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.
Resort Skiing: Kicking Horse
I've been at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort all of two minutes when I'm nearly run over by a snowboarder as he bursts into the base lodge, his flowing curly locks rimed with ice and snow so that he resembles a fleece-clad Viking. A ski instructor at a family-oriented mountain an hour away, he and all the other area pros come here to ski for play. "This place is sick," he says. "It seems like there's always powder."
The newest ski resort in Canada, Kicking Horse has 4,100 vertical feet of terrain ranging from open bowls and groomed cruisers to backcountry bushwhacks and double-black-diamond chutes. With such variety, it presents an excellent entrée to powder skiing. Personally, I'm hoping to ease into the powder experience gradually. Having grown up on the East Coast, skiing sporadically on the steep, icy runs of Vermont and Maine, I'm schooled in a New England philosophy of the sport: you can't have fun if your legs are broken. I'm able to get down those blue squares more or less intact, but I don't usually go for death-defying challenges.
The resort's major downside is that there's hardly anything going on at the base, which consists only of a sunny day lodge and a ski-rental trailer. More development is planned over the next few years, but for now, there's just one option if you want to stay at Kicking Horse itself: a pair of lavish suites perched atop the highest peak, on the penthouse floor of a high-priced restaurant called the Eagle's Eye.
This chalet is a sanctum of luxury and solitude fit for James Bond—the nearest human habitation is 10 miles away as the crow flies, and one vertical mile down, via a VIP gondola. My only company for the evening will be the private concierge and the cook. After settling in my room, I go downstairs to the bar. On one wall hangs a huge Native American carving made from a single piece of 500-year-old cedar. The opposite wall, all glass, is filled with an ever-shifting palette of sunset and mountains—some peaks pure fields of brilliant white, others cloaked in gray, some covered in heavy, dark forest. Between the altitude, the drinks, and the view, by the time I sit down to a dinner of baked goat-cheese crostini and Denver-cut venison, I'm practically hallucinating.
The next morning I rise at seven to fuel up on eggs Benedict and hash browns. At this altitude, in winter, there's no such thing as eating too heartily or wearing too much clothing. Dressing takes patience: silk underwear, polypropylene layer, insulated pants, sweater, ski pants, fleece, shell, neck warmer, wool hat, goggles. At five below, even the slightest crack between goggles and neck warmer will let in a razor-sharp edge of cold.
My ski instructor, Dani, meets me after breakfast, and we head out into the glare of the morning sun. The snow is lovely but also potentially deadly. In the past two seasons in British Columbia, 12 skiers have been killed by avalanches. When the snow piles too deeply, an avalanche can be set off by the slightest disturbance—such as a skier in search of untracked territory. Typically, a big chunk will cleave off, tumbling like powdery white water, bringing more and more snow with it until a churning mass weighing hundreds of tons is rumbling down at 80 miles an hour.
To control the threat, ski patrol teams launch air-propelled bombs from plastic howitzers. Dani and I watch from the summit as a team opens fire at an opposing slope. A sharp bang is followed a few seconds later by a loud explosion, and a cloud of smoke and flying snow erupts on the brow of the ridge. The debris spills down in a long gray streak, petering out a few hundred feet farther on the slope. The side of the mountain fails to collapse in dramatic fashion, as I had hoped. We go skiing.
Dani is only 22, but he carries himself with Yoda-like poise. His instruction method is unlike any I've ever experienced. He tells me to ski very slowly through the heavy snow, turning in sync with my breathing: "Breathe in, breathe out, turn; breathe in, breathe out, turn." Under his guidance my form begins to improve, with one major problem: I keep forgetting to hold my hands out in front of me. Whenever I get distracted, they drop, and my form goes to hell. "Keep your arms forward," Dani reminds me, with infinite patience. Eventually, we ease into thicker, ankle-deep powder that's been chopped up by previous skiers. Now I really have to concentrate: torpedoing under the surface, my skis turn only gradually and will use any excuse to veer off in random spits and spurts. It's easy to lose focus, because those famous snow clouds keep blowing in, obscuring the chunked-up powder with flurries and mist. Sometimes I can hardly tell which way is up.
