Jan
19
2011

Cross Country Skiing in Canada's Backcountry

Mike Fisher ventures into the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains for a day of cross country skiing only to confront his demons along the way

There was a choir of creaking trees. The snow fell in a hush. “How peaceful,” I thought, as I dragged my right foot loathsomely along the backcountry ski trail. It throbbed, as if caught in the angry jaws of a steel trap. The cross-country ski boot had sunk its teeth into my ankle and was eating, step by step, my will to live.

“It’s a good day to die,” I considered, though I knew that would be a bummer for the other skiers behind me. They were dealing with their own festering demons, just as likely to leave me for cougar food than to struggle onward with another sack of dead weight.

Though, in hindsight, they may have welcomed the silence.

Facing My Fears

The backcountry in Banff National Park is a sacred place of raw beauty, fed by rivers, lakes and the insistent dreams of weekend adventurers. Approaching reasonable health in the shadow of a looming 50th birthday, I had chosen this half-day journey to rustic Skoki Lodge as a way to test, and ultimately know, myself.

Be careful what you wish for. In the course of discovering the backcountry, I learned I had a monkey on my back. I was dismayed to learn the monkey was me. And the monkey never stopped shrieking.

When we started that morning at Lake Louise Ski Resort, our group of seven split into two groups: those capable, and those unlikely to arrive before their 80th birthdays. I was in the latter group.

Venturing into Banff's Backcountry

For non-skiers, Skoki Lodge is 14 km west of the ski resort, deep into what we, in the West, call the backcountry. The trip offered glimpses of heaven and hell.

At first, the snow from the previous night was plentiful and retained its famous Rocky Mountain, just-out-of-the-drier fluffiness. If you distance yourself a bit from the group and you ski alone, you hear the odd snap of a branch or the hinge-like creak of a leaning tree, and maybe the scrape of your breath, and for a time, you can surrender yourself to a reverent peace.

That is, until the screaming.

There is a Robert Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken” about taking the road less travelled. Well, isn’t it nice that someone had a choice? During the initial climb up into the Slate Range, the distance stretches forever.

The entire trip took most of us five hours, during which some of us secretly wished for a quick death. Others—well, me—were less discreet, shouting without shame: “Take me now!” I thought I felt the indifferent mountains shrug before I was slapped down by a fresh blast of wind.

There are several landmarks during the ski to Skoki. One of them is the Halfway Hut, a sparse log cabin set in a wide meadow. There were two avalanche deaths in 1933 and it’s rumoured the ghosts play cards there each night.

All Downhill From Here

Next is Boulder Pass, an uphill journey where large rocks huddle like thugs to mug you of your dignity. Ha ha, come forward, puny little man on sticks! I took a deep breath, pushed up and over this wretched stretch of terrain, and skied down to Ptarmigan Lake.

The breeze there is described as Mother Nature’s exfoliant. It’s more like the Hannibal Lecter of winds. It ripped at our faces and pushed us toward the rising behemoth of rock known as Deception Pass, a 2,470-m monster that heartily chews your leg muscles and all the gristle in your shoulders before it sucks the hope from your heart.

But you do gain purchase there and a licence to enjoy the gentle, downward slope of Skoki Valley. The heavenly lodge, when I finally crept close to it, my face crusted with snow, appeared suspiciously mirage-like, another cheap trick my mind had conjured to keep me going.

Inside, a wooden table laden with breads and wine, cast in lamp and candlelight, glowed. I sat down, breathed deeply of the freshly baked loaves and simmering stew, smiled at guests seated around the table who were excitedly telling their stories, and subsequently passed out.

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Mike Fisher

Calgary-based Mike Fisher is a city guy who loves the backcountry because it invites reverence, rewards good behaviour and clobbers you when you suck. He returns regularly to get knocked down to size.

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