• Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

    Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

LOCALS SAY ANY OF FIVE GHOSTS haunt the old Halfway Hut on the trail between Alberta’s Lake Louise Ski Resort and backcountry Skoki Lodge. Few agree, though, on whether the otherworldly squatters are a pair of ski-mountaineering brothers from town, a renowned British mathematician or an Austrian-born guide — all of whom were killed in separate off-trail avalanches in the region in the 1930s and ’40s. Or it might be a Calgary painter, thought to have wasted away in the cabin waiting for the perfect Rockies sunset.

Regardless, today’s 11-kilometre, 3½-hour cross-country ski trek to Skoki doesn’t call for a rest stop — far less a haunted one. So with jacket unzipped under an uncommonly warm January sun and a pair of steep passes ahead, it’s enough to look back and imagine the spectres playing cards (poker is the brothers’ going favourite) or painting, never wanting to leave the peaks and valleys that drew them in and kept them.

There could be worse things than spending eternity here. As climbing-skin-lined skis swish over deep alpine powder for a slow gain of 500 metres in elevation, it already seems as though the busy clatter at the ski resort was a figment itself.

This pilgrimage, however, isn’t all easy gliding and reverie: after huffing up Boulder Pass — strewn with the fallen chunks of Redoubt Mountain — and a 1½-kilometre-long, straight stretch that crosses frozen Ptarmigan Lake, the aptly appointed “Deception Pass” rises another 145 metres (to 2,485 metres above sea level). That final climb, so much longer than it appears, has tested the mettle of many Skoki guests over the last eighty-some years, and being a native of Ottawa, a mere 114 metres above sea level, doesn’t help. Or at least that’s one handy excuse for wheezing all the way up. When the summit arrives at last, the view of Redoubt’s north hump across the lake is reward enough, and the rest of the route is mercifully downhill.

Around one last twist of trail and through snow and evergreens, Skoki Lodge announces itself — an axe-hewn, sprucelog sanctuary surrounded by smaller cabins, looking enormously inviting but very small plunked at the foot of Skoki, the tip of the Wall of Jericho and Fossil mountains. It’s been an important hub for ski-touring and mountaineering since its earliest days in the 1930s, and the sense of relief and achievement that surges up on arrival has undoubtedly been shared by all on their first coming. Both the place — a national historic site since 1992 — and the history of the sports that bring one here beg to be explored.

“THERE’S SOMETHING IN A MOUNTAIN, in particular a big, steep, difficult mountain, that cries out to be climbed,” says Chic Scott, one of Canada’s all-time mountaineering greats. “Many people don’t feel it, but if you do, it’s almost biological.”

In Scott’s living room in Banff, well-worn climbing axes and cross-country skis lean in the corners, and he’s surrounded by orderly stacks of range maps, historical articles and family trees, some of it source material for his most recent chronicle. These days he’s the authority on Canadian mountaineering history, but it’s still easy to look past the sweater and collar and parted hair and imagine him clinging to a windswept cliff, beaming. “But now the mountains don’t call for me to climb them,” he says. “I must not be producing the climbing hormone anymore!”

Nature or nurture, some strong force started pulling Calgary-born Scott up rock faces and onto peaks when he was in his teens. By the 1960s, he was part of the first wave of Canadian climbers who could rival the Brits, Americans, Austrians, French and Swiss who had long dominated the sport in Canada. He and fellow mountaineers Don Gardner, Charlie Locke and Neil Liske made history in the spring of ’67 by completing the first Jasper-to-Lake Louise high-level ski traverse, a 21-day expedition over — not below and between — a 300-kilometre chain of Rocky Mountains. A few days before Christmas that same year, Scott, Gardner and Eckhard Grassman made the first winter ascent of Mount Assiniboine, the Alberta-B.C.-border-splitting, 3,618-metre giant, which they approached from the Alberta side and summited in wild chinook winds and pelting snow.

Few dream of reaching those heights, and fewer still achieve them, especially in such abysmal conditions. Scott would eventually go much higher, including his 1973 feat of becoming the first Canadian to reach a Himalayan summit (Nepal’s 6,275- metre Myagdi Matha). For decades, when he looked at a mountainside, he saw the unclimbed routes and unspoiled powder lines for his skis.

