2016: A Ski Odyssey

2016: A Ski Odyssey

Somewhere between British Columbia and Alberta, Canada

Somewhere between British Columbia and Alberta, Canada

Winter is almost here, so how about a ski story?

Last March we packed the car and set out on a two-week ski odyssey around British Columbia and Alberta, Canada. It wasn’t just any car. It was a Chevy Suburban of Secret Service caliber — black, with tinted windows and enough room to fit all the president’s men. We debated with the rental car company about the vehicle being TOO big and even drove it back to try to exchange it for something smaller.

When we returned to Budget Rent-a-Car, the irony was thick. Here was a lovely Budget employee from India, about five feet tall standing next to the Chevy Monstrosity, who had never skied a day in his life yet insisted this was the perfect four-wheel drive vehicle for our trip. His enthusiasm was so irresistible, we went with it. And it turns out he was absolutely right. Not only did the Secret Service Ski Suburban (SSSS) accommodate the obscene amount of gear and clothing we had for every foreseeable winter condition, but it also gave us a real sense of setting out on an epic road trip through the Canadian Rockies. We don’t own a car, so suddenly having our hands gripped on the steering wheel of the most massive winter expeditionary vehicle was like … Yes! We are doing this! And it’s going to be awesome.

We drove from Vancouver to Kelowna to Revelstoke to Golden to Lake Louise to Nelson to Osoyoos and back to Vancouver. We skied Big White, Revelstoke and Kicking Horse, and J also indulged in a day of heli-skiing in the Selkirk Mountains. Lucky for us, March was a winter wonderland with great ski conditions throughout the trip and we also enjoyed a couple of snowy days at the Fairmont Lake Louise.

Big White

Big White hulks with mass — it is not a steep mountain, but a heavy blanket of snow transforms the upper reaches into a bizarre and beautiful landscape. The snow entirely engulfs the trees, kind of like that clumpy white flocking on fake Christmas trees. Known as “snow ghosts” with their unusual costumes, the trees resemble everything from dinosaurs to shrimp tempura (bang on description, J). The tree skiing at Big White is fantastic — again, not too steep and not too fast, with dips and dives like little roller coasters off every run. With such beautiful terrain, even riding the lifts at Big White was enjoyable.

Revelstoke

From Big White we pointed the SSSS to Revelstoke. We passed some bighorn sheep along the way and pulled into our hotel in the early evening as flurries began to fly. Revelstoke is an old mining town still clinging to its identity and character. The architecture retains the style and scale of years past, and the shops and restaurants have a friendly, welcoming charm rarely found in bigger cities. No stop in Revelstoke would be complete without at least one visit to the Village Idiot Bar and Grill for great food and hospitality.

We hit the mountain in the morning and although the sun wasn’t shining, the runs were empty and easy to cruise. The slopes at Revelstoke Mountain Resort are much steeper and more difficult than Big White. Off-piste terrain is plentiful and you might even come across a cliff here and there — but they’ll try to warn you with a tiny orange sign. Pay attention!

Eagle Pass Heliskiing, Revelstoke

For J, the highlight of the Ski Odyssey was a day in the backcountry of the Selkirk Mountains with Eagle Pass Heliskiing. They accidentally over-booked and since we had some flexibility with our days, he got bumped to a different day with unlimited vertical and better weather. Win-win. He suited up in an inflatable pack, did about 15 runs with a group of four and enjoyed one of the best ski days of his life. Needless to say, the views were breathtaking and the powder was fresh. (Maybe I’ll join him next time.)

Kicking Horse

After Revelstoke, we drove on to Kicking Horse in Golden, BC. This resort was my favorite of the trip. It’s heavy on the double black diamonds and, with wide open bowls, there are endless lines to ski and lots of drop-ins to make your runs just a little more thrilling. The Stairway to Heaven lift gives a scenic view of the entire Crystal Bowl and the view from the top explains how the lift got its name.

What I enjoyed the most (aside from no lift lines) was dropping into Feuz Bowl and looking back at the massive panorama behind us.

Kicking Horse, British Columbia, Canada

Kicking Horse, British Columbia, Canada

Lake Louise

From Kicking Horse, we hurried over to lake Louise for two days of luxury next to the lake. We arrived on a beautiful, blustery afternoon. After banging around in ski boots for more than a week, it was nice to warm our toes in the comfort of the Fairmont. Winter cocktails and fondue made it extra wonderful. Because who doesn’t love hot cheese in the middle of winter?

