Updated Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 11:01 AM
In a secluded valley deep in the Canadian Rockies, miles from any road and even farther from the nearest chairlift, sits a luxurious cabin. Inside there’s a sauna, a crackling fire and two chefs laboring in a fully stocked kitchen; outside, trackless powder stretches to the glacier-capped horizons.
This is not the story of that cabin, a privately owned backcountry ski haven called Selkirk Lodge on the edge of the Albert Icefield that costs 25,500 Canadian dollars (about the same in U.S. dollars) to book for a week, including the helicopter ride to get there. Instead, it’s the story of the Plan B that my wife, Lauren, and I devised for our Rockies getaway in February, after regretfully concluding that the first option was about 25,200 Canadian dollars beyond our budget. Thanks to the Alpine Club of Canada’s network of backcountry huts, we did manage to spend three nights in a secluded valley deep in the Canadian Rockies, miles from any road. Granted, there were no personal chefs — but for 25 dollars a person per night, we were willing to cope.
This year marks the unofficial centennial of the Alpine Club huts, treasured by Vancouverites and Calgarians but almost unknown east of Medicine Hat and south of the 49th parallel. The oldest cabin, built in 1912 on the shores of Lake O’Hara, about three hours west of Calgary, is still in use, and there are now 24 other huts scattered across the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. If you don’t mind a little DIY work, they offer the kind of wilderness retreat normally reserved for the helicoptered classes — and you don’t have to be a member to use them.
Getting to the cabins can be a short hike or a multiday glacier traverse, and the facilities vary from spartan (with amenities like a “mouse-proof wooden food locker”) to moderately luxurious (propane oven and lights, wood-burning sauna). Elk Lakes Cabin, added to the Alpine Club’s roster in 2004, was the perfect intermediate option for Lauren and me: remote enough to deter crowds but safely accessible, despite our complete lack of backcountry ski and avalanche training, and comfortable enough for a cozy winter escape.
Our trip started in Calgary, where we rented some “light touring” skis. Slightly wider than normal cross-country skis, with metal edges for more control on steep or icy slopes, they glide with particular ease across fresh, untracked snow. After driving less than two hours from Calgary, we parked at the trailhead, did little Charlie Chaplin routines as we figured out the delicate balance required to get our skis on while wearing big hiking packs, and then set off on the six-mile run to the cabin.
The first half of the trip was steadily uphill on immaculately groomed trails, until we finally reached a broad pass with a sign warning “End of Trail.” Here, at 6,250 feet, was the Continental Divide (and the Alberta-British Columbia provincial border); on the other side there was no trail, but the closely packed spruce and fir trees had been cleared along the path of a power line, offering us a straight shot into the valley below. Somewhere at the bottom, too far down to see, the cabin awaited.
Skiing down a mountain in complete solitude was a new experience for both of us. My downhill skills rely mainly on luck and soft landings, but the light touring skis proved to be excellent for our descent — especially when, as I tumbled headlong into a deep drift, one of them popped loose and continued heading downhill. Fortunately, it snagged a tree a few hundred yards farther down, and we eventually made it to the bottom a little more than three hours after leaving the parking lot.
When we reached the cabin — a neat rectangle of interlocking logs with a set of antlers nailed above the door, flanked by steep banks of snow that had slid off the pitched roof — we used the four-digit combination we’d been given over the phone to open the padlock on the door and let ourselves in. Then we got to work: Lauren gathered half a dozen buckets of fresh snow and fed them into a giant pot on the propane cooktop to make drinking water, while I split some logs from a huge woodpile behind the cabin to feed the wood stove.
It all felt very rugged and outdoorsy, but in truth it was laughably easy. Everything in the cabin was set up, with all the appropriate equipment — an ax, for example — sitting right where you’d need it. The only challenge was getting the fire started, which I finally accomplished after about 17 matches. (The wood was damp, I swear.)
