At the summit cairn, our guide clasps each skier's hand. The women get a kiss on the cheek. It's an Austrian tradition that Tom Raudaschl brought with him to British Columbia, and as we're about to take off on one of the last runs of our stay in the magnificent Selkirk Mountains on the province's southeastern edge, it makes me feel even more giddy, and somewhat wistful, in the crystalline air at 9,484 feet.
We strip the plush nylon climbing "skins" from our skis, pack them away and click into our bindings. Raudaschl leads the way to a north-facing pitch where the snow is shin deep and creamy. I follow. The heavenly flying-dropping sensation could go on forever, as far as I'm concerned.
Let the rest of the skiing world be seduced by high-speed gondolas, cappuccino-serving kiosks and condos just a quick schuss from the lifts. I'm going to savor every moment of this run, the payoff for the oldest and purest form of skiing in one of the finest locations for backcountry skiing in the world.
Isn't it a little ironic, I think, gliding along in silence, that here in British Columbia both ends of the skiing continuum seem to be flourishing. Real-estate-driven, tech-heavy resorts like Whistler Blackcomb and the recently opened Kicking Horse Mountain Resort attract big numbers of people and money. At the same time, the rustic, "earn-your-turn" backcountry experience is enjoying a renaissance.
Of course, this is why I came to British Columbia, where the future of skiing is being played out on the vast mountainous canvas of the province. That — and the fact that the sliding here is simply some of the best anywhere.
A rustic retreat
IN the twilight, Battle Abbey lodge glows with the promise of warmth — and dinner. It is perched (reminiscent, indeed, of an abbey) right at tree line, on the brow of a steep, snowy canyon deep in the Battle Range in a remote corner of the Selkirks.
Built of local granite and timber cut from the hillside, it is half-buried in snow, smoke curling from a central chimney. No other lights, no road, no other sign of human life is visible for 50 miles.
After our run, we strip off boots and lean back with a dark beer a guest has brought.
The lodge is both comfortable and rustic. It gets its electricity from solar and wind generators, and the water for showers is heated from coils in the wood stoves.
Simon, our Aussie hutmaster chef, outdoes himself at dinner, serving the tenderloin from an elk he shot and butchered. For dessert, he serves up a baked strawberry Pavlova, a meringue so light it weighs nothing on the fork.
Reservations at Battle Abbey are booked by the week (Saturday to Saturday), and because of the sensitive — and occasionally avalanche-prone — nature of the terrain, only qualified guides can sign up guests. (This is no destination for novices.) Some private groups fill all 14 of the hut's guest beds; other weeks are open to a smorgasbord of skiers. Each guide is accompanied by a cook and a housekeeper; during my stay, I became friends with all of them.
I was fortunate to find my opening at the lodge through Raudaschl, who organized everything from food to airport transfers to the helicopter flights in and out of Battle Abbey. Raudaschl, a wry, youthful 42-year-old who doubled for Brad Pitt in the 1997 film "Seven Years in Tibet," is one in a long line of accomplished guides who follow a distinguished tradition.
Starting in the 1890s, when the Canadian Pacific Railway opened its flagship hotels in Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta, these mostly young men left the Old World to make a home in the relatively underpopulated ranges of western Canada.
One of the most gifted of these guides, an Austrian electrician named Hans Gmoser, emigrated in 1951 when Canada offered free passage to skilled craftsmen. Gmoser established himself in the mountains around Banff and in 1964 talked someone into flying him and his skis to the top of a glacier in a helicopter.
The next year, he founded Canadian Mountain Holidays, the first and among the biggest helicopter skiing operations in the world.
In 1974, Gmoser and American mountaineer William Lowell Putnam built Battle Abbey as an antidote to heli-skiing's jet-fueled pace. With a permit from the provincial government, they set about creating a different kind of high-alpine destination that would be accessible only by helicopter on Saturdays but free of the internal-combustion engine the rest of the week..