UNCHARTERED, UNTRACKED TERRITORY: Human-powered skiing turns is a superb way to explore the Purcells
Story by Claire Challen. Photography by Paul Morrison
MOUNTAIN FLOWER FALLS
Alpine Buttercup grew up with T-bars and chairlifts, high speed and otherwise, to carry her to the top so she could go back down. She’d never known any other way to access the ski trails she so loved – that is, until she grew up and found snow-cats and helicopters to take her to places beyond her wildest imaginings. For years she continued this way, not recognizing the need to change.
But then, exiting the Bell 212 Heli that had lifted her to the latest adventure, she was perplexed to see her rotored angel take off and disappear from whence it had come. Breaking the silence only known deep within the mountains the quickening of Alpine Buttercup’s breath could be heard as she spun around and around, looking for any motorized mechanism to fulfill her desire to ski this remote and pristine terrain. There was no belching diesel, no whining overloaded electric motors, no two-stroke sleds.
There was nothing.
The silence screamed in her ears as she crumpled to the ground, falling into a blanket of fresh snow that opened its arms and consumer her.
Located deep within the Northern Purcell Mountains on the western edge of Glacier National Park, Purcell Mountain Lodge is a smooth 15-minute helicopter flight from the town of Golden, B.C. Breathtaking views of white mountains greet passengers as they fly west from Golden, over Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, trading the noise of town for the stillness of the wilderness. I was heading to the lodge for a four-day ski touring adventure along with my new friends from Whistler, B.C., Derek Foose and Jon Moon.
Despite the grey-bird morning, it was still an impressive flight as we crested peak after porcelain white peak, cruising deeper into the mountains. Scanning the valley for our destination, I spotted a couple of understated buildings ahead, barely visible within the surrounding trees. From the air it’s really apparent how completely isolated it is here, not only because the only way in and out is by helicopter but also because the lodge itself is surely the only sign of human life. The heli circled and dropped down to deliver us to the lodge. This would be our home for the next four blissful days, where we would experience remote wilderness living with all the comforts of home and daily ski touring in meadows, trees and hopefully up high on the many nearby peaks.
Set in the gentle alpine terrain of Bald Mountain, Purcell Mountain Lodge welcomes guests to its ski touring heaven with the promise of fresh snow, cozy down comforters and highclass meals. A sauna and showers at the end of the day are luxuries beyond expectation for a location as remote as this, likely spoiling visiting ski tourers, myself included, for anything less. In the 1980s, visionaries Paul Leeson and Russ Younger deduced that skiers, though keen to work for their turns, would ultimately prefer running water and power at the end of the day. A micro-hydroelectric power plant harnesses water from the Spillimacheen River, generating the power that sets Purcell apart from other backcountry touring lodges. An award-winning environmental water treatment system provides the freshest of water with minimal environmental impact. Early guests of the area, which was initially created with the ski touring traditionalist in mind, spent their evenings in rustic yurt lodgings in a meadow by the Spillimacheen. The lodging location was eventually moved to its present site, straight up Hydro Hillfrom the power plant. This luxury lodge was built in 1989 with 10 rooms in the main lodge, each aptly named for a mountain flower that blooms for summer guests. I was in the alpine buttercup and Jon and Derek were in the red monkey flower and purple fleabane rooms.
The gentle patter of slippered footsteps down the hall and the promise of a classic breakfast of fruit, homemade granola and eggs benedict pulled me from the warmth of my down comforter, and I headed downstairs to join the others. The night before we had perused the maps with our guide, Darrin De Sosa, who would lead us into the most suitable terrain for the weather. Darrin, a Canadian ski guide and certified adventure travel guide who has been guiding for seven years, plays an integral part in the lodge’s success. He’s not only the guide, but the planner, spokesman, kitchen help, and mechanical serviceman here, doing much to keep the lodge running smoothly. He’s also everyone’s hero when there is a rare glitch in the power system, when Darrin can be seen packing toolkit, headlamp and flask before skiing off into the darkness to reset the system. On his down days he heads to Golden, where he doesn’t exactly slow down. As the owner of Cedar House Restaurant and Chalets for the past eight years, Darrin has plenty to keep him occupied. Purcell Mountain Lodge guests can choose to bookend their time at the lodge by staying in one of Darrin’s luxurious chalets, each of which is fitted with a fireplace and private hot tub. We were delighted to dine at his gourmet restaurant the evening prior to our departure into the backcountry, savouring scallops, salmon and an array of decadent desserts.
As newcomers to Purcell Mountain Lodge, we were recommended to ski with a guide, although this is not mandatory. Despite skiing every season since I was two years old, I had amassed very little ski touring experience save for a handful of short hikes I’d done intermittently throughout the years. I’d taken a few avalanche awareness courses, too, but unless those skills are refreshed often, it’s like starting over every time.
None of us had skied in this particular area of the Purcells, but we weren’t entirely devoid of backcountry experience. Derek Foose is the Whistler Freeride Club founder and head coach, and as a coach for Whistler’s Extremely Canadian steeps clinics has been guiding groups all over the world since 2002. Jon Moon, who credits his backcountry awareness to skiing everyday in the vast terrain at Whistler Blackcomb, has coached with Extremely Canadian for the past five years and is a former college racer. I felt immediately connected to Derek and Jon, who love to ski as much as I do.
