A combination of perfect snow, weather and timing led to a backcountry reunion in the Cariboo Mountains for a group of powder junkies last weekend.
Celebrating their birthdays on the same day Nov. 23, Colin Labelle and John Wellburn, along with a group of friends, packed up their gear and headed east of Horsefly for some early-season skiing and snowboarding.
It’s an area the group has been exploring for many years, and was originally introduced to them by local backcountry enthusiasts Flip Blake and Mark Savard.
For Wellburn, who’s spent his last 10 winters in Argentina, the weekend provided his first chance to slap on a snowboard in three metres of fresh snow during that time, and reconnect with the winter season and friends for the group’s annual birthday tradition into the backcountry.
“The snow there is the first place you can go skiing around here,” Wellburn said. “I haven’t been here for the past 10 years so I was stoked, and the snow was incredible.”’
Wellburn, 36, helped build a safety cabin when he was introduced to the area at 16 years old.
Labelle, meanwhile, moved to Williams Lake in 2000 and has been hooked on the freedom the backcountry provides around Williams Lake.
“It’s just self propelled,” Labelle said of the sport. “There’s so much reward after climbing the mountain. You have to earn your turns. No crowd, no lift lines, no people.”
The remote wilderness area is only accessible by snowmobile. Once at a certain elevation, skiers put climbing skins on their skis and hike for their runs.
“You get fresh powder every single turn,” Labelle said. “I don’t even like to cross my buddies’ tracks when I’m skiing with them.”
Flip, his brother Rod Blake and longtime friend, Don Stanchfield, discovered the area, roughly 50 to 75 kilometres east of Horsefly, in the early 1980s.
“In the beginning there was very little alpine touring gear,” Blake said. “We had leather boots and skinny skis.”
Blake was a cross-country skier and was introduced to a telemark turn — a skiing technique involving a free heel and a distinct lunging motion to make turns — by one of his friends, Blair Smith.
“We started reading up on how to do it and it probably took us a couple of years to figure out how to make a proper turn,” he said. “Basically, it went from there.”
Backcountry skiing has grown in popularity over the years in the Cariboo, Blake said.
“Some of the best times of my life I’ve had in the backcountry,” he said. “The powder, the freedom, the openness, the lack of people, the challenge of getting up the hill and the camaraderie with your friends — it’s just a whole different thing.”
Labelle estimated in the Williams Lake area upwards of 40 people take to the backcountry for winter thrills.
“There’s a huge posse,” he said, noting in the future he hopes some day an official ski touring club could be formed locally.
“There’s one based out of Quesnel, the Cariboo Ski Touring Club, that has big numbers and club fees. It could happen here and it would be nice to get a club and be stakeholders in that area for parks and rec.”
Currently, the group operates under the banner of the Williams Lake Cross Country Ski Club as a backcountry division, he said.
Wellburn, meanwhile, couldn’t have been happier about how the weekend’s birthday celebration and his reunion with backcountry skiing went.
“It was quite the success, for sure,” he said.
“The fact there’s just a few of you out there and you can choose your own adventures … we’ve been up there for years so we know the lines, how to get into them and we know they’re safe.”
After 10 years away from the snow, Wellburn said he didn’t miss a beat.
“With sports, sometimes, you take a break and you come back even stronger,” he said.
Labelle also stressed the importance of taking avalanche safety training before venturing into the backcountry.
“It’s not something you want to go do by yourself,” Labelle said. “It’s good to get under someone’s wing and try it.”
Avalanche Safety Training courses levels one and two cost roughly $200. More information is available at www.avalanche.ca.