The Rockies beckon everyone differently. And whether conquering and christening gruelling new routes or negotiating a well-marked trail on the way to the cosy security of Skoki Lodge, says Scott, we all go for the same few reasons, each with our own mix. “Maybe it’s for the physical challenge or overcoming weaknesses, the thrill of the climb and adventure, fellowship or even ego. For others it’s the spiritual aspect,” he says. “What moves us all, though, is the beauty of nature. And to some it is everything.”

THE UNBOUNDED, HARD BEAUTY of the Rockies, with their cold indifference to everybody who’s ever scrambled over their slopes, might be precisely what keeps tugging us toward them. Outdoor adventurers and alpinists began flocking to Lake Louise by the trainload within a few years of 1882, when a guide from the local Stoney nation showed Ho-run-num-nay, or “Lake of the little fishes,” to Tom Wilson, a horse-packer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Wilson dubbed it “Emerald Lake,” but it didn’t take long for the government to rename it in honour of Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter and wife of Governor General Marquis of Lorne.

By 1929, Clifford White and Cyril Paris, ski pioneers and founding members of the Mount Norquay and Banff ski clubs, were hunting in the area for the perfect perch for a backcountry lodge. They scouted several hundred kilometres of Banff and Yoho national parks, and following the advice of Swiss guides at the Chateau Lake Louise, they landed in Skoki Valley.

Spruce was felled and notched and stacked, and Skoki Lodge opened in the spring of 1931. Built next to a creek at the junction of three valleys, it’s a gateway to endless skiing, snowshoeing and climbing. And at an elevation of 2,165 metres (equivalent to nearly four stacked CN Towers), it’s the highest building in which you can sleep in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

In its early years, Skoki grew a proper kitchen, an extra storey and a handful of cabins, but little else changed. There are a few solar panels and a generator running the fridge, but water for bathing is still drawn from the creek, heated and carried up to rooms and out to cabins in steaming pitchers. Skis and poles still lean on timber frames outside the front entrance, snowshoes by the door. Tired travellers are met with a spread of cheeses and fruits, scones, tea and coffee and what must be the heartiest soups in all Western Canada. In the hours before dinner, guests still read and play board games by candlelight and kerosene lamp — although many now come armed with LED headlamps (which can be especially useful for late-night treks to the outhouse). It’s an intoxicating, invigorating, timeless place.

Katie Mitzel and her husband, Leo, have managed every detail of the lodge together since 2003, though she’s worked there since 1998. This week, Leo is in Banff with their young daughters, but with help from a small staff, Katie is everywhere and everything — warmest host, gourmet chef, all-knowing guide to the area. Sitting at the long, pinewood dining tables after an afternoon spent skiing the splendid 12-kilometre loop around Skoki Mountain, one might be lucky enough to hear her in the kitchen, placing the week’s food order in groupings of three over a crackling one-way radio phone: “Potatoes, 25 pounds; butternut and acorn squash, 50 pounds; yams, 25 pounds,” and so on. Around 500 kilograms of groceries arrive each Thursday by snowmobile, or by pack horse in the summer.

Then out of the kitchen appear dishes so unfathomably luxurious they almost don’t make sense when you consider the surrounding mountain wilds. Baconwrapped eggs baked and smothered in tarragon hollandaise sauce on a bed of clipped baby spinach for breakfast (or a fresh-fruit bowl, yogurt and buttermilk bran muffins, if preferred); juicy pork tenderloin in a red wine cream sauce with a Dijon mustard twist for dinner, along with a raft of roasted vegetables and other sides. In reply to the cascades of praise, Katie just says, “Everything is better at altitude.”

AFTER A PARTICULARLY invigorating breakfast one spring morning in 1827, Scottish botanist David Douglas suddenly “became desirous of ascending one of the peaks” (as he would later write) where he was camped in Alberta’s Athabasca Pass. So he strapped on snowshoes and went to the top of the tallest one he could see.

