SKOKI VALLEY, Alberta - Standing above tree line at the top of Deception Pass, we could see waves of mountains rippling across a hazy landscape. Many of their rocky peaks rose so steeply, they shed snow before it could pile too high, revealing dark, ominous shapes. Behind us, we had an up-close snapshot of Ptarmigan Mountain, where glaciers clung to alpine cirques and diagonal striations looked like they had been chiseled into the rock.
In a valley about 1,000 feet below us sat Skoki Lodge, one of North America’s oldest - many say its first - backcountry ski lodges, with all the fixings to warm the soul: oversized chairs parked in front of a crackling fire, old wooden family-style tables, and hot tea and fresh-baked apple pie to greet weary travelers.
The lodge, located within Banff National Park, was built in 1930 by the Ski Club of the Canadian Rockies and has welcomed visitors ever since: skiers and snowshoers in the wintertime, and hikers, “scramblers,’’ and artists come summertime.
In its younger days, the lodge attracted visitors from big East Coast cities and countries such as England and Switzerland, people who could afford to travel here for the whole summer despite hard economic times. Skim through the lodge’s old guest books and you find entries in beautiful swooping penmanship from people such as Sir George Simpson, who ran the Hudson’s Bay Company; Elizabeth von Rummel, daughter of a German aristocrat; and Linda Castle of Hawaii’s Castle and Cooke pineapple franchise (later known as the Dole Food Co.).
Now, the lodge draws visitors from all over the world, including the occasional royal guest (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, William and Kate, visited last summer).
I had planned to ski from Lake Louise Ski Area to Skoki Lodge on my own last January, but Charlie Locke, owner of the lodge and ski area, and a local legend and adventurer, offered to travel with me that day.
The 7-mile, one-way trip traverses frozen Ptarmigan Lake, crosses two mountain passes, and includes 1,600 feet of vertical gain before a 1,000-foot descent. Most people with intermediate skiing abilities can tackle the straight-forward, three- to five-hour route, but you do need the skills to take care of yourself if the weather turns foul.
Leo Mitzel, who manages the lodge with his wife, Katie, said, “I get nervous because you just never know who’s on the trail. I’ve had people come in who have never seen snow before and they get on Deception Pass and all of a sudden it’s a whiteout. That’s why we put in so many [trail] markers.’’
Red poles planted in the ground at regular intervals mark the route, but it can still be disorienting if you get off track in blizzard-like conditions or if fresh snow has erased all tracks along this unfamiliar route.
Like others on the trail, I had rented backcountry skis from Wilson Mountain Sports in the Village of Lake Louise (you can also rent gear at Lake Louise Ski Area). Backcountry skis have metal edges for better control and are wider than their cross-country cousins. They are also better equipped to handle climbing skins, which are long strips of one-directional, felt-like material that stick onto the bottom of the skis and prevent them from slipping backward when you are ascending a hill. Skins can also slow you down on descents and provide more control.
To reach the trailhead, Locke and I took the Lake Louise Ski Area gondola to the top and then rode the Ptarmigan Lift down to Temple Lodge. Then we hiked about 100 feet up the Marmot ski run and set off into the woods, following a gently undulating trail as it traversed a hillside overlooking the Ptarmigan Valley and cut through open forests of spruce. We passed through an untouched meadow dotted with knee-high to 40-foot-tall larch trees. Off to our left, nestled at the edge of the forest, stood a small log cabin called Halfway Hut, which was built in 1933 by those who made Skoki.
A rock wall loomed above on our right, as we began a short but steep climb up to Boulder Pass. Boulders lay scattered around the open landscape, having plunged from their original nesting places high up on the rock face of Redoubt Mountain. Humps of snow piled on top of the boulders made them look like giant muffins.
“With the herringbone step, you can climb a little steeper terrain,’’ explained Locke as we started up the pass. His skis formed a rough V shape and he hiked straight up the slope.
We stepped to the side of the trail as two skiers - the only other people we saw on the trail that day - passed in the opposite direction, having skied up to Ptarmigan Lake and back for a daily workout.
After reaching the pass, we dropped down a small open hill and then crossed a frozen, snow-covered lake that was exposed to the elements. The wind whipped across the lake creating a rippled, corduroy-like surface.
