Stories & Articles

Snowboard Mountaineering

Lactic Bath in the Great White North

Aside from the stinkeye we got from the border guard, we slipped into Canada with minimal shakedown. As the two-lane meandered northward just west of Fernie, British Columbia, we saw a foretelling road sign - "Prescribed Burn in Progress." Laughing at the quirky Canuck word of choice, the deep-hidden meaning flew right over our heads.

Two days later, as we approached the summit of Tumbledown Mountain for the second time in three hours, the irony of that fateful yellow, diamond-shaped road sign wasn't lost. My legs were on fire. I didn't know if I was going to puke or simply fall on the ground and twitch. Swirling fog and a schizo wind added fuel to my stupor. Graupel pelted my cheeks like lilliputian snowballs. Slogging upward in resolute mountaineering cadence, I mumbled curse words about our guide, Ruedi.

Ruedi Beglinger, you see, hikes somewhere in the neighbourhood of a million vertical feet a year. In 1998, he did the first snowboard descent of the Yukon Territory's 19,540-foot Mt. Logan, North America's second highest peak behind McKinley (and reputedly the coldest spot on the continent). Hanging with a maniacal mountain guide like this, it's virtually guaranteed you'll be sandbagged - pushed to the limits - then pushed a bit further.

But don't get me wrong - we were loving it. Our disparate posse of nine had converged from all over the globe to tour in the Northern Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. From Maui to Munich, from Whitefish to wherever, we all came of our own freewill to get worked over by the Man.

Now, dizzy with vertigo, we ascended at a rate os 2,500 feet per hour. The "prescribed Burn" was flaring.

Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) is a snowboard/ski-mountaineering mecca for those who relish hardcore touring. Opened in 1985, SME offers access to some of the most spectacular terrain you could envision. Even when it's dumping and avalanche danger is high, the place has a stash of steep trees below the chalet to keep you busy for days. When conditions are reasonably stable and/or spring-like, you'll be touring up into one of the many glaciated basins and onward to bag a string of peaks. Long approaches make for long descents. It ain't no yo-yo deal. This is full-on mountain touring.

With all this, SME blends comfortable, European-style mountain-chalet lodging with died-and-gone-to-heaven cooking. In addition to culinary creature comforts, there's a wood-fired sauna to bake your tattered bones at day's end. The entire experience is infused with their play-hard-or-go-home approach. Everything is set to their Rolex schedule.

You'll be choppered into the Durrand Chalet, about 30 miles east of Revelstoke. Enjoy the hum of rotor blades as you unload. It's the last mechanical assist you get until it's time to fly out a week later. Once in the chalet, you don't have time to dally, so get your act together... the first tour is leaving.

...Before long, Ruedi shuffled onto the scene with his signature surf-rat grin. Though we were currently standing in polenta-like snow, Ruedi thought he knew where we could claim some deeper damp powder turns. As we learned over the next week, Ruedi has a sixth sense when it comes to seeking the goods.

A wet storm cycle prevailed during the first couple of days. Despite misty, high-humidity conditions, Ruedi led us to line after line of fresh, carvable snow. Not what you'd call all-time, but fun.

...As soon as we began settling into the Durrand program, Ruedi suggested a change of venue. We'd pack up in the morning and head to the Moloch Hut. The tentative plans was to be gone three days and two nights, but ... we liked the Durrand. We liked Ayako's cooking. We liked the sauna.

"We will leave at 6:15 a.m.," Ruedi said. "Have your lunches packed." As was now clearly understood, we pushed off at the appointed minute. Through a blustery, gray first light, the Durrand faded in my mind's rearview mirror.

Our first summit of the morning was Mount Ruth. We kicked steps through a horizontal snow squall, and once up top, had the snow-obscured view described to us by Ruedi. Despite having to imagine the vista, we were stoked to be getting a rapid accumulation of colder, dryer snow. After dropping through a crevasse and serac-ridden Ruth Glacier, we skinned onward to the Moloch Hut.

The Moloch, as it turned out, was Ruedi's clubhouse - a spartan refuge in a sea of gigantic Alpine mountains, a cornucopia of steep climbs and equally steep descents. The Moloch Hut was cozy enough, but markedly more rustic than the now distant chalet. Once inside, a fire was kindled and we began drying our dank boot liners and skanky skivvies. Ruedi and Nicoline (his hard-charging bride) put on a hearty meal of pasta, salad, and fresh bread. Not the exotic curries, delicate spring rolls, or cheesy fondues of the Durrand, just good, wholesome grinds.

...Unlike other touring ad hut operations where it's a afterthought, snowboarding is actively promoted and encouraged at Selkirk Mountain Experience. Appropriately equipped snowboarders, game for serious mountain touring, are welcomed with open arms. Entertaining snowboarding guests gives Ruedi a excuse to guide on his splitboard. Though this gives some of his skiing clients pause, Ruedi makes no apologies for his single-plank passion.

During our week, we had a flavourful mix of riders, randonnee skiers, and telemarkers. The other snowboarders in our group were from Salt Lake. having discovered SME many years back, they'd done previous trips on short skis but, like Ruedi, opted for splitboards this go round. I was the lone rider using short skis for ascents. Aside from having to schlep my board around on my back, the approach skis worked well and allowed me to descend on a tried ad true board.

...Perhaps most importantly, be in shape and ready to cover some ground. in the six-and-a-half days we were in the Selkirks, we climbed approximately seventeen summits and ascended something in the neighborhood of 45,000 vertical feet (Ruedi's had guests do a many a 60,000 feet in a week). That may not sound impressive compared to helicopter-assisted statistics, but this ain't that.

Snowboard Life Magazine - no. 22, 2000 By Mike Harrelson