Enough Room to Swing a Cat

Ski & Snow - - Cat Skiing - Pho­tos by: Gra­ham Jones By Matt Far­rar Craig Starnes gets some air at Moss Gar­den, Bald­face, BC back coun­try.

35,000 acres of Bri­tish Columbia back­coun­try ski ter­rain, 3 cats, 34 peo­ple and a week of deep rocky moun­tain pow­der. In March 2006, 5 Welling­to­ni­ans em­barked on the pow­der ski­ing/rid­ing ad­ven­ture of a life­time. Two weeks ski­ing and rid­ing in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada in­clud­ing a week at a back­coun­try catski op­er­a­tion called Bald­face (www.bald­face.net). Craig Starnes, Spar­row Lines, John Dunn, Ali Quinn and I de­parted Welling­ton for Van­cou­ver with a sense of re­lief. We were on our way af­ter much plan­ning about where we would get the best 2 weeks ski­ing in Canada. De­spite our daily lunchtime moun­tain bike rid­ing in the steep bush around Welling­ton we had man­aged to not in­jure our­selves prior to de­par­ture. Bri­tish Columbia was hav­ing its best snow con­di­tions in 25 years and it was snow­ing at Whistler/Black­comb the very mo­ment we got onto our plane.

Whistler/Black­comb

Twenty odd hours later we were kip­ping down in our down­town Van­cou­ver ho­tel ex­cited by the prospect of ski­ing/rid­ing Whistler the next day. An early rise and two hours later we were pulling our rented Ford Ex­pe­di­tion into the Whistler day carpark. The boys were im­pressed to see that what, by NZ stan­dards, would have been a beast of a ve­hi­cle was very much mid size in the carpark of a Bri­tish Columbia ski re­sort. The word out was that 30cms of snow had fallen in the last 24 hours. Driv­ing into Whistler/Black­comb, the first thing that catches your at­ten­tion is its sheer size. It is more like a Euro­pean re­sort than a North Amer­i­can one with sig­nif­i­cant amounts of above the tree­line ski­ing in large bowls and glaciers and 8000 acres of ski­able ter­rain and over 5000 ver­ti­cal feet. Af­ter NZ’s poor 2005 sea­son it was great to be back in dry pow­der and trees. The high­light of day one was the boys climb to an area at the top of Whistler Moun­tain called Fluke Bowl. Yelps of joy pierced the air as we dropped the cor­nice into an un­tracked 40deg slope and felt the snow pelt our face as we ripped down the sweet­est of lines. This was only day one and the snow was al­ready bet­ter than any­thing any of us had skied or rode for years.

To top off our first day we man­aged to score a wicked standby rate on a primo condo that was right on Black­comb Moun­tain. The boys were high-fiv­ing each other as we were es­corted around our five star, three bed­room pad that looked straight out at a chair­lift and down onto the com­plex’s out­door hot tub and swim­ming pool. This view en­abled us to time our hot tub run to per­fec­tion (i.e. to wait un­til all the at­trac­tive girls in biki­nis got out so that there was more room for all of us – yeah right!). Wan­der­ing around the buzzing and busy Whistler town­ship that night (the place is huge) we were sur­prised to hear peo­ple es­ti­mate that the num­ber of Aus­tralians liv­ing in Whistler to be about 20% of the pop­u­la­tion - scary!

Day two was a Satur­day and quite a lot more crowded, al­though with

ev­ery chair a high speed one you never waited more than five min­utes in a line. How­ever, the pow­der was get­ting skied out quickly and our best runs came from ei­ther hik­ing Black­comb Glacier or Fluke Bowl or ski­ing the trees in the area just out­side the bound­ary by Bagel Bowl. So much ter­rain, so lit­tle time!

Sil­ver­star

The next day we headed off to the BC in­te­rior to a re­sort called Sil­ver­star. While it only has half the ver­ti­cal of Whistler we heard that it had some fan­tas­tic tree ski­ing and had re­cently re­ceived a bit of snow. 5 hours later we passed through Ver­non and climbed up the moun­tain road to the Sil­ver­star Re­sort. We again did well on a last minute ac­com­mo­da­tion deal and scored a condo in a ‘Dis­ney­land’ like vil­lage which is half way up the ski re­sort. Ski in/ski out ac­com­mo­da­tion is very easy to get use to. We dis­cov­ered that Sil­ver­star and its sis­ter re­sort Big White are ac­tu­ally owned by an Aussie, go fig­ure, they are ev­ery­where. The next morn­ing we quickly dis­cov­ered that while there had been some fresh snow the pre­vi­ous day, it had got­ten quite warm and all the South fac­ing slopes were baked. North fac­ing trees were the an­swer and we spent most of our time in an area called Put­nam Creek. Our day seemed to of­ten con­sist of 20 great un­tracked turns in tight trees fol­lowed by a run out down a nar­row creek bed. That night we hit the lo­cal pub for a few beers and dis­cov­ered our waiter, a ski pa­troller dur­ing the day, hailed from Tawa, Welling­ton. He of­fered to show us around the next day but af­ter much de­bate the boys de­cided we all wanted to get to Red Moun­tain, re­ports were show­ing it had great snow and both Craig and Ali had done sea­sons there, the next best thing to lo­cal knowl­edge.

