Golden, B.C., isn’t close to anywhere. The closest international airports are at least two layovers and three to six driving hours away, over the Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountain ranges. But that's exactly why I'm here: to get closer to these mountains, and disconnect from everything else.
I meet up with my trip mates to discuss our plans for the next day over plates of steak and poutine. We're headed to Icefall Lodge, the most remote, vast zone of untouched hut-based ski terrain in Canada. In the morning, we'll catch a helicopter ride deep into the heart of the Canadian Rockies.
Before we leave, I catch up on some emails and call a few people to let them know I will be “away from my desk.” I’ve been told there is a wireless internet connection via satellite at the hut, but no guarantees it's working. Part of me hopes it works so I can stay current with email and check the daily weather forecasts, but I'm prepared for anything.
I wake the next morning to the sound of freight trains in the Golden valley and trucks coming down the Trans-Canada highway. It's time to get away from it all! We drive to the staging area, double check the weight of our bags, and get a safety briefing from our pilot. We pile in, and the familiar smell of jet fuel fills the air as the engine starts and the blades start spinning.
I sit up front with the pilot and talk tech, weather, and heli-skiing as we hover higher over the valley. We soar over multiple mountain passes, trees, ravines, and peaks that grow progressively bigger and more dramatic. Soon glaciers come into view, from wide-open ice fields to steep, serac-dominated ice falls. The sharply folded layers of limestone and shale jut abruptly skyward from the glaciated valleys and ravines as the signature of the Canadian Rockies is getting more distinct. Dramatic avalanche paths cut deeply through forests from huge open faces above, and the snow pack is getting deeper as we approach the Continental Divide and the crest of the Canadian Rockies, further and further from civilization.
Off to our left appear small specks of housing structures nestled into the hillside in a grove of old-growth forest. This is our home for the next eight days. We are so remote. As we descend, and the birds-eye-view becomes more of a human view, I start to realize just how big the surrounding area is. More than 150 square miles of terrain at our disposal. No one else. No snowmobiles, no helicopters, no cars, no lifts. It is essentially our private mountain range for the next week.
Once the helicopter leaves, it's silent. We won’t be hearing the roar of the turbine engine or the slap of the blades in the air for another eight days. We settle into our accommodations, two beautiful hand-built lodges constructed by owner Larry Dolecki [Link: http://www.icefall.ca/winter/Guides.html]. The lodge is self-sustaining, with a hydro-electric system and water pumped from the adjacent creek, solar power, wood stoves with firewood from surrounding deadfall, and a backup generator. The accommodations are plush, considering we are so far from civilization.
Its time to go skiing! With a few hours of daylight left, we strap on our skins and off we go to what is considered “home run,” a mere 3,000-foot run just to the left of the lodge, above tree line. We are the first group in the lodge for the season, and there isn’t a track in sight. As we ascend, the view of the valley below and the bigger peaks of Mt. Kimmel, Rostrum, and Ice Pass come into view. The angle of the light tells us sunset is not far, and we strip off our skins, buckle our boots, and ski perfect boot-top powder back down to the lodge. Responsibilities melt away, purpose is in the moment, and smiles are shared by all of us.
That evening, we enjoy a delicious catered meal together, sip on boxed wine and cheap beer, and head for bed to snuggle under our down comforters for the night. As I fall asleep, thoughts of business and work interplay in my head. And then they fade, fade deep into memory as I dream of soft snow, sunrise on the mountains, and the next day of skiing ahead.
A different reality
We wake to the smell of bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan, and our devoted chef Monique (or “Mo,” as she prefers) downstairs whistling as she flips pancakes. I roll out of bed. But wait, what is the weather today? I look at my phone to see if there is an internet connection. No dice. And then it dawns on me: Who cares? The weather is the weather; we will plan accordingly. We will have to use our senses to plan and make decisions. Funny, I used to do this all the time before iphones, computers, and wireless internet.
We finish breakfast and look outside. It’s dumping. I mean big flakes, and lots of them! I stuff my feet into a pair of communal rubber boots and step outside for a better look. Stepping off the porch, I instantly sink in above my boot top and fill the boots with light, powdery snow. Yes!
We suit up and drop straight down below the lodge for some epic tree skiing in an area known as “Hobbit Trees.” The trees are covered in long lichen that looks straight out of J.R.R Tolkien’s stories. And the snow envelops us with every turn. A full disappearing act followed by a gasp and a laugh every time. Pillow lines galore! With little consequence, we go for it, three, four, five pillows in a row. This is fun! And the rest of life…well, it’s a distant thought. I am here. I am warm, I am dry, I am fed, and I have skis on my feet, and friends at my side.
We spend the next five days reaping the benefits of several storms. The skiing is deeper every day, and the weather forecast no longer matters. Evenings turn into laughter-filled round tables, stories exchanged and games being played. Life is so simple. The connection to this place grows deeper by the day.
On our second to last day, the storm breaks and sun hits the freshly coated mountains. We go for the high alpine, carefully assessing snowpack along the way. As we ascend, I feel so in tune with the place. My senses are freshly aware of my surroundings, and I am listening to the mountains and my partners. We ski conservatively enough to take heed of all the fresh snow, down big, beautiful bowls of perfect powder and position. Fewer words are spoken, but so much more is understood.
In the distance, I hear the chopping of the blades and the hum of the engine as the helicopter starts to round the final ridgeline to Icefall Lodge. It has been eight days since we've heard this sound, and it feels foreign already. As we load into the helicopter, the pilot looks back and smiles. We don’t say much this time. I just take in the experience and savor our last moments in this wild place. As we near the staging area, we start to see roads, the evidence of logging, and homes nestled into the woods. I try not to dwell on this, but rather take the quiet space I've tapped into over the past eight days, and know it is there always, if I choose to connect to it. When we unload from the helicopter, I choose not to turn on my cell phone. It will wait. I am feeling plenty connected already.