GETAWAY: Purcell Mountain Lodge

“Okay. If any of you are thinking of heading down to the power house, just be aware that we've seen fresh bear sign and think that Bella may be visiting down there. If you see a bear, just back away quietly and come straight back here to report it. Don't go near it”¦”

Bella is a local bruin and the man delivering the after-breakfast briefing is Brian Kelsch, one of two mountain guides working at Purcell Mountain Lodge near Golden B.C.

Much as I love bears, I have no desire to meet one here in the wild, because it will definitely be a grizzly, as they are the only species found at this elevation and can be dangerous.

The post-breakfast bear warning doesn't worry 59-year old Daniel Schecter. Sitting across the table from me, he talks about driving up from Spokane Valley, Washington. When he puts on his hiking gear, he looks like the epitome of the electric outdoorsman ““ he has an emergency backpack filled with survival gear and clipped to it are an altimeter and bear spray.

 “The short answer to why I'm here is because I love hiking in British Columbia. There may be nice places to hike in Washington State, but a good lodge is hard to find”¦ I don't think more beautiful country than B.C. exists.

“Four years ago, I found myself 20 pounds overweight so I started searching the Internet looking for a gym or a fat farm. I ran across a website for Mountain Trek that offered a low-cal diet and hiking as a way to lose weight. It was a perfect fit for me.” His first trip lasted just a week, but during that week he discovered a group of committed mountain guides who were willing to work with him to achieve his goals.

The next year he was back for three weeks and lost five pounds a week, but he gained it all back. Still, Schecter continues to hike and maintains it contributes to his general well being. “The really nice thing about heli-hiking is that it's spectacular and it starts right at the front door of your lodge.”

Purcell Mountain Lodge is one of those rare gems ““ like Treetops in Kenya or India's Ranthambhore Jungle Resort ““ a quality resort dedicated to giving guests an intimate natural experience.

Conceived in 1986 by a former fire-fighting forest ranger and mountain guide, Paul Leeson, and his partner Russ Younger, Purcell Mountain Lodge sits on a small plateau above the Crowsnest Pass and is only accessible only to the toughest mountaineers or by helicopter.

The lodge was supposed to be pre-fabricated in Golden then choppered to the site. Delays in financing forced a change in plans and they began flying the raw material up in July, 1989. The pair managed to erect the main building in time for the opening of the following ski season.

Amenities were rough at first. A diesel generator supplied power, guests used porta-potties and every drop of sewage was flown out.

The evidence of human presence was not what Leeson had in mind right from the start. He wanted to leave as small an ecological footprint as possible. To do this, he replaced the fuel powered generator with a hydro generating plant driven one of the nearby, year-round streams.

He also installed a state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant, which produces water pure enough it can be safely returned to the environment.

No, Al Gore hasn't visited, but the former Vice President is one of the few celebrities Leeson would love to invite.

As a pioneer in the green tourism movement, Leeson is not happy with the number of upstart greenies and self-proclaimed green resorts.  

“It pisses me off, that there are so many resorts who identify themselves as being green when all they do is change the towels every other day instead of daily.” He blames a profusion of tourism organizations that award “green designations” for meeting lax standards.

At the same time Leeson was developing ways of protecting the environment, he was also cognizant of the need to provide comfort and luxury. But his lodge “isn't a spa where we do your fingernails.”

Leeson recently sold the lodge to Sunny Sun who was overwhelmed by the landscape. He has since maintained the property to Leeson's exacting standards for both environmental preservation and guest comfort.

The layout is reminiscent of early alpine resorts like the CPR's Lake O'Hara Lodge where being a guest meant enjoying the social as well as outdoor aspects of their stay. Purcell's designers put a premium on spacious common areas and the use of warm pine flooring, comfy furniture and a stone fireplace to make guests feel at home in the communal areas.

Because it is assumed guests often only visit their rooms to change and sleep, the accommodations are like ships' cabins ““ small, cozy and comfortable. As in many European hotels, shared bathrooms are down the hall.

The eleven rooms come in two classes: private ““ with a queen-size bed or bunk beds and balcony ““ or shared which come with a queen and a set of bunk beds to accommodate families or single travellers who don't mind sharing a room.

Wide verandahs border three sides of the lodge offering not only spectacular views of the nearby summits, but the chance to hear something rarely heard ““ the sound of absolute silence.

Television is unavailable, but there is a great library with everything from Aleksander Solzhenitsyn to Tom Clancy ““ plus what seems like every back issue of National Geographic ever printed.

My partner and I opted to finish the final Harry Potter under our blankets ““ each of us taking turns reading to the other like a couple of kids at summer camp.

Days start with a communal breakfast and briefing by one of the guides. Hikers are offered an easy, intermediate or all-day hike before being provided with the ingredients to make a pack lunch for the trail. In the winter, ski trips follow the same trails.

Purcell Mountain Lodge is open two seasons of the year: mid-summer for hiking and mid-winter for skiing. The powder skiing here in the Purcells, Rockies and Selkirks is reputed to be the best in the world.

While waiting for the flight up to the lodge with sixteen other hikers at the Canadian Helicopters' base in Golden, we all introduce ourselves.

Along with Schecter, there is a group of Japanese widows who came to paint watercolours of wildflowers, a father and daughter team from Red Deer, a couple from Calgary, another lone hiker from Toronto and a couple from Vermont celebrating her fiftieth birthday.

