THE BONNINGTON HUTS – Where Are They and How Can I Get There?
by George Apel
As Club Director of Cabins and Trails, I often hear this question. The Bonnington Range Huts, which the KMC built and jointly manages with the Forest Service, frequently seem to be lost in what some have likened to Brigadoon (visible every hundred years), or the lost city of Shangri-la (open only to the select).
The 1:50 000 map 82 F/6 covers the location of all the huts, including the location of the site proposed for the Siwash or John Steed hut. While there are difficulties even for those who have been there countless times, here are the map coordinates:
Grassy Mtn Hut – Grid Reference 646593
Future Steed Hut – Grid Reference 675657
Copper Mtn hut – Grid Reference 722703
Huckleberry Hut- Grid Reference 769635
It should be remembered that these are multiple-use, public recreation sites; NO RESERVATIONS. The huts have wood stoves, hard bunks, outhouses, and limited water sources nearby during summer seasons. Don’t count on anything.
People attempting to travel to the huts, particularly in the winter should be self-sufficient, having avalanche awareness and self rescue skills. Remember there is limited space in the cabins. In summer and especially in the fall, you will be travelling through bear country and should show the obvious respect.
Detailed route information and signage has been resisted because of the probable change of conditions within seasons, and the various implications such route information may have to the inexperienced and unskilled. It is hoped that if travellers have the skills of map reading, they will also have the additional skills necessary for enjoyment of the Bonnington Range. It’s also more fun to put these skills to use, choosing for yourself, accepting the responsibility and challenge,
BONNINGTON RANGE TRAVERSE
In the Bonnington Range south of Nelson BC, are four huts that make up one of a few hut-to-hut ski and hiking traverses in the interior of the province. They are the Grassy hut, Steed hut, Copper hut, and Huckleberry hut. The huts were built by the KMC who jointly manages them with the BC Forest Service.
Almost all traverses are done in the winter on skis or snow shoes. But there is no reason why it could not be a backpacking trip. The reason it appeals to so few, is that most of the trip is in the trees.
The history of these four huts goes back to the miners’ days. The completion of the Huckleberry hut in the early 1900s allowed use by miners and trappers as a high camp when working in the summer. The other three huts were built to complete the traverse of the Bonnington Range by skiers and hikers. The Grassy hut was built in the early 1980s followed by the Copper hut about four years later. The Steed hut was completed in the early 1990s.
The 1:50 000 map 82 F/6 covers the location of all the huts, While there are difficulties even for those who have been there countless times, here are the map coordinates:
Grassy Mt Hut – Grid Reference 646-593
Steed Hut – Grid Reference 675-657
Copper Mt hut – Grid Reference 722-703
Huckleberry Hut- Grid Reference 769-635
All huts sleep four people comfortably, but are on a first come first serve basis so you may not always be on your own. Each hut has maps, shovels, axes, and an outhouse. As the standard Forest Service outhouse is not designed for the usual 3-meter snow pack in the Bonnington Range, a new roof design is in the works.
This is not a marked trail. The traverse is roughly 30km from highway to highway, and most people do it in four days starting at the Grassy hut. The huts can be a little hard to find especially in a snowstorm, so good route finding skills are a necessity. Hut grid references are provided on the associated map.
The huts have been maintained entirely by volunteer support with a contractual agreement between the Forest Service and the KMC. The basic agreement is that the Forest Service will supply materials and the KMC will provide the volunteer help to get the job done. Maintenance happens every year – firewood is replaced and routing maintenance is done. Due to the location of the huts and the kind of use they get, providing a little bit of work all the time will maintain these cabins over the long haul.
While route finding across the Bonnington is not all that difficult, a lot of the route is actually in the trees and thus definitive landmarks are somewhat scarce.
In the winter especially, the route is prone to cloud, heavy fog, blizzards and thus no visibility. Engaging in white-out navigation requires good map, compass and altimeter skills +/- GPS (always use both). Familiarity with the route helps but seasoned veterans still have to search for the cabins and frequently get “off-route”.
Avalanche risk can be very high. Knowledge of avalanche techniques are crucial to winter traverses. Sunny weather and rising temperatures urge caution with increased avalanche risk.
Pre-Trip Planning – Excellent organization and route knowledge is important for success and enjoyment.
Pick dates. Call KMC website to see if dates available. Pay Fees.
Call Atco Lumber to check on condition of the Bombi. If plowed, save 6.5-7 kms of extra skiing.
Arrange shuttle: drop off vehicle at Porto Rico Road off Highway 6 south of Nelson on way to Bombi (if from Nelson). As an early exit may be necessary (three separate ways down from Steed or Copper Huts)d, arrange contact in Nelson for a potentially different pick up date. Use spotty cell phone coverage to arrange shuttles mid trip.
Because of the technical difficulties of the last day, exit routes from Copper Hut must be understood. Shuttle would need to be contacted.
Day 1: Grassy Cabin and Grassy Mountain. Meet at the hitching post in Nelson and drive south on Highway 6 to the Porto Rico Road to leave a vehicle or two. Continued on to Bombi Summit, hopefully plowed to kilometre 6.5-7 at1600 metres due west of the pass between Grassy and South Grassy Mountains. 2 hours to cabin from here if road plowed.
Start on the summer ATV track through the woods to pick up the old road that switchbacks up to the pass, but more often take a more direct line up to the ridge. Despite being to the cabin several times, it is often easy to miss it as it is relatively well hidden in the trees. Ski down to the cabin for lunch and get rid of packs. Grassy Hut is just big enough for 5 people. Need to melt snow for water.
