In a secluded valley deep in the Canadian Rockies, miles from any road and even farther from the nearest chairlift, sits a luxurious cabin. Inside there's a sauna, a crackling fire and two chefs labouring in a fully stocked kitchen; outside, trackless powder stretches to the glacier-capped horizons.
This is not the story of that cabin, a privately owned backcountry ski haven called Selkirk Lodge on the edge of the Albert Icefield that costs 25,500 Canadian dollars (about the same in US dollars) to book for a week, including the helicopter ride to get there. Instead, it's the story of the Plan B that my wife, Lauren, and I devised for our Rockies getaway in February, after regretfully concluding that the first option was about 25,200 Canadian dollars beyond our budget. Thanks to the Alpine Club of Canada's network of backcountry huts, we did manage to spend three nights in a secluded valley deep in the Canadian Rockies, miles from any road. Granted, there were no personal chefs — but for 25 dollars a person per night, we were willing to cope.
This year marks the unofficial centennial of the Alpine Club huts, treasured by Vancouverites and Calgarians but almost unknown east of Medicine Hat and south of the 49th parallel. The oldest cabin, built in 1912 on the shores of Lake O'Hara, about three hours west of Calgary, is still in use, and there are now 24 other huts scattered across the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. If you don't mind a little DIY work, they offer the kind of wilderness retreat normally reserved for the helicoptered classes – and you don't have to be a member to use them.
Getting to the cabins can be a short hike or a multi-day glacier traverse, and the facilities vary from spartan (with amenities like a mouse-proof wooden food locker) to moderately luxurious (propane oven and lights, wood-burning sauna). Elk Lakes Cabin, added to the Alpine Club's roster in 2004, was the perfect intermediate option for Lauren and me: remote enough to deter crowds but safely accessible, despite our complete lack of backcountry ski and avalanche training, and comfortable enough for a cozy winter escape.
Our trip started in Calgary, where we rented some 'light touring' skis. Slightly wider than normal cross-country skis, with metal edges for more control on steep or icy slopes, they glide with particular ease across fresh, untracked snow. After driving less than two hours from Calgary, we parked at the trailhead, did little Charlie Chaplin routines as we figured out the delicate balance required to get our skis on while wearing big hiking packs, and then set off on the six-mile run to the cabin.
The first half of the trip was steadily uphill on immaculately groomed trails, until we finally reached a broad pass with a sign warning 'End of Trail'. Here, at 6,250 feet, was the Continental Divide (and the Alberta-British Columbia provincial border); on the other side there was no trail, but the closely packed spruce and fir trees had been cleared along the path of a power line, offering us a straight shot into the valley below. Somewhere at the bottom, too far down to see, the cabin awaited.
Skiing down a mountain in complete solitude was a new experience for both of us.
My downhill skills rely mainly on luck and soft landings, but the light touring skis proved to be excellent for our descent — especially when, as I tumbled headlong into a deep drift, one of them popped loose and continued heading downhill. Fortunately, it snagged a tree a few hundred yards farther down, and we eventually made it to the bottom a little more than three hours after leaving the parking lot.
When we reached the cabin – a neat rectangle of interlocking logs with a set of antlers nailed above the door, flanked by steep banks of snow that had slid off the pitched roof – we used the four-digit combination we'd been given over the phone to open the padlock on the door and let ourselves in. Then we got to work: Lauren gathered half a dozen buckets of fresh snow and fed them into a giant pot on the propane cooktop to make drinking water, while I split some logs from a huge woodpile behind the cabin to feed the wood stove.
It all felt very rugged and outdoorsy, but in truth it was laughably easy. Everything in the cabin was set up, with all the appropriate equipment – an ax, for example – sitting right where you'd need it. The only challenge was getting the fire started, which I finally accomplished after about 17 matches. (The wood was damp, I swear.)
The cabin sleeps about 12 (depending on your need for personal space) — two in a private room on the ground floor, reserved for volunteer custodians during peak periods, and the rest in two rows of bunks in the second-floor loft. (Alex Hutchinson/The New York Times News Service)