By Peter Shelton
Special to The Times
February 19, 2006
At the summit cairn, our guide clasps each skier's hand. The women get a kiss on the cheek. It's an Austrian tradition that Tom Raudaschl brought with him to British Columbia, and as we're about to take off on one of the last runs of our stay in the magnificent Selkirk Mountains on the province's southeastern edge, it makes me feel even more giddy, and somewhat wistful, in the crystalline air at 9,484 feet.
We strip the plush nylon climbing "skins" from our skis, pack them away and click into our bindings. Raudaschl leads the way to a north-facing pitch where the snow is shin deep and creamy. I follow. The heavenly flying-dropping sensation could go on forever, as far as I'm concerned.
Let the rest of the skiing world be seduced by high-speed gondolas, cappuccino-serving kiosks and condos just a quick schuss from the lifts. I'm going to savor every moment of this run, the payoff for the oldest and purest form of skiing in one of the finest locations for backcountry skiing in the world.
Isn't it a little ironic, I think, gliding along in silence, that here in British Columbia both ends of the skiing continuum seem to be flourishing. Real-estate-driven, tech-heavy resorts like Whistler Blackcomb and the recently opened Kicking Horse Mountain Resort attract big numbers of people and money. At the same time, the rustic, "earn-your-turn" backcountry experience is enjoying a renaissance.
Of course, this is why I came to British Columbia, where the future of skiing is being played out on the vast mountainous canvas of the province. That — and the fact that the sliding here is simply some of the best anywhere.
A rustic retreat
IN the twilight, Battle Abbey lodge glows with the promise of warmth — and dinner. It is perched (reminiscent, indeed, of an abbey) right at tree line, on the brow of a steep, snowy canyon deep in the Battle Range in a remote corner of the Selkirks.
Built of local granite and timber cut from the hillside, it is half-buried in snow, smoke curling from a central chimney. No other lights, no road, no other sign of human life is visible for 50 miles.
After our run, we strip off boots and lean back with a dark beer a guest has brought.
The lodge is both comfortable and rustic. It gets its electricity from solar and wind generators, and the water for showers is heated from coils in the wood stoves.
Simon, our Aussie hutmaster chef, outdoes himself at dinner, serving the tenderloin from an elk he shot and butchered. For dessert, he serves up a baked strawberry Pavlova, a meringue so light it weighs nothing on the fork.
Reservations at Battle Abbey are booked by the week (Saturday to Saturday), and because of the sensitive — and occasionally avalanche-prone — nature of the terrain, only qualified guides can sign up guests. (This is no destination for novices.) Some private groups fill all 14 of the hut's guest beds; other weeks are open to a smorgasbord of skiers. Each guide is accompanied by a cook and a housekeeper; during my stay, I became friends with all of them.
I was fortunate to find my opening at the lodge through Raudaschl, who organized everything from food to airport transfers to the helicopter flights in and out of Battle Abbey. Raudaschl, a wry, youthful 42-year-old who doubled for Brad Pitt in the 1997 film "Seven Years in Tibet," is one in a long line of accomplished guides who follow a distinguished tradition.
Starting in the 1890s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway opened its flagship hotels in Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta, these mostly young men left the Old World to make a home in the relatively underpopulated ranges of western Canada.
One of the most gifted of these guides, an Austrian electrician named Hans Gmoser, emigrated in 1951 when Canada offered free passage to skilled craftsmen. Gmoser established himself in the mountains around Banff and in 1964 talked someone into flying him and his skis to the top of a glacier in a helicopter.
The next year, he founded Canadian Mountain Holidays, the first and among the biggest helicopter skiing operations in the world.
In 1974, Gmoser and American mountaineer William Lowell Putnam built Battle Abbey as an antidote to heli-skiing's jet-fueled pace. With a permit from the provincial government, they set about creating a different kind of high-alpine destination that would be accessible only by helicopter on Saturdays but free of the internal-combustion engine the rest of the week..
