I'm a backcountry babe. Not in the huck-it-off-the-cliff-poster-shot kind of way, though I do have a highly photogenic snowplow tuck perfected. I mean babe, as in newborn. This past weekend, I not only survived my very first backcountry skiing experience, but totally loved it, thanks especially to some awesome ski partners and the guys at Three Sisters Backcountry. What's not to like about a cozy yurt and a wood-fired sauna nestled at the south end of Three Creeks Lake just below the bowls of Tam McArthur Rim?Three Sisters Backcountry is the dream made real of Gabe Chladek, Shane Fox and Jonas Tarlen. After many long Central Oregon approach slogs, they started talking about how cool it would be if there were a hut system here, like in so many other mountain ranges. "It took ten years of planning," said Shane when we met him at the Three Creeks Sno-Park on Friday morning, "but we finally got our permits in September and built our yurts."
I had borrowed some Black Diamond AT skis and skins, bright orange Scarpa boots, a bright orange shovel, a bright orange probe and a bright orange avalanche beacon. All that orangeness makes you safer, I guess, but I still had my concerns, so I convinced four friends who knew what they were doing to join me for the weekend.
"We just went through our most significant avalanche cycle in five years," Shane proceeded to warn us as we loaded our gear (the essentials - like skis, sleeping bags, Trivial Pursuit and makings for salmon quesadillas, huevos rancheros and hot toddies) onto a sled hooked up to his snowmobile.
"How nice," I thought as I hopped on the back of his snowmobile for the six-mile ride into Three Creeks Lake. On the way, Shane pointed out the prominent features of Tam Rim - the Proboscis, the Prow and the Pyramid - and where slides had already occurred.
We quickly made ourselves at home in the welcoming, handcrafted yurts tucked into a grove of old growth hemlocks at 6,500 feet. There are two 20-foot diameter, wood-heated yurts, a wood-fired sauna... .and an ample supply of firewood, of course. The fully-equipped kitchen yurt sleeps four people, while the second yurt sleeps eight.
While we waited for the rest of our gear and group to be shuttled in, we pulled out our shovels and the Snow Science kit and dug a pit. We tested densities of snow at different levels and studied ice crystals under a magnifying glass. It was all quite reassuring.
Eager for action, we decided to climb pretty much straight up from the huts, and then along the ridge to the Prow where there is a spectacular view of the Cascade peaks. Uphill is my specialty, so I particularly enjoyed that part. I even managed to peel off my skins without getting all tangled up and tucked them neatly away.
Then we discussed our route back down. Peering down at Three Creeks Lake far, far below us, I suggested the "easiest" path and the group kindly concurred. Somehow, that still involved cliffs and steep bowls and learning how to kick turn on the job. Good adventure!
Safely back at the yurts, we cooked up some chicken fajitas and enjoyed a snowball fight in the sauna.
The next day dawned to a blue sky after a night of pouring rain, so the snow was quite heavy. Mike, Brett and Sheila decided to take rides on the "Elevator," carving some turns in a nearby bowl, while Kerie and I did some map and compass touring on skinny skis to Little Three Creeks Lake and beyond.
On Sunday morning, Shane showed up on his snowmobile to haul out our gear. We skied out, down the blue diamond trails past the Jeff View Shelter and back to the Sno-Park. Only an hour from home, we felt like we had been far off on a big adventure.
The huts cost $35 per person per night/weekdays and $65 per person/weekends and holidays. The snowmobile shuttle is $25 per person roundtrip. Hire an expert guide familiar with the terrain for $240 per day. You can be super spoiled and enjoy a fully-catered vacation for an additional $60 per person, per day and even request a keg of beer from Three Creeks Brewery.
For more information or to reserve the yurts, visit www.threesistersbackcountry.com. The 3SBC guys are definitely onto something - their calendar is filling fast!