Assiniboine Pass (BC), Canada – We awoke to heavy snow in Lake Louise, but our rented Dodge
Neon got us through Banff and down to Canmore, where we boarded a chopper
bound for the Mt. Assiniboine Lodge.
Lodge is nestled in an intervale situated 7,000 feet above sea level, bounded
by Wonder Pass to the East, Assiniboine Pass to the North, and the massif
of Mt. Assiniboine and its glaciers to the South. Access is only by ski, on
foot or via helicopter. My wife Marilyn and I have been skiing here for 15
years, since hosts Barb and Sepp Renner have held the lease from Parks British
Columbia. The Lodge and its cabins were built by Erling Strom for the Canadian
Pacific Railway in the 1920’s, and the log main Lodge hosts a kitchen, dining
and common rooms, and a few upstairs bunkrooms. There are six log cabins on
the property, strung along the shore of Lake Magog. We have always stayed
in a cabin named Assiniboine and this year was no exception. The cabin measures
approximately 14 x 20 feet and features one large room heated and lighted
with propane. The logs which form the walls are immense with diameters of
up to 16 inches, and each side of the cabin was constructed with a stack of
single logs without any butts or joints. The cabins feature no running water,
and a few chairs, a table, and a hand-carved double bed round out the furnishings.
The view directly at the spire of Mt. Assiniboine is nothing short of breathtaking.
Lodge accepts guests for periods of three days, seven days or longer, as helicopters
are only allowed to fly into the Assiniboine Provincial Park on Sundays, Wednesdays
and Fridays. Guests are always coming and going, with an average of 24 at
any one time. Breakfasts and dinners are served family-style, and lunches
are constructed for consumption on the trail. Guests can either go out on
their own, or follow a guide.
With the ebb and flow of guests there is lacking the camraderie
of Mistaya. Hosts Barb and Sepp, however, are the
warmest and most welcoming couple in the Alpine. Barb’s sister Margaret is
married to Hans Gmoser, the founder of heli-skiing in Canada at Canadian Mountain
Holidays. Sepp guided for Hans in the Bugaboos and Monashees until about 17
years ago. His sister runs a ski shop at Andermatt, Switzerland, and André
Schwarz who owns the Post Hotel in Lake Louise was Sepp’s teenage buddy back
in the old country.
After the chopper dropped us off and we got settled into the
cabin, Marilyn and I took off alone around Lake Magog and sure enough, two
feet of fresh powder covered everything. The steep benches that descend to
the Lake were untracked, and we cut yo-yo powder turns all afternoon.
Thursday, 4 March 1999
brought a clear morning and a guided trip with Sepp to Cerulean and Elizabeth
Lakes, along with about twenty other skiers. The journey was mostly kick-and-glide,
except for one steep ridge climb and a 350-vert steep, gladed drop to the
Lake. We returned via a four-mile tour around Lake Magog back to the Lodge.
Sepp felt that there was more snow on the ground than he had seen at anytime,
and most of the cabins were buried to the eaves. You had to descend steps
hacked out of the snow to enter. Some remote cabins on Sunburst Lake had drifted
completely over – you could skin up to the roof ridge and ski down. Wherever
the wind had worked its damage the snow was packed and ridged, but in the
sheltered and treed areas there was pristine powder, cold and settled without
crust or drifts. There were many spots to get a few turns, but the only long
descents are from the higher peaks above treeline like Mt. Cautley – these
were consolidated and windblown.
Friday, 5 March 1999
awoke to a sunny but cold morning at -15°C, and the trip to the outhouse took
a bit of courage. There was no way to warm up that seat except with a propane
torch! After breakfast and packing our lunch we skinned up a gradual slope
to the East, to the top of Wonder Pass on the Alberta and B.C. border. Views
were available in every direction. Our route for the day offered no long powder
descents, but we enjoyed many short runs good for twenty turns each. We spent
the day at this area until we tired of cutting powder, whence Marilyn and
I glided the two miles back to our cabin, grabbed some towels and hit the
gas-fired sauna. Hot showers, new last year, were welcome.
Everyone gathered before dinner in the old common room which
Erling Strom created Norweigan-style. Barb and Sepp provide setups and we
brought our own gin. When the bell in the old tower atop the Lodge sounded,
we all stampeded into the dining room next door. Meals consist of a fish,
chicken, pork or beef main course with plenty of salad and potatoes, all equivalent
to a first-rate restaurant in the States. After a dinner spent sharing tall
tales and socializing, we walked the quarter-mile to our cabin by moonlight
and flashlight over the squeaking snow.
Saturday, 6 March 1999
We started out for Ellie’s Dome with Sepp as a guide, but at
about two-thirds of the way Marilyn and I detoured due to flat light and cloudy
conditions. We traveled two miles under Mt. Cautley to one of our secret powder
spots, named O’Brien’s Leap. This is a west-facing couloir under the North
ridge of Mt. Cautley, just East of Assiniboine Pass. It drops for about 800
vertical feet into a stream drainage, and the upper part is an open slope
with a rather steep pitch which eases into some small trees. At this point
one bushwhacks laterally beneath a cliff to the start of the drainage and
then skis the frozen, snow-covered streambed back to Assiniboine Pass. You’ve
then got another two-mile slog to the Lodge, but this trip is always a favorite
and it did not disappoint today. The open upper slope yielded some great turns.
Sunday, 7 March 1999
Sunday was a special day because our long-time friends, Emerick
and Julio from Vancouver arrived. We first skied with them about 14 years
ago and have always spent a few days together. Emerick is 80 years old and
although we can best him on turns, we cannot keep up with him on the level
or while climbing. He has a vacation cabin at Whistler and by skiing with
his family and grandchildren, he manages to stay in Olympic condition. The
four of us stayed up into the wee hours reliving the past year’s adventures.
Monday, 8 March 1999
Monday was the first sunny, warm day since leaving Vermont on
February 12th. We skied a long trek to the Northwest to find a route through
Og Pass and succeeded in getting lost in the puckerbrush. We had covered about
4 miles to this point, and climbed perhaps 800 verts. By the time we finally
got our bearings we had
most of the verts and never really linked many turns, so to salvage the day
we skied into Og Meadows and onto a hill called Ogiet. We climbed and skied
here several times, perhaps cutting 30 turns after each climb, but once finished
we had another long slog uphill for three miles back to the cabin. This was
certainly not one of our best days.
Tuesday, 9 March 1999
This was our last full day at Assiniboine, so we headed out
for a known quantity: powder slopes on the benches around Lake Magog. It was
warm and sunny, with some sun crust on South-facing runs. We found, however,enough
East-facing slopes, chutes and couloirs to exhaust ourselves in untracked
snow. This day we did not use climbing skins, choosing instead extra blue
wax. At the bottom of each run we created a climbing track that only required
two or three kick turns to reach the top for another go. By the time the day
was over we had tracked up most of the benches, so we kicked and glided over
the lake to the cabin for a last sauna and farewell dinner with Emerick and
Julio. At about 10:00 p.m. as I stepped out of the Lodge, the heavens were
ablaze with curtains of pulsating green and white light encompassing nearly
the entire sky. Marilyn and I spent twenty minutes enjoying these Northern
Lights – a fitting closure to our last wilderness night of the trip.