The Snow Cat lurched to a halt high atop the mountain ridge. We hopped out. Nervous bladders were emptied. We stepped into our skis and looked warily out over a hanging cornice into the snowy abyss below.
“She’s gnarly steep,” said Pete, our guide. Then he leaned out over the icy precipice and disappeared. I peeked warily over the edge. He was gone.
Ten metres of snow-cover and the enormous trunks of old growth forest masked all sound. Only the tracks of a few deep turns hinted at where he had vanished amongst the trees.
A few minutes later we heard Pete’s voice crackling over our rear guide’s radio: “Wow, that was awesome. You can send them over now, one at a time, but warn them to stay left of my track. There’s a hidden cliff to skier’s right.”
“Who wants to go first?” Rachel, our tail-gunner asked. We all looked down at our skis, wondering if another pee might be in order.
“I’ll go,” said Urlacoff and off he went over the ledge, landing waist-deep in the soft stuff, whooping while he danced and turned, disappearing vertically into the forest.
This meant I was next. We were “buddies” for the day. When skiing thickly treed terrain, it is important to stay within shouting range of your buddy. If you spill into a tree-well and no one sees you tumble, you may not be discovered until the hungry grizzlies emerge in the spring.
I took a deep breath, poled outward and felt myself falling. I landed in a white downy bed and leaned forward.
My fat powder skis bounced up as I turned downward and into the woods. I heard a gleeful cry. It came from deep in my chest.
Welcome to Chatter Creek, home of steep and deep.
A four-day Chatter adventure begins with a late-afternoon helicopter ride out of Donald, B.C., west of Golden. At liftoff, the winter brown of the Trans-Canada Hwy quickly gives way to new-growth pine forest. A thin covering of snow sprinkles logging roads to where they terminate in clear cuts.
The chopper, heading north, then crosses over Kinbasket Lake — an arm of the Columbia River. Winter is deeper here than in the valley below but the icy white expanse is still pock-marked by emerald blue, where the lake is reluctant to accept the inevitability of old man winter. Then the rotors whine and the bird starts to climb the steep mountain face. Within minutes, all is white and rock and remote.
The vantage from a helicopter differs from that of an airplane.
In a plane, one glances remotely out the window — but details of terrain are lost in the vertical separation. In a chopper, the vivid reality of wilderness is right out the glass door, where rocky crags and glacial spurs fly by your fingertips.
The helicopter skimmed through a gouge in the mountaintop and suddenly, a thousand metres below, a tiny red dot appeared in the enormity of white.
As we dropped headlong from the sky, the speck became a rustic lodge with an inviting trail of wood smoke reaching thinly skyward.
We scrambled out of the chopper, ducking its danger and the torrent of blowing snow the blades create. In a few steps, we were inside the quaint lodge, greeted by hot appetizers and a young woman smiling behind the conveniently situated bar.
“You look like you could use a martini,” she said.
“Why, yes, indeed I could” I replied, not wishing to offend her remote-wilderness hospitality.
I believe filet mignon was served that first night, but to be honest every dinner at Chatter is so marvelous that each seems to blend into one sumptuous feast.
The next morning, we boarded the Snow Cat as it tracked tentatively up the mountain. You may recall that I am rather prone to motion sickness. Imagine the queasiness induced by being crammed into the back of a giant, lurching machine as it see-saws its way up a hog’s back ridge at a 45-degree angle in a whiteout, balancing precariously on a snow road no wider than the Cat’s track.
Nothing was visible on either side except certain death hundreds of rocky metres below. Adding insult to injury, when the behemoth finally came to rest on a tiny pinnacle at the summit, the thing made a jerky, death-defying 180-degree turn before disgorging its contents — us paying customers — into no-man’s land.
On that first ascent, we all watched wistfully as the Cat scuttled away, grimly aware that we were now reliant on guts, gravity and a couple of strapped-on boards to get us out of this lofty predicament.
Our confidence level was not elevated by the news that this run was called Game Over. But safety is paramount at Chatter. The guides are certified and expert. Earlier that morning, we had completed the mandatory safety briefing with Pete and Rachel. And everyone’s trepidation had changed to euphoria when we re-grouped 800 metres below, huffing and puffing, snow up to our armpits. We stampeded for the idling Cat, eager to get back up into the wild white yonder and take on Vertigo, Nose Dive and Oh My Gord.
I usually shoot my own photographs but in the interests of both convenience (it’s hard to find a misplaced lens cap in a mountain of powder) and safety (try focusing your camera while descending full-tilt through a white jungle of trees), I elected to let Chatter’s resident shutterbug do the honours.
There’s no shortage of either photo opportunities or ski terrain in the Chatter tenure: tree skiing, vast alpine bowls and spectacular glaciers abound. The views of the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Columbia and Clemenceau ice fields are unparalleled. Vertebrae Ridge lies across the valley in buckled, crumpled layers — Eskimo pie gone awry — a testament to the enormous time and force nature has invested creating this pristine environment.
“Chatter Creek enjoys a unique air mass, which produces some of the lightest, driest powder snow in the world,” reads the website. “The area comprises 238 square km of mountain terrain that extends from 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) elevation to almost 3,000 metres (10,000 feet).”
The lodge runs on a wood-fueled generator. There’s no city power in this isolated wilderness.
Each tiring day of thigh burn is rewarded by a hot tub and a massage (for a cost). Then the food and drinks come out: an Epicurean banquet ensues. Braggadocio over the day’s adventure — and liquid fuel — keep us awake far past bedtime, oblivious to the early morning call for another day of pow-wow.
We’ve been experiencing Chatter for a few years now. Over time, we’ve befriended the guides and become acquainted with some of Chatter’s other repeat customers, including a group of insane Americans known simply as “the Bongoloids.” This moniker is archaic and of uncertain origin but, then again, so are the Bongoloids.
And how does four days living in mortal fear pan out? Urlacoff puts it succinctly: “I’ve never had a better day of skiing in my life than every single day at Chatter.”
Chatter Creek is not for the faint of heart (or wallet). But if you love to ski, then while you’re still on the right side of the powder, you really must experience this remarkable place.
Poke your tips over the edge … and give ’er.
• For more information, visit www.chattercreek.ca.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.