That was the first recorded ascent of a Canadian Rocky Mountain, and for years Douglas vowed that Mount Brown and nearby Mount Hooker were more than 5,000 metres in height — “the highest yet known in the Northern Continent of America.” They weren’t, of course: Brown is closer to 2,790 metres, Hooker, 3,290.

His exaggerations helped lure explorers and climbers into the Rockies for decades. None of them ever found mythical Mount Brown, but by the early 1900s most major peaks had been reached, and Canada was a top destination for high-elevation adventurers from all over the world.

So much so that in 1906, surveyor A.O. Wheeler and journalist Elizabeth Parker founded the Alpine Club of Canada, to make mountaineering in Canada more, well, Canadian. The club built alpine huts, started climbing camps and helped set the stage for leading-edge, homegrown climbers and ski-mountaineers such as Chic Scott, but their aim was wider than that. “We ought to become a nation of mountaineers,” Parker said in 1907, “loving our mountains with the patriot’s passion.”

All of that somehow trickled down to this January night in the backcountry, where 14 budding mountaineers are clustered on the snow next to Skoki Lodge. And in this moment, a bit ironically perhaps, everyone is captivated by something other than the Rockies. Guest Diane Friend is a professor of astronomy from Montana, and for 45 minutes in the crisp night air she teaches an impromptu class, pulling constellations — Orion, Cassiopeia and Pleiades, even the Andromeda Galaxy — out of sheets of bright stars denser and deeper than anyone recalls seeing before. (And Friend doesn’t even blink when she’s asked how long she’s been an “astrologist.”) It’s an unexpected treat, but the place is full of them.

Go up through the mountains to Skoki Lodge, eat their food and look at their stars. And two or three days later, you’ll pause at the top of Deception Pass again, breathing more easily this time.

Photos:


Looking back over Boulder Pass, the 3,543-metre peak of Mount Temple looms in the distance. The peak is among the highest in the Lake Louise region. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Low-lying cloud over the Bow Valley. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Before ski-tours, snowshoers and hikers reach Boulder and Deception passes on their way to Skoki Lodge and pass the Halfway Hut, which can provide respite from storms or a spot for lunch, but is also said to be haunted by five different ghosts. (Photo: Nick Walker)

At 2,485 metres above sea level, Deception Pass is the highest point on the trail between Lake Louise Ski Resort and backcountry Skoki Lodge. After reaching the top of the pass, it’s safe to remove climbing skins and telemark and coast the rest of the way. (Photo: Nick Walker)

In the summer, hikers hug the shore of Ptarmigan Lake on their way to the Skoki Valley. In the winter, the frozen lake surface affords a long, flat (and often windy) stretch of cross-country skiing before ascending Deception Pass. (Photo: Nick Walker)

After an afternoon skiing the stunning mountain trails around Skoki Lodge, this spread is a welcome site. Katie Mitzel, a lodge manager and chef, greets new and returning guests with fresh fruit, scones and fruit preserves, hot drinks and chunky, steaming soups. (Photo: Nick Walker)

The moon rises over the side of the Wall of Jericho, as seen through the front window of Skoki Lodge, high in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. (Photo: Nick Walker)

During the day, few sets of cross-country skis and snowshoes lean against the timber frames in front of Skoki Lodge. Everyone leaves to explore the mountain valleys and climb in the region. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Over its dining area, cosy living room and fireplace, Skoki’s second storey features a number of charming guest rooms. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Katie Mitzel has worked at Skoki since 1998. Today, she and her husband Leo mange every aspect of the lodge, and Katie’s superb gourmet mountain cooking has a reputation that extends well past the Rocky Mountain Parks. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Declared a National Historic Site in 1992, Skoki Lodge, which opened in 1931, was the first commercial facility in Canada built specifically to cater to backcountry skiers and mountaineers. (Photo: Nick Walker)

One of the most popular trails in the Skoki area is the Skoki Loop, a 12-kilometre route circling Skoki Mountain. It can be skied in an afternoon, and while grizzlies hibernate through the winter, visitors still have a good chance of seeing other wildlife, such as the tree-dwelling American marten. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Mount Douglas (left) and Oyster Peak, seen from the spectacular Skoki Loop trail. (Photo: Nick Walker)