At a heliport in Canmore, Alberta, I pile into a time machine with four other skiers. Its rotors start spinning furiously, and soon we’re leaving the present behind as we’re whisked over millennia of spruce-studded geological history of Banff National Park and up toward a meadow clinging to the British Columbia side of the Continental Divide. After 15 minutes, we’re circling our destination – our home for the next three days – a timber structure with a red roof signalling we’ve arrived in the year 1928, the advent of ski touring in the Canadian Rockies.
This is Assiniboine Lodge, Canada’s first dedicated backcountry ski chalet. Located 28 kilometres from the nearest road, it’s definitely off the grid. There’s electricity, showers and a wood-heated sauna, but the lodge offers the rare opportunity to get off Wi-Fi. Instead of answering e-mails, I’ll spend my time skiing, swapping tall tales with fellow snow lovers at après-ski over freshly baked cake or pulling books from the library and cozying up by the stone fireplace in the living room. (There are enough titles on flora, fauna and geology to turn you into a naturalist.)
All five rooms in the main lodge are named after different alpine plants, while the seven cabins share names with nearby peaks. I check into the wood-panelled Mountain Avens room, a rustic space with a luxe view right from under the fluffy duvet of Mount Assiniboine and Magog Lake. My group of skiers then meets up with Claude Duchesne and Andre Renner, who run the operation here. They’ve barely welcomed us when Duchesne asks, “Anyone skiing this afternoon?” I volunteer immediately.
We start climbing the slope behind the lodge, skiing up a long incline draped with spruce and larch. We’re all using alpine touring gear, with skins strapped to our skis to keep us from slipping backward. Soon it’s so warm, I strip down to my shirt sleeves, but as we near the top of the windswept ridge, it’s time to zip up our jackets and pull down our tuques. Skins off and heels locked into our bindings, we drop down the ridge one by one, carving wide S-turns in the powder. I’m floating, physically and mentally, until I have to shift my attention to focus on zigzagging though the trees at the bottom without hitting one.
This is an exhilarating way to experience the great outdoors. My group pretty much has the place to itself, with guaranteed first tracks and unlimited views of Canada’s answer to the mighty Matterhorn: Mount Assiniboine, which draws climbers to its 3,618-metre summit and alpine skiers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers to its flanks and foothills.
“When skiing was brought to Banff by the Norwegian Erling Strom back in the late 1920s, people were clueless as to the sport and had no interest in trying it out,” Renner tells us. Strom was a ski instructor most famous for putting Stowe, Vermont, on the winter-sports map. He was determined to do the same for this section of the Canadian Rockies and eventually built the lodge together with CP Rail and an Italian marquis. “Strom said that with lift skiing – that would be today’s resort skiing – one run is just like another,” Renner says. Here no run is like another.
The next morning, the sun has barely kissed Mount Assiniboine when we finish our breakfast of granola, scrambled eggs and cinnamon pinwheels. We each pack a DIY lunch – sandwiches, carrot sticks, apples and, my favourite, soft oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies – along with avalanche rescue tools, and head out under a blue sky with Duchesne and Mark Hammerschmied, an Austrian mountain guide.
During the warm-up across Magog Lake, we take the skins off our skis and glide as easily forward as we do backward on each stride, so our arms get a workout that feels like the training pass of an elite cross-country skier. We stop to gawk at the craggy peaks, glaciers and rolling hills. “When you’re heli-skiing,” says Hammerschmied, who used to be a heli-ski guide before coming to Assiniboine, “you don’t have time to admire the backcountry. It’s all about packing in vertical.” Not so here, where you get equal parts touring and carving turns.
At the foot of the mountain, we put the skins back on our skis and start climbing. Duchesne and Hammerschmied lead us toward a ridge beneath Terrapin Glacier, our group forming a Gore-Tex rainbow streaking across the white expanse. From here, we start our descent. Back in 1928, Strom and his buddies would have been doing this on flimsy wooden skis. Ours are wide enough to make us swoosh through the powdery snow, careening down Terrapin Bowl and into a larch forest before coming to a stop back at Magog Lake.
We tour over to Cerulean Lake, an impossibly blue lagoon in summer. After a victory lap along its shore, we stop at Sunburst, or Lizzie’s Cabin. Run as tourist lodging in the 1950s and ’60s, the tiny log structure is locked, but there’s a porch that’s flooded with sunshine. Boot clips loosened, hats and mitts off, we relax and reach for our lunch packs.
“Is anyone skiing after this break?” Duchesne asks. Feeling pretty mellow, we all look around at one another and shake our heads. “That’s good because after this, it’s best not to.”
From his backpack, he pulls the ingredients to make a cocktail known as Cougar Milk: a jumbo bottle of amber Bacardi rum, sweetened condensed milk, ground nutmeg and a Thermos with hot water. He layers the ingredients and hands out mugfuls while telling us about Ken Jones, Canada’s first mountain guide and, possibly, the inventor of the hot libation we’re now sipping.
As we drink under the sun, listening to the dripping snowmelt and the chatter of a whiskey jack, we all agree it’s good to have a solid grounding in history and raise our mugs to the legends who invented backcountry skiing. Because here we get first tracks – and the last laugh.
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