Red Moun­tain

It took a day to ne­go­ti­ate the scenic drive from Ver­non to Ross­land. We weaved our way through mag­nif­i­cent moun­tain ranges, caught a ferry across a lake and even­tu­ally made our way up to Ross­land, BC, home of Red Moun­tain and some of the most un­der­rated ski­ing in North Amer­ica. What I im­me­di­ately liked about Ross­land was its laid back feel with none of the glitz of Whistler or Dis­ney­land feel of Sil­ver­star. Red Moun­tain has no high speed quads, in fact it only has 3 chair­lifts but there was hardly any­one there. You im­me­di­ately sensed that this was a “skiers moun­tain”. We ended up rent­ing a ren­o­vated old 3bdrm cot­tage in Ross­land. We took an im­me­di­ate lik­ing to An­thony, our English land­lord. He spent half his time as a ski and moun­tain­bike guide at Red and the other half do­ing the same jobs in Switzer­land. He was also an avid moun­tain­bike track builder so it wasn’t long be­fore Starn­sie and Ali were paw­ing over lo­cal maps with him. It was amaz­ing to hear that An­thony had brought this cot­tage and 2 other build­ings as part of a 13 acre piece of land 8 years ago for CAN$160,000. Even now the cot­tage we were stay­ing in, fan­tas­ti­cally ren­o­vated by An­thony was only val­ued at CAN$168,000 – what a great place to live! Red ac­tu­ally con­sists of 2 moun­tains and the next morn­ing we im­me­di­ately hit the Mt Roberts area, cut­ting out­side the re­sort bound­aries into a fan­tas­tic un­tracked tree area. We skied here all morn­ing, each time hik­ing a lit­tle fur­ther up Mt Roberts as we searched for steeper and deeper lines through the trees. The snow and ter­rain was com­pletely sen­sa­tional. In the af­ter­noon we headed over to the chutes off the back of Gran­ite Moun­tain and were de­lighted to find few tracks present. The ski­ing in­volved about 20 turns down a chute fol­lowed by open bowl ski­ing and then nicely spaced trees for the lower half of each run. I couldn’t be­lieve on one run I was half way down a 40 to 45 deg chute when I came across two 10 year olds rip­ping it up. I shouted back to the oth­ers in dis­be­lief “un­be­liev­able - there are kids in the chute!”

As the day got late and the boys were hunt­ing for bet­ter lines with no tracks in them I stupidly cut in front of Starn­sie steel­ing first tracks down a steep face, sud­denly I was right on top of a steep cliff area with few sane ways out. The next 10 min­utes saw me climb­ing back up cut­ting across to the next chute, ski­ing down that only to find more cliffs with no ob­vi­ous way out. I fi­nally man­aged to ski across a nar­row ledge and pop into a safe area, my heart beat at 180 for the next 10 min­utes, a sharp safety re­minder for me as the fi­nal leg of our jour­ney ap­proached.

