Cigar Aficionado

In The Rockies

The sweet strains of Beatles songs echoed across the green-blue, glacier waters of the lake. High above, the setting sun struck the tops of Mt. Lefroy, Mt. Victoria and Mt. Huber, the light turning their snow covered peaks a faint orange.

Tig and Tony, two baby boomer-aged Canadians, playing guitar, singing golden oldies and drinking Scotch, were holding forth on the balcony of their rustic cabin overlooking Lake O’Hara in the high Canadian Rockies. We and our wives were singing along, all of us in shirt sleeves, which at 6,500 feet in backcountry during the first week of July is pretty rare. I lit up a Don Carlos Lanceros, and leaned back against the cabin wall, letting the smoke drift through the pines and off into the woods. One word kept popping into my head: bliss.

My wife and I have visited Lake O’Hara a number of times; she was on her fifth visit and it was my fourth time. We enticed our 17-year-old daughter along this year as a pre-college celebration trip, and an agreement to spend a day rock-climbing with a guide. Others better versed in the world of mountain valleys simply call it one of the most beautiful Alpine settings anywhere in the world. We go there partly to get away—no phones, no TV, day-old newspapers and access to the area limited by Parks Canada—and partly to explore the half dozen valleys and plateaus that are accessible from the main lodge on the lake, and sit below some of the most beautiful mountain peaks in the Rockies.

We hit the jackpot on the weather. The Canadian Rockies recorded record snowfalls in the winter of 2006/2007, and many trails at the higher elevations were still snow covered last week when we arrived, and some of the high mountain lakes were still frozen. We spent the first three days exploring our favorite trails, “punching” through deep snow in several instances, but finding that the snowmelt was well underway. We were comfortable with our higher climbs, but we did push our daughter out beyond her comfort level several times, once on a steeply angled scree slope (one step up usually means a step sliding back on small loose rocks) and once on a expansive field of slate chunks leading up to a ridge looming as a barrier above our heads. There were long walks through mountain forests, and then climbs to plateaus where the vistas back toward Lake O’Hara and the mountains surrounding it were breathtaking.

The weather warmed while we there, and on the final day we were able to navigate an “alpine route” from the Wiwaxy Gap across the Huber Ledges. If you have done mountain hiking, you know what the word “exposure” means, and you know whether or not you can handle it. Simply put, exposure means being on trails where a misstep leads to a long way down before you hit solid ground. Vertigo doesn’t do justice to the feeling, but it is one that with experience and confidence you learn to overcome. Once you do, the sensation of sheer mastery over the elements leaves you indescribably elated and feeling accomplished at the same time. Needless to say, if those ledges are ice or snow-covered, it is not a good idea to play roulette with your life. But the Huber ledges were mostly dry, except for a few places with deep footprints through the snow, and a couple of cascading waterfalls, and after a week of testing our limits, it was sheer pleasure to get across an alpine route without getting paralyzed.

Just in case you think I’ve totally lost my mind, hikers staying at the Lake O’Hara Lodge return each evening to a sumptuous meal prepared by an excellent chef, and a wine list filled with great selections from Canada’s Okanagan wine-producing region. The lodge’s manager, and part owner, Bruce Millar, maintains the list and is an avid supporter of the Canadian wines; I told Bruce that I wasn’t going to order any wine all week—my wine would be his choice each night. His wife and lodge partner, Alison, helps run the establishment, and you couldn’t find two more gracious hosts, or avid lovers of the mountain trails around their lodge. The accommodations are simple, but wonderful, and totally in keeping with the spirit of leaving a small footprint in the wilderness.

The afternoon before my wonderful cigar, I did wonder if I’d gone crazy. In a handshake deal with my daughter, I agreed to do a “lake jump.” In July, that means plunging into the glacier fed water that hovers around 40 degrees F. on a warm day. We both stood on the end of the dock, secure only in the knowledge that others had done it earlier in the day. You couldn’t count to one thousand three between the time I hit the water and the time my feet were back on the dock. But we did it. We were hooting and hollering, and laughing with my wife who documented the slightly crazy event.

We’ll be back next year. And I’ll be bringing my favorite smoke with me again.