The pattern of thought that occurs to an average skier making his or her way on backcountry gear up the narrow forest trail to the Nublet, an outcropping below Mount Assiniboine, in the middle of nowhere somewhere west of Calgary, can go roughly as follows:
Okay, okay, I’m not having a heart attack. I’m not: 128 beats a minute is not a heart attack. It’s a moderate workout. By the time the group gets back to the lodge, I will have burned … at least 2,000 calories. Yes! I’ll feel so good, I’ll want to have sex incessantly. [Pause, gasping.] Too bad there’s no one here for me to have sex with. My god, look at the size of that magpie: I’ve known smaller dogs. Whatever happens, it’ll be worth it. Because once I get to the top, I get to ski down.
In the old days, men and women who skied into backcountry lodges in the Canadian Rockies were ascetics by default: they ski-toured for the lung-challenge and the scenery on skinny, unstable skis and lightweight boots. For that reason, they had to forego the unforgettable thrill of speeding steeply downhill, bagging turns – unless they were telemarkers, able to knee-bend gracefully downhill in cross-country boots on flimsy cross-country skis. The vast majority of people are not telemarkers, because, while great fun, the skill is hard to learn, harder to do and extremely prone to face-first wipeouts.
But in the past two years, alpine touring – or AT – has avalanched in popularity. All-terrain skiers use (easily rented) stiff downhill boots and wide skis that you can also walk comfortably uphill in, thanks to climbing skins (a strip of artificial mohair that sticks to the base of the ski and adheres to snow) and a binding that lets you lift your heels. At the top, you strip the climbing skins off, lock your heels and vroosh to the bottom with all the ease and control that downhill skiing allows. Thanks to AT skiing, an average downhill skier can tour the backcountry and enjoy deep powder turns all on the same long run.
It was only a matter of time before Claude Duchesne and Andre Renner, who run the legendary Assiniboine Lodge in southeastern B.C., and Bruce and Alison Millar, who own and operate the equally storied Lake O’Hara Lodge near Field, B.C., welcomed barbarians on AT setups. I’ve visited both places with both backcountry and telemark gear. Last February, I sold my soul and went AT. It was the best skiing holiday I’ve ever had. Of course, I say that every time I go up into those mountains. Every time, I mean it.
A lodge of legend
Built in 1928 as a joint venture between the Canadian Pacific Railway, pioneering ski instructor Erling Strom and an Italian bounder named Marquis Nicholas degli Albizzi, Assiniboine Lodge claims to be the Canadian Rockies’ first ski lodge. Despite its remoteness, the lodge abounds with luxuries and is always a welcome sight when it comes into view. It’s certainly a pristine place: The region is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, protected “for the benefit of all humanity.”
Four of us arrived by helicopter (you can also ski in). We started skiing the same afternoon after an avalanche-beacon safety drill, and we kept skiing for three days: up and down the Nublet, up and down the drainages to the north and east, up and down the valleys where packers used to shoot and bury worn-out horses. We never saw another soul. Assiniboine Lodge is famous for its gentle touring terrain, but guided by Duchesne (who runs the lodge on a multiyear lease), we never skied the same slopes twice. Each morning’s fresh snow came up to our knees.
At the end of each day, we skied back to the lodge and had a sauna and a shower and snacks – cheeses from France and Quebec, charcuterie from Canmore, wine from Argentina, France and B.C. I always hurried to get to the lodge’s living room, my favourite room at Assiniboine. There’s a chair I like to use made from wolf skin and burls of pine. It was designed by Louis Shattuck Cates, an American architect, who gave it to Erling Strom, the co-founder of Assiniboine Lodge. Strom was cashiered out of the Norwegian Army because he had a stammer and couldn’t shout orders. He became the first professional ski instructor in North America instead, and helped put Stowe, Vt., on the skiing map. Lift-assisted skiing was “great fun,” Strom felt, “but one run is much like another.” At Assiniboine, every backcountry run was different.
In the dining room, you can see Strom’s name carved into huge log beams alongside those of other early visitors, a who’s who of Western Canadian skiing history: Jackrabbit Johannsen, photographer Byron Harmon, Hans Gmoser (who invented helicopter skiing) and Sepp Renner (the brilliant host and guide who ran Assiniboine with his wife, Barb, for 30 years). But you don’t have to settle for their names in wood. Big pieces of Rockies’ history are still walking around. They, in turn, inspire newcomers to become part of that history – in their own ways. While I was at the lodge last winter, Sepp and Barb were there in person, with their daughter, Sara Renner, son-in-law, Thomas Grandi (both skiing Olympians), and Margaret Gmoser (Barb’s sister and Hans Gmoser’s widow). On our second night, after the dishes had been cleared away, two guests – a professor of literature and her investor boyfriend – taught everyone, visitors and staff alike, the tango. That dance is all about tension and release – not unlike skiing up a slope you fear will never end, and then rushing down, hoping it never does.
Moving on to O’Hara
After three days at Assiniboine, we helicoptered out; spent a night sampling the many local craft beers and spirits of Canmore; and drove an hour west along the Trans-Canada toward Lake O’Hara Lodge, just beyond Lake Louise. CP Railway built the lodge in 1926 to attract summer tourists to its trains. In summer months, hikers staying there or in the nearby Elizabeth Parker Hut and campground can ride a bus up a fire road to what is, without argument, some of the best hiking on Earth. In winter, the only way in is a gentle 11-kilometre ski (the lodge grooms the trail with a Sno-Cat, and sets a double track). We managed a sauntering four kilometres an hour.