Lake Louise Ski Resort is just across the highway from the Fairmont, but with so much fun right outside our hotel door we never did make it to that mountain. Lake Louise was frozen and covered in snow, inviting a walk across to the other end. The Fairmont had also constructed a magnificent ice castle on the lake, inspiring people to play, pose and get outside to experience the beauty of winter. With a sense of adventure and a few shots of Fireball, who knew a frozen lake could be so fun?

Happy winter everyone! Let’s get outside, point our feet downhill and see where the next adventure takes us.

Miscellaneous Photography

Vancouver Hiking: Joffre Lakes

joffre10

Upper Joffre Lake

Just a couple hours from Vancouver, our group finds the trailhead and sets out into the forest seeking a trio of glacial lakes in Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. The lower lake appears just ahead, not far from our starting point — a little amuse bouche of what’s farther up the trail. Reed grass paints a lime green swath through the water while the sun hides behind clouds just above the mountains.

We continue on the trail — easy under foot and blanketed by thick undergrowth on both sides. The park clearly sees a lot of precipitation as the vegetation looks almost like a rainforest. The trail shifts into high gear and we’re soon progressing through a valley on a steep incline. Getting to the middle lake is an uphill haul, but the views entice and encourage and we find ourselves at the shore, out of breath.

A glacial lake is a sight to behold, anywhere in the world. Deep blue-green and opaque, it’s not only hard to describe but hard to believe even when seeing it in person. The blue tones accentuate the yellow in the vegetation surrounding the lake, and it seems today that even my camera is having difficulty interpreting the values of this extraordinary landscape. It just doesn’t look real.

Just up the trail, water cascades down through the trees along a nearly perfect staircase waterfall. The sky tries to clear and we continue on our way to Upper Joffre Lake.

The highest lake offers the greatest reward, with a view into a cirque topped by an old glacier. It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch so we settle on a coarse moraine next to the trail. The sun finally shines and hits the water like a spotlight — blue-green changing to aqua in a brilliant show of colors. The glacier holds a hint of icy blue and with my long lens I see the many layers of winters past fused together in a moving, melting canvas. We explore the campground at the far end of the lake (paradise!) and then begin our descent back to our starting point.

It’s such a thrill to find wilderness so easily reached from Vancouver. It’s just the beginning of my adventure here and Canada’s backcountry is vast. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for however long I’m here.

***

To get to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, take Highway 99 from Vancouver through Whistler to Pemberton. The parking area is located on the right side, several kilometers past Lillooet Lake. For more information, visit the park website:

http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/joffre_lks/

 

Miscellaneous Travel

Day One in Bhutan: Surprise, Surprise

Jhomolhari

Finding myself on the way to Bhutan was not something I expected to happen in 2012, so from the beginning Bhutan has been nothing but a surprise to me. Mr. Producer, generous husband who he is, secretly booked the trip as a birthday gift for me. A friend of ours wanted to go, had done the research and found a tour company but didn’t have anyone to go with so… Mr. Producer signed me up.

When I found out, I was speechless. I cried. And then I got REALLY excited. Bhutan is a sort of Holy Grail of traveling — mysterious, isolated, unspoiled and so abnormally expensive that young, uber-adventurous, jet-setting backpackers who have explored just about every nook and cranny of the world have largely been left at the Bhutanese border. The expense alone means that if and when you go to Bhutan, you’ll probably be exploring the country among a small number of well-to-do, well-traveled tourists who have been working and saving for a very long time to get to Bhutan. That said, Mr. Producer made a wise financial decision by seizing the opportunity to send only one of us to assess this expensive land of mystery. I was happy to accept the mission.

We, Kelly and Kelly (our friend and I share the same name), were off to Bhutan. We flew from Singapore to Paro, Bhutan with a quick stop in Calcutta on a plane that was nearly empty, as service by Druk Air just started in September. Calcutta looked hot and hazy from the air, with flat terrain crowded by apartment buildings and farmland. Upon landing we took on a huge load of passengers, all looking for a seat on the left side of the plane — the best vantage point for a glimpse of the Himalayas.

