Travel

Skiing or snowshoeing? Enjoy the best of both worlds at this unique backcountry lodge

At British Columbia's Purcell Mountain Lodge, guests can partake in skiing and snowshoeing and then end the day with a well-deserved three-course dinner

  • Nov 04, 2022
  • 1,559 words
  • 7 minutes
The view, just after sunset, looking northwest from Purcell Mountain Lodge. (Photo: Susan Nerberg)
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It’s a crisp minus 22. The crystals that yesterday drew a halo around the sun now form a magic carpet on the snow, casting light in all directions. I’m with a group of skiers traversing North America’s largest alpine meadow, a swath suspended like a billowing hammock from a rampart of skyward peaks. The path ahead isn’t really a path; it’s more like a sightline — a promise on the horizon that slowly pulls us upward. Gliding through this landscape on alpine skis with climbing skins, we cross trails made by pine martens, their paw prints revealing sprints from tree to tree. This is the beauty of backcountry ski touring, the feeling of being an extra in a silent film about paradise where the loudest sound may be the squeak of your boots. That is, until you cross tracks, literally, with a group of giddy snowshoers belly-laughing as they race one another down slopes with waist-deep powder.

Yes, snowshoers, because at Purcell Mountain Lodge, everyone — including non-skiers — is welcome in winter. In the Purcell Mountains, an offshoot of the Columbia range, the lodge sits about halfway between Revelstoke and Banff, as the crow flies. To get here, you go as the helicopter flies, 15 minutes from the town of Golden, B.C. A 10-room timber structure (there’s also a library, a boot-drying room, a large dining room and a cosy corner with a fireplace and a killer view), the lodge barely makes a dent in the topography. Inserted into a gentle slope that hovers at an altitude of 2,200 metres, this home away from home is surrounded by peaks, including Mount Sir Donald, the 3,300-metre-tall pyramid that dominates the backdrop.

It’s this combo of rolling meadow right by the lodge and steeper mountainsides accessible via a one-to three-hour ski tour that makes it ideal for outdoorsy types of all striped. Strapping on a pair of snowshoes here lets you alternate between meadow-bathing and cardio-pumping hill running in alpine scenery you’d be hard pressed to find on the average snowshoe trail — minus the avalanche risk that comes with ski touring steeper inclines. Skiers, meanwhile, can choose from among lodge-adjacent mellow slopes that make perfect warm-ups or intros for backcountry newbies and, when pushing a little farther, more challenging black and double-black tree runs as well as open alpine descents. Both activities give you the opportunity to wander and wonder in silence on the flats and ups. On the downhills, though, the only option is to holler with glee — like the group of euphoric snowshoers, including my spouse, Alejandro, breaking the morning’s silence. 

Before Alejandro and I checked in at Purcell Mountain Lodge for our four-night stay, I’d done several backcountry winter trips — solo. That’s because most backcountry lodges cater to hard-core skiers, with limited or zero options for active outdoor pursuits for those who either don’t know how to (or don’t want to) ski alpine terrain. I have friends whose non- skiing better halves have willingly tagged along to backcountry lodges knowing they’d be stuck soaking in a hot tub, reading a novel while sipping marshmallow-topped hot chocolate or drinking wine by a crackling fire while their partners were out making tracks. I personally don’t know why you’d spend a full day doing that when you could soar to sparkly summits and float down fluff for hours on end. Alejandro, being similarly restless, never bothered coming along to those ski-for-me-nothing-for-him places. 

The lodge is set in a rolling meadow, ideal for snowshoe adventures. (Photo: Alejandro Palavecino)
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Then I told him about this lodge. He hesitated for a minute, worrying we’d fuel our alpine adventure with quick oats and Kraft Dinner. I explained that when the lodge opened in 1989, it pioneered backcountry gourmet dining, something only heli-ski lodges had ventured into at the time. “What are we waiting for?” he asked. I packed my ski boots; he threw his snowshoes in a duffel. We were going on our first winter mountain trip together.

Each morning, my group of four skiers plus two guides head for the high, open slopes in the distance or the steep tree runs closer by. Alejandro and his new snowshoe friends, with a guide, stay closer to base camp, roaming the hills in the meadow. We all get our powder fix, with us skiers scoring more time outside, simply because it can take a couple of hours to reach and climb up our downhill destination. The benefit for the snowshoers is that they get to come “home” for lunch, dry their boots and warm up by the fire before going out to make new tracks, while we skiers dig into our sandwiches and homemade soup in the snow. The common denominators when we all sink into the large, U-shaped couch in the cosy corner for après-ski is a sense of elation, along with sore muscles, rosy cheeks and tall tales. 