The cabin sleeps about 12 (depending on your need for personal space) — two in a private room on the ground floor, reserved for volunteer custodians during peak periods, and the rest in two rows of bunks in the second-floor loft. While we warmed up with a cup of tea, another couple returned from their day of ski touring. They were Alpine Club regulars, retirees planning to head home the next morning after a three-night stay. After changing into dry clothes, they pulled out their maps and offered us suggestions for explorations during our time there, then traced out an alternate route for our eventual return to the car that snaked through untouched forests and meadows instead of following the power line.
That night, joined by our new friends, we sipped hot chocolate and played cards in the flickering firelight, basking in the kind of warmth that you can fully appreciate only with the knowledge of how bone-chillingly cold it is just outside your little hut. Snow began to fall — first little crystalline flakes that danced in the breeze, then heavy cotton balls that fell straight down and landed with a palpable thud.
With just the four of us there, Lauren and I had the top floor to ourselves, and we prepared to head upstairs.
“Of course, there’s that troop of Boy Scouts coming in tomorrow,” the other man said.
I must have looked like I’d swallowed a ski pole, because he quickly reassured me.
“I’m kidding,” he said. “Last I checked, you’ll be the only ones here the rest of the week.”
The world seemed strangely quiet the next morning, all vibrations damped by the foot of new snow that had fallen — until we stepped outside. The temperature had dropped to just a few degrees above zero, so the granular snow squawked loudly with every step. We layered up for the day’s mission: a mostly flat ski run toward the Petain Glacier at the head of the valley, exploring the Lower and Upper Elk lakes along the way.
With no trails to follow through the fresh snow, we felt like true explorers. The only signs of life we saw were zoological — tracks large and small, along with a sighting of snowshoe hares tearing around a clearing while a tawny, snub-nosed pine marten watched hungrily from a nearby tree. We wove through dense forest, every branch spring-loaded with fresh powder that had a tendency to collapse on me (whether some of these mishaps were intentional, only Lauren’s conscience knows); skied across the open lakes under towering cliff faces draped with frozen waterfalls; and lunched alongside the semi-frozen Petain Creek, with the blue-gray glacier lurking above us.
Back at the hut later that afternoon, we heard voices in the distance. We arrived to find not a Boy Scout troop, but two teachers and a half-dozen teenage boys from an alternative high school on an outdoor education trip. Soon the walls of the hut were echoing with spirited disputes about chore allocation and flatulence culpability; I began to reconsider whether 25,500 dollars (or even just the 300 or so per night it would have cost to book the whole hut) might have been worth it after all.
In the end, we slept fine. The kids, I had to grudgingly acknowledge, were all right. And it helped that we’d snagged the custodians’ room after the other couple left — we had it to ourselves once we retired for the night.
On our final full day, we decided to hike up to a small lake high on the slopes of nearby Mount Fox, using the snowshoes that we’d strapped to our packs on the trip in. This allowed us to weave through thick forest where long skis would have been impractical, floating above the impenetrable undergrowth that would have blocked the route during the summer. We climbed near-vertical slopes using the snowshoes’ clawlike attachments, and when we did fall, a bed of deep powder cushioned us.
The return trip, back down the mountain, was what I’d been looking forward to the whole trip. Snowshoeing down a steep slope in deep powder is more like surfing than skiing — you point yourself straight down and ride the crest of what feels like your own mini-avalanche, pumping your legs in a running motion to keep the tips of your snowshoes above the wave.
All too soon, we were back at the cabin, with wood to chop and ashes to sweep and food to cook alongside our teenage hut-mates. Were these chores that we wouldn’t have been troubled with at a luxurious retreat? Sure. But most of my backcountry fantasies involve being a participant, not a spectator. When I stepped outside later that evening to gather more snow for drinking water, I switched off my headlamp and paused. Above me, the sky was perfectly clear and brilliant with stars; the only other light was the flicker, through the hut’s windows, of a fire I’d built and stoked myself.
Alex Hutchinson / NYT
The Elk Lakes Cabin, in British Columbia’s Elk Lakes Provincial Park, in a secluded valley deep in the Canadian Rockies.
Alex Hutchinson NYT
A skier crosses Lower Elk Lake, not far from the Elk Lakes Cabin, in the Elk Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia,