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Shelter from the Storm

Their backcountry cabin is a secret, illegally situated on government land. But they insist it’s an essential facility to be used in case of emergency. Oh, and it happens to be located among some of the world’s best ski touring. Are they selfish criminals or safety-minded altruists?

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Long John McCuff leans into the backseat and hands me a pair of old Oakley goggles, the lens painted over with a thick stripe of white house paint.

“The truck’s not even running yet,” I say, hoping to buy some time.

“Sorry, this is how it works.” The weather lines around his eyes crease as he stares, waiting for compliance.

I lower the goggles and the world goes dark except for a sliver of gauzy daylight seeping through the foam vents—just enough to remind me I’m missing something.

Check out the photo gallery from the trip

The driver’s-side door opens, flooding the cab with cold winter air and the smells of fried chicken and gasoline. I hear Long John’s brother, J.D. McCuff, slide behind the wheel, the bench-seat springs creaking under his solid frame. They call him “The Sarge” and he does have a commanding presence, even when you can’t see him.

“We good to go? You don’t get carsick, do you?”

“Never. But I don’t usually ride blindfolded, either.”

“Well let me know. I got some Gravol. Suppositories.”

I’m not sure if he’s serious. As we start driving, I can feel The Sarge doing laps around the parking lot to throw off my sense of direction. When he hits the highway, the afternoon sun warms my left cheek—we’re driving north.

The painted goggles seem a bit much, but when you’re about to take a total stranger out to your own little piece of illegal mountain paradise, you can never be too careful.

“We should be at the cabin in three hours or so,” John says. “You want a beer?” Why not? Long John cracks us a couple. None for The Sarge, thanks. He’s driving. These guys are renegades but they’re smart. They only break one law at a time.

Nobody gets invited to the cabin, especially not a journalist. It took four pitchers of Kootenay Ale and glowing recommendations from a mutual friend before the McCuff brothers would even consider bringing me in. Their cabin, one of who-knows-how-many tucked into one of who-knows-how-many nooks and valleys in British Columbia’s vast backcountry, is at the doorstep of some of the best ski touring in the world. If it were legal it would be something to brag about. Though after a few road pops, Long John can’t resist.

“Took four solid months to build,” he says. “Every weekend from October to January—digging snow off the foundations, peeling logs, building walls. Usually we’d miss work on Monday.”

Long John, 39, works in construction. He talks nonstop and tells stories, long ones. He tells me this is how he got his nickname. But our wheelman, The Sarge, an ex–ski patroller and two years younger, hasn’t said a word since we left town.

“The Sarge takes a while to warm up,” Long John says. “We weren’t even speaking to each other when we started building the cabin, but in those four months we got over whatever the fuck it was and been skiing together ever since.”

I feel the truck pull off the highway. It sounds like the boys are getting their snowmobiles ready for the ride in. The blindfold stays on until halfway through the 45-minute sled ride into Chateau McCuff. When they let me lift the painted goggles it’s only so I can see which way to lean as we cross numerous washouts and avalanche paths, the last of which is a nerve-racking 200-foot stretch of exposure. Up ahead, riding solo, The Sarge weaves his sled all over the place, dipping into the trees and popping out farther along, veering around at random.

“We don’t want a distinct track leading right to the cabin,” Long John explains as we enter the safety of the trees. “Hold on. We’re almost there.”

And then we are. Rimmed with snow like a fairy-tale gingerbread house, and tucked in among trees with powder marshmallow branches, the cabin looms dark but inviting, a refuge from the wind and five-degree midwinter cold.

The Sarge barks orders, more excited than commanding. “Help me get these tie-downs. Back that toboggan up.” And then to me, “Get a fire going and make sure there’s a beer ready in there with my name on it.”

Aye, aye. I plow up the snowy steps, toss open the door, and enter my first renegade ski cabin.

