© David Elphick
Earn your turns
No chair lift? No problem. Climbing is part of the thrill on a ski touring adventure in BC
Last winter, David Elphick and his ski buddies decided to kick their annual alpine vacation up a notch. “We wanted guaranteed powder and an adventure,” says the 49-year-old Toronto-based engineer (and this journalist's brother). “We considered heli-skiing, but at $750 to $1000 per day, the cost was just too prohibitive.”
The solution was a ski-touring adventure on alpine terrain (also known as skin-skiing or ski mountaineering) in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. Ski-touring is a form of backcountry skiing that allows the participant to climb and then descend slopes without the need for ski lifts, helicopters or snowcats.
Ski touring requires non-slip skins that attach to the base of the skis, and a special binding that allows skiers to raise and lower their heels to walk when climbing or traversing flat slopes. When they're ready to ski down, the skins are removed and the heel is locked into place (except for telemark where it remains free). Snowboarders can also enjoy this sport with specialized equipment.
While several backcountry ski touring operations exist in western Canada, the group settled on Selkirk Mountain Experience (tel: 250-837-2381; www.selkirkexperience.com) which National Geographic Adventure magazine called “one of the Best Travel Adventure Companies on Earth” in 2009. Selkirk Mountain Experience features a fly-in lodge with exclusive access to 76 square kilometres of glaciers, skiable peaks and picturesque terrain.
Located in the beautiful Selkirk Mountains northwest of Revelstoke, BC, it’s an area about three times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb, and is blessed with a consistent supply of powder. “We chose it because it's considered to be the mecca of ski touring,” explains the life-long ski junkie. “In terms of powder, the Selkirk Mountains are as good as it gets, and that was a big draw.”
Compared to heli-skiing (or snowcat-skiing), ski touring is more environmentally friendly because you aren’t burning fossil fuels to get to the top of the mountain. “It’s an extremely clean sport because it’s self propelled,” explains Elphick, who first started dabbling in day-trip backcountry ski touring about five years ago.
The lack of lifts or machinery also makes the experience more peaceful. “It’s a very quiet and pure way of experiencing the mountains,” he explains. And the views are nothing short of spectacular.
Selkirk Mountain Experience has also made a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint in every possible way. All power at the lodge is generated through micro water turbines and solar panels and the only fossil fuels used at the lodge are for helicopter transfers in and out and for cooking.
Often referred to as “earning your turns,” ski touring is also incredibly healthy. “I came back from the trip fitter than when I left,” admits Elphick, who climbed about 11,000 vertical metres in six days. “We ascended and descended about 1800 vertical metres each day. That’s like walking from the base of Whistler-Blackcomb to the top, plus another 245 vertical metres everyday. It was huge!”
Although it sounds onerous, it didn’t feel intensely grueling, reflects Elphick, who compares the hiking to a long climb on a road bike. The climbing is broken up with lunch, snack breaks and plenty of stops to take pictures. And everyday the adventure is different. Some days you will only climb for an hour before you get to ski, but then you start climbing again. He adds that this kind of trip isn’t for everyone. "You don’t have to be a super athlete to do it, but you need to be fit.”
Doug Chamberlain, a 49-year-old pharmaceutical sales representative from London, Ontario, who joined Elphick on the alpine excursion says their ski-touring experience was well worth it. “It offered adventure, incredible skiing and fitness all wrapped up into one trip. And the powder was to die for.” Chamberlain has skied at countless mountain resorts over the years. “It was definitely a challenge, but we were ready to take it up a level.”
What it takes
Groups are divided into different fitness levels. Skiers in a less intense group might do a daily climb of 1100 vertical metres, and an average group might climb 1500 vertical metres. Super-fit groups will tackle between 1800 vertical metres to upwards of 2400 vertical metres a day. “No matter what the skill level, at the end of the day, everyone seems to climb their own Everest,” says Selkirk Mountain Experience founder Ruedi Beglinger. “Because climbing requires hard work, guests seem to really appreciate their runs.”
Despite your fitness level, ski touring isn’t an easy sport, says Beglinger. The program takes place in steep and very rugged high-alpine terrain, which has many crevassed glaciers, glacial seracs (intersecting crevasses which form columns of ice) and other natural skiing challenges. Guests must be accomplished alpine skiers who can ski efficiently and safely down steep mountain slopes similar to black-diamond downhill ski runs.
