Militantly seated in a vintage high-back chair and dressed in a tucked-in, muted checkered-pattern button-up shirt, Walt Foster’s calloused brawny hands cradle a delicate, country rose bone china teacup. The rich, earthy aroma of brewed coffee and comforting smell of freshly baked goods rise from the warm patina table and fill the room of the 1960s farmhouse.
Carol sits to his right, they’ve been married for 47 years. She’s wearing blue denim and a delicately woven, cozy sweater. Their polished appearance complements their strong physiques, and the gently etched lines around their warm eyes reflect a wisdom that comes from being well-connected to the land and living each day with a sense of purpose. Walt and Carol make it easy to feel at home here on their property at Sand Creek Ranch, some 250+ kilometres away from the closest traffic light but only 30 kilometres away—as the crow flies—from the tallest peak in British Columbia.
An early February storm rips outside. Fierce winds grapple with the birch trees for their limbs, as snow pummels from every direction at once. The perfectly restored farmhouse doubles as a heli-ski lodge for Bella Coola Heli Sports (BCHS) during the winter months. The uncharted nature of the terrain is the draw for adventure athletes Anna Segal, Hedvig Wessel, and me. The allure of a new (to us) zone—a cumulative tenure of 3.55 million acres—builds anticipation, even as the winter storm holds us firmly indoors, for now.
The window spanning the back living room wall frames the visual noise of cold smoke snow blowing and swirling like white TV static. But in the peaks hidden beyond that chaos lies a myriad of opportunities for first ascents, descents and classics to repeat. Basalt and andesite towers reaching for the heavens, shaped by volcanic activity and glacier erosion; moraines and ice fields blanketed in snow. A shred paradise, less than a 10-minute helicopter bump away, with some descents running 1,500 metres long.
Safe and warm inside, Walt and Carol take us time traveling with historical tales, legends and stories of what it’s like to live on a working ranch at the toe of the Waddington Range.
The stone framing the fire we’re gathered around (as well as the home’s foundation) is granite that Walt’s father split with a sledgehammer back in the 1960s while building his vision of living off-grid and building out a survival school.
Down valley, sandwiched between Twist Lake and Middle Lake, surrounded by towering peaks, Walt’s father explored the land by horseback in the early ‘60s, and nailed in a post to stake his claim. He then set off to apply for the land. The government agreed to sell it to him, but Walt tells us there was one condition: “They said, ‘We’re not going to have any part of getting you to it.’” Over the next couple years Walt’s dad would need over a hundred 50-pound boxes of dynamite and the use of a tiny bulldozer just to break a lane at the bottom of the bluff. And that’s just the story of the road into Sand Creek, never mind the floods, fires and avalanches. “Around here you don’t go looking for adventure,” Walt says, “because adventure will find you.”
Behind the glass door of the fireplace, a freshly added log crackles, interrupting a moment of silence as plumes of smoke drift from the hearth and dance into the living room in a serpentine motion not unlike the paths of the azure blue tributaries we’d seen on the short helicopter flight from Anahim Lake Airport to the ranch. Stretches of wilderness, no people in sight, and the thought of making the trek without aircraft feels overwhelming and crazy, especially during this storm. Yet that’s how it was done by prospectors, adventurers and trappers for quite some time.
Perhaps the most storied of those early souls who hauled their provisions in heavy oiled-canvas bags and bushwhacked their way through the Homathko River valley were Phyllis and Don Munday. With over 100 peaks visited (the majority of which were first ascents) in British Columbia and Alberta, the badass explorer duo
first set eyes on Mount Waddington while hiking Vancouver Island’s Mount Arrowsmith. Just the peak of this “mystery mountain” was visible, but for the Mundays it stoked enough curiosity to drive multiple trips into the Waddington Range with their hearts set on summiting Waddington itself.
They made several summit attempts, and in 1934 even climbed onto the Northwest summit (3,997 metres, 13,117 feet). The Northwest summit is a secondary peak, and unfortunately conditions and fate never lined up for the Mundays to stand on the Main summit (4,019 metres, 13,186 feet).
We are all here—Anna, Hedvig, myself, photographer Matt Bruhns, cinematographer Jeff Thomas, and Bella Coola Heli Sports (BCHS) guides Klemen Mali and Dave Ellison—in hopes of fully immersing ourselves into some of the technical terrain that’s brought international recognition to the area. Mother Nature has other plans. She gave us a window to get a taste for the deep perfect powder tree skiing on day one, but since then we have been hunkered down in the lodge, peaks obscured, helicopters grounded. Walt and Carol’s storytelling, memories, and carefully preserved artifacts that hang on the hydrangea print wallpaper—an old photo of Walt bull riding, a worn saddle, a detailed illustration of a flintlock pistol—mix well with the modern-day amenities of stark white sheets, nourishing meals, a wood burning hot tub and omnipresent wifi.
This intermingling appears seamlessly woven together, but looking a bit deeper, past the comforts, it quickly becomes apparent how much effort is required to keep an off-grid space running, let alone a working ranch. Even in summer, when the fierce winter storms abate, Walt and Carol mount horses and drive more than two hundred cattle to various meadows, lakes, valleys, and even up into the alpine regions. And of course, there’s always firewood to collect…
That four-season effort extends well beyond their own benefit, and that of us guests enjoying the remote privacy of the ranch. A life in the wild requires a healthy respect for, and desire to protect, that which provides, as well as the flora and fauna that share the space. The valley is a corridor for grizzlies, seasonal black bears, cougars, moose, foxes and wolves. Walt and Carol have observed elk emerging, moose trickling back—and one biologist gave feedback that the bear population was benefiting from the sensitivity and awareness of how they have limited access to the trails and roads at the valley floor by means of a gate some 15 kilometres away on their road. It keeps traffic out. They know that wildlife truly can’t be pushed much further than this valley.
Which is why time spent at Sand Creek is a gift, even as our projected shred days succumb to the power of the storms outside. To be welcomed into this tranquil home, built on a foundational ethos of caring for the land, breathes a reminder for me that on trips like these, experiences always prevail over things; that it’s the people we meet along the way, the souls we journey with, the stories that are shared cliffside or around the fire, and the moments in between the action that shift our perspective—this is what this is all about.
The skiing has been and will always be a bonus.
Check the ML Podcast!