Bald­face

Af­ter two days of ski­ing at Red we headed off to our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion, Nelson BC, where our he­li­copter was go­ing to fly us into Bald­face Lodge in the Selkirk moun­tain range. Nelson is fa­mous for be­ing the town where the movie ‘Rox­anne’ was shot star­ing Steve Martin and Daryl Han­nah. It is ev­ery bit the quaint, artsy or­ganic ski town full of bou­tique shops and café book­stores. We were later to dis­cover that there is ac­tu­ally a store in down­town Nelson called the Head store that sells a range of cannabis prod­ucts over the counter. A pop­u­lar dis­trac­tion for a few of the Amer­i­cans we later met at the lodge. A fel­low Kiwi ex­pat, Vaughan Smith, now liv­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley, joined us at the air­port. Our he­li­copter set off at 4pm and 10 min­utes later we were high up in the moun­tains at Bald­face Lodge. Bald­face Lodge was fan­tas­tic, highly func­tional but not too flash. There is a main lodge and four ad­di­tional up­mar­ket chalets. We were all in the lodge. Down­stairs was the twin share ac­com­mo­da­tion rooms, a ski/ board rental and shop fa­cil­ity, dry­ing room, games room, mas­sage rooms and the guides’ of­fice with de­tailed maps of the sur­round­ing re­gion. Up­stairs was the din­ing room with a bar and large lounge/recre­ational area. Huge win­dows pro­vided views of the vast moun­tain ranges and many leather couches and chairs pro­vided a great place to chill out. The lodge food was noth­ing short of out­stand­ing, four to five cour­ses each evening and huge buf­fet break­fasts. The next morn­ing we spent an hour do­ing some ba­sic avalanche res­cue train­ing and fa­mil­iaris­ing our­selves with the dig­i­tal trans­ceivers. For the first three days we had eleven of us in our cat and the other two cats were also pretty full with a crew from a snow­board mag­a­zine called ‘Fre­quency’. The cats can com­fort­ably fit twelve in the back and have room for the two guides and driver in the front com­part­ment. We had big con­tain­ers of New York deli style sand­wiches, muffins, cook­ies and fruit to nib­ble on dur­ing the day, co­pi­ous amounts of wa­ter and heaps of stor­age space for all your ski cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories. There was even a heater in the cat for dry­ing gear in be­tween runs, it was all way too easy. The cat driv­ers smoked up the moun­tain tracks and spun the cats around on a dime, we rarely found our­selves wait­ing at the bot­tom of runs. Our guide for the first three days was Terry, a Nelson lo­cal who grew up at the foot of th­ese moun­tains. He was very safety con­scious and tended not to say much al­though he was amused that we made as many turns down the slope as we did. He called them ‘re­sort turns’ and said “big moun­tains, big turns”. He gen­er­ally made three or four down each slope. We had a bunch of peo­ple from New Eng­land with us who weren’t quite as ag­gres­sive as us ‘Ki­wis” and de­spite our at­tempts to not all shoot off first at the top of each slope, in­evitably there was al­ways six Ki­wis at the bot­tom first. Even though 90% of our runs were through gladed tree ar­eas on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions Terry would ask that we try and keep our tracks closer to­gether to save un­tracked sec­tions for oth­ers. How­ever, de­spite his pleas six Ki­wis seemed to al­ways go off in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions so as to avoid the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing to cross an­other track.

Af­ter day one con­cerns of ‘I am go­ing to feel like a right dork if I in­jure my­self and have to spend the rest of the week in the lodge’ we all re­laxed and got more and more ag­gres­sive through­out the week. JD, Spar­row and Vaughan all tried the lodge’s su­per­fat skis (110mm un­der the foot) and their speed and con­trol no­tice­ably stepped up a notch, they loved them and were all keen to buy ‘fat­ter’ skis by end of week (they might not be so hot back in Ruapehu con­crete).

The next four days were even bet­ter as the lodge guests went down from 34 to 14. We had our own cat al­though ended up invit­ing Andy and Heidi (mainly Heidi), a nice cou­ple from Vail, Colorado who both ripped on Tele­marks to join us. We also had a new guide and tail, Carl and Brad. Carl was com­pletely re­laxed and his only words of cau­tion were “speed is your friend and no one ever got hurt in the air”. Carl would start each run with a de­scrip­tion of where we were go­ing and then say “see you at the cat”. If this didn’t to­tally fire us up Brad did. We re­named Brad –“Big Bad Brad.” He com­pletely smoked most slopes in about 3 turns, tak­ing air at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. The best runs were al­ways when Carl let Brad lead, he would take sick lines and al­ways led us to big air op­tions. I still re­mem­ber one run where Brad said “I am go­ing down the mid­dle where it is steep, ei­ther side is eas­ier”. Half way down the run, he was shout­ing at Spar­row, “don’t fol­low me” be­fore he hit a tight chan­nel be­tween rocks and trees that popped out over rocks and dropped 20-30 feet. Spar­row wasn’t lis­ten­ing, fol­lowed, re­alised there was no way out and went for it, he wouldn’t have done air any­where that big for at least 20 years – he nailed it, the only thing that took the smile off his face was his re­al­i­sa­tion that JD missed the photo.

On our sec­ond to last day we dis­cov­ered that Karla, the bar­maid, was in the Cana­dian freeride team. She showed us the latest BC ski mag­a­zine with pho­tos of her huck­ing 40 feet. We begged her to join us for some turns. Not only did she rip, an­other in the 3 high speed turns down the hill club, but she took turns driv­ing the cat, the boys were way im­pressed. How good was the ski­ing? On seven dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions JD had the best run of his life. Ev­ery run was com­pletely un­tracked above knee deep dry rocky moun­tain ‘pow’. For a week of ski­ing that was very ex­pen­sive for a bunch of reg­u­lar kiwi guys (CAN$3500 each) but not that ex­pen­sive when com­pared to a week of BC he­liski­ing (CAN$10,000) it was an ab­so­lute pin­na­cle in my many years of hunt­ing for the deep­est, dri­est pow­der on the planet.

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