I wearily lift my fogged-up ski goggles and strain to see through the blowing snow to my friend Kayla in the distance. As the wind and cold hit my eyes, my contact lenses feel as though they’re stuck to my eyeballs. Exhausted, I flop down onto the frozen terrain and my eyes begin to well up with tears. It’s the middle of February and I’m on Ptarmigan Lake in the backcountry of Lake Louise.
Why, oh why, am I doing this?
We are cross-country skiing out to Skoki Lodge, Western Canada’s oldest backcountry lodge. Built in 1931, the spot is famous for its rustic accommodations (there’s no running water or electricity), gourmet meals and remote location—Skoki is only accessible via an 11-kilometre trek (cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in the winter, hiking in the summer) that rewards adventurers for their efforts with a front-row view of Alberta’s incredible Rocky Mountains.
“There are no beeping electronics, no lights and not another soul in sight.”
I knew this journey was going to be tough—the trail starts near Temple Lodge at the Lake Louise Ski Resort and winds through an alpine forest, crosses two major passes and reaches oxygen-thinning elevations—but I didn’t think it would be this tough.
Over the years, I’ve always been told visiting Skoki Lodge is a truly magical experience, a chance to see a different, more remote side of Banff National Park, complete with animal sightings, incredible mountain views and a dreamy night spent in a backcountry cabin. But, as I look around and see nothing but white—the mountains are completely obscured by the blowing snow—magical is not the word that comes to mind.
Stormy conditions and bitter temperatures are making this challenging trip nearly unbearable. Every bit of my skin is covered, but I’m still freezing and icicles are forming on my eyelashes, reminding me of an important life lesson: don’t cry in a blizzard.
We’ve just made it over the aptly named Boulder Pass; it’s strewn with boulders that have fallen from Redoubt Mountain, which towers beside us. The steady uphill climb has left my legs burning, and we are now halfway across Ptarmigan Lake, fully exposed to the blowing snow, barely able to see the next pole marker ahead of us.
But the worst is yet to come: the looming Deception Pass is a steep, relentless 145-metre climb, reaching an altitude of nearly 2,500 metres, a height that will leave even the fittest of skiers breathless.
After some gentle coaxing from Kayla, and buoyed by the promise of a fireplace and a giant glass of wine, I pick myself up off the ice and we continue across the lake to the base of Deception Pass.
We put skins on our skis (designed to help give grip while ascending slopes) and start the trip up the pass through fresh powder, which only adds to the struggle as our skis sink down. There’s little talking between Kayla and me, and I try not to let the screaming in my head escape my mouth.
When we finally get to the top, above the treeline, I struggle to catch my breath.
The full trip takes most people about four hours, and we are coming up on hour six by the time the rustic log cabin comes into sight. Exhausted and so hungry, we are greeted by friendly Skoki staff and ushered into the warmth of the lodge, where other guests are gathered in the large living room on couches around the wood-burning fireplace, sipping coffee and chatting.
After we strip off our wet gear, we feast on some hearty homemade soup and fresh-baked bread—some of the best I’ve had. The night continues on at a slow pace: we enjoy another lovely meal of pork tenderloin and roasted vegetables by candlelight, sip wine, play cards and visit with our fellow lodgers, including two women about 30 years our senior who did the trip in three hours. There are no beeping electronics, no lights and not another soul in sight.
It’s pure magic.
The next morning, the snow has stopped and the sky is completely blue. As we prepare to make our way home, I stand back at the top of Deception Pass and gaze out at the sweeping views of the Rockies—I can finally see Mount Temple (my favourite mountain), the Wall of Jericho and the Slate Mountain Range—and the pristine valleys below.
Once again, my breath is taken away—but this time, it’s not from exhaustion.
Things to know about Skoki Lodge
- Skoki’s main building sleeps up to 12 people, and there are three private cabins on the property. Booking is required.
- There’s no running water—guests are given pitchers of hot water for washing up, and there’s an outhouse on the property.
- All food, including a hearty snack on arrival, a three-course dinner, desserts, coffee, tea, a full breakfast and a lunch buffet, is included.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Calgary 111 times a day from 24 Canadian, 12 U.S. and 13 international cities.