It’s freezing. The hut has sat empty for days. It’s also dark. But lighting the candles crammed into the tops of spent Jägermeister bottles reveals an interior that’s more comfortable than most first-year ski-town apartments. Peeled log beams support tongue-and-groove pine walls. Two chaise lounges flank a small iron woodstove with custom glove- and boot-drying racks directly above. A pile of perfectly sized firewood sits neatly nearby. There are beds, a shelf of books, dishes, a four-burner propane stove, two sinks with clean martini glasses hanging above them, and a shaker. Tibetan prayer flags loop up to a loft. Below stands an eight-foot wooden table with a life-size statue of a squirrel holding a perfectly rolled joint in his paws.

“That’s Weedy the Squirrel, the welcoming committee,” Long John says as he stomps the snow from his boots.

The Sarge switches on the solar-charged battery system and clusters of LED Christmas lights come to life.

I’m halfway into starting a fire with paper torn from my notebook when Bruce Leigh, one of the four cabin conspirators, arrives lugging in more food and some whiskey, the latter already open. The Sarge follows, sloshing in with fresh water from a nearby creek. He refills the ice-cube trays before returning them outside, where nickel-size snowflakes have begun to fall.

The boys explain that their renegade cabin, like any good fort, has developed its own unique rules and mythologies. The King Kamehameha chair is the most comfortable and closest to the fire. Anyone holding the Don Veto stick, a hefty, footlong wooden war club that, if swung correctly, could knock over a moose, has the power to veto any half-baked idea or prematurely end a rambling story. If you’re seated and need something—another drink, a snack, your skins—you are encouraged to ask someone else to get it for you and see how many times you can get away with making people serve you. It’s just dumb fun, but a hollered “Get it yourself, you lazy bastard,” will always elicit robust cheers from the crowd.

It takes hours to bring the temperature inside the 670-square-foot structure above the freezing point. At 4 a.m., after whiskey, a hot fire, and exchanged stories, the cabin is toasty. Long John bids us good night, followed by a non sequitur about strippers. It hasn’t stopped snowing since we arrived.

A pillow line is something special. That controlled freefall sensation, the stuttered land-air-land-air blending to create a weightless rush. It doesn’t matter if you ski Deer Valley or the most tucked-away family resort: After a snowfall, the pillow lines are all tracked before noon. Not here. And the odds of tagging a pillow line are even better today because Bruce Leigh and The Sarge slept late when they saw the valley socked in.

Long John’s morning skin track leads through the falling snow and tight forest, ending atop a virgin pillow field that runs hundreds of feet and is as wide as an 18-wheeler is long.

“I wanted to take you up to the ridge,” Long John says, pointing into the low clouds.

“Don’t worry about it. This looks fine.”

At 5,450 feet above sea level and surrounded by natural glades, trees, and open bowls, it looks better than fine. John offers me the first line. I wipe fresh snowflakes from my goggles and drop in.

Poof. The first pillow is the roller coaster cresting the top of the climb, that moment of calm before the real fun begins.

Poof. My goggles are covered in snow again. Only a few inches of fresh fell last night but we’re in the middle of nowhere and I’m riding several weeks’ worth of untracked snow.

Poof. It’s deep. I hear John hoot behind me, maybe stoked on my line, maybe dropping in himself. I can barely see, so it’s hard to tell. I lean a schmear turn, dump some speed, and line up a big one.

Hoooollllyshiiiiit. POOF! A bit bigger than I expected, but it’s bottomless. More turns, more drops, snow flying up, snow sloughing down, everything moving, flowing, falling. At the bottom I catch John’s last few turns, his smiling face blasted by snow, having criminal amounts of fun.

It’s a mellow ski back to the cabin and we break the law just by walking in the door again. It doesn’t seem that bad, or that intrusive on this area’s vast network of drainages. But what if there were six other renegade cabins in this same valley? With 60 other skiers? Living outside the law can work, but not if everybody’s
doing it.

“A cabin without tenure? We’re supposed to burn those down,” says John Jackson, a natural-resource officer with the BC Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. He admits he’s a desk jockey who doesn’t get much time in the field, but he knows the law. In British Columbia, any land that isn’t private property—94 percent of the province—is called crown land. This land was once owned by the Queen but now belongs to all Canadian citizens. Anyone can enjoy crown land; you can walk, ski, hike, snowmobile, and camp on it. But you can’t use it to make money or remove any resources from it unless you have a tenure—a hard-to-get permit to do so. And when it comes to building cabins on crown land, BC law is simple: You just can’t do it.