But the skis learn to obey my commands, turning more fluidly in parallel, and with enough finesse to keep me from careering off the side of the run, only occasionally jackknifing me into a face-plant. On the last run, an unearthly patch of light appears overhead, cutting through the swirl of snow and framing three gold-hued mountains. It takes me a moment to realize that the mountains are not hanging in the sky at all, but simply appearing through a break in the clouds. That realization doesn't diminish the eerie power of the apparition. "A vision!" I say. "I wonder what it's trying to tell us."
Dani knows. "It's saying, 'Keep your arms forward.' "
Heli-skiing: R.K. Heli-Ski
Now that I've found my balance again, both physically and mentally, it's time for the real thing. I head 150 miles south to Panorama Mountain Village, home of R.K. Heli-Ski. As exclusive concessionaire to 1,240 square miles of prime mountain parkland, R.K. never lacks for snow. Few other heli-ski operators are willing to take customers up for a single day (three to seven days being the norm for top-notch outfits like CMH Heli-Skiing, the world's first helicopter skiing company). Most are wary about taking skiers out without first assessing their abilities, since an inept skier on the slope can ruin everyone else's day. R.K., on the other hand, happily caters to anyone who can handle intermediate runs. The company is, however, a stickler for safety—it was founded by the legendary Roger Madson, "the king of bombing," as one employee describes him. "He's been flying since 1972, and they've never had a major accident, because if he sees any snow he doesn't like, he bombs the crap out of it."
I arrive at R.K.'s office just before 9 a.m. to sign the bulletproof liability waiver and collect my skis. "I can tell how good a skier you are just by the way you carry your skis and poles," Roger says as the rest of the day's 30-odd customers filter in. Most are middle-aged, either European or Canadian. They don't remind me at all of the Vikings I met at Kicking Horse—in fact, the people standing next to me are talking about the dinner buffet on their last cruise.
Before heading out, we're briefed on avalanche safety. Each of us will carry a radio transceiver strapped under our clothes. If I'm buried by an avalanche, the others can use their transceivers to home in on mine—assuming they're not buried, too. We spend a fruitless half-hour looking for buried transceivers in the parking lot, waving our units around like Spock on Star Trek. I imagine that finding one in the panicked aftermath of a disaster would be even harder. My strategy: If there's an avalanche, try to be somewhere else.
We split into groups of 11 and drive a few miles by van to the staging field. A helicopter descends on us in a blizzard of rotor blast; we rush up, doubled over and holding our hats, and load in. Pressed together in the cramped cabin, trussed up in our heavy clothes, we can barely move. The helicopter rises, dips forward, and gains speed. Out the window, the steep snow-covered valley falls away. We're barely over the shoulders of the mountains when we bank, slow down, and settle atop a vertiginous ridge. Everyone clambers out with their skis and huddles together in a ball as the chopper rises straight overhead, buffeting us with 70-mph winds.
The thup-thup-thup fades out, leaving us in mountain stillness. The entire trip took just a few minutes. After slipping our skis on, we follow Gord, our lead guide, to the lip of the hill. "Keep your weight forward, and bend your knees," he tells us.
For a while we stare at the expanse of snow in awed silence. Eventually, Gord turns to us and asks, "Well?" Someone musters the courage to slide forward onto the virgin field, and one by one we follow, trembling with timidity and anticipation.
The snow is fluffier than I'd imagined, and endlessly deep. It seems to suck me in, like a big down comforter, and I have to keep moving to avoid sinking. I try to do as Gord says, but instinct tells me to lean back, so just staying upright is a constant struggle. I finally lose it and embed myself sideways into the hill, snow down my back, my skis crossed somewhere under the powder. Deep breath. Dig out. Straighten skis. Get moving.
Gradually it dawns on me that the powder is softer than any feather bed, and that sprawling out horizontally is the best way to rest. The less I mind falling, the more quickly I improve, as I start to get a feel for the fluid side-to-side bouncing motion, which reminds me of a child's bobbing top.
