I’m cradling a cup of masala chai on the veranda of a teahouse in the Canadian Rocky Mountains when a deep, other-worldly rumble interrupts the moment.
“There’s an avalanche on that mountain,” says Susanne Gillies-Smith, owner of the Plain of Six Glaciers Teahouse in Banff National Park, Alberta, pointing to Mount Lefroy about three miles away across a steep valley. It is shrouded in cascading clouds of mist, snow, and ice. We watch in awed silence.
I’ve never seen an avalanche, but Gillies-Smith has observed hundreds of them from the teahouse. Witnessing avalanches is one reason she opens the Plain of Six every May. “If the teahouse weren’t here,” she says, “people wouldn’t get this experience.”
From May to October, thousands of people make the 6.4-kilometer climb to the rustic stone-and-wood teahouse. The trail begins on the east bank of Lake Louise, renowned for its emerald waters. Once past the lake, the well-worn trail goes steadily uphill for an elevation gain of around 1,200 feet until reaching the teahouse at almost 7,000 feet above sea level. The hike takes about two hours and is doable at a slow pace for most anyone. Walking slowly provides the chance to tune into the constant trickle of water down the mountain, the dramatic landscape changes from dense pine valley to alpine tundra, and the possibility of sighting mountain goats, marmots, and golden-mantled ground squirrels.
After a few steep switchbacks, the Swiss-style teahouse emerges. Strung across its wooden porch beams are Nepalese prayer flags. The teahouse, which seats fifteen inside and around thirty on the balcony, is surrounded by tall pines that on this October afternoon are dusted with snow. Arlo-Barlo, Gillies-Smith’s gentle dog, greets guests from the patio; servers welcome weary hikers with smiles and choices of some twenty varieties of hot tea, coffees, and a range of homemade, hearty foods. Patrons move and speak quietly, so as not to interrupt others appreciating the sublime landscape.
Hikers have traveled this route into the mountains since the late nineteenth century. The Canadian Pacific Railway took the advice of a Swiss mountain guide and established the teahouse and inn here as a rest stop for climbers. Named for its location as a viewing point for six glacial masses, it opened in 1927 with tea served in fine china teacups. Now with up to 400 guests a day, Gillies-Smith has had to forego the porcelain for mismatched ceramic—but the tea is steeped using the same spring water.
In 1959, Gillies-Smith’s parents purchased the teahouse from the railway and continued the tradition of drawing visitors up the mountain with hot drinks and wholesome food, but closed the inn. Now, Gillies-Smith co-owns and manages the teahouse. At the beginning of every season, around 32,000 pounds of supplies are flown in by helicopter. Fresh supplies are hiked in daily by the teahouse’s eleven employees, who live in the three wooden cabins that once served as the inn.
The menu features items like soups, sandwiches, and chili, all made by hand on a propane stove—the teahouse has no electricity or plumbing. Gillies-Smith makes around twenty loaves of bread every day at peak season. “See my biceps,” she jokes. She takes pride in making delicious food but says the point of visiting the teahouse is “not about the food. . . . It’s about the experience of being in nature.”
The Plain of Six Glaciers serves coffee by Level Ground Trading, a company based in Victoria. The teas are from the Banff Tea Company, which Gillies-Smith founded and later sold. “It’s a lovely segue when people visit the teahouse and then the teashop to buy their favorite tea that they tried for the first time up there,” says Siona Gartshore, owner of Banff Tea Company. One of the shop’s best-selling teas is the Plain of Six Glaciers’ signature tea, a custom blend created by Gillies-Smith. “I wanted to put the experience of hiking to the teahouse in a flavor,” she says. “It’s fresh because there’s mint in it; berries and hibiscus because they’re energizing.”
Many who trek up to the Plain of Six Glaciers are drawn to one menu item in particular—chocolate cake. Alynda Foreman of Boston heard a rumor about it while on the trail with her husband. “It kept me going,” she says.
Richard and Marge Becker from Cody, Wyoming, are visiting the glaciers for their forty-ninth wedding anniversary. They came to the national park for the hikes and wilderness. “We weren’t expecting the teahouse, but we’re starving and we love goodies,” says Marge.
The Foremans and Beckers are ideal trekkers in Gillies-Smith’s opinion: they are drawn to the mountains, but welcome a tasty treat en route.
“I want people to take away an experience,” Gillies-Smith says. “I want them to have the time of their lives and experience the ‘ahhh’ you can get from being in nature.”
—Jessica Natale Woollard is a freelance writer based in Victoria, British Columbia.