by Frederick Reimers | photographs by Doug Marshall
Descending from Diamond Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, I'm following our guide's ski tracks because the air is so thick with falling snow they're the only things visible. We're 25 inches into a storm that'll eventually deliver 80. Powder billows over my gloves as I slice downhill, but otherwise all I see is white.
Suddenly, the tracks end. I stop, squint, and make out what appears to be a cliff. A muffled shout draws me to the edge. Twenty feet below, our guide, Larry Dolecki, staggers to his feet covered in snow, his hat in his hand.
"There's a drop-off there," he deadpans.
"You okay?" I ask, as Nadia, another client, lurches to a stop above me.
"It's a soft landing," he says, and adds, "I'm glad I know the terrain well enough to know there's nothing here that'll kill me."
In 2005, Larry handpicked this slope, and the soaring peaks, glaciers, and valleys of the surrounding 120 square miles as the location for Icefall Lodge, his backcountry ski touring operation. I'm one of a dozen guests who booked a week at Icefall, a spot so rugged and remote, cobbled as it is up against the western boundary of Banff National Park, that it takes a 30-minute helicopter flight from the nearest plowed road to get here. Which is exactly the appeal. Out here, you tour all day, every day, and never have to fight for fresh lines. Indeed, the only tracks you see are probably your own.
Not that our party of three, plus two guides, can see our tracks now. Or much of anything, but we trust in Larry, who is something of a legend in the ski guiding world. The rest of us skirt the cliff on the right, and follow him down the run.
Two hours later, we're atop a steep slope, and in addition to the blinding snow, it's basically dark. Somewhere 2,000 feet below us across an unseen meadow, the lodge hunkers in a stand of trees, its woodstove cranking. I'm nervous that an avalanche will pour off the massive cliff behind us. We've been wallowing through knee-deep snow for eight hours and I'm exhausted. "Well," says Larry nonchalantly, "follow close and have fun."
Skiing steep bottomless powder without daylight, I feel like a dog when it's dreaming of running. My legs are working on faith. The only evidence I'm moving is the snowflakes pelting my face. After a few turns, I relax and actually let out a happy bark. It's powder skiing distilled to the essence. Floating in the dark, the terrain is theoretical, leaving me to experience only the mechanics of turning. I feel a sort of intellectual joy, like solving a physics proof.
According to the Backcountry Lodges of British Columbia Association, Icefall is one of more than 40 heli-accessed lodges catering to backcountry skiers and snowboarders in the province. That number doubled in the last decade as the popularity of backcountry skiing itself has mushroomed. Besides summiting the surrounding peaks under your own power, the main difference between the heli and backcountry outfits is price. A fully guided and catered week at Icefall will set you back about $2,000, close to the daily rate at some luxury heli-ski lodges.
All of the backcountry lodges feature guides, and they range from four-star to downright spartan, though woodstove-fired saunas appear to be mandatory. Despite electricity, a boot-drying room, and satellite Internet, Icefall is on the rustic side (read: outhouses), but we're here for the massive terrain. Larry leads ski mountaineering courses for aspiring Canadian mountain guides, so he selected country fraught with pointy peaks and active glaciers. Icefall is one of the few ski lodges where guests frequently ski wearing climbing harnesses in case they tumble into a crevasse.
Larry ended up with a permit area so large—at 50,000 acres it's 10 times the size of Vail—it's impossible to tour from the lodge to the farthest reaches and back in a day. So over the past two summers, he built two outpost huts, each a six-hour tour from the other and from Icefall, stocked them with stoves, heaters, cooking gear, and bedding, and started selling a Rocky Mountain Haute Route tour, named in honor of the famous hut-to-hut ski tours he guides in the Alps some springs. "We're looking for some real adventure," I'd told Larry when we signed up for the tour. "I don't think that'll be a problem," he'd said.
We planned to helicopter in to the farthest hut and tour back to Icefall, spending a night or two skiing out of each location. When we congregate in Golden, BC, to catch the chopper in, however, the forecast is for heavy snow later in the week. Larry says we risk being stranded at the far hut by high avalanche danger, so we decide to fly to Icefall and tour out to the near hut and back. I am a bit disappointed, but the incoming powder and nightly sauna at the main lodge is a nice consolation prize.
