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Lake Magog

Clouds filter the afternoon sun over Lake Magog with Mount Assiniboine looming in the distance. Photo/Doug Firby

FirbyThere’s something about grinding your way up a mountain on a pair of skinned skis that makes you truly appreciate the trip down. You’ve literally worked your tail off for this moment, and you’re going to enjoy it.

As our group of skiers floated with abandon down a stunning run of untouched powder, we break into giggles and shouts like a bunch of teenagers. These moments of magic in the still wilderness of the Canadian Rockies is an experience unlike any other.

We “skinned up” an hour-and-a-half to get here (skins grip the snow, letting you walk uphill on skis), one of five such treks we’ll make on this day as we chase the nirvana of alpine skiing at the world famous Assiniboine Lodge.

B.C.’s Mount Assiniboine near the B.C.-Alberta border is the jagged peak that Europeans tagged the “Matterhorn of the Rockies” a century ago when they were trying to convince tourists to come to the New World. Now, its reputation as an alpine ski mecca draws guests from around the world.

My wife and I are a couple of backcountry ski novices who have taken the short, 15-minute helicopter ride from Canmore, Alta., to spend a long weekend mixing with an amiable blend of hard-core adventurers and weekend warriors a lot like us.

We form instant bonds with an eclectic cohort of people who have one thing in common: We all consciously chose to leave our cosy offices behind so we could push themselves until our muscles scream from exertion.

Repeatedly skinning your way up the side of a mountain tests your level of fitness and endurance. A first-day warmup helps our guides evaluate how well we are suited for the task, and we are assigned to groups that roughly match our fitness and ability.

You quickly learn to pace yourself, with small, deliberate forward slides that drain the least amount of energy. The operators of the lodge have equipped you with a backpack full of water and snacks because you will not make it through the morning without refueling.

Getting to the top makes it all worthwhile. The group sheds the skins that make upward climbing possible, grab a few deep breaths as the testosterone builds and then hurl gleefully into an abyss of pure white. The effort of getting up there makes the fleeting moments of downhill chaos all the more ecstatic.

As we take a break, we look at each other with the awareness that we are now sharing an experience that defies words.

Cosy fire awaits us

Back at Assiniboine Lodge, we are greeted by a small team of staff who feel like family. In the living room, a wood fire is glowing hot.

Leading the team are Claude and Annick Duchesne, who met and fell in love here about three decades ago. Claude coordinates baggage delivery, entertains all evening and somehow finds the energy and time to lead a group every day. Annick keeps the amazing kitchen humming.

Over the family style dinner that evening, we will listen to Andre’s tales of adventure, laugh and oh-so-quickly realize that our bodies are telling us it will be another early night.

The Duchesnes share caretaking during with co-owner Andre Renner, alternating work schedules. Andre Renner’s parents, Sepp and Barb Renner, bought the rights to manage the lodge in 1983, and quickly built its reputation as an outdoor adventurer’s dream. It was also a unique playground for the youthful Andre and sisters Sara (of Olympic fame) and Natalie.

Assiniboine claims to be the first backcountry ski lodge in the Rockies. It was built in 1928 by the Canadian Pacific Railway to attract “fancy clientele” to the Rocky Mountain wilds. Erling Strom, a Norwegian ski instructor, got sold on the site when he led a group to Wheeler’s Camp, a small group of huts near the site of the current lodge. After the lodge opened for business in 1929, Strom spent the next 50 years there.

Rebuilt from the foundation up in 2010-11, the lodge is rustic but welcoming. The adjacent cabins, where most of the guests stay, have neither bathrooms nor running water. There’s nothing quite like tiptoeing along the hard-packed path of snow to the outhouse on a frosty moonlit night, knowing that one false step off the track will sink you into waste-deep powder.

Our four-day stay is too short, and before we know it, it is time to head back to civilization. But we leave knowing that when that helicopter finally lifts us away from the red tin roofs, we have joined an exclusive club of adventurers who have experienced the wonder of Assiniboine’s infinite blanket of brilliant white snow. It is like a dream that we can’t wait to return to.

Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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