Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump-Thump. That's not the sound of helicopter blades, it's my heart. A cloud swallows us so we retreat. Voilà, let's try that mountain pass over there. We thread the spires only to see the second approach blocked by the puffy whites. The Huey* cranks a hard bank giving us a close view of high elevation rock formations (* the thump-thump sounding chopper used in Vietnam). I couldn't scream even if I tried, my heart just lodged in my throat. A final push up the valley from the west is our ticket to reach the Durrand Glacier Chalet. And what a ticket, as in seven days of E-ticket experience.
The flight seems a fitting kickoff for our ski mountaineering venture with Canada's snowy giants. The highest peak and greatest vertical feet are not our goals, an addiction to climb and ski the "out-of-bounds" mountains brings us here under the guide service of Selkirk Mountain Experience Ltd. located midway between Calgary and Vancouver. S.M.E. is the vision of Ruedi Beglinger that captures the best of his native Swiss Alps, and makes it better in several ways. First, Location, Location, Location: within Canada's Selkirk Range he discovered a piece of Switzerland from an era long before trails and huts covered the mountains. Second, Custom Tailored Guiding: Ruedi's modus operandi for guiding is to match the mountain with the guests' abilities so you walk away saying "I didn't think I could do that....... I sure wouldn't have tried it on my own". And most important, Snow, averaging 50 feet annually over a region rated by many as the crème de la crème world class ski area.
At least that's how it's supposed to be. This year the guides are grumbling about too much snow. Relentless weather has already dumped 60 feet and warm Chinook conditions have often turned champagne powder into sticky mashed potatoes. In backcountry skiing you learn to pay your money and take your chances. At the ski resorts when the snow is good, it's good and when it's bad, it's bad. In the wild when the snow goes bad, it's a nightmare, but when it's good, there's magic.
It takes a second heli shuttle and a repeat game of musical mountain pass with the clouds to get all seventeen guests and staff up to the chalet. We are comforted to learn our pilot has international top rating, but we don't hear this until after the flight. Helicopter pilots should display a taxicab-type driver certificate that reads "Hi, my name is Bob and yes, I really know what I'm doing."
Finally the guests assemble ready for action. First things first. Skis don't touch the snow until you learn avalanche rescue procedures and can save a buried avalanche transponder with your personal beeper switched to the receive mode. It's trickier than you think since snow depth and topography make this a three dimensional search played against the clock. Ruedi takes us onto the slopes with a warm-up tour across a glacier and up a peak. The snow turns out rotten and so does our ability to ski it. Neither the telemarkers on downhill nordic gear nor the more conventional types on regular alpine skis survive. I am not sure who is more traumatized, we tourists thinking about seven days of this, or Ruedi dreading seven days of baby-sitting a bunch of klutzes. Maybe he can helicopter us down to a snow covered golf course and cure everyone's problems.
At least the scenery is spectacular. Eight nearby glaciers have carved out a skier's paradise with some glaciers ending abruptly at an icefall where they break up and topple down a drop-off. What, ski the icefall? We have already proved we can't ski the flats, let alone surgically navigate through a maze of houseboat sized ice cubes.
A return to the chalet mends our broken spirits. Hot drinks, juice, beer, dips and chalet baked goodies await, courtesy of Ruedi's wife Nicoline. Traditional British call it high tea while the Yanks call this happy hour. Here it's called a ski snuggle. The treats are followed by a bake out in the Durrand Glacier Hot House, a sauna we will all become greatly indebted to. The evening continues with a candlelight feast of unlimited portions, wine, conversation and jokes until sack time. This was typical of post ski activities for each day. I never cracked a book.
Most of the next day's travel is under and in the clouds. The sunlight that occasionally sneaks through scatters with a breathtaking surrealistic quality. Strands of this luminous veil wrap around the rock towers and float on the glaciers with an awesome display that is both sinister and seductive. Doctor Zhivago would be impressed.
A couple thousand vertical feet of white magic on the far side of Tumbledown Mountain shocks our brains into wow time. Climbing skins are stripped from ski bases, alpine touring bindings locked and chomps licked. It only takes a few turns for our adult composure to degenerate into basic animal behavior. Thank goodness our kids don't act this way. All this glory takes a heavy toll on the telemarkers. Deep snow means deep tele position which triggers a hormone that chemically converts blood into molten lead as it pours into the thigh muscles. I pause, convinced I can't ski anymore, only to look up as the sun breaks through and spotlights an endless serpentine of S's connecting skis to the summit. The narcotic effect of Canadian powder overwhelms me-I must have more of this stuff. The return route drops down a steep face that gets lost in a cloud as skis and knees get lost in the snow for much of the descent. Ruedi seems relieved that maybe his group of tourists can ski, but we grit our teeth in silence as we endure the lessons of no pain-no gain skiing. [left: Ruedi stirs the pow-pow on tele boards]
An early start the third morning takes us on a nine mile tour to the Mt. Moloch hut, another Ruedi-built amenity. I wake visualizing blue skies and 3000 vertical feet of spectacular skiing on the Ruth Glacier. Nature has other plans. Today a storm blocks all visibility, the snow is deep and sticky and a detour brings us down a face steeper than your average black diamond run. Those on alpine touring skis drop like flies while the telecrashers burn in full kamikaze colors. Believers in natural selection quickly learn the Ruedi mantra: "Stay near my tracks. If you ski to the left, you will fall down a crevasse. If you ski to the right, you will go off a cliff. If you stop or fall down, you will weaken the snow and cause an avalanche." At the bottom we hang a right and climb for two miles up Dismal Glacier to the hut. This is great, I can at least put one foot in front of the other; however, after today's performance I'm afraid Ruedi is about to send us back to the golf course. Not fazed by the mountain rituals, Nicoline parks her skis and starts kneading the dough so fresh baked bread will accompany our Caesar salad, homemade soup and heaping main course for dinner. The magic of fresh falling snow filling the bowls surrounding the hut makes us kids again on a Christmas Eve fancying tomorrow's promise of a perfect day.