Approaching Icefall from the air, the helicopter thrumming across snowy ridges and swooping up long rambling canyons, the lodge comes into view only when we're nearly on top of it. Preposterously small compared to the surrounding slopes and rock faces, the lodge is a three-story cabin tucked into a stand of old-growth trees halfway up a mountain. It's flanked with avalanche paths stubbled with broken trees, and, in lieu of a driveway, there's a helicopter pad out front.
On day three, our party tours to the Lyell Hut. The sky is clear, and the air is so bitter I cover my face with lip balm to ward off frostnip. I barely keep up with Larry although he's breaking trail through a foot of untracked snow. The guy is a monster on the uptrack, and so ruggedly handsome that female clients refer to him by a modified last name—Larry "Delectable." He guided heli-ski trips for a decade, but as many mountain-minded folk do, tired of working for others. In the fall of 2005, he built the sauna and the original 900-square-foot two-story lodge that's now used for overflow. It took another 70 helicopter loads to build the current, 1,800-square-foot building which he finished in 2008.
We ascend to a ridge behind the lodge where shark-tooth peaks serrate the blue sky in every direction. The group spreads out as Larry stretches the track across snowy benches. My friend Jeremy Benson snaps a photo of me as I skin up to the group. "Massive country here," he says. "I hope you have a huge refrigerator to hang that shot on."
At the top of a steep, 600-foot shot, we tear off climbing skins and ski one at a time to the bottom of a successive ridge. I watch my five friends descend, each lost in the center of a powdery contrail. Another hour of skinning and 100 yards of steep bootpacking brings us to the top of a notch Larry calls Crampon Col. On the backside is a view of the Lyell Glacier 800 feet below us—a two-mile wide, flat sheet of snow in a bowl of mountain peaks. Larry points at the hut, on a rocky outcropping on the shoulder of a peak directly across the glacier, but it's too small and far to make out.
"Make sure you ski between the crevasses there," says Bryan, the assistant guide. He points at two gaping blue holes three-quarters of the way down the run. My climbing harness feels like small comfort. Arcing downhill, cold spindrift sprays over my shoulders. At the crevasses I point my skis and straightline, coasting as far onto the flat glacier as possible.
By the time we arrive at the Lyell Hut, the temperature has dropped to six below zero. The hut is a rectangular box, a little smaller than a shipping container, tethered by cables to glacier-scoured rock. We dive inside to escape the cold. It doesn't take long for the propane heater to warm the small space, and I check out the sublime view of the Matterhorn-esque Mount Forbes, Banff National Park's highest summit, from the kitchen window. Shucking off my backcountry boots, I see that the edges of my feet are a bit waxy with frostnip. It's cozy inside, though, and there's a real sense of accomplishment from the long day's trek.
We'd planned to spend two nights at Lyell, but after struggling up a nearby peak the next morning we decide to head back to Icefall that day. Trudging uphill wearing every layer you're carrying offers a sort of exotic, high-altitude satisfaction. But the air is shockingly cold, the result of an infrequent Arctic air mass that's settled over Interior BC. Following our arrow-straight track back across the ice field, we ascend Crampon Col, and bag another peak on our way home. It's the biggest day I've had on skis: 10 hours of travel through some of the most spectacular country in North America. Our group averages 6,000 feet of skiing a day. We arrive at Icefall as darkness descends, and I'm relieved to see the sauna is stoked. Overnight, the storm hits. For the next few days, near whiteout conditions prevail.
On the day before we're scheduled to fly out—weather permitting—the snow stops. Eighty inches of fresh blanket the mountains. Larry decides to shovel the roof and sends us out with a guide named Mike. We head across the valley to a slope anchored by 100-year-old trees. To get there, we traverse a wide avalanche path. "Wait until you see the other person make it across, and then ski quickly," Mike says. Safely across, we tour for two big laps in the glade, paired up in case someone augers into the waist-deep snow and needs help getting up. Even on fat, rockered skis, a bow-wave of powder rises in front of my waist as I point more-or-less straight downhill, plunging between the huge trunks.
