Whoop, whoop, whoop: The chopper scoops up six backcountry skiers—telemarkers and alpine-touring fanatics—for a week among the highest mountains, the coldest, powdery snows and most remote of huts in British Columbia’s backcountry.
The destination is Golden Alpine Holidays’ four backcountry lodges, which offer luxury accommodations: sauna, gourmet food and best of all, champagne powder skiing.
Ten minutes into the ride aboard a Bell 407, skiers glimpse the GAH’s Sunrise Hut, perched on a knob at the top of Wisted Creek drainage in the Canadian Esplanade Mountain Range, part of the Northern Selkirk Mountains.
Here, some 150 square kilometers of terrain tilts into creamy powder snow caches, just for GAH guests.
The Esplanade Range attracts snow like white lint to black socks, thanks to large valleys that bisect the range. According to GAH owner John Bell, these valleys become conduits for two major storm tracks that blast into the region. By mid winter, four meters—more than 13 feet—of snow tucks in the peaks, aprons, bowls and glades.
Once the helicopter has dropped off the second group of skiers, guests and guides stow gear in the hut, and the helicopter flutters off until pick-up at the end of the week. From here on out, skiers will climb to ski powder caches.
However, safety comes first. Everyone spends a couple hours checking safety equipment, especially transceivers that each skier must strap to his or her chest under coats and next to base layer shirts. If someone is caught in an avalanche, all other skiers switch their 300-gram (11-ounce) devices to “seek,” and begin a grid sweep of the last-seen moment of the downed skier.
Then the guide hides a transceiver, and all skiers conduct a practice search. Next, they dig a snow pit, and examine the snow’s stability.
GAH ski huts opened in 1986 with the idea of offering European-influenced lodge-to-lodge skiing and hiking. Bell, a former oil and gas geologist, purchased the business in September 2006, including a fourth lodge, Sentry, just a few kilometers north of Vista Lodge. New this winter is the Sentry Mountain Lodge 2, replacing one that burned in 2009.
Safety briefing done, skiers slap synthetic climbing skins onto ski bases for the climb above the hut. From the ridge above the hut, skiers pause to remove the climbing skins, click a few photos and sip water. The tallest peak in the Selkirks, Mt. Sir Sandford stands aloof, a few dozen kilometers away at 3,420 meters (11,545 feet). Closer is Cupola Peak, 2,640 meters (8662 feet), and an easy knife-edge climb from the ridge.
“The Esplanades, being metamorphic terrain and all four lodges being near treeline, offer every aspect from sunny south facing to big 3,000 feet vertical north facing runs,” says Bell of his company’s terrain. “My personal favorite run is Krankenstein near Sunrise Lodge, but there are 147 other named runs and many unskied lines.”
One at a time, each skier bounces down an untracked line, following directions like, “breathe in at the high point in your turn, and exhale in the low point of your turn,” as one seasoned heli-skiers offered. The group has time for a second climb and again, untracked, well-below freezing snow, blowing over skiers’ shoulders as they exhale at the bottom of each turn.
After a day of skiing—and never crossing tracks from another skier—guests settle in for gourmet grub at the hut, catering to big appetites rebuilding energy to shred powder the next day.
As the sun sets over the Ridge of Melting Faces above the hut, skiers melt themselves in the wood-heated sauna. The guide chops a hole in the ice of a nearby small lake for fresh water, and everyone enjoys an evening by the stove.
Most customers stay for a full week, although half-week trips are available.
Each lodge accommodates 14 clients and four staff. Lighting, cooking and drying gear is provided via propane. Wood stoves provide heat. All lodges contain new upstairs bedrooms arranged for both single and double occupancy. The newly refurbished kitchen contains an oven, stainless steel countertops plus cooking and eating utensils.
Some three-dozen heli-ski operations traipse across British Columbia’s mountain ranges. Other operations offer similar hut situations yet GAH remains unique in B.C.
“B.C., particularly the Golden area, has the highest concentration of huts in the Province but what makes GAH unique is having four lodges in the perfect geographical spot in famed Selkirk Mountains,” Bell said. “It’s also the most established operation, now in its 26th year.”
Additionally distinctive is that GAH guests choose between fully guided and catered ski holidays from two days to a week long, or a la carte lodge rentals with helicopter access.
For example, three-day guided and catered trip is $895 per person plus the heli transport at $350 per person plus tax. A five-day fully catered and guided trip runs $1,375 per person, plus helicopter. A lodge-rental only trip costs $488 per person for a three-day trip, plus the heli transport at $350 per person plus tax.
At week’s end, alpinists’ gear is stacked near the heli landing zone. Late morning sun glints from the Bell 407, and skiers hear the single-engine, helicopter.
Whoop, whoop, whoop, the week’s fun is over.