Ice Palace

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Traveler 105

It's 35 degrees below zero under a razor blue sky,

and I'm chasing my guide through aptly named Spooky Forest. I can't make him out amid the 100-foot cedars that cast shadows over the woods, so I rely on his gleeful shouts. There are icicles forming on my chin, and I'm smiling so hard, I worry that my face might freeze permanently in this goofy expression. It's one of the coldest days on record at Island Lake Lodge in the Canadian Rockies, but that doesn't scare me. Nor does Spooky Forest. The only thing that spooks me is that this adventure eventually must end.

Gluttony takes on new meaning at this backcountry paradise, where pigging out on powder-and gourmet cuisine and French wines-is the raison d'être. Island Lake Lodge, just north of Fernie, B.C., amid the grand spires of the Lizard Range, offers powder skiing in a setting both wild and plush. At Island Lake, 36 guests board snowcats for true backcountry skiing over 5,000 acres of snowfields that descend into big-timber forests. At day's end, skiers trade wet boots for warm slippers, hot soup and fresh bread back at the lodge.

The hardest thing about Island Lake Lodge-other than leaving-is getting there. Calgary, the nearest big city, is a four-hour-plus drive through the stunning foothills of the Canadian Rockies to the snowcat pickup a mile or so west of Fernie. From there, the cat's windshield frames knife-tipped peaks during a 45-minute ride along a wooded trail. At the last bend, the trees clear and the warm logs of Island Lake's Cedar Lodge, one of three structures that compose the hotel, come into view.

Trips vary in length from one to four nights, and accommodations are in the Red Eagle, the Bear or the plush Cedar, with soaker tubs and private decks. Dinner is always gourmet, with dishes such as ahi tuna or beef tenderloin and a bottle of Bourdeaux. If you last until dessert, the white-chocolate mousse won't disappoint.

But all the chocolate in North America couldn't detract from the skiing. The terrain rivals that of many heli operators, as does the price tag-up to $1,930 per person for three days. The average ski day gets you eight to 12 runs, beginning at 7,000 feet, through bowls and glades at varying pitches. (Solid intermediates could take it on.) Two guides monitor the snowpack, and guests are steered clear of huge "kettle bowls," depressions the size of swimming pools that can swallow skiers whole.

On my last afternoon, we trundle up to a high bench and stop to eye the white canvas we're about to mar. It's my turn to go first and I jump in, taking a face full with every turn. I know it's going to end, but the moment is all mine, and I'm having too much fun to care.

JANUARY 2005