At the bottom of the second run, a few of us stand around grinning and waiting to cross back to the lodge as Jeremy coasts up. "I just passed Erica and she's just standing there laughing," he says. "She says it's the deepest snow she's ever skied." We beam at each other. Then comes a faint shout from above. "Did someone just yell avalanche?" Nadia asks. I turn to look at the slide path beyond the trees just as a wall of snow storms into view, hurling debris before it like a tornado. The avalanche banks onto the far slope and flattens a few 20-foot-tall trees. I turn and hunker down as the blast wave of wind and blowing snow overtakes me.
It feels like helicopter rotor wash. Pine boughs strike my back. I take a deep breath and prepare to be buried under the crush of snow. It never arrives. After 10 seconds, the air clears and I stand up. Broken green branches are littered all around us, and we're each covered in a veil of fine, crushed snow crystals. Beyond the trees, the avalanche path is a heap of battered snow and broken tree trunks five feet deep. We were minutes from crossing it.
Jeremy is yelling, a roar of surprise, then joy, as the adrenaline runs through him. I'm doing the same, and we hear hollers in return from upslope. We're all unhurt and accounted for and jabbering away excitedly. It's as close to a deadly avalanche as any of us has been, and I, for one, am grateful for the reminder of how cautious one must be in avalanche country. Our conservative behavior—skiing in a thick stand of trees—has paid off in dramatic fashion, and it's a thrill to be correct, and alive. Nonetheless, Mike quickly organizes us to cross the path one at a time to the lodge, just in case something else lets go from the crown of the peak 2,000 feet above.
It was Larry, it turns out, who'd yelled avalanche. He'd seen it cut loose from the cornice atop the peak while he was shoveling the lodge roof. "Well," he says to me as I clomp into the lodge, shaking snow from my parka, "you've got your adventure."
Time to move beyond using your car as a base lodge. These vacation-worthy adventures should do the trick.
Founded in 1978, Battle Abbey has a long history as a base for advanced backcountry skiing. The classic chalet, a 15-minute helicopter flight from Golden, BC, hosts 14 guests in five bedrooms, features indoor plumbing, hot showers, and a newly built dining room and renovated living room. Their tenure is only 14 square miles, but the terrain is big—it offers several 5,000-foot runs—and steep, with multiple ski mountaineering objectives in plain sight. battleabbey.ca
Sol Mountain Touring
Built in 2004, Sol Mountain's three-story lodge is a short flight from Revelstoke. It comfortably sleeps 20 in 10 separate bedrooms and features a yoga room and indoor plumbing. Board games and coloring books complete the cozy décor for families determined to fill their vacation with prime backcountry powder skiing. For the adults, Sol offers 47 square miles of terrain ranging from open bowls to rock bands to groves of low-angle old-growth trees. solmountain.com
Perched at 7,200 feet on the edge of the Albert Icefield, Selkirk boasts miles of advanced terrain, peaks fit for ski mountaineering, and views second to none. The chalet hosts 14 guests, and has all the comforts of home—assuming your home has a sauna—with round-the-clock electricity, Internet access, and indoor plumbing. selkirklodge.ca
Valhalla Mountain Touring
Valhalla Lodge is one of the few backcountry ski lodges in BC accessible by snowcat—a 16km ride—which saves clients about $500 off the price of heli-accessed operations. What it shares with most on this list? An average snowpack of 80 to 120 inches, and 25 square miles of Selkirk terrain that ranges from mild to wild. Built in 1998 in mountain McMansion style, the six-bedroom, two-story building features leather couches, a sauna, hot showers, and flush toilets. vmt.ca
Bill Putnam (Fairy Meadow) Hut
Built in 1965 (and since renovated a few times) the Bill Putnam Hut is the classic BC backcountry ski hut, with spots awarded on a lottery basis by the Alpine Club of Canada, which owns the hut. Accommodations are more basic: Sleeping pads and bags are required, and an open loft sleeps 20. The outfit's popularity is based on stunning views and steep, glaciated north-facing terrain in the Columbia Range west of Golden, BC. alpineclubofcanada.ca —F.R.