This is Not Japan, This is British Columbia

13 1 2091

“Let’s go skiing in Japan!” they said. “It’ll be fun!” they said. “OK,” I said. We did not go to Japan.

Traveling is messy. That’s just a fact of life, especially if you’re chasing snow and coordinating the schedules of more than a couple people. Sometimes you start to plan a trip and everyone is IN. Like, way in. No questions asked in. Then you go to really plan it, and no one is in.

The Prep

These things happen, and that’s what happened to our Japanese dreams. We (myself and my friend/roommate, Alex) wanted to plan our dream ski trip: 2 weeks in Japan, bouncing around the country, getting “pitted” as the kids say in both deep snow and culture. We wanted to assemble a crew of 8 to 12 guys total. To us, this is the perfect number for a trip like this. Enough to be able to book out an entire cat or heli (you’ll soon understand why this is important), not so many as to be completely unmanageable. With that many personalities, yes… some will clash, but it also creates the camaraderie that makes trips truly memorable. I often find that I remember the laughs even more than I remember the turns or terrain.

So we started calling friends in the fall. At first we had too many. Everyone wanted in. “This is going to be epic!” we said. By Thanksgiving we had not quite enough. “We can still make it work!” we said. By Christmas we just had us. “Shit!” we said. It’s understandable. Going to Japan is not a cheap proposition, and it’s one that chews up a lot of vacation time and such. Some of the guys had new jobs. Some had new wives. Some were getting married. Some were buying houses. So it was onto the backup plan: British Columbia.

A few years ago one of the ski magazines, I believe it was Powder, wrote an article on the “Powder Highway”. This a loop through interior BC that links up a few choice locations know for DEEEEEP snow and rowdy terrain. Needless to say we read the article and this trip has been on our radar ever since. When Japan fell through this trip seemed like the ideal answer to our problem (if you consider saving up the cash and vacation time to pull off an epic ski trip but then having no epic ski trip planned a ‘problem’, which I do).

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So Christmas night 2013, fueled by pork and whiskey, armed with laptops, we got to planning. The sliding glass door to my patio in Park City became a dry-erase trip-planning board and we became seriously involved in logistics. The next day phone calls were made, credit cards were thrown down, flights were booked, and high fives were exchanged. The trip was on for mid-March. (Side note: “Mid-March is kinda late,” is probably what you’re thinking. That may be true, but we checked average temps and snow histories and March is usually pretty good up there. It’s tough to wait til almost the end of the season for such a trip, but in my experience March brings big storms and usually the worst case scenario is sunny corn snow.) The final plan involved 10 total ski days (7 resort/sidecountry/touring, 2 cat skiing, 1 heli skiing) in 4 different locations with a travel day on each end. We would fly into Kelowna and then proceed on a whirlwind roadtrip that involved a lot of skiing during the day and driving at night, allowing us to go from:

Utah > Kelowna > Nelson > Fernie > Golden > Revelstoke > Kelowna > Utah

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A few months later it was time to pack, make finals arrangements/confirmations, and check weather blogs. This was when the first hiccup happened. 48 hours before departure I got an email from one of the cat skiing operations we were scheduled with in Nelson. The message was along the lines of, “Due to unseasonably warm weather, a recent rain event in the high alpine, and usually high avalanche conditions… we have decided to cease operations for the season.” I believe my reaction was something to the effect of, “FUUUCK!” As we would later learn, cat skiing does not come with a refund. However, we have two years to go back and use the day we paid for.

We still had a 2nd cat day scheduled in Nelson with Valhalla, and not to be deterred, I jumped on the phone and found a heli ski outfit in Golden that had two open seats one of the days we were in the area. So we called it an upgrade and kept the stoke high. However, this setback contained more than a little foreshadowing for what was to be our time in Nelson.

The Beginning: Kelowna > Nelson

We arrived in Kelowna via a prop-plane puddle-jumper from Seattle with no issues. The rental car company provided us with an economical, but not terribly exciting, Hyundai Santa Fe and we were off. Day one involved a 4 hour drive to Nelson during which we saw shockingly little snow and I ate a tremendous amount of sunflower seeds. We drove past the local hill known as Big White on the way out of Kelowna. Not sure about that name. It was completely brown. No one was skiing. Fear began to mount.

