Stories & Articles


Pleasure and Pain

British Columbia's Selkirk range is the perfect place to experience the yin and yang of backcountry skiing.

It's two hours into the second day, and my legs are in full revolt: You fool! You've been riding chairlifts all season, and now you expect us to climb a glacier? A mountain? Turn around... we're not standing for this! the only comfort I have is that mine aren't the quads in an uproar; the whole group has been slackening its pace all morning, the clicking of Alpine touring bindings continues to remind me of a metronome, but this morning's sprightly beat has dwindled to a plodding waltz.

But if my muscles are incensed, my brain is euphoric. The peaks of British Columbia's Selkirk range tower all around us. The air is as clean as any I've ever breathed. It's a moment of contrast for me: I'm profoundly in pain and achingly happy.

Yesterday, I sat in a helicopter as it flew low, skirting the Columbia River. Backcountry Magazine editor Brian Litz, father and son Philippe and Louis Dunoyer, recently returned world traveler Gary Bezer, and I all wore headsets so we could speak to each other over the rotor's roar, but we weren't saying much.

I was just beginning to wonder where the skiing would take place when the helicopter banked dramatically over a ridge and the Selkirks exploded into view. I swiveled my head, stunned by the enormity and magnificence of British Columbia's interior range. I had never seen so much white, and the massive bumps and rolls of the glacial terrain made the mountains seem alive. Soon, the pilot set us smoothly down at the Durrand Glacier Chalet, main lodging facility of the Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME). We would not be seeing him again for a week.

...The sensation of skiing perfect powder always surprises me. last night was clear and cold, allowing moisture to rise to the surface and evaporate. We can see this in the form of the surface hoar - a layer of very small ice crystals that look like tiny shards of mica on the snow's surface - twinkling invitingly in the sunlight. Whooping and hollering, nine skiers and two guides sweep into this bone-dry powder. Resistance is almost undetectable, like an infant tugging at your finger, and we bound ecstatically down the mountain we were trudging up only minutes before.

...The Mount Moloch hut, the Chalet's minimalist cousin, lies on the other side of Ruedi's snowy empire. As we sit inside and rest, Louis tells about his life in France. He is a composer and conductor for a Parisian theater company. "If I want to have fun when I am touring with the theater group, I make sure I write music with a big brass section." String players aren't much fun, he says. Too dainty. Same with the woodwinds. The brass section, on the other hand, loves to party.

...On the third day, Ruedi lets us sleep in. We don't have to be down for breakfast until 6:45. Looking out the window as I finish my coffee, I can see that the weather has turned ugly overnight. Too ugly for descents, Ruedi tells us. Instead, we'll make the long traverse back to the Durrand Glacier Chalet and call it a day.

Outside, we step into a whiteout. Since everything on a glacier is white to begin with, a whiteout here is the real thing. the sight of our group is surreal. Clad in shiny, hooded jackets, we look like colorful nomads trekking through clouds. We follow closely behind Ruedi, our trust in his lead absolute.

...Up the Juliana Glacier, on to Mount Fang, down the Eagle Icefall, back to the Durrand Glacier, and then down the Needle Icefall into clear weather. A few short hours after we left the Mount Moloch Hut, we're back at the Chalet under bright skies. Rejoice. Home sweet home.

With the rest of the day free, I consider my options. Should I start the sauna in the shower cottage? Perhaps head to the reading room? Maybe I'll play with Ruedi's young daughters, who are rattling on in English to one guest and in German to one of the guides. Ruedi has managed to import a slice of Switzerland right into the heart of British Columbia. It's incredibly comfortable. And so damn quaint.

Looking out of one of the many windows, I see that most of the group has chosen the deck behind the Chalet, and a beach scene has materialized. Everyone has pulled off their boots and socks, stripped down to T-shirts, and cracked open beers. I do the same. Ayako (the full-time chef) brings out a tray of fresh sushi and an apple torte (she bakes a different one each morning). We soak up the sunshine, the food, and the beer and stare at the surrounding mountains. Life is good.

Excerpts from Skiing Magazine - Winter Adventure - March/April 2000 By Michael Miracle