nap your boots into bindings. Take a deep breath to calm your racing heart before you push off, floating downhill on a snowy slope of virgin champagne powder, an explosion of snow blasting the grin on your face.
Home to more than two dozen backcountry lodges, British Columbia offers up plenty of reasons to smile — it is, after all, why so many powderhounds make their way to Canada’s westernmost province. Here, backcountry adventures run the gamut, from heart-thumping runs down a glacier to snowshoeing across a tranquil alpine meadow. The best part? At the end of the day you can unwind in a sauna, dine on hearty local cuisine with other like-minded folks, then fall asleep in a comfy backcountry retreat. “Each lodge is unique in style and offerings,” says Brad Harrison, Executive Director of the Backcountry Lodges of BC Association. “Go guided or self-guided, catered or cook yourself.” If you’re not into skiing “steeps,” enjoy the backcountry at some lodges on cross-country skis or a snowshoe stomp through gentler terrain. “It’s the perfect healthy and invigorating reward for your body and your mind.”
Safety is at the forefront of lodge operators’ minds so unless you’re highly experienced in the backcountry, guided is the way to go. If you want to feel even safer and wiser, on your own or with a guide, many lodges offer courses on avalanche awareness and search and rescue techniques. Where to start? Here are five safety-conscious (read certified) offerings sure to get the blood pumping.
The backcountry may be wild, untouched and remote, but it starts as close as the mountains that backdrop Vancouver, BC’s biggest metropolis. The nearest steep-roofed log lodge half-buried in backcountry powder is just 2.5 hours from the bright lights of the city and 30 minutes from Whistler. Here, McGillivray Pass Lodge is a family-operated outpost run by Whitecap Alpine Adventures in the tradition of European mountain huts. These days, a third generation of skiers and boarders is enjoying this magical valley, finishing up days skiing the Southern Chilcotin Mountains in the cosy lodge with a wood burning fireplace and all the mod cons — heck, even the out-houses are heated.
Start the day with homemade muesli, omelettes and “Ronnie’s Coffee” before heading into glades, high alpine summits, or glaciers — moderate to advanced ski terrain. This is a great place to join a “girls only” class, designed to help women move more confidently in the backcountry. Cross-country ski in the valley or hop a helicopter to nix the first uphill trek of the day for more time on downhill curves. Then curl up in front of the fireplace with a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
With more of an eye on luxury, Mistaya Lodge, nestled high in the Canadian Rockies, is a post-and-beam outpost with private rooms complete with fluffy duvets. Here you’ll find a clean wood-fired sauna — which heats the lodge’s new shower — composting toilets, and an abundance of glass in the public areas that allows for leisurely armchair reconnaissance of the nearby peaks and glaciers. Just 18 minutes from Golden by helicopter, the area is pristine. “Anyone who skis Blue runs at downhill resorts can ski here,” says owner Cindy Galligan, who is proud to keep Mistaya footprint-free. “And it’s one of a few places where you finish up the day by skiing downhill to the lodge.” Only 14 guests are accommodated at one time and there are three guides, including Cindy’s partner, David Birnie, who knows this pocket of glaciated terrain tucked between Yoho and Banff national parks like the back of his hand.
While the Rockies are classic backcountry country, Northern BC doesn’t usually come to mind when you haul out the skis in fall. But Burnie Glacier Chalet, located on Wet’suwet’en First Nations land, is just a helicopter hop from the lovely town of Smithers. The Northern Coast Mountains are a place of big snow — more than six metres (20 feet) on the glaciers — and big verticals. Since this is serious ski territory, owner and IFMGA Mountain Guide Christoph Dietzfelbinger, who built the lodge with friends in 2001, offers only guided touring and he uses a Canadian system called InfoEx to tap into the Canadian Avalanche Centre to keep everyone safe. And after a day of pushing peaks and carving big turns through massive slopes of untouched powder in sunshine that leaves you raccoon-eyed with a goggle-tan, what have Molly and Debbie got cooking on that Amish-built wood stove? How about samosas and curries? Lemon meringue pies? Lamb with mint sauce and fine vegetables? Bliss — as is knowing Burnie is 500 kilometres (311 miles) from the next nearest lodge.
British Columbia promises no less of an adrenalin rush with its offering of snowy hut-to-hut adventures. In the Thompson Okanagan region, for example, you can catch a scenic 15-minute helicopter ride to Flight Meadow Cabin, one of three run by Wells Gray Adventures. The comfortable cabin, enveloped by meadows and low hills, sits smack in the middle of cross-country ski and snowshoeing terrain. Want to take it up a notch? Adventurists can catch a snowcat ride to start a hut-to-hut ski adventure to Trophy Chalet and Discovery Cabin — both at over 2,000 metres (6,562 feet). With views of the Monashee and Cariboo mountains, there are challenging chutes, gullies and long tree runs to warm the heart. “We’re not luxurious, but we are incredibly eco-friendly, affordable, and we are the only hut system in a provincial park,” says co-owner Tay Briggs, who, with her husband, has been operating the low carbon footprint operation for 25 years.
For those looking for a more tranquil mountain experience, point the skinny skis to the Bowron Lakes in the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast region. A renowned summer canoeing circuit, it’s less well known as a charming winter destination to explore on a four-day ski excursion with Whitegold Adventures. What’s in store? A guide leads your small group of six safely into the wilderness for a cross-country excursion, everyone pulling their supplies in small sleds across frozen mountain lakes and over snowy portages, on the lookout for otters, moose and wolves. Each night ends at a snug cabin with a stove; after dinner, relax in your bunk or go for a moonlight ski, enjoying the glitter of the snow beneath a star-filled sky. Bonus: there might even be a chance to try kite-skiing or spend the night in an igloo.
No matter which path you choose, be sure, at day’s end, to bundle up and stand outside to watch the Northern Lights cavort like colourful crinolines blowing across the sky. Then get up in the morning, slip into the skis and do it all over again.
Backcountry Lodges of BC Association: www.bcbackcountry.ca
Whitecap Alpine: www.whitecapalpine.ca
Mistaya Lodge: www.mistayalodge.com
Bear Mountaineering: www.bearmountaineering.ca
Wells Gray Lodge: www.skihike.com
Whitegold Adventures: www.whitegold.ca/winter-trips.html
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