Descending through a burned out forest is one of the more ethereal sensations in a sea of ethereal sensations that is snow riding. On a sunny day in a regular alpine forest, the familiar ball-gown waistlines of healthy, snowbound conifers offer a labyrinth of crisscrossing alleyways that alternately close out and reveal themselves with every turn, eliciting an approach both careful and controlled. In a burn, however, where you can see all the way down a slope with little impediment offered by the blackened spires scraping the sky or a chiaroscuro of shadows set across the snow like sabres laid to rest, the arrangement usually invites wild, high-speed riding. Today, however, with changeable snow conditions, it's not quite as wild in the burn — a main attraction that hangs above the lodge of Backcountry Snowcats — as it could be. Instead we find ourselves in the halting progress of chasing cold pockets, trying to avoid the descending warmth of a January inversion. By the time we topped out in the alpine after our first ascent this morning — about a 40-minute cat ride from the warren of interconnected buildings comprising Hurley Mountain Lodge — It was already +5C in the sun.
With snow from the last storm long-since skied off by its hordes of shredders, and the latest in a series of deep inversions poised to bake anything left into oblivion, Whistler Blackcomb is played. However, on Hurley Pass, in the South Chilcotin Mountains outside of Pemberton, there is still plenty of powder — though it has been a tough mission for lead guide Conny Amelunxen to find just the right exposures in the burn. As we descend, the temperature drops steadily in this upside-down cake of a day (it's still -16C in Pemberton), and the snow quality vastly improves. Higher up, where the aspect angle strays a handful of degrees from north and the snow has experienced even a few minutes of radiation, it's grabby, so Conny works us around trying to find the right combination of aspect and elevation; there are moments of glory, occasional satisfaction and several near over-the-bars spectacles. Eventually, trying to ride anything but true north-facing terrain seems futile, and we hop in the cat for a pleasant 30-minute grind to the south end of Backcountry's tenure where a series of ridges and rollers of forest-sheltered shots pretty much all face north. The warm air temperature in sunny areas up high was a strange reality, but the shaded slopes here are like another planet: we all leave vaporous clouds of cold smoke hanging in the air from our first shin-deep turns. Inversion? What inversion?