Winter camping at Soulines, a backcountry snowboarding and skiing festival
“You to have to jump on Louisa”.
And so I did and there begun the ride into Canada’s winter wilderness.
The snow mobile, carrying two of us and towing a toboggan preciously loaded with camping gear and skis, tore up kilometres of mountain logging road. We then swerved off the track and into the trees, deeper into the backcountry. Nearly an hour later, we emerged at the edge of a frozen lake; a clearing in an otherwise mountainous landscape. Everything was white apart from the peppering of multi-coloured tents starting to pop up amongst the trees at the lake’s edge.
Every year, over 100 of Canada’s most extreme ski and snowboarders made the pilgrimage deep into the Selkirk mountain range of British Columbia to participate in Soulines, a backcountry snowboarding and skiing festival. This is a 3-day camp out in the winter wilderness with a one-day big mountain line contest. There is no electricity which means there are no chair lifts here; riders need to climb the mountain themselves before shredding down. Only one hot meal is provided each day for each participant and all riders are responsible for their own logistics including sleeping arrangements. There isn’t any water either as its’s miles from the nearest town, which is Nelson. And it can be below -30ºC with the windchill. This all means that the type of rider at Soullines is seriously skilled, knowledgeable and passionate about their sport.
This year, I made the journey into the snowy wilderness with my camera thanks to having a friend compete…and the promise of adventure, because I had never winter camped before. As I looked around, I did wonder why I’d signed up to this madness.
We set about making our camp. We dug, clearing snow to create a walled pit which will shelter out tent from the elements. Adjacent to our tent, we built a snow cave (or igloo) where we had our fire and made our meals. We used a snow-saw to cut breeze-block-size chunks of compact snow which we stacked into a circular wall and roofed it with a tepee structure of trees and branches.
It was exhausting work but in those temperatures, you didn’t not want to stand still for too long anyway!
Within just a few hours of arriving, everything started to freeze – even things you didn’t think could freeze somehow manage to freeze like our boots and gloves. Even the propane for our stove transitioned into a gloopy gel that had to be warmed inside my jacket before we could use it.
I was told to keep my beers in my inner pockets to stop them from freezing; some put them next to fires, whilst others just drunk them. To be fair, it is easier than drinking water. The only water we could drink was from melting snow, which is time-consuming, or from collecting by plunging a bottle (and our hands) into a hole drilled into the frozen lake.
There was a sense of community at Soulines which was infectious.
Although it is a competition, the achievement of having made it to this remote location in these hostile conditions is incredibly unifying. There were huddles of athletes across the lake staring at the competition face; they were each trying to figure out their most impressive line down a near-vertical canvas of cliffs and trees. Points are scored for the most ambitious and stylishly executed lines down.
Night fell as we sippled medicinal whisky around the fire. This was probably the only non-frozen item at the entire festival! There were five of us in my tent and we were all in our down-filled sleeping bags, snuggled together like sardines. I stuffed my bag with my hot water bottle, my boot liners and my precious camera batteries. When we woke the following morning, there was ice inside the tent formed by the condensation from our breath.
Getting up after that first night's sleep was so hard. Yesterday's sun burnt my face (frozen sun block!). There was blood around my mouth from where I laughed last night and split my cracked lips. And I was starting to believe that my left big toe may never regain its feeling. Emerging from the tent into the extreme cold of dawn was almost unbearable but surveying my environment realigned my thoughts. The untouched mountainscape was so beautiful at first light. I was in a true wilderness and was about to watch and film some of the world's most daring skiers and snowboarders perform double backflips off mountain cliffs.
Regardless of the discomforts, there was not one moment when I thought that they weren’t worth it.