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Blitzed by the backcountry
Yvonne Jeffery, For the Calgary Herald

Published: Saturday, March 18, 2006

Those in the know speak of Skoki Lodge in hushed, reverential tones. Serene, they say. So historic. Simply a jewel.

Well, yes. The 1930s cabin 14 kilometres from Lake Louise was the Rockies' first backcountry ski lodge. Into its logs are carved the legacies of pioneers like James Porter, and Peter and Catharine Whyte, folks whose efforts helped open the pristine Slate and Sawback ranges to skiers.

But as I lay in a tangled heap of poles and skis 11 kilometres from Skoki, I wasn't thinking "historic" or "serene." Instead, I tested each limb for the searing pain that would indicate a broken joint, and I found other words. Unprintable words.

Cross-country touring skis with edges and climbing skins should have been all I needed for the route from Lake Louise's downhill slopes to the Skoki Valley. Even on the initial valley-sheltered climb, though, I had trouble gaining traction on my rented "waxless" skis. So I "skinned up," discovering that one skin was so short that I had to duct-tape it to the ski. It made for slow, but steady going as my group of four skiers emerged from the treeline to tackle Boulder Pass.

Exposed and treeless, Boulder spills you out onto Ptarmigan Lake's frozen expanse, where poles thrust into the ice lead almost two kilometres toward Deception Pass -- insurance against whiteouts driven by the glacier-cooled wind that scours the surrounding peaks. The cloud-filtered light rendered the landscape like an old black-and-white photograph. Even the solitary few pines caught in a hard-scrabble fight for soil lost their evergreen mantle, becoming dark shapes against a soulless stretch of white.

With Deception Pass looming at lake's end, I kept my skins on across the lake, up and over the pass, even on the downhill glide to Skoki Lodge. Tired from five hours' skiing, I thought I was hallucinating an image of smoke curling into the afternoon's fading light. But then Skoki appeared, a rack of skis at the main lodge, several log cabins tucked into the rise around it.

Lodge managers Leo and Katie Mitzel marked our arrival with peppermint tea and creamy brie. They've embraced the backcountry life -- outdoor biffies, water hauled from the nearby creek, and candle and kerosene light as evening falls. But with a network of trails beckoning, beef tenderloin dinners and a wood-fired sauna (currently unavailable), I could see how "Skoki" should mean peace, rather than its more prosaic "swamp."

On our ski-out morning, however, the snow sifting under the rattling outhouse door proved less than peaceful. The wind gust that almost knocked me over on Deception gave another warning. But nothing prepared me for the mistake I made on Ptarmigan Lake, when I removed my skins.

I've since been told that waxless skis work well around zero degrees, but lose traction as the temperature drops. Indeed, with the mercury buried and a hard-packed lake surface, no amount of effort connected my skis to the trail.

I stuttered on against a slashing wind that instantly froze exposed flesh, and prevented me from duct-taping the too-short skin back on.

When I finally hit Boulder, I sidestepped over the pass, legs and lungs burning, sorely tempted to chuck the skis into the treeline.

That's when my ski buddy, Deb -- ignoring the "do not wax these skis" sticker -- waxed my ski's kick plates. Suddenly, I had traction again, although not soon enough for us to meet the van at Louise's ski slopes. A lone ski patroller greeted us there instead, clearing the mountain in advance of the wind-driven storm.

So, on rubbery thighs and calves, I hit the first of the ski-out's two icy "screamer" slopes enroute to the parking lot. That's when the snow reached out and flipped me into a knot that left the perfect tattoo of a ski edge across two cheeks, and I don't mean the cheeks on my face.

For a split second, I thought Skoki had won. Had tested me, found me wanting. But as my limbs began reporting back, unhappy but whole, a laugh bubbled up from a place where I thought fatigue had squelched humour's last flickers.

After a long Jacuzzi soak at Baker Creek Chalets, I even wanted to ski again. We spent the following two days skiing into and out of Sundance Lodge, near Banff. If Skoki was a test, this was the reward. Protected within the trees, we had soft powder in the tracks, a low sky releasing fine snowflakes, and a solar-powered shower at the lodge. Truly, heaven on earth.

But I'm glad that Skoki proved as tough as it was. It reminded me that the same mountains that offer timeless stability and solace can also challenge body and soul. And that, sometimes, the soul can push the body as far as it needs to go.

Although next time, I'll take skins that don't need to be duct-taped on.

If You Go:

• Skoki Lodge: Open for skiers through April, weather permitting; reservations required. Reopens later for hikers (1-800-258-7669; www.skoki.com).

• Baker Creek Chalets: On the Bow Valley Parkway (403-522-3761; www.baker creek.com).

• Sundance Lodge: Open for skiers through March, weather permitting; reopening for hiking and horseback mid-May; reservations needed (1-800-661-8352; www.xcskisundance.com).

• The University of Calgary Outdoor Recreation Centre (which did not provide my waxless skis and ill-fitting skins) rents equipment (403-220-5038; www.calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca).

• Canadian Avalanche Centre bulletins: 1-800-667-1105; www.avalanche.ca.

• Banff Lake Louise Tourism: 403-762-8421; www.banfflakelouise.com.

• Banff National Park: 403-762-1550; www.parkscanada.ca.


© The Calgary Herald 2006

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