In late March, I made the journey from Vancouver to Prince George to meet up with a good friend to do some backcountry skiing. The time seemed right to get out beyond the coast mountains that have been my sole winter playground for many years. We ended up booking a hut near Penny, BC — a town situated about 200 km east of Prince George (ie. middle of nowhere). The cabin itself is tucked away just below treeline, 12 km up from where the Fraser River divides the Rocky and Cariboo mountain ranges.
Fun fact: Penny is the only post office in Canada that still has mail delivered by train.
(For directions getting to the cabin, see the bottom of the article. I’m skipping directions in favour of the good stuff.)
We got on the road in the wee morning hours, when the only other people sick enough to be awake were a group of overly committed runners. A quick stop at old Mcdonald’s (which opens before 6am unlike A&W who are apparently a bunch of slackers!) and we were on our way.
About half way from Prince George to Penny you drive past the tattered remains of an old Canfor timber mill. Some 14 years ago it was shut down in favour of hauling wood to centralized “supermills”. Up until 2003, the BC government had outlawed “supermills” and imposed rules that didn’t allow logging companies to mill their timber outside a certain radius from where it was harvested. This fed the economies of many of the now forgotten towns in BC, who once depended on local timber processing mills (like the Canfor one) for livelihood. The drive from PG to Penny was a prime example of small town BC’s heavy reliance on the timber industry and it provided a stark reminder of the severe effects that federal and provincial policies can have on localized areas.
Hot tip: keep your eyes peeled for a house completely covered in satellite dishes. You can’t miss it, and if I’m the only one that finds any entertainment in it, at least it means you’re on the right path!
A few kilometers later and we were at our starting point on the side of a logging road. Lucky for us, the road conditions were decent, and we were able to skip the first 3.5 km of the 12 km hike into the cabin by taking the Fraser flats forest service road. If the road is closed you have to continue along the Penny access road all the way to Penny, where a daunting 12 km uphill hike awaits.
After a quick gear sorting mission we got on the trail, and after 4.5 hours of gentle uphill skinning through a beautiful old growth forest we finally made it to the cabin (minus my toothbrush.. ).
When we got to the hut we were blown away by by how well equipped it was. From sleeping bags, to gas lamps, to firewood, it truly had everything we needed for a comfortable stay. But since our time at the cabin was short, we had no time to admire the amenities and decided to force our legs into carrying us up the mountain even further in search of our first turns! We skied a mellow south facing slope a couple times and then retreated back down to the cabin for some much needed rest (and an epic alfredo dinner).
Day two started nearly as early as day one. Eager to squeeze as many runs in as possible, we woke up at the crack of dawn so we could quickly get some oatmeal down and head off on a full day of ski touring. In no time we were up over the ridge that can be seen from the cabin and down the other side into an area that can only be described as a winter playground.
From the lake at the bottom of the valley (Red Mountain Lake) peaks rise in every direction. Further to the north-west we could see bigger lines that we’re begging to be skied, if only the snowpack was a little more stable. Back to the south we could see steep lines that had long since been cleared of trees by the devastating force of avalanches. Needless to say we weren’t going to push it.
Side Note: Finding information on avalanche conditions in the area was pretty tough. https://www.avalanche.ca doesn’t have any data for the area and so we were pretty much left with this facebook group for information.
Our goal for the day was to ski a fairly mellow gladed slope on the side of the valley farthest from the cabin. We quickly skinned our way up the slope, only stopping to do one of the scariest snow stability tests ever. Without getting too far into the details.. we basically were able to make the snowpack collapse all the way to the ground.
After an unforgettable run back down, followed by an interesting route back towards the cabin, we reached the end of our day. Quickly after devouring two bowls of the spiciest chilli ever, we were all asleep.
On the third morning, we planned to summit the peak of Red Mountain and ski an amazing line down into the valley bottom. Again, we got off to an early start. We reached the ridge above the cabin before the sun had risen and were treated to epic views of the Cariboo mountain range.
Less than an hour later, we were standing on top of Red mountain in some of the thickest fog we’d seen on the trip.
After a short wait (and a hesitant first few turns), the fog cleared enough for us to have one of the best runs of the trip. It was a long descent down from the peak, along the shoulder, and down a long mellow pitch into the valley where we’d spent most of the previous day.
The sun came out right as we started our next climb, and our run down was one for the ages. Clear blue sky and perfect untracked powder.
In a moment of pure craziness, we decided we would do our final run back to the cabin shirtless.
Unfortunately the journey back to the truck brought a calamitous 8km descent through a series of flat, wet, sections of trail. We were barely able to keep our skis on and our unlucky splitboarder had to strap in (and out) about a million times. Needless to say, it sucked. If you’re a snowboarder planning on doing this trip at some point, make sure your board is freshly waxed and ready for whatever conditions you may face!
When we finally made it out to our truck it felt a lot like we had been going uphill, not down.. two hours later, back in PG, we made quick use of some A&W coupons and the memory of our disastrous descent was long gone.
All in all, the trip was incredible. We went three full days without seeing a single track from another skier, which if you’re from Vancouver, is ridiculous. For the backcountry skiers out there looking for a serious adventure, I’d highly recommend checking out the Penny – Red Mountain cabin.
Not sure how helpful this is.. but here’s a map that contains our track files for both days of touring! Blue = Day 1, Red = Day 2.
To book, you can contact the right people through this website: http://www.penny-redmountain.ca/
It’s recommended you book early in the season if you’d like to have it for a weekend. It sleeps six (very comfortably) and gives you access to some amazing ski terrain. You can also go in the summer if you’re looking for a remote hike. But the place is packed with Grizzlies so I’d say stick to winter, especially if you’re into ski touring!
Getting to the cabin
There are two ways to access Penny by road. One is to take the turnoff from highway 16 about 21km east of Prince George at the Giscome, Upper Fraser turnoff. This road winds through Ferdale, Willow River, Giscome, Eaglet Lake, Newlands, and then Aleza Lake, before crossing the new Hansard bridge over the Fraser River. From here on, the paved road gives way to many kilometers of dirt. After the bridge, you drive onto Sinclair Mills and Longworth before arriving at Penny. This route is kept open all year round but check your weather report and go prepared. The second option is to take highway 16 East from Prince George to the Penny Access Road (about 100km), which leads you to the Fraser River landing at Penny, which is crossed by boat in the summer and over the ice in the winter.
We took the first route, and if you plan on doing the same you should definitely have a vehicle capable of handling itself on rougher stretches of “road”. Logging trucks have turned the last few kilometers into a mixture of ruts and mud pits that would certainly render a Toyota Camry impotent. Of course this depends on what time of year you go!