Backcountry lodge hosts first off-piste ski mountaineering race 


Some learned about the event on the Golden Alpine Holidays e-newsletter. Others read about it on the popular website, One heard about it from a friend riding on public transit in Vancouver.

And on April 10, 27 skiers from Whistler, Squamish, Golden, Rossland, Revelstoke, Canmore and Calgary participated in the Esplanade Epic, Canada's first ski mountaineering competition hosted by a backcountry touring operation.

Blessed with blue skies and clear views of the dramatic Rockies to the east and the massive glaciers and shimmering white summits of the Selkirks to the north and west, the competitors raced on a pre-set course of three varying distances that traversed across high alpine ridges and untracked wilderness slopes between GAH's three lodges, Sunrise, Meadow and Vista.

John Bell, owner of GAH, first dreamed of the race as an opportunity to showcase the region's stunningly beautiful terrain and bountiful ski slopes.

"I thought it would be a really great way for people to see how amazingly connected this place is," Bell said. "They would get to stay high in the alpine, and the distances between the lodges are not that far to go."

Located in the Esplanade Range, non-glaciated mountains running for 35 kilometres north to south about 70 kilometres northwest of Golden, B.C, GAH opened in 1986 with the idea of offering European influenced lodge-to-lodge skiing and hiking. In Sept. 2006, Bell, a former oil and gas geologist, purchased the business, including a fourth lodge, Sentry, just a few kilometres north of Vista.

Growing up in Calgary, Bell remembers walking to Toby Creek to get water for the family ski house at Panorama.

"I'm not an oil guy in the mountains story," Bell insists. "I'm a guy who loves the mountains story."

While helicopters transport skiers to GAH's lodges, once there skiers apply synthetic skins to their ski bases to climb up mountain slopes, then strip them off for the descents. By earning their turns, backcountry skiers are rewarded with the solitude of true mountain wilderness in remote places with no crowds or sounds other than the wind and the swoosh of their skis turning on pristine slopes.

"Most of our clientele are the happiest when the helicopter leaves," Bell stated.

Bell's race dream, however, was engulfed by a dark cloud when Sentry burned to the ground in December. While Bell cemented plans to build a new Sentry Lodge this summer, employees and ski guests encouraged him to go ahead with the competition.

So in April, skiers, cooks, volunteers and professional guides were flown by helicopter from near Golden, B.C. to Sunrise Lodge and the start of the race. Ranging in age from 21 to 65, they competed in three categories: Gnarly, which involved climbing and skiing down 630 vertical metres over 8.5 kilometres; Über, with 1,215 metres of elevation gain and 1,143 metres descent over 14.2 kilometres; and the Elite course which involved climbing 1,741 metres of climbing and skiing down 1,665 metres over 19.3 kilometres.


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