It was raining as we pulled into Nelson. Nelson is a small town with a lumber mill type atmosphere and Aspen like economics. We found this confusing, to say the least. It was a challenge to get any meal for less than $20. It was misty and rainy the whole time we were there. The town is built entirely on a hill sloping down to the river. It reminded me a bit of Hood River, OR but slightly larger and more populated. The people were friendly and we found a sports bar that served us doubles and had a “Rib Night” special that seemed too cheap to be any good. However the waitress convinced us they were tasty and to our surprise they were. Anywho… back to skiing…

Our first day on skis was to be the cat day with Valhalla… and I wish it would have been cancelled. The report from the other cat skiing outfit that did cancel on us was more than accurate. A recent rain event had reached all the way to the peaks of the local range. The next system was much colder with heavy snows. Then the sun came out. It stayed out for almost a week before our arrival.

As you can imagine, this spelled d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r for the snowpack. North facing, shady slopes had settled soft snow that was only good for looking at, as it sat on a frozen layer of crust that was delivering a vicious avalanche cycle. In fact, there was talk that morning that it MAY have healed up enough for us to ski north facing aspects, but while we were doing our safety demonstration (Time out. If you’ve never been cat or heli skiing before, you need to understand that you will ALWAYS spend most of your first morning with any new outfit doing a safety demonstration and avalanche briefing. There’s no way around it. You never get on snow before 11. That’s just the way it is. Do multiple days with the same operator to avoid this.) a nearby heli op was dropping a group on a ridge to ski a north facing test slope. The weight of the heli landing on the ridge remote triggered the entire face. So… nope, that was radioed in and north facing slopes were back to DEFINITELY OFF LIMITS.

What we were left with was south facing aspects that featured conditions that were safe for avalanches but that I can only describe as “ACL snapping”. Over a week’s worth of melt & freeze cycles provided us with a lovely layer of breakable crust over soft, faceted, fast snow. If you’ve ever skied these conditions, you know what happens: tails lock, you go straight, it is terrifying. Hop turns only. My 190-something Rossi Super 7’s with Marker Dukes on them aren’t light, and they don’t like making hop turns very much. The guides at Valhalla did their best to find us what they could, but the best part our day was watching them casually torch entire dead evergreens after dousing them with lighter fluid while we explained that in “the States” you would definitely be arrested for such actions.  I’ve always heard that Canada is the “apartment above the party” but in truth I think we’re “the apartment below the party banging on the ceiling to get them to settle down when really we’re just jealous we weren’t invited”. In fairness, Valhalla doesn’t control the weather and it’s not their fault we had a bad day. I would love to go back, as the terrain we could see-but-not-ski looked absolutely bananas and worthy of the name “Valhalla”.

Next Stop: Fernie!

Just kidding. We did NOT go to Fernie. Hold for explanation.

Next Stop: Golden!!!

We were supposed to stay in Nelson for a couple more days. However, immediately after getting back to the motel in Nelson from the Valhalla experience we looked up some weather reports, conferred, and decided to get the fuck out of Dodge (I truthfully don’t know what or where Dodge is, but we were in it and we needed out STAT). It didn’t seem to be getting better anytime soon, temps were warming, so we decided to get north.

We examined Fernie, but since it sat at roughly the same latitude as Nelson, reports for the town said it was raining there as well. This was a mistake. We would later find out that while the town of Fernie was getting rain… the resort picked up three feet and had their deepest day of the season. As Forrest Gump once said though, “Shit happens.”

However, our decision to get north wasn’t an entirely bad one. We made some phone calls. We cancelled one hotel, extended our stay at another, bypassed Fernie and pushed 6 or 7 hours in the car up to Golden. Golden is a weird, wild place.

“Buddy! I couldn’t see!”

The night we arrived in Golden it was supposed to start snowing for the first of a 3 day on/off storm that was supposed to start small and get bigger. I should also note that storms in this region are very unpredictable. I am not a meteorologist (that I know of) so I couldn’t explain why… but sometimes it just snows there. Here in the Wasatch we scrounge reports for any sign of moisture and surprise pow days are few and far between. The good people of interior British Columbia are far more content to let the snow fall when it falls and it seems to do this at random.

Upon our late-night-ish (if you call 9pm ‘late’, which the locals seem to) arrival in Golden we promptly saddled up at the only place still open for dinner: the “sports” (read: hockey) bar next to our hotel. We ordered food, drank doubles (you can’t get them in Utah, so it’s a novelty for us when we can… just go with it!), and chatted with the bartender while all four TVs showed hockey (of course they did) despite the fact that we were in the midst of March Madness (they don’t care). Meanwhile the temps were dropping and light flakes had started falling. We had just discovered that Lake Louise was a 45 min drive over a mountain pass from here. I had been there almost a decade before on a trip to Banff, and based on my memories of awesome back bowls and amazing scenery, I suggested we go the next day.

