A winter heli-lodge trip has never really been on my radar. I always thought this kind of vacation was for extreme skiers, like those folks in the Warren Miller movies who are forever jumping off vertical cliffs and barrelling down 45-plus-degree runs, masses of powdery snow spraying out behind them.
Amazing Terrain and Snow Conditions
The helicopter ride out of the the airport in the small town of Golden takes only 10 minutes, but the journey is dramatic, as you sweep up over Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and steep mountain peaks, before landing smack-dab in the wilderness. Purcell Mountain Lodge is perched at 2,200 metres (7,215 feet) in the middle of a meadow surrounded by the subranges of the namesake mountain, at the eastern boundary of Glacier National Park. The Purcell Mountains are themselves a subrange of the Columbia Mountain Range, which also includes the Selkirk, Monashee, and Cariboo ranges.
I’ve had a few visits to other mountain lodges, and I have to say the views at Purcell Mountain Lodge are unrivalled, because of its open setting that allows for phenomenal vistas in every direction: rolling alpine meadows, tree-line forests, glaciers glistening across the valley, and stellar views of high peaks like Copperstain Mountain and the iconic Matterhorn-shaped Mt. Sir Donald. Most mountains in the Purcells rise around 3,048 metres (10,000 feet).
Fun fact: The Golden area is home to more than 20 backcountry mountain lodges because of its unique location surrounded by the Purcells, the Selkirks, and the Rockies.
Average annual snowfall in this region is about 8.5 metres (28 feet). “The signature here is champagne powder — deep, dry powder,” says Jason Loree, one of the lodge’s ski guides. The winter season usually starts around mid-December and doesn’t wrap up until early April. Because the lodge has access to Glacier National Park, the guides are finding new lines to ski every year.
Glam Mountain Accommodations
Although the lodge has been operating since 1990, it has been meticulously cared for and updated. It’s one of the most luxurious ski lodges in the region for ski touring.
The main lodge has 10 private rooms with various configurations of beds, sleeping from two to five people. Bedrooms are upstairs, together with three shower rooms and four washrooms with flush toilets, and a library. Every bedroom has a view, and there is a vanity and sink in each room. Downstairs is an open concept dining-living area with a central fireplace to cozy around. I’m told that the fireplace is blazing from morning until night during the winter season. Both levels have a wraparound deck.
An important part of winter days is a trip to the rustic wood-fired sauna, which the staff fires up daily. The lodge is unusual in that it has its own ecological hydroelectric water system on a nearby creek, so it doesn’t use generators, unless the system goes down.
If you’re travelling with a group of four to eight people, the self-catering chalet is an option, where you can cook your own meals. You can also opt to have chef-cooked meals delivered from the lodge. Daily outings can be guided or self-guided.
Gourmet Feast at the Peak
If you went for the food alone, the trip would be worth it! Meals are served family style, and the day starts with a hot breakfast. Guests have the chance to put together their own bagged lunch. The late afternoon snack, or “apres”, as it’s called at the lodge, is a thing. The guides radio ahead when groups are returning from the day’s excursion to perfectly coordinate the apres timing. And this isn’t just a chips and salsa kind of snack, but gourmet dishes like deconstructed lasagna or silky smooth Vichyssoise and arancini. Dinners are hearty, featuring three courses with entrees like short ribs, glazed salmon, and ethnic specialities.
The only thing that you pay extra for is alcoholic beverages. For these, you run a tab, and there’s a fine selection of good wines, spirits, and craft beer — mostly British Columbia sourced.
A Winter Activity for Everyone
Purcell Mountain Lodge prides itself on being accessible to everybody. It’s a good place for the beginner backcountry skier, because there is lots of green and blue terrain. “As a result, we have guests who have visited regularly for many years and are now in their 70s,” says Jackie Mah, the property’s general manager. “They just go off by themselves, up terrain like ‘Knee Grinder’, a mountainside of gently rolling meadows with fields of deep powder.”
But choosing to have an ACMG (Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) accredited guide, of course, is an amazing opportunity. The guides can quickly suss out your ability, educate you on things like avalanche safety, and even help with different ski techniques like transitions (the connection from one turn to the next) — kind of like advanced lessons. “It can take you a while to get to know the terrain on your own, but you’ll always get a good line with a guide,” Loree says.
When you first arrive at the lodge, and after dinner each evening, there’s a discussion about the next day’s activity options. Because there are two guides on-site, a group can split into more strenuous and less strenuous groups of skiing and snowshoeing.
Not a skier? Not a problem, there are also snowshoes available and toboggans, with gently rolling hills within easy walking distance. Some guests just get outside briefly and spend the rest of the day in the lodge. “There’s no shame for just hanging out at the lodge and reading or relaxing, if that’s what you want to do,” Mah notes.
Plan for Summer Hiking
The views are fabulous in the summer, with several of the surrounding mountain peaks staying snow covered for the season. Across the valley into the Glacier National Park, the five glaciers are more easily spotted in the summer season. During my visit in early July, the alpine wildflowers — like moss campion, marsh marigold, and saxifrage — were outstanding to see. Bursts of red paintbrush were just starting to pop out.
There’s a good chance that you will see bears (both black and grizzly species), although we didn’t on my trip. At the top of Copperstain mountain, where you can see for miles (all the way over to the Rockies) my group was visited by the resident ground squirrels, Jack and Jill, who hang out at the summit.
Both summer and winter, three- or four-day packages are available. You fly in early in the morning (best to stay in Golden overnight — I stayed at the Basecamp Lodge Golden, a stunning timber-framed building on the shore of the Kicking Horse River, and a quick drive to the airport) in time for breakfast at the lodge.
I love that a heli-lodge makes a wilderness setting accessible. On my visit, I met guests from other places in Canada and the United States, and it was lovely to connect with like-minded people — everyone with a love of nature and the outdoors.