My boots dangle above the valley as I sit on a boulder, eating lunch with a half-dozen other hikers. We’re deep in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains, where they meet the Chilcotin Ranges, which are cast in impossibly vibrant contrasts of purple minerals and evergreen forests.
This is not an easy spot to get to and would take multiple days to reach from the nearest town of Darcy. Had it not been for the helicopter that drops guests at the historic lodge tucked into the pasture a thousand metres below us, getting to this viewpoint would be far beyond the possibilities of a day hike.
McGillivray Pass Lodge is our basecamp, one of hundreds of backcountry cabins hidden in the upper treeline of Canada’s mountain west, and a particularly handsome one at that. It’s the nostalgic stuff of postcards: a large log building heated by a wood stove, with a green tin roof glinting in the sun. In this case, several yurts and other outbuildings also surround it, making it a solitary outpost at 1,860 metres above sea level.
I’ve joined a guided hiking trip run by Whitecap Alpine, a backcountry ski-guiding business that’s flipped its winter model over to summer. Lodges have long been a part of backcountry-skiing culture, but using that same infrastructure for hiking is relatively new to the Coast Mountains, and well overdue.
Many of the same advantages of winter apply in summer: You cut out the long approaches into the alpine each morning; food is prepared for you, so you don’t have to haul multiple days of it; and you can still be comfortable if the weather is inclement. It’s rustic enough to feel like camping – with outhouses and a propane shower – but cozy enough inside to keep warm, especially since nighttime temperatures can approach freezing in August. Some backcountry enthusiasts might even call it glamping, since everyone gets their own room.
There are 17 guests split into two groups based on how much ground we want to cover each day. On the second outing of a four-day trip, we climb through tall grasses and bursting alpine wildflowers before ascending Tombstone trail to access the rocky ridge top. We’re the only people in the valley, but guide Leah Evans reminds us we’re not the first people to walk here. This is the traditional territory of the N’Quatqua, Tsal’alh and Lil’wat First Nations.
The trails, some historic but most hand-dug by Whitecap staff, tend to fade on ridgelines. This is where the two guides spread us out. It’s a sensitive area, and they don’t want a line trampled into the delicate alpine heather. As we absorb the mountain vista, we learn about the wildflowers: lupins, western anemone, arnica, valerian, alpine succulents, and the adventurously named sky pilot, whose growth points to gold in the soil.
Evans knows many people don’t feel the need for a hiking guide, but with a busy population of two million just a couple hours south in Vancouver, she sees the service as an important resource.
“The duty of a hiking guide is to learn the landscape and learn the plants,” she says. “You become an educator.” A guide, she adds, is also a safety net if someone gets hurt, or there’s a grizzly bear lurking about.
A guide also knows all the best trails and can take all the guesswork out, maximizing your time. “Once you come, you don’t have to think about anything,” Evans says, describing hiking as a form of meditation. “The biggest thing with the hiking program is we connect you way deeper into the landscape and the experience than you would just walking around yourself.”
The guides lead us through an impressive spider web of walking routes that extend around McGillivray Mountain, Sparkle Lake, Star Mountain and Whitecap Mountain, and everyone is in sync with the experience.
“We came from Toronto,” says James Shields, here with his wife Emma Romano, “so we wouldn’t have the time or resources to plan something like this. I wouldn’t have looked at that peak and said, ‘Yeah, let’s just go climb.’ ”
Jody Gartner is an outdoorswoman from nearby Pemberton, but as a business owner and mom, she just didn’t have the time to put something this elaborate together on her own.
The food alone – which is ample, filling, and not too rich – is incentive enough. There’s no hauling a portable stove around for this group. Lodge meals include a lot of salmon and other local proteins, paired with hearty vegetables farmed as close as Pemberton. Breakfasts focus on traditional staples like oats and eggs. Lunches are yours to pack from a buffet table full of fruit, sweets and premade sandwiches, and there’s homemade soup and charcuterie waiting as appetizers each day.
“We camp a lot, so this is luxury for us,” Gartner says. “Just not having to think about anything, really. Not thinking about what it takes to have three meals a day. This whole experience is about coming together with people that you don’t know, visiting and being unplugged.”
The average distance covered each day is 13 kilometres, with 1,000 metres of elevation gain. Though trips are curated so guests don’t get exhausted, for some this is a peak experience. For the rest, it’s an escape with like-minded souls. (And for those who truly want to go hard, Whitecap offers running trips on all these same trails.)
Lodge life is simple, and with your day’s energy spent outdoors, the most basic stuff becomes the heart of your entertainment at night – eating, chatting, reading, playing games or music. Electricity is available but mostly limited to lights. There’s satellite WiFi in a pinch, but guests are encouraged not to use it, and most don’t. It’s a chance to be present with the people you’re with.
As the founder of Whitecap’s hiking program, from the beginning Evans wanted it to be different. Connecting with one’s own senses is crucial to enjoying the full experience, and on this trip she invited singer-songwriter Cara Bateman to perform outdoors for the group. Evans calls these live music hiking trips “Soundscapes.”
Bateman has been at the lodge and hiking with the group for the last three days. One morning, just over an hour’s walk from the lodge, we gather on a grassy hillside at the valley’s mouth where giant mountain walls extend far into the distance – an enormous natural amphitheatre. Bateman transforms the space as she belts out soul-infused ballads. It’s an unlikely concert deep in the mountains, proposing a harmony between people and place that I doubt is happening quite this way anywhere else in the world at this moment.
Four-day mixed-group hiking trips start at $2,175, visit Whitecapalpine.ca for more.
The writer was a guest of Whitecap Alpine. It did not review or approve the story before publication.
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