The Great Cairn Hut is an island of refuge amongst an imposing blue ice and barren rock landscape. With the exception of a pine marten, this tiny, poetic stone shelter is the only sign of habitation, rarely visited and perfect for all these reasons.
Also known as the Ben Ferris Hut, the rustic structure sits at the foot of Mount Sir Sanford (3519m) in the northern part of the Selkirk Mountain range. Apprehensive about future popular culture and how it would affect the role of our mountain heritage, the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) built refuges like the Great Cairn to preserve the opportunity for Canadians to access remote wilderness. Journalist Elizabeth Parker of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote this in the 1907 edition of the Canadian Alpine Journal: "It is the people's right to have primitive access to the remote places of safest retreat from the fever and fret of the market place and the beaten tracts of life."
Great Cairn Hut, Selkirk Mountain Range, British Columbia
What is the state of this essential aspect of our national identity? A new guard of high powered backcountry advocates has emerged: Christina Lustenberger, Eric Hjorleifson and Forrest Coots; all ex-ski racers, under 35 and at the forefront of their sport, are carving out a new way of skiing and being in the mountains. It’s not the internet they need; it is simplicity and an outlet for advanced athleticism.
April 19-27 2014, Great Cairn Hut. Objectively, the purpose of going here was to ski some couloirs and climb Sir Sanford. Without a water source or wood supply, not large enough for six people to turn around in at the same time, the crew descended on the Great Cairn with solar panels for charging iPods and camera batteries, a satellite phone for detailed weather reports, plus a quiver of ski gear that would not have been out of place in Chamonix or Whistler. High powered athletes and kit injected into old school accommodation.
CHRISTINA LUSTENBERGER 'LUSTI'
AN OBJECT IN MOTION STAYS IN MOTION
Most days the valley was a cold and hot white soup, swirled with hints of mountains. Christina pitched her tent just above the cabin and immediately it seemed as though she had always lived there. Hers was the dawn patrol, the food cache, route decisions and weather analysis.
The Northern Selkirks are remote, with granite spires and big glaciated terrain where everything sits above treeline. It tends to be stormy, with unpredictable visibility and poor stability. Each day there was much discussion about winds: kabatic wind, anabatic wind and temperature gradients. Christina was the unofficial leader, as a veteran of the area and an assistant ski guide. Her first visit was in 2011, skiing into the Great Cairn from the west. A stressful three day journey, but in the end she tagged a first descent of the South Couloir on Adamant Mountain. "If you keep moving your thoughts move through you, cleansing as you go." Internal focus took her to the 3345m summit and down the 55 degree couloir, alone. Lus-ti.
Restless much of the time, she was most at ease with her skis on. In the hut she was rarely still, constantly cooking, cleaning, checking maps and weather; or she was gone to her tent. It could be that this is an unconscious strategy amongst this new guard – without stillness, certain emotions cannot be experienced. Or maybe they seek landscapes that have greater clarity of purpose.
Take back simple. Wake with the sun; go to bed when you're tired. Push your perspective.
It was austere. With the exception of a pine marten that haunted the hut, the only signs of wildlife were wolverine tracks and one bird. Avalanche activity erupted as soon as the sun came out. On a dawn run day, clear hot weather heat drove the group back early, chased by giant snowballs and slow moving releases. "I feel silent when I'm moving across snow." The Great Cairn was a pebble on a blazing white baking dish. She dug a snow couch, a living room and a chair for the iPod station while everyone else slept.
Ex-Canadian National Team ski racer and Olympic competitor, Lusti is a racehorse, a thoroughbred. She is emotional, flirtatious and powerful. It would have been easy to just be in awe of this graceful and strong, independent person but that doesn't do her justice; she is also reserved and humble. This woman is not one of the boys.
Highly skilled, hard working and vulnerable, she is all about the team and the moment. The pine marten, nicknamed Steve, waited hopefully outside her tent each night, hopelessly in love.
There is a fresh wind blowing in the backcountry.
ERIC HJORLEIFSON 'HOJI'
VALLEY BOTTOM BLUES
Born and raised in Canmore, Hoji is a true product of competitive mountain culture. From his days on the junior circuit, he has long been familiar with early mornings, cold temperatures and discipline – which might explain why mischief and opinions just leak out of him.
"Action sports have pushed the human mind farther than ever by pushing the limits of what the human body can do, in time and progression." In context – we were talking about what the technical revolution of the new guard brings into settings like the Great Cairn. Back in the day, Ben Ferris never imagined anyone skiing Sir Sanford or any of the couloirs in the area, much less that they would easily rewrite this austere and lonely landscape with elegant scripts at rocket speed. Everything today is accelerated, compressed, powered by higher efficiency and extremely demanding. It's a volatile combination with an insatiable appetite.
