car up and set out. Being 5am on Christmas morning, the roads are pretty clear. With it now being Winter and of course an empty road, the drive was gorgeous. As the sun began to rise, you started to see a little clearer what the snow covered forest beyond Squamish had to offer. We were entering a winter wonderland, and despite the early hour the excitement in the car could be felt.
After a 4-hour drive, we finally reach the car park; a lay-by which is just over a car length deep. After a much needed stretch we prep the gear. If you’ve never been anywhere like this before you are hit with a number of feelings. The beauty of the snow covered mountains. The clear blue sky with a moon still glowing. And the cold. From the time it took me to lace up my boots and put on my additional layers my fingers were painfully white. They were made redundant to the tasks I put them to, so trying to put my snow shoes on proved to take a little longer than I had expected. Taking deep a breath the air felt as fresh as had ever felt hit my lungs. The moisture on my nasal hairs were frozen hard which was a strange sensation when wriggling the nose. I could see the same was happening on the beards of both Sam and Arno.
We were ready but waiting for 2 friends, Randelle and Jay. The Brother and Sister, also both living in Van City, were meeting us here at the car park. Instead of coming from Vancouver, they were coming from a lodge down the road in Pemberton. Skiers, they had attempted to get to The Wendy Thompson Hut with 2 others on Christmas Eve. With the other 2 leading the way, they followed the ski tracks of some skiers they could see up ahead, assuming they were heading for the same destination. It turns out they were likely to be some locals going for some back-back-country skiing rather than heading for a cozy hut. With light fading, and unsure of the way the tired group turned back. After some rest and time to rally themselves up again Randelle and Jay messaged us on Christmas Morning letting us know they were in for a second attempt. Unfortunately, the others weren’t so keen. Knowing that Randelle and Jay would be a little longer, we decided to head off and meet them at the cabin. I was certainly glad to leave if only to get some blood in my fingers and toes which had until now been rendered absolutely useless.
In the knowledge of the Christmas Eve trip we were keen to not get ourselves into any trouble as we were less experienced than the others. Instead of cutting through the forest we walked along the highway for 100 metres to get to the Service Road. This walk would take us to the trail-head. Starting off with some pretty deep virgin snow, we soon got to some well packed stuff that had padded down by skiers. This made our job so much easier. Without the ski tracks I think it would have been a far more difficult and long trip.
I was already in awe of my surroundings. The snow was plentiful and clung to most things. Although it was great powder, the sheer volume of it weighed down the branches of the trees that lined the service road. I forgot the discomfort the cold had on my limbs, and was just taking in all that I could see. We hadn’t gone far, but I wanted to take a photo of everything and I certainly obliged my urges. However, it would come to point that after stopping for a minute my fingers would be cold again. There was a time lag between stopping and cold fingers. You would be toasty and warm for them to only go cold again even after having started walking. What is strange is the pain when the blood enters the hands again. The sting reminds me of getting into a hot bath with cold feet and hands having been playing football for hours as a child. This is all with gloves remaining on. However, this mild discomfort was very much worth it. As such I continued to take plenty of photos.
The trail head is pretty well marked as we leave the service road and enter the forest. If I wasn’t feeling magical by now, I would certainly have done here. Entering a snow filled forest entertained many parts of my inner child dreams. Thick blankets snow just resting untouched on trees and rocks alike. After the first half an hour, I was thirsty. I would reach for my hydro sack. Unfortunately, the tube coming from my back had well and truly frozen solid. I was not going to get any water from this today. I tried to melt it by keeping the drinking nozzle in my mouth but it did no good. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I would need to prepare against something like this happening. Luckily Sam’s water bottle hadn’t yet frozen shut so we passed that around. I also attempted to eat some snow. The snow was so fluffy that it was easy to breath in and cause a splutter. I managed to avoid this too much but I was surprised how little water I got out of such a clump of snow, but it would do for now.
The climb through the forest certainly put your thighs to the test. Even on the flat it’s a bit like wading through loose sand. I had the full appreciate of my ski poles here. On some of the steeper parts which would on occasion give way to a slip (despite the teeth on the snow shoes), they gave some great support, just enough to keep your balance. I started to feel the effects of the early start in the morning and a minimal breakfast which was by now 6 hours ago. Taking my time, I did question my fitness in times like these. I can’t really remember puffing so much whilst going so slow. But I was happy in the knowledge that I wasn’t any further behind the others than I usually am.
I kept my sunnies off in the forested part. Putting them on the top of my head was of no real use. It wasn’t until I put them on again that I realised the condensation had frozen. I didn’t really want to scratch too much at the lenses so I just had to leave them and stick them in my pocket – I wasn’t going to see anything with these for the rest of the trip.