At one point a late twenty-something guy strolled in wearing flip flops and a hoodie (again, it was not warm outside and it was snowing), looking distraught. He proceeded to pound doubles. I literally never saw him take a sip. I would see the bartender slide him a drink and then when I looked over again, his glass would be empty. He wasn’t there long, but he managed to down at least 4 of those by my count, and we managed to put together the following details:

  1. He was from Edmonton and his girlfriend had recently broken up with him.
  2. He was not happy about this.
  3. At one point he played minor league pro hockey.
  4. He had gotten drunk in Calgary the night before, woke up, packed his stuff, and left.
  5. He was going to Kelowna (I am NOT good with Canadian geography ((see my crappy map for proof)) but I know this is not a quick drive. We’re talking double digit hours.) to stay with a different girl because he could potentially manage night clubs? WTF!?!
  6. He liked my watch. He told me so.
  7. It was snowing hard in the pass between Lake Louise and Golden and his nerves required drinks after making it through.

“Wait… it’s snowing hard up there?” I asked.

“Buddy! I couldn’t see!!!” he aggressively shouted back. Then he was gone. He had assured the barkeep that he wasn’t driving further, but as soon as she turned her back he tossed down cash and bolted. Zoinks.

And like that, the catch phrase of our trip was born. This also solidified our decision to go to Lake Louise, which makes it relevant to this story. See… and you thought this tangent had no point.

Lake Louise

The resort lived up to my memories. A few centimeters of snow fell overnight and the sun was out. It provided the best skiing of the trip so far, which isn’t saying much, but it was fun. The back bowls were as I remembered them: beautiful but rocky. You’d get very good at p-texing if you lived near Lake Louise. The scenery is amongst the best in North America. We skied soft chop on a firm base in the bowls in the morning and watched a couple of runs from a grom big mountain comp.

When the sun went flat in the bowls we cruised groomers on the front side and ducked into the trees. We also befriended a college age girl from Calgary who tagged along with us and dropped hilarious bits of over shared information like, “Oh, if you see me on a dance floor it’s pretty obvious my dad missed all my dance recitals as a kid.” Sad, but true. All in all it was a good day. Things were about to get better though.

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Kicking Horse 

We awoke the next day to a palpable feeling of excitement in the air. We found out why in line for the hotel waffle bar: the storm had delivered! Over two feet fell overnight. Kicking Horse was a 12 minute drive away, and while we missed first chair on the gondola, we weren’t far behind. First off, let me say this: Kicking Horse is rowdy. Not only that, but we were catching it on what we were being told was the deepest day of the year. It’s a relatively new resort and features exactly one top-to-bottom lift. You jump on the gondola and get off something like 4,000 vertical feet later (they measure in meters, I’m bad at math). At the top you pick from one of two ridges, start traversing, and then drop into chutes. There’s just chutes. Chutes everywhere. Chutes for days and they’re all intimidating; particularly if you’ve never been there and the visibility is low.

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The top half of the mountain was deep and light. The bottom half was deep and heavy. By the time I got to the bottom my legs were en fuego (Spanish for “on fuego“). There’s a chair that services only the top 1/3 of the mountain called Stairway to Heaven, and it wasn’t long before we were doing lap after lap off it through widely spaced trees. We spent a total of two days at Kicking Horse making thigh deep, thigh burning turns down chute after chute as more and more terrain opened once patrol did (some) avalanche mitigating. Even this is a little more “cowboy” in Canada.

At one point we rode a chair with a patroller and asked, pointing at a big exposed face, “That opening soon?”

He replied, “Yeah, real soon, but be careful. We were pretty sure it would slide, but we’ve chucked a couple charges and nothing happened. I don’t like it, but we’re calling it good.” Ummm… ok?

All in all, Kicking Horse is nothing short of amazeballs. I’m not sure what it would be like in a long drought between storms, but catch it right and it will rival anything in the states. Yes, including Jackson Hole. You can huck, point & chute, and scare yourself for days. From what we could see the terrain just outside the resort would provide endless big line backcountry options. If only the town of Golden had a little more going on. I don’t mean to slam it, but the resort is so new the town doesn’t seem to have caught up. The main thoroughfare is reminiscent of a glorified truck stop. Then again, I got the sense that’s how the locals like it: remote and a little grungy. Moving on…

Purcell Heli Skiing 

Our final day in Golden was spent flying with Rudi Gertsch, owner of Purcell Heli Skiing. You can learn all about Rudi here, so all I will say is that he is the man. Rudi knows his stuff, and at 70-something years old, he still jumps off everything he sees. This was my first time in a heli, ever. It was amazing and worth every saved penny.

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That said, I found out the hard way that when you fly, you are at the mercy of your weakest skier. You can only go where the worst skier in the group can go, and the type of person who can afford heli skiing doesn’t tend to be the local shop kid that can shred. So we had a crew that were more familiar with New York bagel shops than with deep snow, and more interested in what was for lunch than how many vertical feet we got in. No complaints though, it was an amazing time and Rudi did everything he could to make sure we had the best day possible.

