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Canada: Banff backcountry odyssey

With ice-climbing, snowshoeing and skiing on offer, Banff’s backcountry is a wonderland for the adventurous

Canada: Banff backcountry odyssey
Image: Getty

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A brisk wind buffets my cheeks and my fingers are numb in my mittens. Through the snow and my fogged-up sunglasses, I try to see the route ahead. “This is what you call navigating a ping pong ball,” my guide, Matt Patterson, says with a smile, before heading into the white.

Breathing hard, it’s taking everything I’ve got to slide one skin-covered ski in front of the other as I climb the aptly named Deception Pass. This 500ft ascent reaches an altitude of 8,150ft, taking you beyond the treeline and deep into the heart of Banff National Park.

I’m just over halfway through the seven-mile journey from the bustling ski resort of Lake Louise to Skoki Lodge, a rustic and remote cabin hidden amidst the mountain ridges and alpine lakes of the Rockies. Built by an intrepid group of skiers from local timber, the lodge is only accessible to guests by hiking in summer, or skiing or snowshoeing in winter.

Just like when it opened as Canada’s first commercial ski lodge in 1931, there’s no running water or electricity, and outhouse privies only. And yet despite — or perhaps because of — Skoki’s simplicity and solitude, it has attracted its fair share of escapists; from Lady Jean Rankin, lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, who was the first paying guest, to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who snuck away here on their honeymoon in 2011.

The trail begins at Temple Lodge, where Matt and I slide off the groomed piste and past a small sign marked ‘To Skoki’. A bygone world of kerosene lamps and no wi-fi awaits. With everything we need for two days on our backs we set off, zipping our jackets up against the sub-zero temperatures.

To help with the ascent, we attach grippy climbing skins to the bases of our skis, and I’m soon working up a sweat from sliding my skis forwards and gradually upwards through powder-soft tracks. The route winds through forests of larch and giant fir trees, where Matt points out a grizzly claw scratch and lynx tracks in the snow (thankfully, not fresh), before opening out into a large alpine meadow painted white with snow. With frosty exhales, I soon start to find my rhythm, copying Matt’s technique of looking up and forward, planting his poles near his toes and pushing forwards from the hip.

Originally from Vancouver, Matt swapped a decade-long career in oil and gas to become a mountain guide three years ago. His passion for the Rockies is contagious — as we travel, he regales me with tales of pine martens (“the most prolific predator in the Rockies”), explains why glacier ice is blue and points out trail blazes, scorched in the trees to help explorers navigate their way. “Being in the mountains and helping people achieve something they previously thought was impossible is the most rewarding thing ever,” he says.

My own reward is about to come. We’ve already made it over Boulder Pass — strewn with rocks — and crossed the vast, frozen expanse of Ptarmigan Lake with its barely visible pole markers. By the time we reach the exposed summit of Deception Pass, my legs are throbbing and my chest is tight from the altitude. But the effort is worth it as we rip the skins off our skis, and enjoy a long, glorious ski down through trees heavy with snow, tantalised by the approaching scent of wood smoke.

After a total of four hours, Skoki Lodge finally comes into sight, its collection of skis outside evidence that I’m not the first to arrive. But no matter. Shaking off the snow, I step inside, where I’m greeted by the warmth of a wood-burning stove, hot tea and the winning smiles of managers Ed Griffith and Vanessa Cartwright.

“It takes someone special to come here,” Vanessa says, showing me to my room, which is furnished with a soft single bed and a wash basin and jug.

Evening falls, dusting the sky with stars, and the table is laid for dinner, candles aflicker. I wolf down duck confit, mushroom truffle risotto, spiced red cabbage and a peach and blueberry crumble, swapping stories with other guests. The lodge has capacity for 27 guests, but there are just 12 during my stay. Among them are a mother and daughter on their sixth visit, a pair of ‘lifties’ (ski resort workers) and a Californian couple on honeymoon. “We chose to come here to get away from the crowds,” the newlywed wife says. “I love exploring and finding my own tracks. It makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world to have ever
skied there.”

I see just what she means the following day, when Matt and I cross-country ski through miles of untouched powder and unexplored trails — and in the entire day of skiing, we don’t pass another soul. As we ski back to civilisation after two days in the backcountry, I can’t help feeling that the scale, stillness and wildlife of the wilderness is good for the soul.

canada banff backcountry

Lake Louise Ski Resort. Image: Getty

But you don’t have to travel deep into the wilds to experience backcountry Banff. A 40-minute drive southeast of Lake Louise, Sunshine Village is a ski resort that can also be explored on snowshoes, with guided trips making it easily accessible for beginners. And halfway between Lake Louise and Banff town lies Johnston Canyon; its plunging waterfalls noisily crash and cascade in summer, but fall silent in winter, frozen into twinkling otherworldly blue-white curtains that are perfect for ice climbing.

Which is how I find myself 100ft up a wall of water that’s stopped in its tracks, hanging on with two ice axes and crampons on my feet — trying not to think about how tiny the people below me look. Thankfully, the rope I’m attached to is in excellent hands. My guide, Barry Blanchard, is one of North America’s top alpinists who has ticked off some of the world’s toughest climbs. He’s so accomplished, Hollywood sought him out to advise on the making of movies Vertical Limit and K2. “I’ve gotcha,” he calls reassuringly from the foot of the waterfall, tightening up the belay as I try to thwack the axe into ice above my head, kick my toes in and shift up.

Two hours earlier, our packs heavy with equipment, we had hiked the one-and-a-half-mile trail to the Upper Falls, passing camera-wielding tourists who stared at us curiously as we climbed over the fence into the climbing area where only a few intrepid folk venture. Today I’m one of just 12 climbers — mostly locals — experiencing this magnificent natural wonder from such an up-close perspective, and I feel privileged to be on this side of the barrier instead of looking at it from the viewing platform with everyone else.

Barry starts me off on a smaller section, calling out tips as I go (“Heels down. Hips in. Axes up and close together.”) before deeming me ready to attempt the main waterfall. My first hack into the ice sends chunks of it flying to the ground. I bash my knee. My shoulders begin to burn and my legs start to shake. But slowly, with Barry’s encouragement and more than a few wobbles, I make it to the top, feeling positively euphoric.

The view is spectacular — snow-dusted trees framed by a powder-blue sky above, and cascades of water, frozen in time, below. “Ready to abseil down?” Barry calls from below. Just like backcountry skiing, this has been a great workout, totally exhilarating and wild. I lean back, and prepare to return back down to earth.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Calgary, from £500 return. Alternatively, British Airways flies from Heathrow to Calgary from £501 return.
Rates at Skoki start from £133 ($230) per person per night.

How to do it
Yamnuska Mountain Adventures runs ice climbing half and full-day programmes from December to mid-March, from £96 ($165) per person. White Mountain Adventures offers guided snowshoeing trips in Sunshine Village from £52 ($89).

When to go
The ski season in the Canadian Rockies is one of the longest in North America, running from early November until late May.
skibig3.com

Produced in association with Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. banfflakelouise.com

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)