After flying from my home in Colorado to Calgary, Alberta, I joined our group in Golden, British Columbia, a once gritty, now gentrifying rail-and-timber town, for the 45-minute flight to the lodge. The helicopter clattered up and over pure-white Silent Pass, crossed the Duncan River and then in a cloud hugged the southern wall of Butters Creek just inches above the treetops.
The Abbey appeared out of nowhere, another rock in a vast timberline snowfield at 7,290 feet but with a metal roof. We landed between the lodge and the "Green Room," the Abbey's cliff-edge outhouse. (Two other toilets and a shower await inside.)
In the artificial blizzard created by the chopper's rotor wash, we jumped out and were replaced by the previous week's tenants. In an hour, we had completed our introductions, stowed our gear in one of four sleeping rooms upstairs and cracked our first beers in the library, with its picture windows facing the big glaciers at the head of the canyon.
THE skiing here, so far from chairlifts and grooming machines, is called alpine touring, or randonnée, or simply backcountry. But no matter what you call it, the method is the same.
Each morning after breakfast, we began our day by pressing nylon climbing skins to the bottoms of our skis. The nap of the fabric allows for a smooth forward glide, but it resists backsliding. The term "skins" comes from skiing's origins 4,000 years ago, when Scandinavians used pieces of seal skin for this. .
Alpine-touring bindings hinge at the toe so that, in walk mode, you can stride uphill; when you are ready to come down, you strip the skins off, lock down your heels and drop into the powder. The genius of it is that you can ski anywhere your mind and muscles will take you.
With light packs, water, lunch, avalanche safety gear (shovels, probes and a radio beacon) and our skis, we set out each morning to engage in an ageless, self-propelled give-and-take with the mountains.
One afternoon, after perhaps the silkiest descent of the week, through boot-top-deep snow so fine we flew in a perfect V behind Tom's lead, one guest, Ralph Miller, turned to no one in particular and said, "You know, the world could have gone completely to hell while we were in here."
And he was right: Out here, we were a world away from the world.
The size of British Columbia is hard to fathom. Inside this province, you could fit California, Oregon and Washington state and still have a few thousand square miles left over. The sense of space infuses all the skiing here, from the remote backcountry lodges to the new and old mega-developments. The vastness promises to swallow up any hordes that may someday appear.
At Battle Abbey, it was sometimes hard to believe that merely an hour — and a mountain range to the east (just 8 miles from our starting point in Golden) — a crew of helmet-clad young skiers and snowboarders was probably sucking down Red Bulls and lolling in the sun at Kicking Horse, one of British Columbia's newest ski developments.
When I visited Golden about 25 years ago, the local ski hill was known as White Tooth. Today, White Tooth is gone, sold in 2000 to a Dutch multinational that rechristened it Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.
Six years later, the development is a blur of potential. A backhoe snorts a few yards from the base of the gondola as work proceeds on a condo project to match the five-story Glacier Lodge, where pre-construction prices for studios and one- and two-bedroom units are running $200,000 to $700,000.
Gleaming eight-passenger Swiss gondola cars whisk riders 3,800 vertical feet into the white alpine, far above the old White Tooth. Mid-mountain, three treeless bowls lie side by side, like porcelain bathtubs above the Columbia River Valley. At the top of the middle bowl, at the top of the gondola, sits the Eagle's Eye restaurant. There, the AAA Alberta beef burger costs $13.
From the top of the Stairway to Heaven chairlift, skiers can descend an uninterrupted 4,133 vertical feet, almost exactly the same as Jackson Hole's vertical and the second-highest in Canada after Whistler Blackcomb.
