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Destinations: Pleasure and Pain

posted: 04/30/2000
by Michael Miracle

It's two hours into the second day, and my legs are in full revolt: You fool! You've been riding chairlifts all season, and now you expect us to climb a glacier? A mountain? Turn around...we're not standing for this! The only comfort I have is that mine aren't the only quads in an uproar; the whole group has been slackening its pace all morning. The clicking of my Alpine touring bindings continues to remind me of a metronome, but this morning's sprightly beat has dwindled to a plodding waltz.

But if my muscles are incensed, my brain is euphoric. The peaks of British Columbia's Selkirk range tower all around us. The air is as clean as any I've ever breathed. It's a moment of contrast for me: I'm profoundly in pain and achingly happy.

Yesterday, I sat in a helicopter as it flew low, skirting the Columbia River. Backcountry Magazine editor Brian Litz, father and son Philippe and Louis Dunoyer, recently returned world traveler Gary Bezer, and I all wore headsets so we could speak to each other over the rotor's roar, but we weren't saying much.

I was just beginning to wonder where the skiing was to take place when the helicopter banked dramatically over a ridge and the Selkirks exploded into view. I swiveled my head, stunned by the enormity and magnificence of British Columbia's interior range. I had never seen so much white, and the massive bumps and rolls of the glacial terrain made the mountains seem alive. Soon, the pilot set us smoothly down at the Durrand Glacier Chalet, main lodging facility of the Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME). We would not be seeing him again for a week.

Inside, the Chalet was bustling. The helicopter shuttles skiers both ways: Each flight that brings in a group takes out five skiers whose week here is done. The faces of those about to leave were lined with a deep but weary expression of satisfaction. In contrast, I was grinning with anticipation, still buzzing from the aerial glimpse of the terrain we'd soon be climbing and skiing. It made for an odd interaction: We were essentially looking at our future selves, exhausted but clearly sad to be leaving.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I asked a friendly-looking woman what the week was like. She started to answer, but stopped. I watched a week's worth of memories flicker across her face. And then it hit her. She looked at me, shook her head, and said with absolute certainty, "You'll see."

Now, as we're marching up the flank of Mount Ruth, I'm beginning to understand her answer. What the woman at the Chalet knew is that the SME is aptly named; everyone's experience in the Selkirk Mountains is a personal moment, a unique blend of anguish and triumph that almost defies description. Brian seems to be fine. Philippe carries on an obscene tirade (in French) directed at his bindings. Who knows what everyone else is thinking? Maybe the rest of the group are masochists. One person, however, is immune to fatigue: Selkirk Mountain Experience owner and head guide Ruedi Beglinger. He marches steadily along, a backcountry maestro intent on convincing us that we're a nine-member swing band and not a funeral procession.

Three hours after leaving the Chalet, we're at the top of Mount Ruth. "I take every client to the summit," Ruedi explains in his Teutonic drone. "I've never had a person regret going to the summit, but I've had people regret not going." For Ruedi, who is the cardiovascular equivalent of a Tour de France winner, reaching the summit is a normal morning's work. In an average year, he estimates that he climbs over a million vertical feet. Today, like every day, Ruedi breaks trail the entire way up the mountain. And there's plenty of trail to break: SME's vast permit area consists of 14 glaciers. They're all linked, and Ruedi calls the whole 50-square-mile lot the Durrand Glacier¿Mount Moloch Glacier System.

I'm relishing that vastness now. The peaks seem to go on forever. Pointy seracs and knotty, bulbous ice formations boil from every slope in sight. Both quads and bindings are forgotten as we stare out from what seems like the top of the world. What blew me away from the helicopter is even more impressive standing in the middle of it. It surely can't get any better than this. Wait...I take that back.

The sensation of skiing perfect powder always surprises me. Last night was clear and cold, allowing moisture to rise to the surface and evaporate. We can see this in the form of surface hoar¿a layer of very small ice crystals that look like tiny shards of mica on the snow's surface¿twinkling invitingly in the sunlight. Whooping and hollering, nine skiers and two guides sweep into this bone-dry powder. Resistance is almost undetectable, like an infant tugging your finger, and we bound ecstatically down the mountain we were trudging up only minutes before.

Ruedi stops us halfway down the slope. We all know the drill from yesterday's lecture on safety and stop above him. He tells us we're about to ski over a crevasse. We are to follow one at a time at his command, staying exactly in his line. Crevasses are a fact of glacier skiing, harmless-looking indentations that are actually bottomless blue pits hiding under a thick blanket of snow. Over the course of the winter, snow bridges form over a crevasse and are the only safe way across.

The first skier to cross turns on top of the crevasse. "Do not turn on the crevasse!" Ruedi barks. The second skier strays from the line, as does the third. Now Ruedi is pissed. "If we cannot do this correctly, we will put on our skins and climb back to the Chalet!" he howls. He means it, and we all know it. Louis skis perfectly across, as do Gary and Philippe. I'm terrified of ending the group's day¿and don't have any interest in plunging into the abyss¿but hold it together long enough to line things up and slip over the crevasse without incident.

Once we're all safely on the other side, Ruedi explains his agitation. "Who is afraid of avalanches?" he asks. A round of nods and "I am's" from the group. "The survival rate in an avalanche if you are wearing a beacon is 50 percent," Ruedi says. "If you fall to the bottom of a crevasse, the survival rate is one percent. You are afraid of avalanches? I am afraid of crevasses." I can't vouch for his statistics, but his message is crystal clear: Do exactly what I say.

Go to Part 2 of Pleasure and Pain.

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