As we climbed, the landscape slowly began to reveal itself. From the bottom, the rows of dark ridges had looked intimidating and claustrophobic through the thick snow that had been falling since the previous evening.
Now a stunning panorama was unfolding with every few metres of elevation: the subtly changing shapes of the yellow cedars and Douglas firs; the vast scale of the all-white valley that stretched away into thousands of miles of British Columbia wilderness; and â€” crucially â€” the perfectly-pitched, untracked slopes that we would soon be charging down, we hoped.
Apart from the shuffle of our skis through a metre-deep layer of fresh snow, there was complete silence.
The Callaghan Valley, in western Canadaâ€™s Coastal Mountains range, might be only 20 miles from Whistler, the worldâ€™s most rocking ski town, but it feels like a different continent.
In winter, there is no road in. That is a good thing: it keeps this playground a secret from almost all of the two million visitors who pass through Whistler every winter. It also means that the only way to get here from Highway 99 is an hour-long snowmobile blast through 13 miles of forest track, ascending more than 2,500ft in the process.
Remoteness does not, however, entail roughing it. Because there is an even better kept secret in the valley.
Nestling in a cedar grove looking up at the aptly named Solitude Glacier is a three-storey, log-built sanctuary which brings all the luxurious trappings of civilisation to the middle of nowhere.
Callaghan Backcountry Ski Lodge is the only fully serviced backcountry accommodation in the Whistler area but as it can sleep a maximum of 16 people, guests are never going to feel crowded. But if you want to experience Callaghan in all its hidden glory, you better get there soon. When Whistler and Vancouver host the Winter Olympics in 2010, the valley will be the venue for the cross-country skiing, biathlon and ski-jumping events. While the wilderness around the lodge itself will be untouched as reports have us believe, work is due to begin this summer on the Olympic venue, about a third of the way in from the highway. And when that happens, the secret at last will be out. As well as superb food and super-comfy beds, which does feel good if a wee bit disappointing to the more adventurous and ascetic types (though I am sure even they, too, appreciate the pleasures of life), the lodge supplies guides, avalanche training to amateur sportsmen and all the equipment required to conquer its 8,500 acres of terrain. That is where the hard work starts. Out here there are no clunking chairlifts to puncture the serenity, not even the clatter of a helicopter engine that usually accompanies this sort of epic adventure. Instead, you have to get to the top of each run under your own steam. For us snowboarders, that usually means strapping the board on the back and hiking up in snowshoes. But at Callaghan, we were equipped with split boards that were basically ones that are sawn in half along their length so that they can be used as two enormous skis on the way up. I was sceptical about the idea of skiing uphill but another simple bit of technology came into play. Skins with a fabric pile which slides in only one direction are stuck to the base of the â€œskisâ€ to prevent them from slipping backwards. So, when youâ€™re ready to ride down, you unstick the skins, lock the two halves back together and launch yourself into the powder. But first, of course, you have to get up there.
Driven by a sense of zeal that helped take the edge off my throbbing lungs and thighs, I thought scornfully about the corpulent good-for-nothings forced to rely on Whistlerâ€™s high speed chairlifts. They were welcome to them: in return for a bit of effort, we were about to plunder the riches of a storm that had been dumping snow for almost 24 hours.
The cliche that the turns feel better on the way down if you earn them on the way up proved deliciously true. Half an hour later, we were at the bottom, each of us covered head to toe in snow from a few too many faceplants but desperate for second helpings.
When I finally dragged myself back to the front door of the lodge two hours later, the thin daylight was disappearing fast and my legs were beyond help. In the kingsize bed in the Solitude Suite that night, I slept the sleep of the righteous. It doesnâ€™t pay to be righteous all the time, however. Having subjected my body to some full-on backcountry touring by that point, I felt I deserved to get off piste the extravagant way â€” by helicopter.
British Columbia is the world capital of heli-skiing and boarding operations, many of
which cater for clients willing to spend Â£2,000-plus on a weekend package with five-star accommodation. For those of us whose resources donâ€™t stretch that far, a few Whistler-based companies offer one-day trips. Among the best is Coast Range Heliskiing, which offers a half-day package with four descents included in the price.
Our group of four piled into the small A-Star helicopter, and 15 minutes later we were being dropped on a high ridge. Just that simple. No fuss, no sweat. Just the helicopterâ€™s engine fading into silence as it left us to head down to the pick-up point on a frozen lake 1,500ft below. Before us lay the kind of powder field I thought existed only in snowboard videos. Off
to the south, we could see the chairlifts snaking up Whistler mountain.
Thatâ€™s the moment I realised that if you get the chance to play in mountains like this, with peaks so dense that most of them remain unnamed, it doesnâ€™t really matter what mode of transport you use to get up there. The experience is all that does and remains.
Way to go Getting there: Zoom (0870 2400055, flyzoom.com) flies to Vancouver from London Gatwick and Glasgow, from Â£130pp return. There is no charge for skis or snowboards.
Snowboard touring: Callaghan backcountry lodge (callaghancountry.com) offers a range of packages from one to six nights. A one-night stay in a standard room costs C$400pp including accommodation, transport in and out by snowmobile or snowcoach, meals and guiding. For bookings from the UK, contact Ski Safari (01273 223680, skisafari.com).
Heliboarding: A four-run â€˜Discoveryâ€™ package with Coast Range Heliskiing (coastrangeheliskiing.com) costs C$739 plus tax.
Includes one guide per group of four, avalanche safety training, shuttle from Whistler, and lunch.