A Bell 212 Helicopter is the size of a warship. Bright white and crimson, it noisily floated into the heliport just outside of Golden, British Columbia, only three hours from Calgary. The pulsation of the air bounced at our eardrums as we ducked our heads and ran to the passenger cabin. This machine was taking us into the Chatter Creek valley.
After threading 40 miles through huge alpine walls, winding glaciers and carpets of huge lodge-pole pines, the helicopter eased into the front yard of Chatter Creek’s back-country lodge, the largest snow-cat skiing operation in the world.
For the next four days this three-story log cabin, built upon the ground where its giant pines were logged, would be our home as we explored more than 90 square miles of untouched snowfields, spiny peaks and idyllic glades.
Chatter Creek was the brainchild of two boyhood friends, Dale McKnight and Dan Josephson, both natives of Golden. These two visionaries used their experience and savings as helicopter loggers (a lucrative industry in western Canada) to recognize and procure a huge tenure of land on the western slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
The plot was liberated for bid after a logging company went bankrupt; McKnight and Josephson put in a bid and secured the land lease, advertising their guided snow-cat skiing operation before they even had a lodge built. They quickly sold out, scrambled to build a small bunk room and opened to the public.
Within a few years it became apparent to visitors that Chatter’s terrain wasn’t just impressive, it was unparalleled. Vast glaciers, cirques and alpine terrain typically only accessible to wealthy skiers via helicopter could be accessed by snow cat, offering a land-based (and therefore more affordable) option to ski world class slopes.
Many of these visitors became investors and their capital sprouted a new lodge, fine dining, hot tub, sauna and a first-class experience with world class skiing. Chatter had grown up.
Eleven years after it opened, this was the Chatter Creek I experienced. Upon arrival we relaxed to fresh bruschetta and Ceasers (a clam-based version of a Bloody Mary), followed by a soak in the Jacuzzi and a impeccable rosemary lamb dinner so tender we could have eaten with a spoon.
Full electricity, private baths and thick duvets adorn the rooms.
In the morning, we met our guides, Ian and Matt, over freshly baked breads and eggs Florentine. Our guides reviewed their avalanche and safety protocol with us and explained where we’d be skiing.
It had snowed a foot overnight. Today would be a tree skiing day; the large bowls above treeline needed to slough their new layer, making them unsafe.
At the top of the first run we followed the lead guide as we plunged over a cornice and into 1,000 vertical feet of widely spaced pines, melting through waist-deep powder the entire way down to the cat road below, where the snow cat would pick us up and drive us to the top for another run.
Our group was made up largely of professionals from Edmonton, Alberta. Ages ranging from 35 to 75, the clients in our snow cat glided into the cat’s cabin and picked up just where they left off as they skied away from the cat up high: singing the Rolling Stones’ “Shelter.”
Like most of Chatter’s guests, more than 80 percent of our group were return customers. In the remainder of the “short day” that was truncated by the safety seminar, we lapped trees and chutes, soft piles and steep gullies, skiing more than two vertical miles, all without skiing in another person’s tracks.
The next day was the same; deep snow, low visibility, endless conifers.
However on the last day the skies cracked open, allowing the azure sky to illuminate the nascent blankets of snow that cloaked the enormous powder fields. We were heading into Chatter’s alpine terrain. Endless acres of waist-deep snow, perfect temperatures and unbeatable terrain opened to us as we crested Lodge Ridge, a largely treeless mountain that falls away into the Vertebrae Glacier.
A winter’s worth of snow transformed fields of boulders the size of cars into pillow fields of forgiving powder; lenticular basins held waves of fresh fluff without a sign of human passage. We were in a skier’s dream.
By day three my legs ached as I climbed out of the snow cat for the last time. I packed my bags and enjoyed one last Ceaser as the inbound Bell approached from behind the jagged backdrop. My face hurt from smiling; my cheeks stung from having been smacked in the face with fresh snow every day, an event known among skiers as a “face shot.” Rarely do we get them in the East. Never do you not find them at Chatter.
Brian Irwin is a freelance writer and photographer from North Conway, N.H., who specializes in outdoor journalism. He can be contacted at www.brianirwinmedia.com