Map by Chris Brackley/Can Geo
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Over tea and trail mix, wine and cheese, beer and charcuterie, the snowshoe group is quick to tell us skiers about heroic rescues (“we pulled Sherry out of a tree well close to a bear’s den”), daring descents (“did you hear the heli come check on us after we set off that slide?”) and wildlife encounters (“we saw a lynx and two cubs”). Snowshoeing, they point out, is a risky, adrenalin-soaked sport. “Maybe one day you’ll become strong enough skiers to advance to snowshoeing,” says Alejandro, a claim that Kevin, their guide, stands behind. (Kevin later confesses to sneaking out for a ski run now and then.) 

“Seriously, though,” says David, a snowshoe neophyte from Louisiana, “before coming here, I was afraid I’d be cold and that snowshoeing would be too technical.” A resort skier, he thought he’d have difficulties walking through powder. “But after 20 steps, I was jumping off steep slopes.” He’s grateful his college buddy Mark, an Oregonian who now lives in Medicine Hat, Alta., convinced him to come. As for Mark, the biggest surprise was the landscape. “Nothing prepares you for the grandeur,” he says. For Alejandro, it was the snow, not only for how it amplifies the vastness and solitude: “I couldn’t believe the depth of the powder! At home, there’s no point using snowshoes; here, they’re a necessity,” he says, comparing the trampled trails around Montreal with the glory of the Purcells.

Ideal for snowshoe adventures; the gourmet menu, served at a communal table, balances nutritional needs for cold-weather sports with an eat-local approach to sourcing ingredients. (Photo: Ben Taft/360° Immersion)
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Photo: Ben Taft/360° Immersion
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The luxury of this place isn’t only the dry, light snow and the vertiginous scenery. It’s also that at the end of the day, you get to recharge with a three-course dinner — a legacy from when the lodge first opened as a comfortable base camp for ski touring (before that, “comfortable” plus “ski touring” was an oxymoron). Having grown up at a mountain lodge in the Austrian Alps, chef Josef Mitteregger knows how to balance nutritional needs for cold-weather sports with flavours punched out from mostly local ingredients. (How about tomato soup with goat cheese and pumpkin-seed pesto, beet gnocchi and Alberta beef, and blueberry shortcake with whipped cream?) What’s different today, more than 30 years after opening, is a stronger attention to shrinking the lodge’s environmental footprint (the helicopter ride notwithstanding), with portion sizes crafted to minimize food waste, hydropower from a nearby creek that also supplies the drinking water, biodegradable soap and shampoo in each room, and an on-site sewage treatment plant that releases potable water back to nature. 

When the 10-room lodge opened in 1989, it pioneered backcountry gourmet dining, something only heli-ski lodges had ventured into at the time. (Photo: Ben Taft/360° Immersion)
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So yes, gourmet meals are still a staple here, as is ski touring. But the focus now is on making the backcountry accessible to more people, regardless of their abilities or expertise (the lodge expanded its snowshoeing program in 2015, largely removing the intimidation factor not uncommon at other ski lodges). One evening over dinner at the communal table, Sunny Sun, who owns the lodge, reveals that he was not a backcountry person before he took over in 2010. “I’m becoming one, though. I’m snowshoeing and I’m also doing a bit of skiing,” he says modestly. The terrain around the lodge lends itself to big views without the risks and effort that come with ski touring. As Kevin, the snowshoe guide, puts it, “There are lots of people who don’t know how to ski, but they know how to walk.”

On the sunny morning when my fellow skiers and I cross paths with the snowshoe party, we soon leave them far behind, continuing our shuffle until we reach the foot of Copperstain Mountain. Climbing up its side, zigzagging through Engelmann spruce before emerging into the open alpine, we see signs that we’re not the only ones out for a hike. Squirrels, hares and pine martens have gotten first tracks, their etchings creating swirls in the snow.

Then we see them in the distance: the snowshoers, tiny dots moving along a ridge. I wave. I know Alejandro can’t see me, but I feel the urge to signal I’m having a great time, and that I know he’s having a great time too. As I stash my skins, lock my boots into the bindings and get ready to swish down the slope, I smile. Yes, there will be powder. But I also know that I can come back here — with good company. Because if Alejandro says “snowshoes” and I say “skis,” we can also add “No problem!”

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This story is from the November/December 2022 Issue

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