If Kicking Horse is the newest resort to spring full-blown out of interior British Columbia, Whistler Blackcomb is the gold standard. The story of this pedestrian-friendly, high-energy village is best told by the numbers: more than 5,000 lift-served vertical feet on both mountains; 8,171 combined acres; 33 lifts; 17 on-mountain restaurants; 82 hotels, inns and pensions; a frenzied club scene; "world-class shopping"; a Nintendo terrain park; a zip line; dogsleds; snowmobiles; bungee-jumping — and ticket prices pushing $65 a day.
The Melville touch
ONE evening, back at Battle Abbey around the wood stove (the night Simon served us baked arctic char), Sam Silverstein, 68, reached for the Encyclopedia Britannica to read aloud about Herman Melville.
After his reading, Silverstein said with a chuckle, "It isn't every ski trip you come home [as] an expert on a 19th century author."
The lodge's library is eclectic, if not eccentric; one bookshelf has 12 volumes of limericks and "The Giant Book of Insults." On another, there are at least 750 mostly classical music tapes, including one featuring the Spanish national anthem (in honor of the time Spain's King Juan Carlos visited).
Silverstein first visited the Battle Range in 1959, and it was his party that named these peaks the Melville Group. From the top of Typee (Melville's first novel), you can see Mt. Pequod, Mt. Ahab and, occasionally, Moby Dick, whose 10,290-foot granite pinnacle appears and disappears like a dorsal fin in the misting clouds.
When Silverstein first climbed Moby Dick, there were no roads, not even a trail into these high cirques. Today, there are still no roads; the isolation is palpable, the silence so complete you can hear small avalanches on Mt. Ishmael 3 miles away.
Each day, Raudaschl took us a little farther into this isolation. We trusted him implicitly. His pace and line always seemed to create the perfect slow train. He worked us hard but not too hard; his trail-breaking mesmerized — left foot, right foot — until we suddenly found ourselves on a ridge at the top of the world.
Unsettled weather deposited fresh snow almost every night. The skiing was always beautiful but not always easy. On some exposures, shade and the right terrain features cradled snow as soft as Simon's meringue. On others, wind and sun cooked up surfaces resembling butter or chalk or mashed potatoes.
One day, we skied one of the Abbey's longest and steepest runs, called, appropriately, Steepness. The top section was exquisite, with shady, blue-white snow billowing like smoke around our turns. Then, in the middle, we ran into old avalanche debris, ice-hard chunks under the powder. Finally, at the bottom, 3,000 feet down, we had to hop our turns, and hop again to survive a collapsing sun crust that would swallow our skis and not give them back.
"Keine Rosen ohne Dornen," Raudaschl said with a smile. "No roses without thorns."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
7 days of solitude
From LAX, Air Canada and West Jet fly nonstop to Calgary, Canada. Air Canada, Delta, American, Northwest and United offer connecting flights (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $219.
Laughing Bear Adventures Ltd., http://www.battleabbey.ca , handles bookings for Battle Abbey, which can be booked only by the week (Saturday-Saturday) and for a private, guided group. To join a group, check the list of guides and weeks at the website. Cost is about $1,725 and includes transportation from Calgary to Golden, Canada, helicopter flights to and from the Abbey, lodging, guide services and all meals.
Backcountry Lodges of British Columbia Assn., , http://www.backcountrylodgesofbc.com . Battle Abbey is one of 27 wilderness lodges across British Columbia. This association lists many in the province.
A hut keeper-custodian and a cook take care of domestic chores at Battle Abbey, but skiers provide beverages. Beer and wine are always appreciated. Many guests stock up in Calgary or Canmore.
Besides ski gear, pack hut slippers and casual clothes for mornings and evenings. The abbey has an extensive library and a wall of mostly classical music. Your guide will send a list of essential ski and safety gear to bring.
TO LEARN MORE:
Canadian Tourism Commission, (604) 638-8300, http://www.travelcanada.ca .
Tourism British Columbia, (800) 435-5622, http://www.hellobc.com .
— Peter Shelton
Peter Shelton is the author of "Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of WWII's 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops."
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