Canada & Alaska
My husband indulges me.
Not with the typical indulgences of jewellery, expensive dinners or fine clothes. What he gives me is two weeks a year on my own, to travel and explore wherever I wish.
So it was about this time last year that I sat down at the computer and Googled "hiking, mountain, helicopter, guide."
The year before, I'd hiked in Glacier National Park in Montana, but now I wanted a more challenging, more secluded trip, away from the tourists - and the bears.
What popped up was the Selkirk Mountain range in British Columbia. Specifically, the Selkirk Mountain Experience, a ski touring and alpine hiking and climbing company that draws adventurers of all ages to its doors. It appeared to be exactly what I was looking for.
Without hesitating, I shot off an e-mail requesting a seven-day excursion and crossed my fingers that there'd be space for a solo traveller. My husband thought I was crazy. His idea of a vacation is slow, lazy days on a beach; mine is exactly the opposite. John Muir's "the mountains are calling and I must go" kept running through my mind.
The flight into Calgary, Alberta, revealed a landscape of green grass and a patchwork quilt of farms. I almost wrecked the car staring at the scenery on the six-hour drive from Calgary to Revelstoke, British Columbia, and seeing the mountains in Banff and Yoho national parks that just beg to be climbed. Next time, I promised myself.
Revelstoke is a Mecca for skiers in the winter, boasting upwards of 170 inches of snow each year. But now it was midsummer, and the town was full of hikers and locals who host nightly free live music in the centre of town. The weekly farmers market was full of home-grown veggies, breads, meats and cheeses, a great place to pick up fuel for hiking the mountains.
The hosts for my adventure were Ruedi Beglinger and his family, who own and run the Selkirk Mountain Experience. Ruedi, who's originally from Switzerland, first visited the Selkirk Mountains in 1980 on a stint as a mountain guide. He fell in love with the range and decided to call it home. Eventually the provincial government granted him a permit to build a backcountry ski lodge and to lead tours in a swath of pristine range.
In 1985, he built the Durrand Glacier Chalet at nearly 6,400 feet; it can house 22, has a full kitchen, a sauna, hot showers, wifi and even indoor plumbing. Its amber walls and red roof make it a beacon on the hillside among the pines and the snow. The Mount Moloch Chalet, a second hut higher in the mountains, was built in 1989 and can hold 11 guests. A bit more rugged, with no showers or indoor plumbing, it stands close to the surrounding granite walls and mountain peaks.
Both chalets boast a distinctly Swiss cleanliness, order and comfort. There are drying rooms to leave your gear in; indoor shoes await your tired feet. Fluffy comforters on the simple beds keep you cosy as the temperature drops into the 30s at night, even in July. And every room boasts a window with views that you have to tear your eyes away from to make sure that you get plenty of much-needed sleep.
On Day One, after a quick safety video, I climbed into the helicopter that would chauffeur me from Revelstoke to the Moloch Chalet, about 20 minutes into the mountains. At an elevation of about 7,200 feet, it would be base camp for Ruedi and me alone for the next four days. The other guests were heading to the Durrand Glacier Chalet for shorter stays.
Remembering my need for adventure, I took a deep breath and started going with the flow. I turned off my cell phone but kept the iPad to back up photographs. There was no cell service at the Moloch Chalet, and no electricity, either. Should be a good time, I thought wryly to myself. Then, with a whoosh, we were off. The helicopter floated us into the mountains, leaving the noise of everyday life behind.
At the Durrand Glacier Chalet, we dropped off a few hikers, who wished me good luck with a wink. Supplies were loaded into the helicopter, Ruedi jumped into the co-pilot's seat, and we took off on another five-minute flight into the middle of the mountains.
As we came buzzing around a large snow-covered mountain, a red speck emerged in the distance. Sitting in the middle of a huge bowl of glaciers and snow was a red-roofed chalet with a small landing pad. It was July, but we were surrounded by snow.
As the helicopter flew off, the thwak-thwak-thwak of the propeller ricocheting off the mountain walls, silence descended all around. Then, just as quickly, the sound of rushing water filled my ears. It was the sound of water melting off the mountain peaks and draining down the slopes.
After we'd unpacked, Ruedi wanted to get in a quick hike before it got too late in the day. It was 10 am.
The days went like this: Up at 7 for a fruit, yogurt and muesli breakfast, with an awesome cappuccino (a rare treat at 7,000 feet), then out the door. Rope up and follow in Ruedi's footsteps. That's the key - step where he steps, try to move the same way he moves, which is nearly impossible, as he was born of the mountains in a small Swiss town.
The gruelling hike on snow for hours each day brought about a bodily fatigue that I've never known. It also brought about hours of a peaceful mind. It was the first time in ages that my mind stopped circling, and I was free to truly think.
Jane Goodall wrote about this in her book "Reason For Hope" - an insightful read that I found in the small library of books left behind at the chalet by previous climbers. It was perfect for headlamp reading as the alpine glow slowly burned off the mountains.
Each day Ruedi built upon my desire to hike longer, scramble higher (I'm not a rock climber, but I love to scramble over boulders), see farther, be challenged, experience something new. Each day we crested a new mountaintop, experienced amazing views, touched pools of icy blue water in the belly of a glacier, started mini-avalanches as we precariously walked across a snow bridge. And one of the most fun-filled things for me was learning how to bum slide.