Afternoon Reconnaissance Ski. In the afternoon, most groups check out snow conditions and the next day’s route. Ski up South Grassy and/or up to the top of Grassy and down the east and south-facing slopes into Grassy Creek. From the west shoulder of Grassy Mountain, views are to Red/Granite mountains in Rossland and down to Hugh Keenleyside Dam in Castlegar. Ski up to the ridge that runs due west of the summit of Grassy. From the top of Grassy check out the route you’ll take tomorrow, over Twin Peaks and the south ridge of Siwash Mountain to the Steed Cabin.
If the Bombi – Munson FSR is not plowed, an option is to skip Grassy hut, ski directly to the Steed Hut, make the high traverse over Dominion Mt and spend an extra night at the Huckleberry Hut.
Day 2: Grassy Cabin to Steed Hut. Follow the north ridge of Grassy Mountain down to the pass at the head of Granite Creek. From the ridge above the Grassy cabin, head east counting “bumps” until you come to bump number five, from which a gentle north ridge.
descends. In foggy weather, it can be difficult finding the right north ridge to ski down. Cross a main logging road in the pass south of “Twin Peaks” (SM’s name for the two peaks north of Grassy Mountain). Ascend the south side of Twin Peaks to the ridge between the two, and continue on up to the most northerly of the Twin Peaks and stop for a snack. Descend the generally north ridge that descends from the summit, steep at first, until you find a spot to drop off to the east, and go right out to the main Munson Road that is on the Glade-Granite Creek divide. Follow the road around until due west of the col on Siwash.
Mountain that leads to the Steed Cabin and, with another compass bearing set, head up the 360m climb to the 2000m col on the south ridge of Mount Siwash. Then it is a short descending traverse to the cabin. Often it is necessary to dig out the outhouse.
The Steed Hut is always difficult to get into in the summer as there is no trail so all routes require bushwhacking. Via Munson Road, the route is direct and takes about 1.25 hours, but involves bushwhacking through head high rhododendron as you cross over the ridge into the basin where the Steed cabin is situated.
Afternoon ski: Climb Siwash – Return back up to the south ridge of Siwash and followed over one subsidiary bump to arrive on top of Siwash. Return the way you came.
Day 3. Steed Cabin to Copper Cabin. Descend north slopes from Steed into the headwaters of Rush Creek, traverse avalanche slopes across the headwaters of Rush Creek and up to the top of a prominent ridge running west from Siwash Mountain. This normal route to the Copper Cabin travels in a horseshoe around the head of Erie Creek, often through a wasteland of sled and snowcat tracks and cut-blocks. An alternate is to follow the east ridge of Siwash, counting bumps again, until the final bump (number five again) or about 1.5 km until it curves to the north, stay on the ridge crest eventually descending to Erie Creek. where the ridge turns north. Set a new bearing and descend the first part of the ridge.
Down in Erie Creek, follow the creek north to a fork, then set a bearing for the Copper Cabin and begin the 400 metre climb. This is a gentle climb through easy terrain. Follow this compass bearing for over 2 kilometres to hopefully come near the hut – a small tarn is a useful landmark here. Use an altimeter to find the right elevation for the cabin or use your GPS. It too is easy to miss.
Afternoon ski. Go to top of Copper Mountain, enjoy the striking views, may have a difficult descent on crusty sun-baked snow.
This is the time to make a decision about the route for the fourth day. Assess snow conditions (too much, icy) and weather reports to determine if it will be possible to continue to Empire Peak or us either of the two escape routes. It is not unusual to not be able to finish on Barret Creek Road because of the crux on the Empire Peak ridge.
Exit routes from Copper Hut
1. Rover/Snowwater FSR is most commonly used as there is no avalanche hazard on that route, but instead, more often ice. With poor visibility, heavy new snow or a poor weather forecast, you may have to ski from the hut to the top of Copper Mountain to get cell-phone reception and call someone to change the shuttle location.
Return to the cabin, retraced your route back down to the head of Erie Creek and then climb gently following the creek. Take another compass bearing to the broad saddle south of Mount Connor to access the cutblock and logging road. Finally put away the compass and altimeter, ski down the logging road as far as possible depending on snow conditions. Cell service may be available to communicate with your transportation.
2. Copper Mountain FSR (49 Creek). This requires a traverse across the steep SE face of Copper Mountain to gain the pass between Red and Copper Mountains. Try to lay down a track if icy. Conditions may be white-out. Try to hold your elevation to end up on the road. It is possible to lose it again when it takes a turn towards Hall Creek. But with GPS and a map, you should be able to go downhill on Copper Mountain FSR. Depending on the season, expect rain and no snow on the road, removing skis for the creeks.
3. Giveout Creek
Day 4. Copper Cabin to Barrett Lake. The final day of the traverse is undoubtedly the most spectacular, as the route travels entirely over the high ridges and peaks of the Bonnington Range from Copper Mountain to Empire Peak.
Start up the ridge above the Copper Cabin, follow in a generally southerly direction to the top of Territory Peak. The final slope to the top of Territory Peak is steep, but possible on skis. Colony Peak is an easy ski from Territory as the ridge between the two is much broader.
The final ridge section from Colony to Empire is the crux of the trip, as the ridge narrows just before the summit of Empire and a short exposed section should be negotiated on foot. About 3-3.5 hours to the top of Empire. The steep south-easterly slopes of Empire Peak to Barrett Lake have a heavy avalanche danger.
The Huckleberry Hut is a steep 30 minutes south of the Barrett Creek Road. It is often missed on the four-day Bonnington Traverse. Huckleberry is one of the easiest cabins to visit in the summer because it is off a drivable road.
The ski down from Barrett Lake on the Barrett Creek Road to Porto Rico Road is usually fast.
The final task: retrieving your other truck from the Bombi Summit. This can be exciting as anything can happen in four days – complete snow-ins, complete melting. Chains are highly recommended.