“That’s under section 57 of the Forest Practices Act,” Jackson says. “‘A person must not construct, rehabilitate, or maintain a recreation facility on crown land.’” But that’s not entirely true. If you’re willing to navigate the bureaucracy and fill out a pile of forms to get tenure, you can build your cabin legitimately.

Dan Reibin, a district recreation officer with more on-the-ground experience, admits this takes time. “Applications go in and referrals are sent to FrontCounterBC, a centralized agency that sends the application out to any party that might have a stake in the land’s use, from Forestry to Tourism to Native Affairs. Reports come back to the rec officer for the area. We review and make a determination.”

That determination depends on many things, from proximity to a water source to whether or not anyone else wants to use that land. “The backcountry is getting busier and most of our conflicts are between the intended use of the land and user groups,” Reibin explains. “Sledders and skiers mainly, or parties with commercial tenure clashing with unsympathetic recreationists. With renegade cabins, we don’t generally go looking for them but we have to act if there is a complaint.”

With or without complaints, renegade cabin builders need to maintain open-door policies if they want their structures to survive. “The line between a public-access cabin and a squat is sometimes blurred,” says John Currie, a compliance and enforcement officer for the BC Forest Service, a foot soldier who fights abuses of crown land. Currie has the power to burn down a renegade cabin, but he admits it rarely happens. “We recognize important public-access safety huts and try and see what we can do,” he says.

The underlying message is that if your cabin is open to anyone who might need it in an emergency, and not drawing complaints from any other users, the government might have bigger problems than a bunch of skiers getting the turns of their lives. It sounds very sensible—a government using good judgment, a responsible, self-regulating citizenry. “Nevertheless,” Currie says, “people are not allowed to go out and build cabins on crown land in British Columbia. One cabin tends to spawn others, and where do you draw the line? The application process is there for a reason.”

The BC Integrated Land Management offices handle legitimate backcountry-hut applications. As of now, its website lists almost 2,000 various land-use applications still under review, some dating back seven years. The reality is that sticking through the government’s application process is nearly impossible.

While grilling elk steaks on his illegal deck, The Sarge tells me about how he’d once worked on a legitimate cabin. It took six years before they pounded the first nail.

In Europe, alpine hut systems are ingrained in the culture, a throwback to the old-school shepherds’ shelters and an era when mountain people over there were still tooting alpenhorns and wearing wool pants. Today there are over 1,000 pay-to-stay huts in the Alps alone.

In British Columbia, there are plenty of commercial heli, snowcat, and touring lodges offering warm showers, gourmet meals, and all the amenities of an Aspen hotel, and they start at around $1,500 a week. For Joe Powderhound with a long weekend, the options are limited. Most legitimate public-access huts are managed through the Alpine Club of Canada and snowmobile-club
partnerships, with reservation and fee systems in place to offset repair and firewood costs. Popular regions also have a handful of authorized free shelters, but at certain times of year there can be dozens of people using them at once.

“The legitimate cabins around here are great,” says Bruce Leigh, “but you get up there on a Friday afternoon and there are 48 people, 12 dogs, and 15 different stoves burning at once. I don’t know about you, but I come into the mountains to avoid the crowds.”

Like most huts, Leigh and the McCuffs’ was built as an antidote. They started out with 15 friends and by the end of construction it was just the three of them and one other guy. They brought in materials by trailer as far as it would go, then hiked it in.When winter came, they used snowmobiles. When the foursome was nearly finished, they discovered they were short two sheets of plywood. The Sarge carried them by hand over three and a half miles of trail. Despite using reclaimed timber, roofing, and insulation, and scavenged nails and windows, the construction costs rose quickly. The Sarge and Long John disagree on the figure but it ranges between five and eight thousand dollars. It’s been five years since completion and the brothers are still pouring time, money, and passion into something that could potentially be burned to the ground any day.

“Every time I go up there, I dread seeing that Forestry notice taped to the door,” says Long John. “That would be bad news.”