We took off and began the final 50 minute flight into Paro. The view to the west featured cumulus clouds as far as the eye could see, but Jhomolhari (7,314 meters/24,000+ feet) managed to poke through the blanket and reveal itself with a wisp of white at its tip. Suddenly the clouds were gone beneath us, we entered the mountains around Paro and began our descent — finding our way as if we were threading needles through mountain valleys, one after another, twisting and turning, finding our way to the airport while from the window it looked like we would surely skim the treetops along the way. Yikes! With one last unexpected tilt and dip of the left wing just before landing, we touched down and passengers burst into applause.

Arrival at the Paro airport

Leaving the plane in Paro, I savored the feeling of being somewhere totally foreign. Several men were dressed in traditional Bhutanese ghos — patterned knee-length robes with wide, white cuffs, a cloth belt around the waist, knee socks and leather shoes. Pretty charming traditional dress! Also charming? The architecture, even at the airport — white-washed with ornate columns and an elaborate wood cornice hand-painted with colorful motifs. And just to the left of the airport entry… meet the Wangchucks.

Meet the Wangchucks

Move over Will and Kate — the Wangchucks are a stunning young couple and admired throughout the country. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the fifth and current king since the Bhutanese monarchy was introduced in 1907. He’s just 32 years old and was married to Jetsun Pema last year. She is 22 years old. You cannot turn your head in Bhutan without seeing their portraits hanging from at least one wall, signpost, building or billboard. They are simply everywhere, like exquisite fixtures of the kingdom who accompany your every move. Kuzuzangbo la!

Breezing through immigration, we bought a couple bottles of wine at duty-free (yes, Bhutan has duty-free) and pushed our luggage cart toward the exit where we were met by Fin, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan. He greeted us with impeccable English, a smart gho and the charisma of a business owner who knows exactly what he’s doing. We loaded up the luggage and left the airport in his modern SUV — not exactly what I had expected from this surprising little country.Paro countryside

Headed toward Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I surveyed the countryside — a lot like the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado or the Sierras in California. I felt right at home, as Fin drove along and gave us a well-informed lesson on the history and culture of Bhutan. We stopped along the way for a short hike to the river and the first suspension bridge in Bhutan. Strewn with prayer flags, the bridge employed under foot some of the massive metal links used in its original construction (see photo). The wood and brick structures at each end were painted with fascinating patterns. The river flowed cold and peaceful below us. I knew in those moments that Bhutan was a place I was going to love.Bhutan's first suspension bridge Outside Paro Fin on a bridge to Bhutan Downtown Thimphu

We arrived in Thimphu around 5:00. The sun had left the valley, hidden by the high ridge along the west side. We entered downtown — a busy streetscape surprisingly reminiscent of alpine villages in Europe. We drove along as Fin listed off quirky and fascinating facts about Bhutan: the only country without a single traffic light, only one escalator in the whole country, a building code that requires all architecture to adhere to traditional Bhutanese style, dry Tuesdays during which no alcohol can be bought or sold, an emphasis on local organic farming rather than importing fruits and vegetables, no driving in town centers on Tuesdays in support of “Pedestrian Days”, and no smoking or tobacco use anywhere — it’s totally outlawed. Bhutan is surprisingly progressive for such an insular country.

We checked into the hotel as we took it all in. Hotel Pedling was a quaint yellow building in the center of town. Our room was on the second floor, free wifi, toasty warm with wood wainscoting and practically Swiss in its alpine appearance. The tiled en suite bathroom was huge. I had expected we’d be roughing it so I was totally surprised by the modern facilities.

Fin accompanied us to dinner at Ama Restaurant — down a few stairs, just a short walk from the hotel. The food was excellent — potatoes, marinated chicken with vegetables, naan, rice, a curry dish and Druk 11,000 beer. Also, in a small bowl was an authentic Bhutanese dish that accompanied every meal we had during our trip: ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. Sometimes mild, sometimes crazily hot, and slightly different at every meal, I tried it a few times with mixed results. Regardless, let it be known that the Bhutanese love their chili peppers.Trashi Chhoe Dzong

Off for an evening drive, we stopped along the road to see the lights of the Trashi Chhoe Dzong and admire the National Memorial Chorten by moonlight. At 8:00 p.m. people were still circumambulating the chorten in daily prayer rituals. We would return to the Trashi Chhoe Dzong tomorrow to see the changing of the guard, but for now it had been a loooong and enlightening day. Fin returned us to our hotel. I reflected on the day’s events, reveled in all of the day’s surprises, and fell asleep as a plenitude of dogs barked into the night.National Memorial ChortenNext: Day Two in Bhutan

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