Backcountry Skiing in British Columbia

April, 2008

There's a Dan Hicks song about a guy with wanderlust who has just seen a UFO. It's called "Hell, I'd go !"

In December 2007, I received a surprise invitation to join a group of Yoopers on a backcountry ski trip to the Canadian Rockies. One of their original group had to drop out for medical reasons, and Carlson, who I knew through my friend Anita and had skied with at Vail the year before, figured I might be interested enough or crazy enough to take his place and, incidently, cough up some dough so the poor guy wouldn't forfeit his deposit. After looking at the website for Powdercreek Lodge and counting up the change in the coffee can, I decided this was something I had to do. Even if I was still a few pennies short. At least it was several months away so I had lots of time to prepare.

Naturally, I needed brand new ski equipment, too. Not only was it necessary to make a fashion statement (especially in the company of such urbane and cultured gentlemen, ya hey) but my K2 Apache alpine skis simply wouldn't work out there. I needed special Alpine Touring (aka Randonee) skis, boots and bindings, as well as "skins", so I could free-heel my way merrily up the mountain and then ski back down again with my heels in the upright locked position. The alternative would have been to quickly master telemark skiing before the trip. "Hey Les ! HELP !!!"

After several last minute trips to REI in Madison to get my skis mounted and my boots molded to my feet, I soon found myself sitting next to the pilot of a small helicopter, watching snow-covered mountains sliding by at weird angles and high speed. (Ski Lesson #1: Never puke in the helicopter. Use your hat!) Before long I was crouched over a pile of duffle bags and six-packs of beer (to keep them from blowing over the edge of a precipice) while the helicopter loaded up returning passengers and then whisked off in a blizzard of its own making.

Now I was stranded. So I picked out a room for Carlson and me before most of the others arrived (4 people x 3 trips = 12 guests) and then looked around in awe at the surrounding mountains and the delightful, rustic accommodations. After the whole group was assembled and Gus ("Goos") our "custodian" - who is really the co-owner and engineering genius behind this place - gave us an orientation, we headed outside with our two guides, Marc and Joe, to practice avalanche rescue skills. This consisted of using our beepers to locate other beepers buried in the snow, and then stabbing surrogate bodies with our avalanche probes so we could maul them with our shovels. It was fun, but I could see where it could be exhausting and nerve-wracking in a real situation. (Ski Lesson #2: Avoid avalanches !)

Now that boot camp was complete, it was time to do what we came here for - ski !
Of course, before we could do that, there was the small matter of getting up the mountain. There are no ski lifts here. (Ski Lesson #3: Lifts are for wusses !)

Here is the routine:

Step 1. Open your pack. Get out your climbing skins and peel them apart. Stick them to the bottom of your skis. Start climbing. Keep climbing. Reach back with your poles and raise your heel lifters (as it gets steeper). Climb some more. Up! Up! Up! Rest stop. OK, start climbing again. Now climb some more. Are we there yet ?

Eventually, you arrive at "there". Drop the pack, strip off the skins, lock down your heels, don't forget to flick that little lever to switch your boots from "walk" to "ski" mode ! Now try to catch your breath and take a swig of water while the rest of the group disappears over the edge of a cliff. It's OK, it only looks like a cliff until you start down.

Now this is more like it ! Whoopie ! Powder ! Look, I'm making tracks ! But how do I ski this stuff ? How do I stop ? Poof !

"Did you see me ?"

Return to Step 1. Repeat until exhausted !

End of ski routine.

OK, that's enough for one day ! Time to go back to the Lodge, plant the skis outside, and pop open the first cold one of the day !
(Ski Lesson #4. Bring plenty of beer ! But no beers until everyone is back from skiing - Decksters and Yoopers included !)
Now change clothes and see what kind of delicious exotic hors d'oeuvres Mia has cooked up in the kitchen. (Ski Lesson #5: Always choose the soup !)

Then it's time for the sauna. (Ski lesson #6. It's a "sow-na". A "saw-na" is for wusses.)

Besides Mia, there was another female in our group. Catherine had signed up after finding an opening on the internet (another cancelation). Brave girl ! She had never met a real Yooper (or Deckster) before. But since the U.P. is about the only place in the world she has never been, she took it in stride. She even demonstrated for us the secret Peruvian Egg Trick that so amazed Pizarro and the conquistadors...

We almost had a third cancelation, too, but Mark Silver decided not to let a little thing like a broken foot get in the way of a good time. Those snowboarders don't stop at anything ! And he was good company on my rest-and-take-care-of-those-blisters day (new boots, ya know).

Getting back to the sauna...

Now that you're totally relaxed and squeaky clean, try to stay awake till dinner. Then, get ready for great food and conversation. And try not to laugh with your mouth full as the jokes and one-liners fly back and forth across the table. Zing ! Zing ! (Ski Lesson #7: Don't sit next to Joe. He has brain suckers !)

Finally, hang around the wood stove and listen to Bill and Swede tell stories. Maybe even tell one yourself, if you can get a word in ! Then off to bed. Unless you're rooming with Carlson. In that case, you better have bomb-proof earplugs or else snore louder than he does ! Barring that, best to sleep downstairs and tend to the fire. (Ski Lesson #8: Don't bunk with Carlson. Ski Lesson #9: "I am not Anita !")

One Last Ski Lesson #10: If a man wearing a badge stops you, shakes his head, and says, "There are so many things wrong with this..." politely suggest that maybe you should just turn the snowmobile around and drag the canoe with all the drunk people and beer back down the road in the dark to wherever they came from... before the cops show up !

"You can't beat fun."
- Silas "Chum" Spengler

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