The gentle woosh-woosh of my cross-country skis kept a cadence, a soothing rhythm that worked in concert with my fast-beating heart.
I was gliding along an alpine track surrounded by high trees and dwarfed by towering mountain ramparts. My dream of skiing in the Canadian Rockies had finally come true.
I was part of a group exploring the back country of Banff National Park. Our first destination was Skoki Lodge about 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) west of Lake Louise, our starting point in the high valleys, peaks and lakes of the Slate Range. Our route took us through majestic mountainous countryside including two major passes.
Slowly our group of nine spread out into pairs and trios, each gliding along at a pace where conversation was comfortable. After two hours, we stopped at Halfway Hut to feed our famished bodies. Snow was draped on the roof in curving billows over two-feet high. A small outhouse wore a soft white hat almost half its height.
Soon we were on our way again, gliding past lonely larches whose barren branches, only a few months ago resplendent in golden hues, now were skeletal outlines against the whiteness. We put skins (synthetic fur that lets the ski slide forward but not backward) on the skis for the uphill slog to Boulder Pass. Conversation dwindled as we worked our way up the slope. Enormous snow-encrusted boulders littered the landscape, fragments shed like dandruff by Redoubt Mountain looming on our right.
As we rested at the top of the pass gazing at mountain ranges stretching forever, I felt tiny and very insignificant. We were surrounded by the grand work of primordial tectonic forces that defy comprehension in any kind of human sense of time. We were face to face with the forces that still move gigantic plates around the earth’s crust and thrust them against each other. In the tumult of geological time, they sculpted these beautiful mountains.
We skied down onto Ptarmigan Lake and, assisted by a rising tailwind, were soon across and facing the daunting task of slogging up Deception Pass. The howling wind and steep gradient that pushed us to our limits made this part of the trek feel like purgatory; a temporary suffering and yet a cleansing too. But no pain, no gain.
At the top of Deception Pass we paused, panting because of the 8100-foot (2470-metre) elevation. We were above the tree line with grand panoramas sweeping across the valleys below surrounded by the rocky spines of their embracing guardians.
Then a long slippery slide carried us down into Skoki Valley. My legs began to feel like rubber, and I was barely able to hold a snowplow in the drifting snow. When I fell, it was wonderful to lie in the white stillness — after all, it’s important to take the time and smell the snow.
Five hours after starting trek, we glided into historic Skoki Lodge, built in 1931 by the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies as the first alpine hut in the Canadian Rockies. And a welcome sight it was; hot herbal tea bubbling on a wood stove, gourmet bread with brie and sun-dried tomatoes, and borscht soup quickly revived us. As we settled in, I realized how delightful it is to be away from electricity, telephones, TV and the other trappings of modern society. Our cabin was basic but warm. We crammed into a tiny, rustic sauna that soothed our aching muscles. Dinner was scrumptious and afterwards, around a roaring fire we played Scrabble with rambling discussions that untangled many of the world’s thorniest problems.
Next morning as we set out on our return trek, the wind rose giving warning that we were about to face a different experience, skiing on the thin line between this daunting terrain and our human capabilities. We climbed slowly and steadily uphill and crossed Deception Pass. Our descent was straight into the teeth of a blizzard and near white-out conditions. We skied almost blindly, heads bent down into our chests, across Ptarmigan Lake, focusing only on the next marker pole set in the ice.
In the core of my being I felt what it must have been like for explorers, trappers, and mountain men who first traversed these mountains. Images of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air floated through my mind, and I kept looking for ice-encrusted corpses abandoned along the trail. We were, of course, perfectly safe but it added an exhilarating thrill to be struggling with such harsh conditions.
We overnighted at Baker Creek Chalets, luxuriating in the comforts of civilization: a steam bath, a sumptuous meal with wine, hot showers, and flush toilets.
Next morning we donned skis just west of Banff and headed slowly but steadily uphill to Sundance Lodge. The day was spent gliding next to Brewster Creek through tall evergreen forests with occasional glimpses of the towering crags of Sundance Range. Conversation flowed with the rhythm of the skis, and there were no steep inclines that required skins. After three and a half hours we arrived at the attractive Sundance Lodge, constructed of massive fir timbers and its interior decorated with elk heads and antler chandeliers. As at Skoki, it was a wonderfully casual and friendly lodge with no electricity or telephones. We relaxed before a roaring wood fire, talked, and wandered in and out of the kitchen to get snacks and chat with the chef.
Late in the afternoon with small puffy snowflakes dropping lazily from the sky, I skied further up the trail to a lookout where the peaks of the continental divide were spread out before me like a feast. Mount Assiniboine, the Matterhorn of the Rockies, thrust skyward on the horizon, majestic in the softening light.
I skied back past some corrals, for Sundance is a popular trail-riding stop in the summer time. Our famished bodies gobbled down the delicious evening meal; Scrabble followed and soon we were fast asleep.
Next day we donned skis for the run back down. The conditions were perfect; no wind and a light snow brought puffy snow flakes tumbling from the sky. Three of us formed a group and glided downward between tall sentry-like pines.
At the bottom we decided, instead of returning to the trail head, to ski all the way into Banff. We wooshed through the gently rolling wilderness, watching signs of civilization slowly appear: a few other skiers, horse barns, and then a park.
Finally, we crossed the frozen Bow River and suddenly found ourselves right in downtown Banff. We carried our skis along the main street, jostling with passers-by, and found a coffee shop. Over a hot latté we contemplated the mystery and magnetism of back country solitude. Already we were dreaming of returning to ski in this majestic landscape.
If You Go
The above photograph by Hans Tammemagi was one of the award winners in Up! magazine's recent travel photography contest. Up! is the inflight magazine of Westjet Airlines. Talking Travel congratulates Hans.