There are no sleds in the remote mountains. You just sit down on the snow and start sliding down the side of the mountain, steering with your walking pole. It's the fastest way down a mountain after an exhausting hike up. Just watch out for rocks and make sure that you can stop before you go off a ledge. I found it exhilarating, like being a kid again.
On Tuesday, we were scheduled to climb over a couple of mountains and join another group of guests for three more days of hiking based out of the Durrand Glacier Chalet. But on Monday evening, Ruedi took stock of our food stores, and over dinner, we both blurted almost simultaneously, "Let's stay another day!" Thankfully, we were on the same page. I wasn't ready to give up the solitude and the camaraderie that we'd established over the past three days.
On Wednesday, we got up early, cleaned the hut and threw on our backpacks. To get to the main chalet, we needed to climb the path I'd been watching the mountain goats take for the past few days. No problem!
As we climbed up and over the impossibly beautiful Juliana Glacier, which I'd been looking at and photographing for four days, all I wanted to do was go back. Back to the quiet hut of solitude, void of outside contact and full of the simple routine of eating, hiking, photography and reading.
We walked and talked at a casual pace, and as we topped a ridge and stopped for lunch, Ruedi pointed to a glacier lake below and quietly disclosed his plans to build a third hut, to complete his triangle in the mountains. It was a perfect spot, and I could envision the hut there even as he talked.
As a storm began to swell off in the distance, we started to pick up the pace across a couple of ridges and a wide glacier. Getting stuck on a mountain among the mineral-rich rocks during a storm isn't safe. Ruedi pointed out locations he was heading toward in case lightning started to spark up. Lightning? Once again, I had to remind myself: It's all part of the adventure.
We practically ran across a glacier to beat the impending storm and made it to the Durrand Glacier Chalet before the rain broke out. I burst through the door to find a group of slightly stunned people who'd been watching us hoof it toward the chalet. Making my apologies and a quick exit, I headed to my designated room, called Mount Ruth, a pretty little space where I unpacked a change of clothes and the few belongings I had with me.
In the mountains you don't expect running water, let alone a hot shower. But in a separate hut, the Beglingers had ingeniously crafted both a shower and a steam room where each guest got three to four minutes of running hot water to bathe in. Sweet!
Scrubbed clean, I reintroduced myself to the group of hikers I'd be spending the next couple of days with. There were an ER doctor and his paediatrician wife and their son, who was soon entering medical school. An ex-airline pilot and his wife who'd lived and travelled the world together, and a tech entrepreneur who'd dropped off his wife at a spa in Revelstoke.
And I finally had the pleasure of meeting Ruedi's wife, Nicoline. We'd been in walkie-talkie contact with her for the past five days, and her welcoming smile and easygoing personality perfectly matched the lyrical voice I'd been listening to. I wasn't surprised that one of their daughters was studying to be an opera singer.
Each evening after dinner, we planned the next day's hike. There were two additional guides who would tailor trips to the guests' skills and wishes. Ruedi and I, joined by Nicoline, went for a bigger hike to Allalin Peak. At 8,559 feet, it's actually much smaller than its Swiss namesake, which rises 13,212 feet.
Watching the couple hike together, I was envious of the ease with which they climbed through the snow and rock. They'd met when Nicoline, who was from Vancouver, was a guest at the lodge, and over the past 20 years they've carved out this unique and enviable lifestyle for themselves.
On my last day out with Ruedi, a couple of 20-somethings who were hoping to become guides joined us. We aimed to climb Mount Ruth, which, rising 9,064 feet, would be the longest, most challenging climb of the week. "Epic" is what Ruedi had called it at dinner the night before. My first reaction? Uh-oh. But then the prospective med student had chimed in. "Go big or go home!" he'd said, and I thought, "Right!"
We set out at 7:30 am, over a rushing river and down to the bottom of a valley, before hiking up the other side of the mountain. Tiptoeing over the ridges, we made our way to the top. All the while, I watched the two younger hikers run like gazelles across the snow, shooting pictures, practicing techniques that I hemmed and hawed at attempting.
Once we reached the peak, I looked out over the breathtaking view. The chalet was a tiny house off in the distance, barely a blip on the landscape. I lingered, not wanting to climb back down the mountain.
We waited as long as we could, but then slowly made our way along the ridge to the glacier. Boot-skiing down the mountain, we hung out for a while on the rocks, talking about how far the glacier had receded in the decades that Ruedi had been living there. The amount of melting has been dramatic, revealing a landscape full of boulders instead of pristine glacier and snow.
Back at the chalet that evening, Jenni, the chef, served our final meal: grilled lamb, potatoes, fresh vegetables and homemade ice cream with sweet rhubarb. Afterward, we all migrated to the deck to watch the sun sink behind the mountains and the moon rise among the pines.
Later, packing for an early departure the next morning, I looked through the 10 rocks that I'd gathered, each one carefully culled from the top of a mountain I'd climbed that week. Some were more remarkable than others, but each one represented an experience that I'll never forget.
And one that I owe, I reflected, to my husband.
Farrar is a senior photo editor for The Washington Post.
- The Washington Post