The ski dreams are squelched by a barometer that drops all night. We must head back to the main chalet first thing in the morning in blizzard conditions to avoid the fate of last week's group when avalanche instability stranded them for two days following a record three-foot snowfall overnight. The retreat brings us over the Mt. Fang ridge line. I'm told the fainthearted should be pleased we have whiteout visibility since the route traverses a cliff with views that occasionally open like bomb bay doors at our feet. A reprieve from the weather at noon lets us yo-yo up and down the powder on Diamond Col, but only long enough to break a sweat before returning nose to compass. Finally a distant view of the chalet comforts us so we can relax. Wrong! Ruedi chooses a spectacular conclusion to the day by driving us right between the frozen blocks of the Needle Icefall [right: Howard Schultz picking a line into the Needle Icefall].
I have forgotten what country I'm in. Only three of us are U.S. born out of seventeen guests and staff representing five nations. Sounds of the chalet are often conversations in French and Swiss-German while Mozart and Bach concerto music play in the background. Scents from European brewed coffee and burning wood add texture to the ambiance.
On the lighter side, three doctors from Vancouver have anesthetized the anxiety zone of our brains with non-stop Canadian humor. The trio's wit mixes with operating room shop talk creating a scene from the movie M.A.S.H. The giddy trauma care serves Bruno from Tahiti well. Fresh off the beach and new to ski mountaineering, Bruno's trip has become a vacation with the Marines-I think it was the lime green Ocean Pacific backpack that gave him away.
The next two days are spent in ski heaven. Photographers make wall posters on days like these. There haven't been four hours of accumulated sunshine in the past five days and now we are soaked with all the rays we can stand. Snow conditions have improved so much that my legs are finally using less energy to ski down the mountain than to climb up it. Each turn detonates a snow explosion as adrenaline fuels the body in a dance of euphoria. Too much red lining the fun meter has its price, blowing out my legs and sending me for one of those face plants when you think snow will squirt out your ears. Powder run after powder run and does Ruedi give us a break? Not a chance, today he pushes us up 6000 vertical feet. [left: Ross Hodgetts drops off Allalin Peak]
Back at chalet central, Nicoline handles a serious emergency. A radio summoned helicopter rescues us from near disaster by stocking us with enough cheese to continue the weekly tradition of fondue night. With a Swiss run operation, there are some things you just don't mess with.
Ruedi flatters and frightens us by making our final ski day one of awe. We will ski the north face of Mt. Durrand, a descent which he's only led two groups down in his years of guiding. The approach up a south facing chute is so steep that it seems odd not to be hearing the clunk of ice axes-instead S.M.E. guides have set a perfect line of steps making the ascent an easy climb up a snow ladder. An airy traverse along a near knife edge ridge on top puts us above 1900 vertical feet of the most spectacular skiing our stomachs care to imagine. The face looks like an inside out wedding cake with each level bordered by steep snow or ice cliffs. The deep snow pulls my ski off in the second turn. I break the fall with a ski pole arrest, but gravity and the weight of cascading snow keep me going. I shove the pole in all the way up to the handle and finally stop. Anchored off the wrist loop I reach out to my dangling foot and reattach the ski. Further down the mountain we dodge crevasses and drop-offs. The Ruedi mantra repeats in my head. [right: Pies on Mt. Durrand summit, Ruedi Beglinger photo]
Did we really need a guide? The week ended with odometer totals reading 52 miles and over 30,000 vertical feet of climbing and a like amount of decent on skis. A self-led trip here would have meant unhappy campers waiting out storms. Some of the best skiing would not have been attempted without local knowledge of the hidden gremlins. Ruedi called us "guests", not guided customers, and we were looked after with greater attention than I've experienced at four star hotels.
Morning dawns on our second Saturday at the chalet. The time machine has landed and waits to fly us back to planet Earth in the 1990's. It is truly refreshing when you find one of those treasures you thought had been lost to more innocent times. Thank you Selkirk Mountain Experience for being one of the holdouts. Vibrations mount as the chopper blades pitch and beat a familiar cadence. A departing pass over yesterday's last set of ski tracks leaves me beaming. I see the marks of my first ever full length set of perfectly linked figure-8's.
A prior version of this article was published as the lead story in CROSS COUNTRY SKIER magazine, vol.14, issue 4, 1995 (ski trip to the Selkirks in 1991). Somewhere between my computer and the final editing room, the manuscript presented here was lost and an unrefined early version was published. Rather than letting the final version die on a floppy disk, I'm making it available for public reading.
Use of this material or queries about second serial rights should be directed to Don Pies, 947 N. Kellogg Ave., Santa Barbara, CA 93111
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