Pitch perfect skiing in British Columbia

  • Article by: ELIZA WILMERDING , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2013 - 2:44 PM

Skiing British Columbia offers natural highs, powdered runs and girl time atop the continental divide.

The more we talk and sing, the higher we climb. I skim the tip of my ski pole through the snow and plant it down six inches. The powder is fresh and light. It’s nearly noon and the February sunshine has burned off the fog in British Columbia’s Waputik range, a series of spiny, glaciated mountains along the northern Continental Divide. The forecast says that it’s the last clear day before a weather system whites out the open routes high above the tree line. (Skiing blind, or without a reference point, can throw off even the most experienced skiers.) It’s our last chance to climb to 9,000 feet and ski Saber Tooth, a run with pitches deeper and steeper than we’ve seen so far.

Following the strides of my old ski buddy Annie, I’m humming the tune of Don McLean’s “American Pie” (my 4-year-old’s favorite). Annie and I dream up new lyrics to pass the time. “A long, long week ago/ We girls got together/ To ski the slopes so steep/ We knew if we had our chance/ That we might improve our stance/ As we shred the powder so-oh deep.” She sings on key. I drift, especially when out of breath.

In two hours, we ski through a snow-covered meadow and follow Wildcat Creek. We climb up Wildcat Glacier, then wind toward the saddle between Mount Baker and Nexus Peak. From there, we will bounce-turn down 2,600 vertical feet of knee-deep powder. Cloud wisps soften the snow-reflected light. I hope for please-just-one-more hour of clear sky. The others carry on talking and striding in line with the skier ahead. With the exception of our guide, we are alone, consulting with clouds, friends, and friends of friends.

We go for a break from the rigors of regular life — and we’re noisy. For four days now, we’ve been talking or singing as we climb and slice through powder-puffed routes. We’d agreed on a women-only trip. Our spouses told us to go for it. We kissed our kids in the East, West, and Salt Lake City, gathered in Golden B.C. (some driving through a blizzard to get there), and flew into the mountains for a week of backcountry skiing and multiple helpings of high-protein meals (green chile frittatas, salmon with curried apple pilaf, citrus mahi mahi, pork loin and pumpkin brûlée, to name a few).

On this trip there’s always exchange: jokes — dirty ones; songs; self-deprecation; stories of husbands, wives, work, news, pet projects, and a grave topic or two. We are doctors, a nurse, a teacher, a consultant, a mother of a movement to keep impoverished girls in school. The more we talk, the higher we get. We stop when we must gesture for dramatic effect, laugh until we cramp. No one hurries us. There seem to be no egos around which to navigate. The conversation ebbs. We enjoy the quiet and the chance to breathe, buckle down and cover serious ground — in this case, a dozen miles of the continent’s spiny divide. Worries stop looming and tuck into their cubbies — at least for a while.

Backcountry cabin, with sauna

We approach the 9,000-foot mountain saddle below Mount Baker. It’s colder and steeper, and the wind whips fallen snow up and over the mountain saddle. I hear my breathing, the scatter of snow crystals across my lenses, and the squeak of our boots. We ski in sync up the track (with grippy, synthetic skins stuck to the bottom of our skis). We’re tired. We’ve settled into what we’ve come to call “the trance.” Stride length changes with the slope angle — short, slow strides up the steepest grades and longer strides atop rollovers and flat stretches — yet the rhythm remains the same. The leg burn feels good because of the view of the toothy peaks surrounding Trapper Basin, and because we’re nearly there.

For many of us, it is our big mountain trip of the year (or three). We opted for helicopter-assisted ski touring to maximize our time among these high peaks and freshly covered slopes. Mistaya Lodge, a hydro-powered cabin near an alpine lake at 6,700 feet, offers ski packages that fit our criteria. We each paid $2,250 to cover six-passenger helicopter transfers to and from the lodge, room (bunk-style private or shared) and board, and guided skiing. The folks at the hangar in Golden, B.C., weighed us with our equipment (this wasn’t ideal. We had to pare down. Books and beverages won over extra cabin wear.) Minutes later, we were aloft and flying Northeast over the Blaeberry River into the Rockies. Gorgeous peaks, couloirs and cliffs loomed on either side, each with private weather systems dispensing everything from foggy flurries to bluebird sparkle.

