Pure Fluff

The Boston Globe (Jan. 9, 2011)

It takes the weather to make, a helicopter to reach, and is delicious to ski on

By Kate Siber
Globe Correspondent

GOLDEN, British Columbia — I could sense my brother was nervous. We had just arrived to find the river valley bare of snow and the trails of Kicking Horse Resort gleaming with ice. Andrew and I had traveled hundreds of miles from our respective homes in Massachusetts and Colorado with the hope of skiing powder, but the somber muddiness of this gruff lumber town did not inspire confidence.

The next morning, we drove to a hangar, loaded into a helicopter, and in one stomach-dropping move, lifted off. On the 15-minute ride to Purcell Mountain Lodge, we sailed over Kicking Horse's runs, dotted with multicolored skiers as small as sprinkles, soared above high passes, and banked around cliffs. As we plunged deeper into the wild, roadless interior of the province, the sky turned murky and snowflakes started to tumble.

After the helicopter dropped us off at the snug wooden lodge and droned away, a crystalline silence enveloped us. Staring at the wafting flakes and the meadows sparkling with untracked snow, it felt as if we had traveled straight into the pages of a ski magazine. Andrew turned to me, grinned, and, in classic understatement, uttered a single word: "awesome."

Since Andrew and I first learned to ski on the slopes of New England, the sport has been a lifelong love. In Colorado, I backcountry ski most weekends, but Andrew frequents New England resorts and longed to ski powder worthy of the Warren Miller flicks we grew up watching. So he enlisted me to help plan a ski getaway. Andrew is the most serious and reliable member of our family, long caring for our aging mother and, as a primary care doctor, lending his heart and energy to his patients. Though he rarely complains, I knew he deserved to cut loose from his responsibilities and that there was little he loved more than powder skiing.

After calling a dozen huts listed by the Backcountry Lodges of British Columbia Association, I settled on Purcell Mountain Lodge, a backcountry ski chalet accessible only by helicopter. It receives a preponderance of light, fluffy snow, offers such creature comforts as three-course meals and a wood-burning sauna, and was designed to accommodate skiers with and without backcountry experience. In recent years, as more resorts open backcountry gates and touring equipment improves, backcountry skiing has become more popular and places like Purcell have become known as good places to learn.

On a sunny day topped with glass-clear skies, we followed Doug Latimer, our soft-spoken, unflappable guide, over two miles of meadows, matching our breath to our strides and settling into a meditative rhythm. Toothy 10,000-foot peaks reared up around us like beautiful, frozen beasts, and few signs of earthly creatures broke the stillness, save for some fresh wolverine tracks.

Finally we topped out on a slope that had been ravaged by a forest fire. Between the starkly poetic stands of burnt trees lay snow as deep and perfect as frosting with not a track in sight.

After taking off our skis' skins — furry pieces of nylon that glide forward but not backward — and locking into our alpine touring bindings, we took off one by one. Snow as soft and deep as this is naturally forgivable and allows a kind of creative freedom. I sliced through the buttery boot-deep powder, launched off pillows of snow, and slalomed around trees. After about 1,500 vertical feet, I stopped to stare up at our tracks and to watch Andrew zoom by — wearing an uncharacteristically wide grin.

We spent the rest of the day climbing back up and schussing back down, carving the slope with perfect S turns in utter solitude. On the way back over the meadows, the setting sun cast a low glow over the untouched snowdrifts. Fearsome clouds loomed over the horizon, filled with shades of gray, and, as we neared the lodge, the smell of wood smoke from the sauna welcomed us.

Because it was mid-March and the last week of the winter season, we had the lodge to ourselves and a couple from Calgary, who mostly stayed indoors nursing injuries. The lodge, which has little contact with the outside world, is a uniquely comfortable place to truly relax. The 10 rooms have a cozy Scandinavian feel, historic photos and artifacts line the walls, and a fire blazes continually in the living room, which is stocked with books, magazines, games, and a horseshoe of cushy sofas.

Most important, the small staff — Michel Beauchemin, the house manager, and Stephane Levesque, the chef — understands the most important principle of ski hospitality: Well-fed skiers are happy skiers. Every evening Andrew and I arrived at the lodge to find a delectable appetizer such as nachos with fresh homemade salsa.

And every night, Stephane would sing the menu — maple-bacon-wrapped bison medallions or salmon filets with roasted root vegetables, perhaps — in an improvised riff before sitting down to dine with us. It was impossible to resist such imaginative concoctions as his signature maple cream puffs: dreamy clouds of puff pastry oozing with richly flavored whipped cream. That first night, throwing manners to the wind, we put down our forks and ate them with our hands.

"That was a whole lot of yummy," said Andrew, licking one last pillow of cream from his index finger. Here, it seemed, so far from civilization, the strictures of our normal lives loosened just a bit.

On our last day, Andrew and I woke and looked out the window to find a wall of clouds belching snow. We had already packed our bags, but soon, through exchanged radio calls, we learned that the helicopter couldn't fly in such stormy weather. We were marooned. And when marooned at a ski lodge in a raging snowstorm, there is only one logical thing to do: go skiing.

"Well, check one off the life list," said Andrew quite happily, "getting snowed in at a backcountry ski lodge." We unpacked our gear, buttoned up our waterproof jackets, and stepped out into the blustery storm.

At the shallow entrance to the Knee Grinder Glades, the snow had piled so deep we could barely move, but finally the slope steepened and we gained speed. Bouncing into each bottomless turn, we launched off buried rocks and logs, the world turning white for a moment as we landed in explosions of fluff. Skiing through thigh-deep snow that hasn't had even an hour to settle is arguably as close as humans can get to a low-gravity experience. Because of its rarity, this sort of limitless powder can feel like a divine gift. Perhaps that's why this was one of the few moments in my life when I saw Andrew, my so-often-serious sibling, utterly exultant.

"Wow!" he said at the bottom of the slope, shaking with excitement.

I couldn't have summed it up better.

If You Go
To get to Purcell Mountain Lodge, first fly to Calgary, Alberta, rent a car, then drive 165 miles west on the Trans-Canada Highway to Golden, British Columbia. Because the helicopter leaves early in the morning, skiers need to arrive the night before. Stay in Golden's Kicking Horse River Lodge, a log lodge with simple rooms, eco-friendly geothermal heating, and common areas that encourage socializing ($34 for a dorm bed, $118 for a double; www.khrl.com). Purcell Mountain Lodge offers three-, four-, and seven-night trips (respectively from $1,177, $1,431, and $2,137; www.purcellmountainlodge .com), including transportation, guides, meals, lodging.

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