By Craig Copeland, originally published in Explore Magazine
Ruedi Beglinger rarely sits still long, so we knew we had his full attention when lightning was blasting the surrounding peaks, rattling the foundations of his Durrand Glacier Chalet, eliciting startled yelps from the room full of guests finishing dinner, and his eyes didn’t waver from ours.
Yet our conversation wasn’t about climbing, skiing or mountaineering. Ruedi’s mastery of these pursuits is internationally revered. It’s the basis of the successful guiding business he founded 25 years ago. It’s the fulcrum on which his unique life balances high in British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains. It’s what all his clients would humbly sit at his feet to hear him expound upon.
But no, our topic was one most people would consider mundane but Ruedi suggested—with solemn demeanor and carefully chosen words—is profound.
We spoke of walking.
“High adrenaline sports are thrilling, but they require intense concentration and focus,” he said in his lilting Swiss-German accent. “They don’t let you go deep into yourself. You can’t hear your subconscious mind.
“Walking is better for your soul. It calms you. It helps you find clarity. If I were a psychologist, I would tell my patients to walk at least an hour every day. If world leaders spent time walking in nature, we would have fewer problems, more solutions.”
The majority of Ruedi’s clients are skiers, so they don’t see his devotion to walking. But it’s obvious in summer, after Durrand’s ponderous snowpack has melted, because emanating from the chalet are 75 kilometres of Swiss-quality hiking trails he designed and keeps impeccably maintained. They fan out across his 83-square-kilometre leasehold, linking flowery meadows, glaciated basins, verdant ridges, and panoramic summits.
While hiking at Durrand last summer with my wife, Kathy, we agreed it was an ingenious, elegant trail network—the equal of any we’d experienced in our 50,000-kilometre career as guidebook writers. I called it “alpine art, like Christo’s environmental installations only functional and lasting.” She pronounced it “orgasmic.”
As for beauty, Durrand is so varied and dramatic within such a compact area, its scenic wattage rivals that of the most iconic settings in the Canadian Rockies: Lake O’Hara, Mt. Edith Cavell, even Lake Louise. But those destinations are accessible by vehicle, thus frequently mobbed. Ruedi National Park, as we began referring to it, is inaccessible on foot, which means its scores a perfect “10” for tranquility.
Meltwater from Durrand Glacier trickles over bedrock, funnels into a roaring double waterfall, then rips through a steep, bushy, rocky gorge to Lake Revelstoke. Perhaps a baboon could ascend it, but the last people who tried failed: two burly foresters who were spent after clambering only 4 kilometres in eight hours.
Woolsey Creek, the other approach to this remote enclave, is equally daunting. A tortuous road once pierced the lower reaches of the drainage, and a labourious trail continued through prime grizzly habitat into the alpine zone. But the road has been impassable and the trail indiscernible for nearly two decades.
And that’s it for hiker access, because Durrand is otherwise walled off by intimidating, bodyguard peaks and the crazily-crevassed ice of neighbouring glaciers. To hike Durrand you must first fly there by helicopter from just north of Revelstoke. The cost of the flight is included in the $945 to $1800 you’ll pay for three days to a full week at Durrand Glacier Chalet July through September.
The day we flew in, our gaze was fixed on the horizon, where rock and ice clawed at a shatterproof blue sky. Suddenly we were hovering over the 1939-metre subalpine knoll crowned by the barn-red Durrand Glacier Chalet. Moments later we met the extraordinary family who lives there, inspiring awe, envy and gratitude in all who visit them.
Ruedi, the man of the chalet and the high priest of the realm, was born in Glarus, Switzerland in 1954. He was roaming the Alps before most kids his age could navigate the local tot lot. His father, a policeman who once chased a fleeing criminal across treacherous glaciers in zero-visibility weather for three days (and caught him), took Ruedi on his first summer mountaineering trip at age 4 and his first ski-mountaineering trip at age 6.
Ruedi completed his Union Internationale des Associations de Guides de Montagne certification—the gold standard for mountaineering and skiing guides—at the astonishingly young age of 22. Three years later he immigrated to Canada and was soon guiding for a Revelstoke-based heli-ski company.
But heli-skiing lacked the challenge Ruedi thrives on. He was uncomfortable with how a noisy chopper constantly buzzing a peak harasses wildlife. Plus he resented the effect it had on him and his clients.
“Being rushed by a loud machine is bad for you” Ruedi says. “You can’t reflect. If you can’t reflect, you can’t fully appreciate nature and the mountain experience.”
So Ruedi began independently guiding ski-mountaineering tours in the Selkirks, which required him to frequently examine topo maps, and that’s when Durrand Glacier snared his attention.
“Looking at the map, I knew it was the perfect place,” he said. “I applied for the lease immediately, in ’83. I didn’t actually see it until I skied there in the spring of ’85. I got the building permit that summer and started immediately.”