This is why Eric refers to the 'valley bottom blues', the uncomfortable, gnawing feeling that something essential is wrong with the world, but absolution can be found above treeline. "I wake up, put on my boots, Christina makes me bacon and I go skiing." It is worth noting that Eric was in his ski boots (and pants) from dawn until…well, who knows; maybe he slept in them. He reported spending a good part of each night awake, battling Steve Marten over the entrance to his snow cave.
Action sports have pushed the human mind farther than ever by pushing the limits of what the human body can do.
For someone who has risen to the top of a fearless pack, Eric is remarkably unaffected and true to his nature. That is to say he is exceptionally demanding – of his equipment and himself. Within the first 24 hours, Eric had reorganized the drying ropes, the shelf system, made a pot handle and fixed Forrest's bindings. No wonder then that he travels with a tool kit that weighs several pounds and is crammed with spare parts and components that can be made into something better.
"The best way to learn and understand conditions for mountain travel is to be immersed in it." Knowledge comes from experience. Where consequences are high, concerns are real and immediate. In the face of this, ironically, anxiety diminishes. "Wash a fork, shred a line. It doesn't matter. Things don't have to be hard to be valid."
Apt words and reflective of the new way – technology is a tool. Let it do the work, use it for play and then put it away. In the remote reaches of silence, the heart grows three sizes.
FORREST COOTS 'COOTER MCGAVIN'
"I have a lot of bad habits." At first glance, Forrest doesn't give an impression of his capabilities. Call it the Shasta-zone, his humble, mellow appearance and neutral energy – neutral as in ready to ignite, but on standby. He's introspective, quiet and American, in a founding fathers kind of way: intelligent, caring, and liberal. He was also king of the iPod amplified in a cup and had endless playlists that appealed to everyone. Like Eric and Christina, Forrest spent a lot of years on the competitive circuit, to the point where it was no longer fun and he dropped it after he went off to college.
"The true essence of the sport is moving gracefully through the mountains. Get away from all the bullshit." What brought Forrest back to skiing was an experience of deep personal loss. In the backcountry was the only place he could find peace and move forward. On big mountains Forrest rediscovered an outlet for emotion and freedom of expression. He rips over the terrain, aware of remote triggers, overhead hazards and slabs, using speed to make the least impact. "Climbing scares the hell out of me. I can scratch my way up, but I'm really not comfortable until my skis are on my feet." He goes far and wide, not to accumulate anything or to stand off against unknown dangers, but simply in the pursuit of grace. Usually the front man, Forrest had his pockets filled with chew and candies, not typical for someone who grew up in Mount Shasta with very alternative parents, in a weird mountain culture that could only exist in California. "There are a lot of portals there." Not that he believes in them, but as a summer ranger on Shasta he has witnessed a vast number of lost souls, both literally and metaphysically. This helps explain his generous patience, quiet reticence and largeness of heart.
Get up, go, don't think about it too much.
There are no bad days in the mountains. Sir Sanford was not climbed but no one expressed defeat. At the end of the day, Forrest would often head back first to make the fire, noticing that Christina was quiet, wrapped in an internal process. This too shall pass. Tomorrow is another ski day.
Over 100 years ago, the original founders of the Alpine Club of Canada, including Elizabeth Parker, were already apprehensive about the future of our mountain heritage. The club's original mandate, dated 1906, had five main objectives:
- Promotion of scientific study and exloration of Canadian alpine and glacial regions;
- Cultivation of art in relation to mountain scenery;
- Education of Canadians to appreciate their mountain heritage;
- Encouragement of the mountain craft and opening new regions;
- Preservation of natural beauties and their flora and fauna.
Great Cairn Hut, Selkirk Mountain Range, British Columbia
Admitting that we are uncomfortable, in general, is new. Is it about technology, is it about the pace, or is it the fine line we ride between private and communal. In the digital era, nothing is sacred. The new world tries to enforce that only the publicly personal resonates, but the sharing on this trip was subliminal. Vital. Another night, another memory; no one needed to announce it.
Elizabeth Parker was correct; "It would be a great thing for young Canadians if all the automobiles vanished into space and walking for pleasure became the fashion." We have barely managed to maintain our right to remote spaces. Passing the torch is critical.
On our last night, Steve Marten went on a tear. He threw himself at the windows for hours on end, tried to penetrate the snow cave and haunted the outskirts of Christina's tent. Just before dawn, Eric finally took him on, valiantly defending Christina's honour and letting the cabin residents get some sleep.
Headed back to separate lives and the certainty of valley bottom blues, it was tempting to stay behind. From the Great Cairn Hut there are views of peaks and glaciers in all directions. It is the loudest form of quiet and the deepest sense of isolation. The new guard is pushing all kinds of limits, from technical to personal, translating an essential need into a profound, if temporary, peace.
"As soon as we fly out, it's all over." Eric Hjorleifson