"What does holy mean? It's from the church, right?" Seb asked.
"It's something sacred," Kevin answered.
Seb was quiet, then said, "We're in a holy place, yeah?"
Everyone sitting around the breakfast table nodded, suddenly solemn, at Sebastien Trudeau, the French-Canadian custodian of Meadow Lodge, our home for a week in the Golden, British Columbia, backcountry. While examining maps, eating French toast, and staring at the grapefruit alpenglow, we'd been talking about our friend's pants, which had a gaping rip in the crotch that he intended to fix with a needle, thread, and duct tape. Hole-y.
Seb was right. We were in the "center of the universe," as he called it—the Esplanade Range, 57 square miles of mountain folded between two distinct ski galaxies, the icy Selkirks and soaring Rockies. One of four Golden Alpine Holidays huts in the Esplanade, Meadow Lodge sits near timberline in the cradle below Mount Cupola, the range's highest peak.
The hut's bread and butter are pillows: puffy, fat, the kind you watch with wide eyes on the silver screen. The week before, a production crew had sat at the same table for breakfast. Then it was our turn. Twelve friends, a mélange of dirtbags and young professionals. Normals. Nary a pro athlete or sponsorship in sight. With the education and experience needed for a self-guided trip, we paid less per day than we would have for a spendy resort lift tickets.
The unassuming town of Golden, home to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, is 40 minutes south of the helicopter staging area. A 212 swiftly delivered us to Meadow Lodge by noon. Seb showed us the shoulder yoke, buckets, and pickaxe we'd use to collect water from the frozen creek. He explained how to fire up the sauna, an essential for staying clean and healthy. "I don't party every night," he said, rising on his toes to demonstrate how the propane lights work. "But… sometimes I do." Meadow Lodge has an oven and foot pump sinks and a full rack of spices—every necessary luxury. The mountains outside have different luxuries, the other necessities.
We spent the first afternoon digging pits, splitting up to test all sides of the compass in our drainage. Like a kid tugging at my sleeve, the mighty mountain-scape of the Rockies had me turning back with every stroke of the shovel. "It just feels good to look at it," I said. "A deep tissue massage for my eyeballs," Jackson agreed. As we rubbernecked, it sunk in: holy shit. These are rowdy, big mountains. Tremendous and indifferent and greater than me in every way, they scared me. And we were going to ski them? It felt audacious.
We worked diligently to clear a pit, a mortal's attempt to decipher these Gods' scripture, and discussed the pack's layers. On our way back to the lodge, we dropped into Crazy Canuck, a short couloir on Cupola's shoulder. In one turn, I remembered why we did this, why we put ourselves in the way of mountains that overwhelm us. The more formidable the mountain, the greater the feeling of balance when you manage to move in harmony with her.
The next day, we skied Billy the Kid, a deep, steep path that was Platonic in its perfection. Prescott's wacky, disbelieving hoots bounced across the drainage. After our second run, I tipped over into the snow, tired and giggling.
Every day, we felt lucky. With blue skies, little wind, cold temperatures, and a fairly stable snowpack, we were. But I think this is the kind of place that makes everybody feel lucky.
We gained Paradise Ridge, an expansive ridgeline that rolls over the Western side of the drainage. The ridge, and Cupola Creek below, are the wrinkle in time and space that separates the sweet, soulful Esplanade from the fearsome, glacial Selkirks. We skinned up the mellow backside of Cupola and stood at the summit, where views reach clear to the North Pole. Mount Iconoclast and Mount Sir Sanford, two Seklirk giants, stood sentry nearby. Two flags of snow fanned out like heroic capes from their angular summits. On Cupola, there wasn't the faintest breath of wind, despite widespread sastrugi, the etchings of violent gusts the night before.
On the final day, we skied over the western flank of Paradise Ridge into the deep, narrow Cupola Creek drainage. With playful rolls and billows, our line skied ocean-like, flowing in undulating waves. A storm moved in after lunchtime, steeping the mountaintops in snowy clouds. It was the first grumble we’d seen from the sky. Still, we felt compelled to take another, just one more. "Better Than Sex," the map advised. It wasn't wrong. I’d been skiing like a tired Grandma, in the back seat and stopping periodically to clutch at my burning legs. But on these last turns, I found a beautiful burst of energy from some deeper place.
As we ascended Paradise, the mountains slowly disappeared into the storm, the grainy ending of a movie we wanted to keep watching. It was a gentle nudge toward our lives back at home: these mountains couldn't tempt me if I couldn't see them. I could go, and I could pretend I wouldn't miss anything. We made blind turns in powder that had just fallen, feeling our way down to the lodge. Fade to white.
Golden Alpine Holidays has four year-round lodges—Sunrise, Meadow, Vista, and Sentry—which sit in successive drainages. Sentry has the flashiest digs, with running hot water, indoor urinals, and WiFi. Full week rental packages vary by lodge, but a week-long, self-guided winter trip to Meadow in 2018/19 will cost a total of $6,000 (split between, at most, 14 skiers). The guided and catered version will run each skier $2,200. Meadow’s helicopter fee is $425 per person. Check online for availability and book early. I drove five hours from Whitefish, Montana, while other trip members drove from Utah (a 15-hour haul north) or the international airport in Calgary (three hours).