I pulled my hat down over my ears, bent into the unrelenting breeze, and listened to the loose snow swooshing around us. Sunlight ignited the mountains and cast our elongated shadows across the snow behind us.
We turned north at the end of the lake and began a several-hundred-foot climb up to Deception Pass, so-called because it has three false summits when approached from the opposite direction. The wind sandblasted the mountainside, leaving slick and exposed snow-packed areas and kicking up snow like sawdust.
We finally reached the top of the pass at 8,200 feet, where we had those stunning views of the sea of mountains. Following a brief refueling stop, we began our 1,000-foot descent to the lodge.
“What would happen if someone got hurt here?’’ I asked Locke, after I had had a less-than-graceful wipeout.
“Radios don’t work here, so if you get hurt, you handle it the old-fashioned way: Someone goes to get help,’’ he said.
The lack of communication added to the area’s charm.
We arrived at the lodge just before dark, enabling me to get my bearings before we had to rely solely on battery- or propane-powered lights (or, in the common area, kerosene lamps). Local guides chose this spot to build the lodge because it offers “good, fun, safe skiing,’’ said Leo Mitzel. “In the 1930s, they didn’t have any search and rescue teams, or avalanche beacons, so if you got buried, you pretty much were done.’’
The site was also a draw because of its easy accessibility, the quality and predictability of the snow, and the views: From the lodge’s front door, you can see glaciated Silvertip Mountain off to the right and the dramatic Wall of Jericho off to the left, and you have a sense of being close to the crisp, untouched wilderness without sitting in harm’s way.
The main building has a cozy lounge where skis with old seal skins hang on the walls, and creaky floorboards announce people’s comings and goings. Guests eat at two long family-style tables in the dining room, dry their gear in a small heated room beside the kitchen, and sleep upstairs in simple rooms where all bedding and linens are provided. Three simple but cozy cabins are perfect for those wanting a little more elbow room. Altogether, the lodge holds 22 people maximum. The only downside: The toilets are two pit-style outhouses located on the hill behind the main building.
In 2002, the lodge underwent a historical renovation, with rebuilt fireplaces and windows, new foundation logs, and a newly installed gray water system. Fortunately for the Mitzels, who prepare all meals here, the switch from wood to propane stove happened years ago.
The dishes they make here rival those prepared in any big-city kitchen: We dined on New Zealand lamb, a designer salad of artisan greens served with homemade dressings, freshly baked bread, and orzo, a type of pasta served with homemade pesto.
After dinner, people sat around the fireplace telling stories, or they curled up on the window seats, where the window trim was made from split logs or bark, and read or flipped through old guest books.
Coffee starts flowing at 6:30 a.m. for early risers, followed by breakfast and a make-your-own-lunch station.
As I was leaving the lodge the next day, Locke pointed out a few good areas to explore for those who stay here longer, for instance, circumnavigating Skoki Mountain. I then began my slow and steady ascent up to Deception Pass. The wind whispered across the open landscape, sounding like blowing sand and looking like a white desert with pointy ridgelines. It erased the tracks of snowshoers and skiers who had left the lodge before me, and whom I could see on a ridge about a half-mile ahead and 200 feet above me.
I retraced the route across Ptarmigan Lake and through the boulder field, and enjoyed the fun little rollers through the forest at the end. It felt strange to emerge on a groomed ski run, and although Lake Louise Ski Area hardly felt crowded, I already missed the solitude of Skoki Lodge, the fireside chatter, and the smell of Katie’s fresh-baked apple pie that would be coming out of the oven right about then.
If you go...
Take a shuttle from Calgary International Airport to the Village of Lake Louise. Most lodges in the village offer free transportation to Lake Louise Ski Area, the starting point for the Skoki Lodge trip. Or park your rental car overnight for free at the ski area.
Skoki Lodge 888-997-5654
Open Dec. 23 through April and June through September. Rates: $189-$263 per person, per night; $139-$244 (minimum two nights).
Wilson Mountain Sports
Rents backcountry skis (waxless Rossignol), boots, and poles for $49 per day, plus $9 per day for skins; snowshoes $10 per day.
Lake Louise Ski Area
Rents backcountry skis (also waxless Rossignol), boots, poles, and skins, or snowshoes. Call for rates.