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Skiing here is a glorious uphill battle. (Leanna Rathkelly/Leanna Rathkelly)
Skiing here is a glorious uphill battle. (Leanna Rathkelly/Leanna Rathkelly)

Cross-country, high above the Whistler crowds Add to ...

I usually come to Whistler to enjoy the spectacular downhill skiing, but last week I flew here on an entirely different mission: to ski 121/2 kilometres uphill. I was headed with my cross-country skis to a wilderness resort where I would glide across the backcountry, then enjoy a hot shower and a delicious dinner at the end of the day.

Callaghan Lodge is set in a high valley surrounded by mountains and glaciers, 560 metres above Whistler's Olympic venue for cross-country skiing, biathlon and ski jumping. My only reservation was whether I was fit enough for the journey. The trip takes anywhere from half an hour (if you're an elite Olympic skier) to four hours. Many people go up by snowmobile, snow coach, dogsled, or even, as Paris Hilton did earlier this winter, by helicopter.

I thought skis would be fine for me, so I set off from the Callaghan Valley base, a couple of kilometres from the Whistler Olympic Park. There are 100 kilometres of groomed trails in the Callaghan Valley, and in the Olympic Park you're high enough to enjoy some spectacular views of the coastal mountains.

But I was going much farther up. As I began climbing, a faint January sun streamed through the giant hemlocks, and as I stopped to catch my breath, I could see wonderful views of the coastal mountains. I skied past small waterfalls and ice-blue snow holes, up a gentle incline that was highly enjoyable, mainly because I was going so slowly.

As I entered an old-growth forest, it was getting warmer, but luckily my waxed skis were still gliding nicely. After passing a lake, I finally arrived at the sturdy wooden lodge. At 1,370 metres, it's roughly half as high up as Whistler Mountain, and from here I could see the glaciers and mountains on three sides. It's like Whistler, without the lifts or the people. All I could hear was the soft thud of snow dropping from the trees. After I'd endured nine months of road and sewer construction in Toronto, it was just what I needed.

The lodge's Australian hosts, chef Evan Boland and his wife, Kirsti Leppanen, led me to a comfortable living room upstairs with thick blankets and a crackling fireplace. When they turned on the generator at 4 p.m., I was grateful to step into a shower in my room.

Over appetizers, I met my fellow guests, mostly hardy backcountry enthusiasts who trek up mountains and earn their turns down in deep powder. They seemed unconcerned about the unpredictable avalanche risk. One woman said she was once buried under a metre of snow, and a few hours after she was extracted from the white tomb, she met her husband. That was more than 20 years ago and they've been skiing together in the backcountry ever since.

Brad Sills, the bushy 56-year-old president of the wilderness resort, joined us with his wife, Pixie. A former Montrealer and one-time forester, he has built many of Whistler's high-end homes.

He's also a volunteer member of Whistler Search and Rescue, and he assured me that no one has been buried in an avalanche in the Callaghan Valley since he and a partner set up the first rustic cabin in 1985.

Callaghan had plenty of cross-country skiing back then, but it wasn't too appealing. Wild animals would creep into the sleeping cabin; customer service was rough. After one huge snowfall, Sills told a group of women they had to ski down the valley for their own safety. On the way down, one woman was so tired, she sat in the snow. "Get up, or you will die here," he ordered her. None of them returned to the resort.

Then Sills, a skilled carpenter, recruited some craftsmen friends to build the wooden lodge. Opened in 1998, the lodge has fireplaces, hot showers, and electricity when the generator turns on. It's the kind of place where everyone sits together for a delicious dinner and then plays table tennis or pool.

On my first morning, it was raining. No matter: I strapped on the lodge's snowshoes and headed out in deep, thick snow. I made my own tracks up a valley, across a snow bridge over a small river. The snow, lying thick and heavy on the weathered trees, formed magical shapes as it hung over the dark water of the stream. All I could hear was the water burbling in the stream and dripping off the pale green lichen hanging from the weathered evergreens.

A day later, I was happy to see fat snowflakes falling. I headed out on classic skis on the ring valley loop, part of a 15-kilometre network near the lodge groomed for classic and skate skiing. The snow was groaning on the mountain. In the distance I could hear a sound like a rolling ocean. Was it an avalanche or a waterfall? I couldn't tell.

Before I skied back down to the valley, I returned to the river on snowshoes to explore. Knee-deep in heavy snow, I was breathing hard as I made my way down the river, across another snow bridge and through the trees to the trail home.

My muscles were burning, but my mind was clear. I had found what I was looking for up here - a calm space inside myself.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Pack your bags

GETTING THERE
The Callaghan Valley is 18 kilometres from Whistler. Rent a car with snow tires, or take a bus to Whistler Village. From Whistler, you can take a taxi for about $50.

WHERE TO STAY
Callaghan Lodge 1-877-938-0616; www.callaghancountry.com. From $199 to $299 per person, double occupancy, including meals and trail tickets.

WHERE TO SKI
The 30 kilometres of trails where Olympic athletes will compete are closed to the public this year, but the rest of the 100-kilometre network is open - except for February, when the entire valley will be closed to day skiers but Callaghan Lodge guests will be able to ski most trails. S.S.

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