Enough Room to Swing a Cat
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.