Pushing the limits at Mount Assiniboine

Pushing the limits at Mount Assiniboine

Photo by Doug Firby


MT. ASSINIBOINE, B.C. - Wheeeeee! Whaoh!

As our group of skiers float with abandon down a stunning run of untouched powder, we're acting like a bunch of teenagers - giggling, tumbling, laughing and shouting.

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This incredible powder run is what we have been skinning an hour-and-a-half for, and the hard work of getting there makes the experience all the sweeter. We are experiencing the motherlode of alpine skiing at the world famous Assiniboine Lodge.

B.C.'s Mount Assiniboine 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 precedes it, and it draws guests from around the world.

A helicopter picks up guests in Canmore and takes them over the Bow Valley for the 15-minute ride to Mount Assiniboine.
Photo by Doug Firby

My wife and I are a couple of backcountry ski novices who have taken the short, 15-minute chopper ride from Canmore, AB., 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 very important thing in common: We all consciously chose to leave our cosy offices behind so we could push ourselves until our muscles scream from exertion.

Skinning your way up the side of a mountain five times in one day 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.

Guests traverse towards another run.
Photo by Doug Firby

I won't kid you - for a guy used to riding a ski lift, skinning up to the top of a run is hard work. You learn to pace yourself, with small, deliberate forward slides that drain the least amount of energy. You have 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.

At the top of a run, skiers take a break, switch gear and prepare for another epic run
Photo by Lisa Monforton

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

Back at the lodge, we are greeted by a small team of staff who feel like family. 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 lodge was recently rebuilt, but retains the charact­­er of the original.
Photo by Lisa Monforton

The Duchesnes share caretaking with co-owners Andre Renner, alternating work schedules. Andre Renner's parents, Sepp and Barb Renner, bought the rights to manage the lodge in 1983. Their enthusiasm for all things backcountry turned this into a world famous getaway, and was a unique playground for the youthful Andre and sisters Sara (of Olympic fame) and Katherine.

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.

Claude and Annick Duschene share hosting duties with the Renner family.
Photo by Lisa Monforton

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 waist-deep powder.

Backcountry glory with a fleeting glimps of Mt. Assiniboine peeking out of the clouds. 
Photo by Doug Firby

Our 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 you away from the red tin roofs, we are stronger, healthier and fitter. We also have a smile that just won't go quit.

The details:

The winter season runs Feb. 10 - April 2, 2017. You can take a chopper from either the Canmore helipad and or from Mount Shark.

If you're really ambitious, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski in. To save your spot, call 403.678.2883 or email info@assiniboinelodge.com

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