Ruedi Read the book, “How to Build a Timber Frame Cabin,” masterfully constructed the chalet himself, then welcomed his first guests that winter. Word quickly spread that Ruedi and Durrand were the Zeus and Mt. Olympus of backcountry skiing. Clients began queuing up to glide behind the ski god atop the 24 meters of snow that blankets his mountain kingdom each winter. Among them was an athletic beauty named Nicoline and whose last name, three years later, was Beglinger.
“When I went home after that first week at Durrand, my father rolled his eyes. ‘Oh, of course,’ he said, “they always fall in love with the guide.’ But I knew. I knew the minute I met Ruedi.”
Nicoline became Ruedi’s partner in every respect. A business-school graduate, she was soon running the Durrand operation. For a decade she did all the cooking for guests. She still bakes the delectable afternoon snacks: Engadina nut torts, Lindzer torts, Swiss zucher torts, Swiss apple flan. The chalet’s relaxed, homey atmosphere is clearly the result of her influence. And while she’s not the blackbelt alpinist Ruedi is, her mastery of climbing, skiing and mountaineering is impressive, especially given her flat-lander childhood.
“I grew up on a Fraser Valley farm,” says Nicoline. “Mountains were nice to look at—from the sun deck. I didn’t climb a ladder without someone holding it for me. I could barely look down from the top of a silo.”
Falling in love with Ruedi meant falling in love with the mountains, which she did, completely. It’s an experience that, to a tiny degree, most of his clients have shared. They don’t fall in love with him precisely, but they do fall under his powerful influence and begin seeing the mountains and themselves through his eyes. Having spent a day summitting a peak with Ruedi, I can attest to this.
Though Kath and I are strong hikers, we’re merely capable scramblers, and the mountain Ruedi chose for our day together—2768-metre Tumbledown Mountain—was definitely a scramble we wouldn’t have ventured alone. The route follows a long, serrated-knife ridge, poses a sense of exposure, and crosses the upper edge of two glaciers.
We set out well before other guests gathered for breakfast. Keeping a determined pace, we talked little. Midway up the summit ridge, I realized Kath and I were moving much faster and more confidently on this vertical terrain than we would have on our own. Yet Ruedi was ahead and did not appear to be scrutinizing us. How did he know we were up to this when we hadn’t known it ourselves?
The art of guiding is the art of assessing clients’ limits and abilities—mental as well as physical—and Ruedi had assessed ours instantly, with x-ray accuracy. He’d done it so subtly we hadn’t noticed. A few glimpses. That’s all he needed.
“Well, hey, if the über-guide believes we can dance up mountains like this, then of course we can,” I thought. And we did. It was liberating to punch through our obviously self-imposed limitations as if they were wet tissue. Our appreciation for Ruedi’s expertise soared along with our self-assurance.
At the summit, Ruedi checked on his other guides via radio. They were leading less advanced groups on gentle hikes. Most of his guests should be and prefer to be guided. But if he deems them competent, he allows experienced hikers to explore Durrand on their own, as long as they carry radios and frequently notify the chalet of their whereabouts. That’s what we’d done prior to our day on Tumbledown.
Descending off the summit, Kath and I slowed at a dicey step between craggy ridgecrest and steep ice. But Ruedi had anticipated our hesitation and, instead of continuing to lead, was awaiting our arrival. Calmly, succinctly, firmly, he corrected our technique. “Keep your hands off the rock. Stay upright. Trust your feet.”
Ruedi’s superhuman prescience is understandable once you’ve seen his resume—a weighty document brimming with the names of the world’s most fearsome peaks, and littered with the word “first.” For example, in addition to dozens of climbing and ski-mountaineering accomplishments that rival the significance of an Olympic gold medal, Ruedi has led 159 clients on first ascents in Europe and Canada.
Yet here he was, with a couple of lowly hikers in what amounted to his back yard, on a minor mountain he’d traversed countless times, obviously enjoying the experience. At one point, while crossing a meadow, he marvelled at a flush of psychedelic wildflowers, plopped down on his back, and excitedly began photographing them against the sky.
“I’m glad you’re not bored today,” I told him. He responded with a glance that said, “Impossible.”
“When I first started guiding in Switzerland,” he explained, “I just wanted to climb mountains. My deep passion for mountaineering was everything. But that changes as you mature. You begin to appreciate sharing the route with your client, sharing the beauty of the entire experience of being in the mountains.
“With age, you get more perceptive,” he elaborated. “You start to notice special little details, maybe how the water specifically jumps over the rock before falling. Sometimes guests don’t see things. You have to point them out. ‘Look at the beauty of this flower, or this crack, or this skyline.’ When you’re a young guide, you don’t notice these either, much less share them.
“When you’re 20, and you have to guide an easy route, you think, ‘Oh, I have to do this?’ But you’ll never last as a guide if it’s always about you: ‘If I guide, I get to ski. If I guide, I get to hike.’ Selfish guides become ex-guides.”
“The only way you can keep guiding, is if you have a passion for sharing with your guests. Today I’m just as happy guiding an easy route as a hard one. It doesn’t matter if I ski or climb or hike. A thousand times a day I’ll say, ‘Wow! Look at this. It’s amazing!’ I’m still saying that, every time I go out.”
