How I found my backcountry legs
Here I am outfitted in alpine touring gear – skis that are adaptable to climb up and slide down mountains. I’m in the backcountry. I’ve glided down a mountain – in powder snow, the sweet spot that is nirvana for any downhill skier – carving my way gracefully (okay, that’s my adjective) down the hill feeling the exhilaration of being alive and standing up on my skis. That hadn’t been the case during much of the rest of the week.
Me, in full AT regalia
What have I gotten myself into?
I accepted an invitation from Nicoline and Ruedi Beglinger to join their guests, all experienced skiers, in the inaugural hut-to-hut backcountry ski tour. The multi-talented Ruedi, had just completed building a third chalet in the Beglinger’s 90-square-kilometre leasehold in the Selkirk Mountains, a twenty-minute helicopter flight from Revelstoke, B.C. I accepted even though I had nagging doubts about my abilities. I’ve done very light backcountry / telemark skiing, and I’ve dabbled in downhill skiing. Mostly though, I’m a committed cross-country skier.
As the date got closer, I fretted. I experienced moments of anxiety, consoling myself that Ruedi, Nicoline and I had discussed my paltry skiing abilities. At the time, Nicoline had laughed and said “No, I don’t think you’ll be coming skiing with us.” I had accepted my limitations, so when the invitation arrived, I accepted not because I was confident, but because I’m not one to turn down adventure once I get a whiff of it.
Still, I felt like a sleep walker, each moment taking me inexorably, closer to this huge frightening adventure. I resisted the frequent urges to write to Nicoline confessing my doubts and declining her kind offer. Resist I did and the next thing I knew, I was on the helicopter bound to Durrand Glacier Chalet, about 2,000 metres above sea level. Snow was scarce in the valley, but it became deeper as we ascended to the chalet and the mountain playground which is known widely as “Ruedi’s National Park”.
I know the Beglingers and their alpine adventure company, Selkirk Mountain Experience. I’ve hiked up there two consecutive summers, each time finding respite, challenge and elegant backcountry luxury in spacious proportions. To prepare for my winter experience, I went downhill skiing twice with my dear friend Douglas MacLean, who had introduced me to the Beglingers. “You can do it Georg. You do yoga. You’re fit. You’re psychologically strong.” Great words of encouragement. I hung onto the confidence he had in me. It was the proxy for my own lack there of.
Then came the “big terrain” – the high alpine. The real thing.
My encouraging friend, Douglas, hut character and life of the party.
What actually happened
My left hip flexor was the first casualty in the first hour of my outdoor experience, during avalanche training. We ran down a steep slope in thigh-deep snow to do the exercise. Then of course we had to climb up. Lifting my feet weighted with my heavy ski boots meant bringing my knees up practically to my chin. I was already enfeebled by the time I made it back to the our launching spot at the chalet. To my dismay, my enthusiastic companions were already outfitted and ready for their first ski. I struggled to prepare and awkwardly set out trailing behind them, hip flexor complaining. Equipment all askew, with odds and sods flapping about my body.
I’d been assigned a guide who would go at a slightly slower pace than the rest of the group. Even then, I struggled to keep up. My mind was not prepared for the endurance I needed to haul the six-pound ball and chains on each of my feet (aka skis and boots) and the 15-pound yoke on my back (aka my pack with my avalanche gear). I envied the good nature and robust physicality of my thirteen companions. I watched in awe as Ruedi broke trail, bounding like a winter hare. I felt like I was 80 years old, so inept and weak was I. By the time we reached the top of the knoll, I was done. Spent. My hip flexor was sore. And my mind was reeling with frustration at my inadequacy.
And I still had to go down the hill. I rejoiced that my hip flexor would get a rest. But my legs felt sodden and the snow was deep and heavy. I managed to string no more than two turns together before falling down – over and over again. It was easy enough to fall down, but incredibly difficult to get up – just as difficult as it had been to climb up the mountain. I was miserable.
Ascending to descend – carved turns left by my more experienced companions
On the other hand, my companions were downright euphoric. What was I missing here? I’d been beaten by the sport, the terrain and the equipment – and my own mind. By the time I got back to the chalet about three hours after we’d left, I unburdened myself from the gear and went directly to bed. I didn’t take off my outer layers. I missed the delicious snacks that were laid out for our arrival from our ski day. I wrapped myself in my quilt and dozed and shivered until at last I recovered some energy. It wasn’t as easy to recover my shattered self esteem – the second casualty of the adventure. What was I doing here? My lack of competence and fitness was humiliating. I felt completely and utterly out of my depth.