Twelve people were staying in the lodge the night we arrived: a couple in their 70s; dating engineers from Houston, living in Kitimat, B.C., while they conducted a feasibility report on Chevron’s proposed liquid natural gas project; an ER physician from Bragg Creek, Alta., and her husband, a retiree who had taken up bison ranching; and their daughter and her boyfriend, a pair of surly professional protesters manning the blockade of the Kitimat LNG plant. We all skied together anyway.
Like Assiniboine Lodge, Lake O’Hara Lodge sits on the continental divide, and can experience every form of weather known to mankind in the course of an hour: roasting sunshine, silent carpeting snowfalls, spooky ice fogs. The mountains that protect Lake O’Hara always seem to be letting you in just this once, as a special favour. The views are godlike: John Singer Sargent painted here, as did Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald and Peter and Catharine Whyte. As with Assiniboine, the lodge is a testament to the radical idea that you can be as comfortable as you have ever been in the middle of a mountain wilderness. Routines develop quickly, because they can: coffee at 7 a.m., reading and writing until muffins at 8:15, full breakfast at 8:30. Skiing by 10, lunch and conversation in a sunny spot on the slopes, an afternoon of turns. Return to the lodge, thrilled and exhausted, at 4. Nap, reading, shower, sauna, drink, then dinner at 6:30. Everyone’s happily in bed by 10.
And the food? Let me distill the array of snacks Alison Millar spread as we steamily unjacketed from an afternoon of turning to a single dish of deliciousness: pork belly in green-onion pancakes. And that’s before the dinners, the knockdown B.C. wine list, the broad-bean-and-kale soup, the Moroccan fennel and chickpea salad, the filets of beef in potato crust, the wild blueberry pies and the apple pithiviers. (I still lost five pounds in three days.) Nor have I mentioned the conversations and stories told during mealtimes, about the day’s turns and falls, global warming and mountain history, lodge lore and the meaning of life and love, among other subjects. One evening, Alison told a story about scattering her grandmother’s ashes in the woods a few kilometres south of North Bay, Ont.; when she returned a few years later with her grandfather’s remains, she discovered the highway had been twinned, and that Gran was resting peacefully under the new southbound lane to Toronto. I suspect all the men in the lodge had a bit of a platonic crush on Alison. There’s something about women who can ski and knit.
As for the turns, they were steep and deep and everywhere. On our last day, we followed Bruce up through the forest, climbing and puffing in the crisp sunshine for two and a half hours to reach the toe of Opabin Glacier. Then we skied down the moraine slopes that fall away from the ice. I yo-yoed them, trekking up and swooshing down four times. Once you start you never want to stop. After that we skied back to the lodge, through glades and snow-padded rock fields, 90 minutes of soft, sublime descent. I missed snacks that day because I lingered on frozen Lake O’Hara with my friends to watch the heartbreaking afternoon light crowd in over the mountains. It wasn’t just the scenery that kept us there, of course, but the thought that it might be the last time we saw it. You can’t just use that terrain and leave: It uses you, makes you earn it and deserve it.
The mountains around Lake O’Hara and Assiniboine Lodge have been there, after all, for a few hundred million years. We’ll be around, if we’re lucky, for 80. It’s the fleetingness of our time among them that makes their beauty so achingly real and important. Come and see us now, they seem to say – while you can, before it’s too late. I respectfully suggest you do it on a pair of skis. That way, you’ll feel how steep the slope is, up and down.
IF YOU GO
Fly into Calgary airport, then transfer to Canmore, Alta. for Mount Assiniboine Lodge or to Lake Louise to reach Lake O’Hara Lodge.
MOUNT ASSINIBOINE LODGE
The lodge can accommodate 25 people in winter (30 in summer) in seven cabins that sleep two to five people, and five rooms in the lodge itself that sleep one to three people. Reservations are essential. The 2015 winter season runs until April 6. assiniboinelodge.com
Helicopter flights in and out (should you choose not to ski): $155 a person to and from Canmore; $175 a person each way from Mount Shark (in Kananaskis country).
Rates: Winter rates begin at $250 a person, a night. Children between the ages of two and 12 are $140 a night. Rates include all meals, afternoon tea, ski tour guides (and guides for hiking in summer), snowshoes, all avalanche safety gear and instruction on use. Skis, boots and climbing skins are not provided. AT skis and boots can be easily rented, however, at Gear Up in Canmore (403-678-1636) and at Mountain Magic Equipment in Banff (403-762-2591).
LAKE O’HARA LODGE
Lake O’Hara’s historic main lodge accommodates 16 guests in the winter season, in eight double rooms, all with access to showers, tubs and sauna. (As many as 55 guests can be accommodated in summer in the lodge and its lakeside and guide cabins.) Reservations are essential . The winter season runs to the end of March. lakeohara.com
Access in winter is by an 11 km double track-set trail. Guests are encouraged to ski in on light cross-country skis. The lodge will then provide snowshoes, touring skis, AT skis and climbing skins. (Guests should rent their own touring/AT boots. See outlets above.)
Rates: Winter rates are $355 a person, based on double occupancy. All taxes, gratuities, meals, accommodation and guiding costs are included.
The writer’s stay at Mount Assiniboine Lodge was paid for by the lodge. It did not review or approve this article.
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