After lunch—a cling-wrapped sandwich furiously gobbled between the day's two helicopter rides—I'm assigned to a more aggressive group. We are picked up by a chopper; minutes later we're standing in a cirque rimmed by craggy cliffs. Clumps of snow slough off the cliffs and tumble down in disintegrating sprays of white. The guide tells us to be careful: this is avalanche country. He goes first, then stops 200 yards below and waits for us.
I'm not sure what "being careful" means. All I can do is grit my teeth and hope I don't trigger any catastrophic collapses. As I slide forward, the haze of white on white makes it impossible to see the snow under my skis. But the next thing I know, I'm flying. It's a sensation of floating, a flowing weightlessness as I bounce from one turn to the next as if on springs. The snow hisses as it zips around my chest and stings the exposed tip of my nose. For a few moments I'm not even there. I'm just motion, air, heartbeat. My skis go: hush, hush, hush.
Cat Skiing: Island Lake Lodge
"Ha-ha-ha-aya-ya-ya-ya-eeeee!" Barely past sunup, my eyes crack open to the sound filtering through the walls at Island Lake Lodge. Are they at it again already?Or have they been awake all night?
I need to get up anyway. The gray sky has borne us another 10 inches overnight, and the thermometer hovers around zero. I gear up and file outside with the others for my second introductory lesson on avalanche safety, before we all climb into the tractor-style cats and head up the mountain. With their enormous treads and boxy metal cabins, the cats look prehistorically futuristic, like Jurassic-era robots. They're not fast, and they're not pretty, but with the roads buried, they're the only way to get people and supplies in and out of the lodge.
Unlike any other lodge in Canada, Island Lake owns all the terrain it skis—5,000 skiable acres out of 7,000, about the size of Whistler. The property was bought from Shell Oil in 1996 by a consortium of partners, including the famed extreme skier Scot Schmidt. The lack of winter road access reflects the environmentalist philosophy of the lodge, which seeks to minimize its own impact on the valley. Island Lake can accommodate only 36 skiers, and peak-season slots are booked up to a year in advance. "What you're about to experience is the best cat skiing in the world," says Harry, a 60-year-old Calgary businessman. "That's because Canadian cat skiing is the best in the world, and this is definitely the best in Canada."
With a lurch the cat rumbles into motion, and we settle in for the ride—this is no two-minute hop to the summit. But there are amenities: hooks for our clothing, hot-air dryers for our gloves, boxes of sandwiches and cookies, thermoses holding steaming drinks. The road grows steeper until we're trundling upward at an alarming angle, sheer drop-offs rolling past the windows. After 20 minutes we level off, the cat clunks to a stop, and the door swings open. One by one we clamber out.
I take a deep breath. We're standing on the saddle of a ridge that falls off on either side at a grade steeper than any I've ever skied before. Beyond that, it's hard to see. Low clouds and heavy snowfall obscure everything past a few hundred yards. We put on our skis; as the group heads off down the hill, I keep reminding myself that powder is soft.
I'm in over my head—not literally, but almost. The snow is deeper and wetter than anything I experienced while heli-skiing, and the trees seem closer together. It's not until we arrive at an open glade dotted with head-high saplings, where the mountain slopes more gently, that I stop worrying for a while. For a few moments, it's just me and the snow and the little pines, and I bounce through them, light as a moonwalker.
After the last run we roll back to the lodge, exhausted. The fervent energy of the previous night has dimmed to a low-wattage glow, and everyone sits talking quietly around the bar in a faint and pleasant delirium.
I stay at Island Lake two more days, getting progressively more comfortable on the tricky slopes. As I climb into the cat on my last morning, I catch myself grinning like a maniac and I realize how far I've come since arriving in Canada. Before I tasted powder, I feared it. Now I'm eagerly hurling myself into its cottony embrace.