During the night I had the awful realization that I had misinterpreted the promo about the hut-to-hut ski the Begliners had sent out to their guest list. I’d mistook it for a personal invite! I was horrified. It wasn’t an invitation at all; rather it was an embarrassing – nay – a catastrophic mistake that I was even there. First thing in the morning, I made my awful confession to Nicoline. She laughed and reminded me that she had sent an email to me with a special invite. “You’ll do just fine, Anne,” she said bemused by my uber anxiety. “We want you here. You know we’ll take care of you.”
After a long night of doubt, sunrise on mountains as seen from Durrand Glacier Chalet
That’s Nicoline. Unflappable. Generous. Empathetic. Intelligent. I trust her implicitly. Still, I was trepidatious and wanted nothing more than to go home to my sofa and the soft, gushy urban life of Netflix and a good book. That was not an option, however; as the helicopter wouldn’t come back for several days. Thankfully, my experience began to improve little by little, day by day. And it certainly helped that the other guests and my amazing hosts were a sympathetic lot. They listened to me and encouraged me. We broke bread together and formed a mini temporary community in the chalet. The four-course gourmet meals prepared by Austrian chef, Englebert, were sumptuous and nourishing and nurturing.
Creme brûlée by Chef Englebert, who has cooked for royalty
My amazingly patient guide Madeline slowed her pace even more to accommodate me on our second day out. Even then, I struggled. Madeline had received instructions from Ruedi to treat me “gently but firmly”. She insisted that we climb slowly to the peak, (“To the peak?” I queried, panic creeping into my voice.) but without stopping – as is the technique used in this kind of backcountry environment. It was -20 and windy. Rounding the corner as we approached the peak, the wind knocked my oh-so-measured breath off its rhythm. I cursed and questioned my sanity as we moved constantly, oh so slowly, up the mountain. I pleaded “Please Madeline, can we stop just for a second?” Unmoved, she replied “Just another twenty minutes to the peak. You can make it.” She had no idea the physical and mental anguish I was going through. I cursed her – inwardly. But I obeyed, like the good backcountry neophyte that I am.
My lovely guide, “gentle but firm” Madeline
A cold and windswept peak
Almost to the peak. Then I saw the group ahead of us drop like super heroes from between two giant boulders that comprise the peak. “I’m not doing that, Madeline,” I croaked fearfully, adamantly. She assured me we would descend on a different route. I was somewhat appeased. We left the frigid peak as quickly as I could transition (remove skins and add layers to go down the mountain), rounded a ridge and began to head down the other side of the mountain.
I’m a quick study and I was catching on. I quickly calculated that whatever we climbed we skied and whatever we skied we climbed. Madeline had said we would be skiing “gentle, rolling slopes”. I looked down this searingly steep, windswept and icy precipice with no bottom in sight and thought “No way.” How could our perception of the terrain be so vastly different? My outside voice said “There’s no way I’m going any further, Madeline. I’ll wait here for you.” I was resolute. To my great relief, Madeline agreed that the snow was too icy for a novice and it was best that we turn back. I was elated. But not for long.
On the downhill, about an inch of hard crust covered the snow. I was brutalized once again. I fell about a dozen times, screaming my frustration at the uncaring sky, watched and guided back to standing by the ever-patient Madeline – before we finally reached the bottom of the mountain. Unscathed, I might add. A minor miracle, in my mind.
View from the cold, windswept peak
New Year’s Eve 2015
Once again, as soon as we arrived at the chalet I went directly to my bed, and without taking off my outer layers, I wrapped myself in my quilt and slowly recovered. Oddly, I began to feel euphoric after the impossibility of the day. I’d made it to a peak! I thought I’d gotten over the hump. But day three thwarted me. The pain in my hip flexor was excruciating. It seared through every laboured step. I convinced Madeline to let me return to the chalet half way through the day and that I needed another full hut day to heal my hip flexor.
How I indulged in that restful day. I felt like a house cat in the chalet, stretching and purring happily; making conversation with chef Engelbert as he prepared exquisite snacks and dinner, and put more logs on the fire. I immersed myself in a good book. And I had the energy to bring in 2015 with aplomb, dancing and raising a glass at our 8:30 Durrand Glacier special New Year’s countdown.
I couldn’t help but note that my stamina for the party was far greater than the stamina that was on tap for skiing.
Having rested my body, my hip flexor and my psyche, I began to get my groove. Day five and six improved considerably. Snow fell in abundance, creating perfect powder. Temperatures rose. I went the distance. I climbed up the steep mountains with energy to spare. And I skied down the mountain, first following in Madeline’s tracks like an insecure fledgling clinging to its mother. By day six, I skied my own powder. I was exhilarated, euphoric. I felt like a real backcountry skier. After all of the flailing and effort – finally I’d arrived.
Nicoline and Ruedi Beglinger with Doug MacLean – New Year’s Eve 2015