And boy, does Ruedi go out often. He guides 280 days a year. Each winter, he breaks more than a million vertical feet of trail for some 400 skiers. In summer, he prowls the backcountry constantly—one day hiking with clients like us, the next perhaps leading a seventeen-pitch, 5.12b, alpine rock-route.
His feats of endurance are legendary. “Rest days?” he asks. “Not necessary for me.” By all accounts, he’s inexhaustible. Indestructible, too. Despite pounding up and down mountains his entire life, he and chronic knee pain are strangers. On the rare occasion he’s bothered by a sore muscle, he just forges back into the wilds. Perpetual, vigourous motion restores him, he says. It’s the only therapy he ever needs.
Just looking at Ruedi, however, you’d have no idea you’re in the presence of an alpine Tarzan. Neither his stature nor demeanor are the least bit intimidating. He appears to be a typical, if reasonably fit, 54 year old. He’s five feet eight inches tall, with curly, thinning hair and crow’s feet. One of his guests described him as having “the approximate physique of a stick figure.”
But if you watch Ruedi walk, even on smooth ground, you’ll detect a rhythmic, loping gate and a barely-contained athleticism. It’s as if a single, resolute stride could propel him to the nearest rooftop, a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Engage him in conversation and you’ll notice that, although he’s smiling, completely at ease, his eyes are hyper-alert. It appears he could catch flies with chopsticks, like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
Actually, Ruedi’s bearing is quite Miyagi-esque. He’s unflappable. Beatific. Humble. He speaks of his achievements only when prodded to do so, and even then, only briefly and matter-of-factly. He’s more interested in doing than talking. And what he mostly does is help others tap newfound depths of strength and courage by constantly demonstrating those virtues himself. He did that for us while descending from Tumbledown, though we weren’t aware of it until later.
Traversing the skirt of the mountain, we were startled to come upon a grand cairn. A four-metre-tall stone monument draped with Tibetan prayer flags, it was obviously much more than a mere route marker. Who built it? For what purpose? We had no idea. Nor did we ask, because while approaching it we noticed a subtle mood shift in Ruedi—from loose and affable to detached and pensive—which nudged us to quietly observe rather than question.
We took photographs while Ruedi tended the cairn. He carefully restacked rocks and patiently pulled the prayer flags taut. Finally he looked up and tilted his head in our direction of travel as if to ask, “Shall we continue?” Off we went, soon chatting again. We assumed the cairn was a shrine to Durrand, that Ruedi had built it out of reverence for his alpine sanctum. We thought no more of it.
But that evening at the chalet, Ruedi joined us for dinner, the conversation turned to walking, and suddenly the significance of the cairn pierced our awareness like the lightning that had begun assaulting nearby summits, illuminating the dusky sky, and alarming other guests.
The cairn, we learned, was known as Seven Ravens. He’d built it as a monument to the four Canadians and three Americans who died in a Class 3 avalanche at Durrand. The catastrophe occurred January 20, 2003, at 10:45 a.m., while Ruedi was guiding 20 skiers on the 33-degree west couloir of a 2560-metre peak named La Traviata.
Nobody blamed Ruedi for the deaths. The RCMP and independent avalanche investigators absolved him. Survivors of the tragedy as well as families of the victims were unanimously and emphatically supportive of Ruedi rather than derisive or litigious. All agreed the avalanche was an unpredictable fluke of nature. They felt sympathy for Ruedi and grief for the deceased in equal measure.
Yet the crushing weight of the avalanche remained on Ruedi, threatening to smother him and all he had built at Durrand. He sought help. He visited a reputable psychologist. After just two sessions he decided it would do him no good.
“I knew what I needed,” Ruedi explained. “I needed to go deep into myself, on my own. To do that, I needed to walk.
“Skiing and climbing demand all your awareness. You’re not free to listen to your soul. So I started walking again, not just skiing and climbing.
“While walking I face myself. I become more philosophical. The more I walked, the more I could recapture images of the avalanche and put the pieces together.
“I was on the ridge again, looking down as the slide occurred. I came to see, to know, that I had made the right decisions, that it was impossible to calculate an avalanche would be triggered.
“You’re walkers,” he said to Kath and me. “Have you noticed that if you spot something, maybe a mountain goat, you’re plucked from the subconscious to the conscious, and you lose the deeper connection?”
“Yes, of course” we agreed.
“Well,” he said, “the big, important answers are in the subconscious. But you can gain that deeper connection again quickly, if you just keep walking.”
“So,” he concluded, “I kept walking.”
The next day, our last at Durrand, Kath and I hiked alone. We topped out high on a moraine overlooking the area’s namesake glacier, the chalet, and the surrounding alplands. We could see the trails we’d walked previously. We spotted others we hadn’t walked and now wished we had. And we realized the trails in Ruedi National Park are much longer than we’d imagined possible. They lead all the way from anguish to redemption.