Family in high places
A little fitness, a good pair of boots and a sense of adventure are all you need to hike British Columbia's mammoth Selkirk Mountains, David Ebner writes. Or are they? An off-trail excursion with his mother puts that thinking to the test
The mountain slope is steep. If we were skiing, this would be a double black diamond, an ideal challenge on a descent buried in snow, as it is through the long winter. Instead, the month is August and we are hiking, the sun high in the mid-afternoon on a beautiful day, the Selkirk Mountains all around us. The Durrand Glacier backcountry chalet, where we set out from, is in the distance.
Under our boots is a jumble of loose rocks. The sensation is like wobbling on a teeter-totter while walking downhill. To me, it's fun – but each step promises to upend my 72-year-old mother.
Annelies Ebner is tense. She started skiing in her late 30s and got pretty good. Her legs are strong but here she shakes, unsure, worried. The spectre of a smashed hip burns in my brain and in hers. I coach her and counsel careful, slow and certain steps.
She can do this, I know.
But maybe she was right.
Maybe, when we were on the precipice above this slope – one tough but short off-road stretch to get back to an established trail – maybe she was right. Maybe we should have turned around.
Backcountry lodges dot the mountains of British Columbia. Most of them are reached by helicopter and serve as bases for backcountry skiing. But in recent years, backcountry hiking in summer has become more popular, offering a foray into the wilderness without the cold or requisite skiing ability and gear. A modicum of fitness, a sturdy pair of boots and a sense of adventure are sufficient.
My mom was born and raised in the mountains, on a farm in a poor and remote village in East Tyrol, Austria. Climbing mountains was the work of life – guiding cows from the valley to summer pasture at higher elevations and gathering hay in fields up high to fill the barns for winter. Hiking was not recreation.
My parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s, first to Ottawa, then Calgary. A distinct memory of my boyhood is trying to keep up with my mom and her long strides when she allowed me to tag along on her nightly walks of the neighbourhood. She often skied and hiked the Rocky Mountains. In the past few years, at our family cabin, Annelies would sometimes study a topographical map of the Durrand Glacier area that I had tacked on a bedroom wall. My brother and I had been backcountry skiing there with Selkirk Mountain Experience.
"That would be a place I would love to go," Annelies said. "It looks so beautiful. But not bloody likely, because my husband isn't interested."
My dad, as much as he loves skiing, hates hiking. It grinds his knees. I had never thought to go on a multiday backcountry hiking trip. And my mom never mentioned it. Last year, by chance, a mailed advertisement drew me in. I like hanging out with my mom but we live in different cities. I surprised her with a three-day trip.
The Durrand Glacier Chalet is 45 kilometres northeast of Revelstoke, a city of 6,700 at the foot of the Selkirks and five hours west of Calgary.
An hour after dawn on a Saturday, we join a group of a dozen guests in two vans to drive to the helicopter-staging platform for the flight in. Some people, such as me, find great pleasure in helicopters; others, such as my mom, are less enthused by the prospect of travel in what is effectively a flying taxi.
"Nervous," my mom says as we wait. "Not excited. Just nervous."
She has a strategy: "I'll close my eyes."
It is unnecessary. Once aloft, she is entranced by the bird's-eye view. It always feels mystical, these flights, a journey into the wilderness soul of our country.
The chalet, red-roofed and dark wood, stands at an elevation of about 2,000 metres, on a forested knoll surrounded by peaks and glaciers and wildflowers. It is comfortable and rustic.
There are individual rooms, a sauna and showers, and an indoor pee toilet (a plus in winter), but also outhouses. There's a nearby waterfall, for those interested in a colder shower. Back inside, the food, prepared by a chef, is excellent. A small herd of mountain goats make their home around here, too. Kids play and jostle. The adults seek salt, licking everything from stone foundations to a dedicated slathering of my unattended backpack.
My mom had been concerned she would be alone in the category of guests 70 and older, but that is not the case. There is an array, of varied age, fitness and ability. Our hosts are the Beglinger family and the hiking guides are the daughters, in their early 20s: Charlotte, who is studying to be an opera singer; and Florina, an aspiring backcountry ski guide. This is their backyard. They grew up in these mountains, the family home adjacent to the chalet.
We set off on foot in two groups, one faster and one slower. I try to drag my mom along in the first, but she eases in with the second. It turns out just as well, as her hike is more a good introduction, a scenic loop, whereas the one I am on culminates in a scramble to a peak up a serrated ridge, typical of the Selkirks. At the top, a mountain goat perches nearby before it bounds down through a narrow slot in the rock. The showoff goat has made it clear who's the best hiker.
After our day, we drink beer and wine on the chalet patio. I cajole my mom to abandon B Team and join A Team the next morning. My efforts are successful as she reluctantly agrees.
We wake for our second day, time to go bigger and fortified by a breakfast of eggs Benedict. Our group is agile and we move. Soon it is up and up for a while on a sustained steep climb. We enjoy a mid-morning break at the edge of the Durrand Glacier. The six-metre-high wall of ice is pale blue and splotched with dirt and rock. Lay a hand on it to feel the cold reverberations of the melting past.
Farther along, my mom and I decide to let the others forge ahead as we slow our pace. I know the terrain and have a map in hand.
We circle a mountain lake and ascend an easy peak. The day is warm and perfect. The alpine landscape – above the forests at lower elevations – is grey and spotted by snow yet full of life, patches of moss and so many wildflowers, red and yellow and purple and white. August is prime time.
There is a joy in the solitude. Our conversation is light through the trip, but I ask more about the past, the journalist son interviewing his mom. Annelies talks about summers as a teenager when she would join her older sister Emma, who was married to a neighbouring farmer, and they would trek up the mountains to a cleared section of property, lugging food and milk for a week's stay. The men scythed the steep slopes and the women raked the hay.
"I loved to go there," my mom says. "It was hard work."
They slept in the hay shed. "Like going camping," Annelies says. Then she laughs.
"A little rougher than camping."
After lunch, we head toward a nearby crest. Halfway up, however, Sunday tilting toward mid-afternoon, my mom wonders if we could cut the climb short. I figure no problem, and we amble along off-trail below the ridge-line in the same direction.
All is well until we reach our crux, the short-but-steep slope in between us and a proper trail in sight below.
"Let's go back," my mom says, then urges. I resist, then refuse. I know she can do this.
I promise I'll coach her through. Each step, steady, even if it feels like the opposite. And, so, a ski pole in each hand for added support, Annelies edges down and across the slope of shale and wildflowers. She is riven by stress. She tries to steady her breathing to ward off fear. It takes 10 minutes but feels longer. We make it without incident. Resting afterward, the snow and ice of another glacier behind us, Annelies revels in a surge of exhilaration.
The adventure ends Tuesday morning back in the helicopter. My mom savours the ride in the front seat beside the pilot. Later, over coffee on a sidewalk patio in Revelstoke, the trip gains immediate stature in memory. I've been on day hikes with my mom in Canada and Austria but this has a greater resonance, a thread between past and present.
"Something I would have never thought I would do," my mom tells me some months later. "Especially at my age. It was like coming home for me. It's in my blood, the mountains, the way one grows up."
If you go
Several dozen backcountry lodges dot British Columbia, from the Coast Mountains to the Rockies. Start a search at backcountrylodgesofbc.com.
Selkirk Mountain Experience, and its Durrand Glacier Chalet, is among the long-established lodges. Summer hiking trips run from mid-July through mid-September: three days ($1,250); four days ($1,500); or seven ($2,300). Standard hiking gear is adequate. Contact information at selkirkexperience.com.