That night, I ride the cat out of the resort and check into a lodge at the base of Fernie Alpine Resort, located nearby on the Lizard Range, with five huge bowls and about two-thirds the terrain of Kicking Horse. Tomorrow I'll be as free as a bird, roaming the slopes at liberty. With any luck I'll be able to find some patches of untracked powder here and there.
I walk outside at midnight to check the condition of the sky. Big, fist-sized flakes come floating down—divots of snow, lit up against the black sky by the sodium glare of the streetlights, settling onto the snowbanks. It's shaping up to be an epic dump, the kind of storm that closes passes and shuts down roads. Civilization will be brought to its knees. I can't wait.
The ski season in eastern British Columbia lasts from mid-December through April (the best conditions are found January through March). Dress warmly; multiple layers are essential. Temperatures on the B.C. side of the Rockies generally run 10 to 15 degrees higher than on the Alberta side (the mean temperature in Golden, British Columbia, in January is 14 degrees Fahrenheit, rising to 32 in March). Most major airlines serve Calgary, which lies 164 miles east of Kicking Horse and 200 miles northeast of Fernie. Delta, Alaska, America West, and Northwest airlines serve Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, 120 miles south of Fernie.
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort A new lift this season adds another 150 acres of skiable terrain to an already vast mountain venue. You can't get much farther away from the world than Eagle's Eye, the two suites at the top of Kicking Horse. At an elevation of 7,700 feet, this aerie has 360-degree views of the snowcapped mountains below. Ski passes $32 per day; suites from $960, including breakfast and dinner for two, lift tickets, private concierge. 1500 Kicking Horse Trail, Golden 866/754-5425 or 250/439-5400 www.kickinghorseresort.com
Panorama Mountain Village A popular family ski resort, with the back side of the mountain devoted to double-black-diamond heli-skiing terrain. Ski passes $33 per day Panorama; 800/663-2929 or 250/342-6941 www.skipanorama.com
Island Lake Lodge Peak-season reservations at this premier cat-skiing location sell out quickly, but spots are still available for the 2003—04 season. Three-day packages from $1,140 Fernie; 888/422-8754 or 250/423-3700 www.islandlakeresorts.com
Fernie Alpine Resort Five bowls and 2,811 vertical feet of terrain in the snowiest part of the Canadian Rockies (31 feet last year). Ski passes $36 per day (subject to change) 5339 Ski Hill Rd., Fernie. 800/258-7669 or 250/423-4655 www.skifernie.com
Lizard Creek Lodge Comfortable chalet-style rooms at the base of Fernie Alpine Resort. Doubles from $52 5346 highline Dr., Fernie 877/228-1948 or 250/423-2057 www.lizardcreek.com
R.K. Heli-Ski Your primo powder fix, no questions asked. Three descents, including breakfast, lunch, and ski rental, $384 per person Panorama Mountain Village 800/661-6060 or 250/342-3889 www.rkheliski.com
CMH Heli-Skiing The first and largest heli-ski operator, serving 12 B.C. areas for a total terrain of 12,430 square miles. Three- to seven-day trips, including meals, accommodations, and ski rental, from $1,810 per person 800/661-0252 OR 403/762-7100 www.cmhski.com
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Blue Toque The best breakfast in Fernie, with a funky, laid-back groove. Breakfast for two $13 Art Station, 601 First Ave., Fernie 250/423-4637
Griz Bar The definitive après-ski scene at Fernie (dress code: steaming thermal underwear). Pint of beer and basket of wings $8 Day Lodge, Fernie Alpine Resort, 5339 Ski Hill Rd., Fernie; 250/423-4655
Wood Bistro & Tapas Bar After doffing your Gore-Tex coveralls, head to this sophisticated little tapas bar in the historic section of Fernie. Dinner for two $40 701 Second Ave., Fernie 250/423-7749
Strip, run, and take the plunge into Lussier Hot Springs, located between Panorama and Fernie, just south of Canal Flats off Highway 93/95, via Whiteswan Lake Road (11 miles of gravel logging road). The four mineral rock pools, set on the bank of the wild White River and surrounded by forest, can heat up from tepid to 106 degrees.