On what felt like the highest part of this particular ridge we stopped again for a lunch break and some more water (I had transferred the water from my hydro sack into Sam’s bottle – it was only the tube that was frozen). I got out my sandwich. By now the carefully crafted sandwich (French baguette with English mustard, avocado, tomato, spinach and a wad of brie) was a brick. The bread took some chewing and the avocado was like hard ice cream. The only thing that wasn’t frozen was the cheese – that was just cold. Taking too long to get through we decided to move on. I took a bite for the road, likely enough I’d still be munching on it by the time we got to the hut.
At the bottom of the ridge, the forest opened up to the meadow area (summer). This was one of the exposed areas that we had been cautioned on. Although compared to skiers, the avalanche dangers for snow shoeing on these areas were relatively low, we were still wary. Despite any potential hazards, this open space took our breath away. Unlike the woods which had multiple tracks that weaved in and out of the trees, the meadow had a single track across it. Everything else was untouched. It gave us an opportunity to look around at the mountains in its fully glory. We saw a group of skiers coming towards us and we waited until they passed. They gave us news of the cabin, how much further and who else was there. We were expecting one family of 4 and a group of 4 friends to be there with us.
After a little hike out of the meadow we came to another clearing, this time it’s Marriot Lake. We stopped here just to take in the views. Not a sound could be heard. No wind, no air craft, no indistinguishable background noise. We couldn’t even hear the breath of each other. If there as a sound, the snow absorbed it. We could have stayed here a little longer, soaking it all in if it wasn’t so cold. The feet were blocks again, it was time to get moving.
The final climb to the hut was pretty steep. Enough for me to take a breather at the top of each little climb, hands on hip. It was less the burn of muscle, more the lack of energy that comes from grinding though this type of terrain. I was hoping to see the hut around every tree, so when I did 15 minutes later I was ecstatic. I was met by a teenage girl, with her head poking out the back door instructing me to head round the other side where Sam and Arno were waiting. This is where the main entrance was.
The three of us high-5 each other on the day’s achievement. This was a fantastic place to be on Christmas Day. The worries from the morning and the general unknown of the trip were far forgotten. We took our snowshoes off and head inside. There were communal Crocks which, despite their ugly design, were extremely comfortable and welcomed.
We make our introductions to the family of four (the father whom was one of the directors of the hut), and one of the group of friends (the others 3 were out skiing). They were all sitting around the wood burner. It was now a luxury to have the feeling of warmth other than our own. Before checking out the rest of the hut – feet and hands were warmed up against it, steam rising from the socks of Arno.
The hut, in gothic arch design is a bit of a Tardis. From the outside it doesn’t look big, but when you step in there is the boot area, kitchen and the living space. Upstairs is the bunk bed. It’s one communal bed meaning there’s a likelihood of snuggling up with someone you don’t know – whether it’s intended or not. We set-up in some of the yet unclaimed bed spots. Thinking about going out for another hike we decide to stay inside. We are camped up on the big benches that surround the log burner that’s in the middle of the living space. I’m happy enough to finish off the second half of my frozen sandwich whilst the others are fully engaged in conversation. The water is already on the stove boiling, so without anyone else claiming it I make a few cups of tea. This was another luxury for us, it warmed us up right from the inside.
We soon had the hut to ourselves. This gave Sam an opportunity to take a nap up on the bunk and for Arno and I to catch-up on the day’s hike. We did want to go and explore but deep down we liked the idea of staying warm. Our clothes were drying off on hooks and we were far too comfortable. Anyhow the decision was made for us when we heard a yelp of joy from outside. Not yet being able to see where it came from we mooted on whom it could have come from. “It must be Randelle and Jay”. We were wondering how they would find the ski up. We had actually last heard from them when they said they would come, but there was no news on when they were planning on starting or even leaving Pemberton. As far as we knew they could have changed their mind. Low and behold 2 minutes later, they skied around the corner. Upon arrival they looked as happy to see the hut as we were. Not only for today’s ski up but after yesterday’s 6-hour excursion they had a double whammy of these hills.
So here we were, back around the wood burner, the other guests all having returned, old and new friends alike (I had not met Randelle before, and Jay briefly at a bar in Squamish about a month before) drinking tea from snow melt waiting for some homemade vegetarian bolognaise to heat through. The mince pies and chocolate were ready for dessert along with a few last Werther Originals – enough to go around. This was our Christmas
Whilst this may not have been a ‘traditional’ Christmas Day, but we had snow, we were surrounded by good, warm people and we had hot food in our bellies (along with a bottle of Baileys and a bag of red wine if our heart so desired). We couldn’t be with our families, which of course we missed, we were still creating special memories and enduring new experiences whilst happening on a beautiful place in the world – this is what the spirit Christmas is really all about – not spending money on gifts.
- More info about the Wendy Thompson Hut can be found HERE
- Snow Shoes and Avalanche Gear was rented from MEC on West Broadway.
Merry Christmas Folks from Live in the Trees