The howling starts at nightfall. "Ha-ha-ha-aya-ya-ya-ya-eeeee!" screeches a guy at the table by the fireplace. His friends, a bunch of self-made construction-industry millionaires from San Diego, erupt in guffaws, so the howler leaps to his feet and does it again, even louder: "Ha-ha-ha-ha-aya-aya-ya-ya-eeeee!"
Outside the Island Lake Lodge, fat snowflakes shoot down through the deck lights, piling up in huge drifts. Inside, 35 of us are cocooned away, snowbound, miles from civilization in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, waiting for the dawn to usher in three days of what may be some of the best powder skiing on the planet. It's understandable that everyone is feeling a bit feverish.
In an average year, the famous fluffy champagne powder in the mountains of eastern British Columbia gets deep enough to bury a three-story house to the roof beams. Sure, there's powder in the United States, at Alta and Snowbird, for example, but here it's lighter and airier, so weightless that it can swallow you up. Locals joke that after a big snow, resorts close their lifts to people under five feet tall, lest they ski into a drift and disappear.
No one at my table has started hollering yet, but eyes are gleaming. Next to me are three Edmonton businessmen and their wives, and two couples from New Zealand traveling together. They drain a bottle of wine, cheeks flushing as they explain to me why they're here.
"Powder fever," says Drew, a TV executive whose silver eyeglass frames match his graying temples. "You're gripped—it's as if you have blinders on."
"Everyone has the lust for fresh tracks," adds Gina. "Hesitate, and someone else will take your line." She leans forward on her elbows to hold my gaze with an expression that is equal parts joking and perfectly serious: "There are no friends on a good powder day."
Twenty years ago, powder skiing was the preserve of expert skiers, those dedicated enough to find deep, untracked snow cover and skilled enough to handle it. For the rest of us, powder seemed a refined pleasure best left to the committed devotee, like atonal music.
Over the past 10 years, everything has changed. The development of wide, stubby powder skis has allowed even intermediate skiers to float through the deepest, lightest snow. The technique is different enough from groomed-piste skiing to require a day or two of learning, but powder skiers quickly find the sensation of bashing through pristine fluff exhilarating: a fusion of weightlessness and speed that induces the out-of-body euphoria familiar to surfers, sky divers, and opium addicts. In the epic, head-high stuff—what enthusiasts call "the blue room"—the experience is said to be almost spiritual.
This pure confectioners' sugar won't be found at the top of any old ski lift— not for long, anyway, given that a resort such as Whistler or Vail can process more than 50,000 skiers an hour. If you want the best, you have to make your way into the Rocky Mountains of eastern British Columbia. Thinly populated, hard to reach, heavily snowed upon—with an endless expanse of skiable mountains—eastern B.C. is the Fort Knox of white gold.
There are three ways to get to it. The royal road to powder has always been heli-skiing, and B.C. has become the world capital, with 23 operators serving more than 15,000 skiers a year. Deep in the backcountry, skiers spend up to $8,000 a week to find untrammeled peaks, logging more than 14,000 vertical feet a day without crossing anyone else's tracks. Somewhat less expensive is cat skiing, in which you can ride out in Caterpillar-style tractors similar to the ones used for grooming ski slopes. At the relative bargain end of the spectrum are traditional ski resorts, a number of which have worked hard to string up lifts into previously less accessible backcountry, calling it "heli-skiing terrain." It may sound like an oxymoron, but on the morning after a good dump—and there are a lot of them in B.C.—there's nearly as much fresh snow on these slopes as in the real backcountry.
Each approach has its advantages and its drawbacks. The best route to powder depends on a skier's personal calculus of time, money, and abilities. I shouldered my duty and set off to try them all.