Five separate flights are required to carry all of us up to the lodge in a 206B Bell Jet Ranger, which carries four people at a time. We're each limited to 25 pounds of luggage on the 20-minute flight which skirts the edges of anonymous peaks and ridges before depositing us on the gravel helipad.

The spectacular flight alone is worth the price of admission.

The last time I did any high country hiking was 30 years ago. More than years separate my current state from those healthier days. There is the bulk acquired with age and nearly three decades of big city life.

Here, the air is so crystalline it almost jingles as you move through it. Beyond the edge of the meadow the soaring peaks of the Purcells stand like sentries awaiting inspection.
At first, every step is painful because of the thin air and my lack of conditioning, but I'm determined to catch my breath and keep up with the other hikers. It turns out several of them are in the same shape I am and we band together. The main group stretches in a line up the trail like the upright tick in an exclamation mark and me as the period far below.

Eventually, I begin to acclimatize and range over the alpine meadow behind the lodge. It is the largest in southern B. C. 

Several mornings later, we head out with five other hikers and Emily Grady ““ one of the mountain guides and the lodge manager.

This is a mid-range hike that will take us out to Poet's Point where we could look across the intervening valley to Mount Sir Donald and the adjacent Illecillewaet Glacier in Glacier National Park (many of the hiking trails at Purcell cross into the park). Sir Donald's 3,384-metre peak stands out like the Matterhorn.

Originally it was called Syndicate Peak to honour the entire consortium that pulled together the financing for the Canadian Pacific Railway, but the name was later changed to Mount Sir Donald for Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona, who drove the last spike at Craigellachie.

Looking at it, I wondered privately if anyone had climbed it. At home a quick shufti through the Internet proves the first ascent was made in 1890 and the mountain is included in the book “50 Classic North American Climbs.”

Emil Huber and Carl Sulzer made the first ascent along with porter Henry Cooper. Huber and Sulzer were registered alpine guides imported from Switzerland by the C.P.R. to help establish a new wilderness tourism industry.

Golden, B.C. was ideally situated on the railway line that climbed over the Rogers Pass summit before descending into the Rocky Mountain Trench. Railway magnates and their PR people immediately saw the attraction of the surrounding mountain ranges and began advertising their glories to amateur and professional mountaineers around the world.

“50 Switzerlands in One” was the headline on the advertising posters and postcards they created to market the region.

By 1896 the railroad was hiring guides certified by the official Swiss Mountain Guides Association (Canada now has the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides), to operate out of their hotels. For the next 70 years, young Swiss mountaineers continued to cross the Atlantic to settle and set up businesses here.

One of the last guides to make the ocean crossing was Rudi Gertsch. The young Swiss was among the first entrepreneurs to jump into the new sport of heli-skiing. Gertsch worked for the first company to use helicopters to get skiers into the backcountry, Canadian Mountain Holidays, before starting his own company. 

The program was extremely successful, but the distances the guides had to travel each year was immense and costly. To encourage the guides to move to Golden with their families, the CPR set up its own alpine village where the guides could live.

Just this year, Golden celebrated the legacy of the Swiss Guides by hosting the first Golden Mountain Festival ““ a party with mountaineering film documentaries, Swiss themed food, and tours of the original Edelweiss Village on one of the ridges overlooking the town.

As impressed as I am with the grand scenery, the meadow holds its own fascinations. The wildflowers are in spring bloom even though it is high summer in the valleys below.

The colour variations of Indian paintbrush alone run from salmon pink to full scarlet. Gardens of it grow along the edges of the small snowmelt, streams crisscrossing the meadow. Climbing away from these diminutive waterways, the environment changes subtly as Western pasqueflowers become the dominant variety and then higher still mountain heather takes over.

Back at the lodge there is time to wash-up and have a cocktail before dinner. People sit on the verandahs chatting over the day's experiences.  Dining is family style, but the food isn't. Chef Tara Sylvestre prepares healthy meals influenced by Southeast Asian, European and Canadian traditions.

Her offerings are so popular she created a cookbook ““ Peak Cuisine: Adventures In Mountain Inspired Cooking. Profits from the book, which sold out its first printing, raised $4,000 to support a family refuge, the Casa de los Angeles in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Tara's dad, Serge is one of those tough mountain men you run across in the backcountry. He's hiked up to the lodge from the TransCanada, just for a visit, and treats this country like his backyard. It only took him six hours to cover what we had to fly over. All of us were impressed beyond words and harboured fantasies of looking as fit as he does when we reached our mid-sixties.

Getting there
Golden is a little over an hour west of Banff along the TransCanada Highway and not as well known as its Alberta cousin. It still has the feel of a mountain base camp town rather than a tourist attraction. Located at the eastern end of the Rogers Pass it is where The Columbia and Kicking Horse Rivers join up here and river rafting is a popular sport.

Golden is also the lift off point for one of the world's most impressive restaurants: The Eagles Eye ““ which is operated by Kicking Horse Resorts.

Perched high above the valley floor, the restaurant feels like it is precariously balance on the thin, knife-edge of a ridge. From its viewing deck visitors have heart-stopping views. You can look down into the Rocky Mountain Trench or across into the Rockies. You don't just drive up to it. Getting there involves a 20-minute cable car ride up into the stratosphere. Make reservations.

If you go

There are five national parks in the vicinity: Yoho National Park, Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Glacier National Park, and Kootenay National Park.

Purcell Mountain Lodge

Eagles Eye Restaurant

Tourism Golden

Destination BC