Ski touring seeks backcountry panoramas

February 14, 2013

skitouring

Jade Humble prepares for a day of ski touring at Golden’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.

We’re just back from a ski trip to four big B.C. mountains, including Revelstoke Mountain Resort and Fernie Alpine Resort. Here’s the lowdown on one of the best – Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden.

ACCESS: Golden lies 713 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway 1. For information on Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s Dawn Patrol, call 1-866-754-5425. For information on Purcell Helicopter Skiing’s heli-ski touring program, visit or call 1-877-435-4754. To view Greg Hill’s exploits, visit greghill.ca/.

There’s no sound like skis sliding across snow, according to Katie Campbell, a customer-service representative with Purcell Heli-skiing in Golden.

“Ski touring in the stillness of the outdoors in winter is meditative,” she said . ” I cherish the sound of my own breath and the crunch of snow. I’m prepared to walk uphill all day to earn my turns.”

Such sentiments help explain a growing trend among younger skiers in search of new ways to explore the white world.

Campbell remarked that potential ski tourers—including snowboarders equipped with split boards—should be at least moderately fit with intermediate- to high-level snow-sliding skills.

“Ski touring is a small-group activity—usually four or five at most—where you take on the challenge of learning how to move safely in the mountain environment.”

It helps that her home in the Columbia Valley is surrounded by range after range of Rocky and Purcell mountain peaks.

“Touring turns the typical concept of downhill skiing on its head. You’re not chasing any vertical record for descents in a day. It’s the experience of being out there that counts.”

As with any new activity, the question is where to start.

This season, both Purcell Heliskiing and its neighbour, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, are rolling out innovative new ski-touring programs to meet the demand.

As Campbell pointed out, “Rogers Pass is getting crowded, if you can believe it.”

Although the historic pass in the heart of Glacier National Park, midway between Golden and Revelstoke, has a long-standing reputation for mountaineering, in recent years ski tourers such as Greg “Two-Mill” Hill have begun documenting their exploits on video and posting alluring accounts of the region on the Internet.

In turn, that publicity has fuelled a bonanza of interest in self-supported exploration of Glacier’s snow fields.

To do so is to share in a tradition established by Swiss guides who settled in Golden at the invitation of the Canadian Pacific Railway more than a century ago. Former Swiss national ski team racer Rudi Gertsch, who launched Purcell Helicopter Skiing in the 1970s, is one of the more recent arrivals.

A day of helicopter skiing is expensive. For example, Purcell Heli-skiing charges between $709 and $849 for three- or five-run packages.

Because heli-ski touring only requires one or two drop-offs and pickups, the cost is more affordable, varying from $375 to $550, though that doesn’t include equipment rental.

When cutting tracks through the dry, fluffy powder found in B.C.’s Interior, wider-than-average skis are a must. These help trekkers glide across rather than sink knee-deep in what locals, such as Kicking Horse’s mountain host, John Parry, refer to as “hero snow”.

On fat skis or a snowboard, the feeling is akin to floating in eiderdown.

When it comes to a resort with as much open terrain as Kicking Horse, and where conditions can easily change from blue skies to a whiteout, the most sensible approach is to team up with a knowledgeable local like Parry. Upon retirement seven years ago, he and his wife moved west, from Quebec to Golden.

One look at the former phys ed teacher’s ruddy complexion confirms his claim of spending as much as a hundred days a year on snow.

Each morning, KHMR Mountain Hosts like Parry gather visitors in front of the resort’s Big Mountain Centre, gauge the group’s ability level, and then lead them onto the nearby gondola for a 20-minute ascent to the top of Dogtooth Ridge.

From that aerie, views stretch out across adjacent ranges stacked in rows like static waves. Ropes helpfully define the limits beyond which skiers and snowboarders venture at their peril.

One look at the vastness of the patrolled and avalanche-controlled terrain reveals enough in-bounds opportunities to satisfy all but the most vagabond spirits.

To see beyond the boundaries into an untracked wilderness rife with endless possibilities is to understand the allure of ski touring.

If would-be adventurers are undeterred by the potential dangers of exploring the backcountry on their own, guides at Kicking Horse have decided this season to offer courses in ski touring.

Over the span of a day’s outing, the Dawn Patrol program educates small groups in how to ski big mountains.

Specifically designed to teach first-time tourers how to cross steep terrain, training takes place in the expert-rated back bowls accessed from the top of the appropriately named Stairway to Heaven chair lift.

Thanks to a partnership with several ski and snowboard manufacturers, as part of the $449 group package, up to five participants are outfitted with the latest backcountry gear featuring reverse-camber technology, as well as the entire kit of avalanche bells and whistles, shovels and probes.

As informed and choosy as one might be in the backcountry, when it comes to assessing danger, there’s no way to eliminate the risk factor outright.

One can only manage the danger within acceptable limits, a fact worth keeping in mind constantly in the beckoning silence, whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned pro.


Original Article
Text CR Jack Christie
Photo CR Louise Christie