The chances of this happening follow the growth curve of backcountry skiing. If your hut isn’t supposed to be there in the first place, it’s only a matter of time until it no longer is. The idea of losing all their hard work if their little cabin becomes too popular motivates Leigh and the McCuffs’ fanatic secrecy.

“None of us wants a parade of city people up here,” The Sarge emphasizes. “My biggest nightmare is to go online and see GPS coordinates of this place posted somewhere.” He says the cabin is never locked. All he wants is for skiers to respect it and keep it low-profile. “First and foremost, it’s a safety shelter.”

Granted, that’s the official story to keep the BC government from torching the place, but in fairness, the McCuffs and Leigh take safety very seriously. Their permanent on-site first-aid setup is similar to a standard ski-patroller kit. It contains all the Band-Aids and gauze you’ll ever need plus leg and arm splints, a burn-victim sheet, a spine board, and a patroller’s toboggan with a cage for heli-evacuations.

Most backcountry cabins, legit or otherwise, lack some of the safety gear of Leigh and the McCuffs’. Their kit has already saved two lives. The first accident, a class 2.5
avalanche, nearly killed a young woman. She had a broken back and severe internal bleeding. Her boyfriend strapped her to The Sarge’s toboggan and took her to the road, a 12-hour mission. Without the toboggan, The Sarge believes she would have died.

Another girl, during a summer stay-over, was badly burned when her camp stove exploded. The prayer flags, hanging near the ceiling, are still singed from the fireball. She was evacuated to the road on a dirt bike, then life-flighted to a hospital. Without the advanced burn kit, which stabilized her, the evacuation may not have been possible. The girl was part of a group that stumbled onto the hut. The McCuffs and Leigh learned of this accident only because the injured party wrote about it—and thanked them profusely—in the logbook. The book is a permanent fixture of the cabin and it holds the evidence of the bad times as well as countless happier entries from friends and strangers alike.

“People argue that if the cabin wasn’t here we wouldn’t be here, but that’s bullshit,” Bruce Leigh says. “With the skiing in this zone, we’d be camped in tents or snow caves doing the exact same thing. And if something went wrong…”

“The rescue access is really the whole point of the hut being here,” Long John reiterates.

Not everyone is as thorough or conscientious as the McCuffs. It takes a special kind of person to finish off his ski season by hauling a 55-gallon drum of human feces across 500 yards of sidehill to bury the contents a safe distance from any water source. Or to spend summer weekends fighting off mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds just to make sure the woodpile is stocked for the upcoming season. And many of us would ski away without restocking the paws of Weedy the Squirrel. At this particular cabin, being a renegade can occasionally veer into martyr territory.

Martyrs or not, the boys can sure pick a nice spot. On day two we wake up to intermittent sun and over a foot of fresh, dry powder. We click into our skis and start our slog. After an hour of dry-mouthed perseverance I’m high enough to take in the surrounding terrain—ridge after ridge, bowl after bowl, cliffs, glades, chutes, glaciers, snow in every direction, not a single ski track, let alone a road, and there’s no other person in sight. This truly is the backcountry at its finest.

Half an hour later, we skin to the top of another steep ridge. The Sarge has examined the snowpack. It’s fresh, knee-deep, and good to go. I’m given first-turn rights (again) and I milk them for 1,000 feet of blower pow. The tree line offers the occasional buried log or stump to pop off. My landings are smooth. Just above the last pitch I pull up and rest, watching Long John get a little too forward on his tips and go over the bars. He somersaults back up, snow clinging to his head and pack, and continues cranking turns like a wild animal, utterly in his element. The end of the run brings me right to the warm cabin for a hot drink and some lunch. Then it’s another slog up the skin track to nail another 1,000 feet for dessert. Back in the valley, with the best turns of the year still burning my thighs, I stop in the trees and listen to the thick, heavy nothingness that surrounds me. This experience was brought to me by the McCuff brothers and Bruce Leigh, criminals under section 57 of the Forest Practices Act. Their renegade cabin is an escape, a space that warms and protects and occasionally saves.

Then the boys ski up and weigh in.

“We’re happy to share it and we don’t want to live up here,” Long John says, flashing a grin at The Sarge. “Unless we build a sauna.”