Published March 29, 2012
It was payback time.
For years, I’ve traveled to far-flung locales and come home to regale friends, family and whoever reads my stories with tales of wild places, questionable judgment and remarkable people.
My Vermont skiing comrades had heard enough. A group of them, including my wife Sue, told me they wanted to come along for the ride. Nothing special – just a week that included epic lift-served skiing, incredible backcountry touring, an awesome hut, great food and classy digs.
“No pressure Dave,” my friend Chach assured me, “but this trip better be killer.”
The pressure was intense. One place to have it all, and the best chance for great snow? I thought long and hard, and kept coming back to the mountains where I’d almost always struck white gold: British Columbia.
I conjured a week-long tour of the greatest hits of B.C. We would start with a helicopter flight into Purcell Mountain Lodge, a backcountry hut famous for its jaw-drop scenery, deep turns and gourmet food. After that, we’d head west to Revelstoke, once home to a humble town ski hill that’s been made over into a world-class destination ski resort. We’d cap all this off with some backcountry skiing on Rogers Pass, a legendary Mecca for powder day tours.
With a little luck and lot of snow, I hoped this three-part meal would pay back my hungry comrades.
The helicopter buzzed toward the ridgeline of Kicking Horse ski area in Golden, B.C., and suddenly lurched up and over to reveal a trackless white expanse beyond. Fifteen minutes later, we touched down in a frantic swirl of snow in front of a three-level wooden lodge. This would be our mountain home for the weekend.
Purcell Mountain Lodge, a beautiful 10-bedroom lodge that sits at 7,200 feet overlooking the Canadian Rockies, offers a novel twist on a B.C. tradition. Until now, I've had, well, commitment issues when it comes to heli-hut weeks in B.C. Time and cash have been the sticking points for me as I’ve declined countless offers from friends who have invited me to join them for a week of skiing backcountry powder. Purcell Mountain Lodge changed the game by offering a bite-size version of this experience: fly in Friday and out Monday for a memorable 4-day weekend of powder skiing and mountain hospitality. Suddenly, I could commit.
The thermometer was pegged at -15 degrees F as we shouldered our day packs and headed out under a crisp blue sky behind Don Steedman, a veteran B.C. ski guide. A half-hour of skinning brought us to the top of a bald knob, where we stopped for snacks and huge views of 10,774 ft. Mt. Sir Donald, the striking Matterhorn look-alike that crowns the Selkirk Mountains. “It’s one of the most photographed peaks in Canada,” Don quipped as we snacked and pulled off skins.
Just as we were about to descend, a helicopter appeared, hovered overhead and touched down about 50 feet away. An Austrian heli-ski guide hopped out and informed us that we were on his run. It was farcical that out of thousands of acres of wilderness, the only two groups of skiers were fighting over the same hillside. Don negotiated a quick peace treaty (perhaps his services could be used in the Middle East?), freeing the heli-skiers to speed down the mountain to their next pickup, while we took our time and dropped into a spacious glade this is inauspiciously named Knee Grinder. The tall Engelmann spruce guarding the top of the run suddenly parted to reveal broad openings. A blur of white and blue passed me; I stared at it and discerned that it was my wife Sue accelerating down through the trees, knee-deep powder washing over her shoulders. A huge smile and hoots of approval from Sue and my other friends greeted me at the bottom.
The other two skiers with us had a somewhat different experience. “This is our first time skiing powder,” confessed Peter as he skied to us, brushing off some flaky souvenirs that he brought down the mountain with him. On the next run, some wind-crusted snow at the top of the run caused him and Brian to leave a few facial impressions on the slope. At the bottom, the two men cheerily parted ways with us and sped off for the lodge and their wives. “We’ll see you around the fire,” said Peter.
More tree skiing and a slow, late climb brought us back to Purcell Mountain Lodge. As I entered the warm post-and-beam lodge, the crackling fire drew me instinctively forward just as the powder had a few hours earlier. Banish the thought of drafty mountain huts: Purcell Mountain Lodge is built of hand-hewn timbers with giant windows overlooking the Purcell and Selkirk mountains. Long pine tables beckon for family-style meals, and the rocking chairs, couches, fireplaces and books beg you to slow down, savor, and Be Here Now.
No sooner had I taken a seat on the couch than I was greeted by Blu Helida, an organic farmer from Washington who spends her winter conjuring gourmet backcountry feasts at the lodge. She offered up a tray of warm bruschetta and stuffed mushrooms and a glass of Cutthroat Beer to unwind. This was followed by a meal of maple crusted salmon, yam gnocchi with blue cheese, capped off by an orange poppyseed birthday cake for the three members of our extended group who were celebrating milestones.
We collapsed in a room with a view Mt. Sir Donald, dreaming of powder turns to come.
Was this the best ski weekend ever? Oh, that’s too over-the-top for a hard-nosed reporter like me to say. But my wife Sue summed up our feelings in the log book (which had entries dating back to 1986, when the “lodge” was a mere yurt): “What a glorious way to celebrate life with dear friends, perfect powder, open glades, a cozy lodge, terrific hosts, fabulous food and a landscape of majestic mountains.”
Payback? In full.
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