Proving their loyalty right from the start, they willingly strapped on harnesses and proceeded to test the “tow a princess in a toboggan” option in case ski touring proved too much for me. As anyone who has spent time ski touring knows, the choice of companions plays as important a role as your choice of terrain. When inclement weather limits your chance to ski where you’d like, it’s important that your friends can be grateful simply to be in the mountains. Playfulness seemed to come as easily to the boys as it does to me, so we were soon a tight team. In addition to our crew, guests Cheryl and Hugh Burton were staying at the lodge for the twentieth time in as many years.
They’d brought along their friend Burke Duncan from Canmore, Alberta, recently retired from 30 years as a Canadian avalanche forecaster. With the couple’s knowledge of the area and Burke’s experience, the trio headed out daily on their own.
FINDING MY GROOVE
Clack, clack, clack. The rhythmically hypnotic sound of my touring bindings was the only sound except for the occasional birdcall above and sinus-cleansing farmer blow from my compatriots behind me. I allowed myself to move into an almost trance-like state as I followed Darrin’s tracks north toward the Burn. Low cloud had continued to envelope the lodge over breakfast. As we watched, it shrouded not only the mountains but also our hopes of getting up high today.
With such uncharacteristically low visibility, we would stay down in the trees to maintain some reference point. To reach the Burn, we travelled toward the peak of Mount Sir Donald, one of the 50 classic mountains to climb in North America and referred to as the Matterhorn of British Columbia. On the way, we looked down on a zone called the Three Fingers, a series of chutes and ribs of immaculate freshies that hadn’t seen the likes of our Rossignol fleet for quite some time.
But it was not to be. There wouldn’t be time enough to ski there today. Leaving such tempting terrain untouched was difficult, and through my own tears I had to endure tortured moans and wounded looks coming from Derek and Jon. However, our tears dried and smiles returned when the Burn proved a worthy jaunt.
With leaning snags of blue spruce and subalpine fir spaced well apart and no end of pure snow, it offered exquisitely quick 15-minute laps of skiing and hiking, with plenty of angle to keep up our speed in the deep snow.
Unfortunately, days were short in January. As the day moved toward mid afternoon, Darrin reluctantly told us it was time to head back. Dragging ourselves away from the scrumptious delights of the Burn, Derek, Jon and I donned our skins and began the trek back to the lodge. The fog had lifted, and we were able to follow our tracks from hours earlier, leading us back to our home in the wilderness.
The previous day, we had completed the last of our hike home in the fading light, the sky turning to pink and then dark blue. We'd spent that first day southeast of the lodge in Rudy’s trees, accessed by a 45-minute hike on mellow terrain up Knee Grinder.
We’d rolled off the top, passing along a suspiciously long flat I hoped wasn’t considered skiable terrain, then dropped into the steeper trees for a tasty introduction to Purcell powder. At day’s end, our human train chugged up Hydro Hill, a direct route straight up from the valley floor to the lodge. As we crested the hill, the lights of the lodge beckoned us onwards with visions of warming soup by the fireplace.
After two days of fun in the trees due to the closed skies, we’d hoped the clouds would part on day three and allow us to get up high on the mountain peaks into wide open terrain. We’d even stayed up late working hard on the “drink it blue” premise. Wise skiers have always said if you want the clouds to dissipate, your best option is to stay up late and drink too much; the skies will most definitely reveal the sun the next day. We creatively threw some extreme tobogganing into the mix for good measure.
Rubbing our puffy eyes and tobogganing bruises the next morning, we watched as the day began with teasing glimpses of the easterly peaks of Ptarmigan and Porcupine. But the low cloud was in charge and our efforts were for naught. We would be staying down low again, this time exploring near the lodge. Though of course I was disappointed not to reach the higher elevations, the snow remained dry, light and free from tracks all around us. It was our last day and the crew was keen to make a day of it exploring the short but deep pitches in Knee Grinder Glades.
MAKING A CHANGE
The need for change is not always glaringly obvious. When we are comfortable and content, we view change as the antagonist in our happy little stories, when in fact it may be just what we need. We must step into new experience with an open heart, as it’s entirely possible that we may discover that life could be even better.
I’d always abhorred ski touring. Who wants to get sweaty and then freeze at the top just to get a few runs? Not this girl.
I don’t like my workouts and ski days to meet. I exercise so I can be strong enough to ski where and how I want. Then, I ride the lift. I don’t sweat. At least, that was my mindset until this trip to Purcell Mountain Lodge.
However long I’d held onto the belief that skiing and sweating don’t mix, I realized my mistake over the course of a few days. Exploring the mountains in silence, away from the lift engines and high numbers of skiers that come with lift-accessed skiing, was a draw worthy of testing the wicking capabilities of my base layers. There’s a magic to being outside in the mountains, which of course is magnified ten-fold when the snow is deep and enhanced yet again when that snow is untracked. Yes, I will seek out more human powered skiing, but I have a few conditions: The company must be worthy. I must be promised untracked snow. And, if I can please shower before my five-star meal, that will suit me just fine.