We touched down on a freshly packed snowy meadow a short shuffle from the lodge. Unlike many backcountry lodges or cabins, this one has a shower, sauna and two composting toilets (not having to pull on boots and a down jacket to hit the outhouse in the middle of the night sounded good to me). The lodge was everything we hoped for. It was clean (no shoes beyond the boot room), no rank smells. The food was delicious (a breakfast recipe I wrote down: line muffin tins with bacon, crack an egg in each, place a slice of cheese on top, salt, pepper, bake until only the yolk runs when pierced, serve with toast).

The guiding exceeded all expectations. Most of us had been trained in avalanche awareness and risk management at some point in our lives. We have seen a slide cascading down a steep slope from a distance. One of us was taken once, churned, and luckily left upright, above the snow and breathing. We know the risk, and so we jumped at the chance to explore this glacial terrain with Sylvia Forest, a guide certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, the Alpine Specialist for Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Park, and the overseer of its safety and rescue program. (Because of her small stature, she’s often the one to rappel down and help extract people from crevasses.) We trusted her experience, snow-slab strength testing, route finding and track setting (not too steep). With Syl, we reach the mountain saddle in the same amount of time it would have taken if we’d climbed a more direct route — with less energy burned.

Allure of B.C.’s big mountains

We reach the col, the saddle atop Saber Tooth and eye the perfect powder below. The wind whips. It won’t slacken until the bottom of this first pitch. We don’t dawdle. We chew gorp, peel the skins off our skis, switch our binding setting from climb to ski, add a layer. Syl waits for us to finish prepping. She gives directions: “Ski this pitch one by one and stay to the right of my tracks, or you’ll ski into a bergschrund [a series of crevasses], OK?” She smiles, nods and pushes off.

Why go if there’s any risk? For us — and others sharing this potentially hazardous hobby — little surpasses the flooding feelings of achievement, awe-inspiring views and adrenaline-pumped freedom when we reach the top of a backcountry ski route and then ride it out. In my “real” life, I have two kids under 5. On winter weekends, we boogie down the bunny runs. I adore them and feel lucky to witness their growth and help smooth the rough edges of their giant personalities so that one day, they’ll move through life independently and tantrum-free. That said, I needed a break — a memorable one.

British Columbia is a mecca for athletes in need of a big-mountain powder fix. Snowmobilers, heli-skiers and big-mountain riders with weather-beaten faces flock here because it’s almost always plastered with fresh snow. Revelstoke holds the Canadian record for the snowiest winter ever. During 1971-72, more than 78 feet fell on nearby Mount Copland. Some houses were buried and residents built plywood tunnels leading to their doorways. Drive through Golden and you’ll see that even some gas stations sell avalanche transceivers.

It’s time to pick our lanes and push off one by one. The particularly energized (and bossy) ski bunny among us yells, “Keep it tight,” a reminder to make turns close to other ski tracks. This way, we can climb and ski a section of unmarked slope again. Bossy takes off, bounce-turning through the fluff. She disappears over a slight rollover. I wait to see her reappear (tiny with distance), tuck for speed along the flat section, finish the run, and slide in next to the others. Annie pushes off.

Then it’s my turn. I pole forward, gather speed, square my shoulders, bend and telemark-turn down, leaning back just enough so as not to face-plant. The deep snow slows my speed just enough. I can relax, firm up my stance mid-turn, let my skis flex and spring me up to the next one. Skiing squiggly lines down snowy slopes is how we let go and feel childish delight. I slip in a few long, leg-burning arcs toward the end and slide in line and trade giddy grins with the others. We watch the slope and notice pink, puffy-jacketed “Shredder Barbie” make only four turns and then point her ski tips straight down. She becomes a speeding pink blur. We hoot.

“I’m telling you,” says Annie, the teacher among us, “ER docs are adrenaline junkies.”

“Blowing off steam,” says Bossy.

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