“Every guest has to be physically in good shape,” he explains. “We recommend that everybody is doing an active out-door endurance sport on a regular basis and during the entire year. It’s also important that you can comfortably ski-climb with a pack of about 11 kilograms for an entire eight-hour day.”
No story about Selkirk Mountain Experience would be complete without a brief history of the lodge and its founder Ruedi Beglinger. Considered by many to be a legend, he’s built a reputation as one of the top mountaineering guides in the world. Growing up in the Swiss Alps, Beglinger fell in love with ski touring as a young child.
At age 22, the internationally certified mountain guide arrived in Canada to work as a heli-skiing guide. He quickly fell in love with the Selkirk Mountains, built a small lodge on a remote glacier and opened up Selkirk Mountain Experience in 1985. And the rest as they say, is history.
“One of the most unique features of our lodge is that my family lives here during the seven-month operating season,” explains the 57-year-old. “It’s not just a ski hut and a guide.” Along with his wife, and their two daughters (who are schooled on-site by a private teacher), the lodge has a small staff which includes additional guides, a chef, along with housekeeping and administrative help. Interestingly, Beglinger met his wife Nicoline, when she came to the lodge as one of its first skiers. “She came as a guest and I kept her,” he says affectionately.
Cabin in the peaks
The lodge offers 11 bedrooms, with single or double accommodation, and plenty of food for its active guests (including Swiss Fondue on Friday nights). Keeping with its green commitment, Selkirk Mountain Experience uses primarily organic and local ingredients. Homemade organic breads and preserves are also featured. The $2200-per-person, per-week cost (plus applicable taxes) includes lodging, all meals and snacks and the helicopter transfer in and out of the lodge. If weather permits, it also includes an overnight stay at a smaller remote mountain hut. The lodge can accommodate 16 guests at a time and offers urban comforts like wireless Internet, a sauna and indoor plumbing , immaculate Swiss house keeping standards. During the summer it offers about 80 kilometres of hiking trails.
To reach the remote glacier, guests take a helicopter from Revelstoke, BC. Those flying in from across Canada can land in Calgary, AB, or Kelowna, BC, and then travel by bus or rented car to Revelstoke. Driving from Calgary takes upwards of five and a half hours, whereas driving from Kelowna takes about two and a half hours. Skiing tours run from late December to late April.
An average day sees guests waking up between 6 and 7 AM. Then it's off to the dining area to pack up lunches, snacks and a thermos for the day. After that, it’s a big breakfast and then outside by 8AM for a daily safety session. A full day of climbing and skiing follows, capped off by a gourmet dinner at the lodge.
While backcountry ski touring offers incredible powder and adventure, there are risks involved. The snow-covered mountains can be hostile and never completely predictable. It’s no secret that ski tourers face dangers from avalanches, crevasse falls on glaciated or pot-holed terrain and falls on icy slopes. In his 35 years of guiding, Beglinger has only been involved in one accident. In 2003, a massive avalanche took the lives of seven of his guests. The deadly accident, and the toll it took on Beglinger and his family, along with the positive aspects of mountain living are chronicled in a 2010 award-winning movie entitled A Life Ascending.
“Avalanche safety is number one for us,” says Beglinger. “Every second, every minute — we are thinking about it, and we have a fairly complex avalanche-study program here.” Everyday, the world-renowned guide and his staff spend countless hours following weather trends and tracking snow temperatures, studying aerial photos, measuring snow fall and analyzing snowpacks.
Along the routes, the guides are in constant communication with each other with two-way radios. “The safety protocol is super rigid,” observes Elphick. “You have sessions every morning, and there is no free-form. Ski touring demands respect for mountain hazards and you must do exactly what the guides tell you.”
But there are always risks. “Regardless of how much you know, you cannot make the mountains 100 percent safe,” confesses Beglinger. Selkirk Mountain Experience provides each guest with a backpack complete with an avalanche safety kit.
So what advice would the skiers give to others considering a backcountry ski touring adventure? “I would rent some equipment, get a guide and try it for a day,” offers Chamberlain, who first got his feet wet ski touring at Kicking Horse Resort and Rogers Pass, both located in BC. He also recommends choosing your ski touring companions carefully. “Some would consider this torture, so get a group together that doesn’t include any whiners.”
One last piece of advice. If you enjoy resort nightlife more than skiing Chamberlain suggests that ski touring at Selkirk Mountain Experience probably won't be your cup of tea. “Other than playing a few games of cards at night, there isn’t much to do. But that’s okay, because by the end of the day you’re pretty darn exhausted.”
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