At the end of a heli day, if time and fuel allow, you get the option of paying for additional runs. Thanks to everyone else bailing, Alex and I got a couple runs with just Rudi and his tail guide. These were all-time! While certainly not the steepest or baddest terrain around, we were able to ski fast in 5-star conditions through untouched, widely spaced trees that dropped into a field of mini-pillows perfect for worry-free, no-consequence sending. Cheers to Rudi for a great place and an awesome time.

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Next Stop: REVELSTOKE!

What you’ve (probably) heard is true. The town of Revelstoke and the terrain that surrounds it is amazing. We definitely saved the best for last. Not only was the town top notch, the Hillcrest Hotel was the nicest place we stayed. They offered exceptional service, a great bar and restaurant, and perks like free morning yoga/stretching classes. I don’t even do yoga, but after 7 straight days of riding, a good stretch was welcome. Plus, it’s the home of Selkirk Tangiers Heli, so you pretty much fly right out of the hotel.

The resort of Revelstoke has even more vert than Kicking Horse. Even sticking to groomers, I can’t imagine a top to bottom lap without stopping. It burns so good! Also, the mountain is set-up well, allowing you to ski it in thirds. Chairs serve the top third, middle third, and lower third. While Kicking Horse probably takes the cake for pure rowdiness of terrain, Revelstoke is equally as fun and has greater variety.

We didn’t get the blower conditions we saw at Kicking Horse, so it’s hard to do an apple to apples comparison. However, it seems like a willingness to hike even a little goes a long way. Just outside the resort boundaries is straight up “crap your pants” type terrain. On our first day in town we hiked to the top of Subpeak off the Stoke chair and got a glimpse of a chute aptly named Brown Shorts. Alex knew immediately it needed to be skied to cap off the trip. More on this in a minute.

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Selkirk Tangiers Heli

This was easily a top 5 ski day for me. Purcell Heli was fun, but Selkirk was the one that really delivered. For one, they have an amazing selection of demo skis you can take out. I chose some Line Sick Days and they were… well… pretty sick.  Some of the most fun sticks I’ve ever been on. Alex switched it up and boarded on one of their Prior’s. Secondly, Selkirk Tangiers has a HUGE amount of terrain. I’d venture to say we saw 1/30th of it. Third, it was thigh deep and BLOWER. Our crew was a bunch of generally good riders, so while not the rowdiest stuff they have to offer, we were able to get on some pretty good terrain. We started the day skiing wide open fields full of drops and rollers. The second half of the day was steep trees and wide open slashes. I want to go back, like, NOW. You’d think I’d have more to say about one of my top 5 ski days ever, but you know what? I’m keeping this one mostly for me. Sorry, not sorry.

Brown Shorts: The End.

No ski trip is complete without some drama. Ours had been just hunky dory until we saw Brown Shorts. Alex was 100% in. I was more like 70% in. The snow looked good and it was shady and protected. However, this was a foreign place with an unfamiliar snowpack… and even though we had our gear and read an avi report, I wasn’t completely sold. However, we discussed the night before and I agreed to hike up. To get to Brown Shorts you hike up the bootpack from the top of the Stoke Chair to Subpeak. Then you cruise out a ridge to another bootpack that takes you to the top of Mt. McKenzie. From there you have to traverse the far side that we wouldn’t be able to see till we got there. Based on what we could see, I wasn’t worried about this part, thinking it would be a sort of rounded dome shape. I was dead wrong.

The face we needed to traverse was much MUCH steeper than I expected and was very exposed with lots of cliffs below. A true “do not F this up” maneuver across what I would estimate was a 45-50 degree slope. It turns out this is the face called “Mac Daddy” that is the venue for the Revelstoke stop of the Freeride World Tour. See it here and believe me it is much more terrifying in person than Drew Tabke makes it look on TV.

The final requirement is to complete the traverse just below the peak so that you arrive at a rather precise location to gain entrance to Brown Shorts, which we also wouldn’t see til we arrived above it. I should also add that I didn’t know what, if any, outs I had if I traversed over and didn’t ski that chute. We needed to be sure that we ended up back in the resort or it could be a lengthy skin out. I think Matt Damon said it in Rounders (or maybe it was Kenny Rodgers, I dunno), but the point is: “Always know your outs.”

Now, I’m not good enough to be on the FWT. Not even close. But I have stood on the top of some pucker-up type lines in my life. This was on another level. Alex wanted to go and he wanted to go NOW. He’s a stronger skier than I am and I could tell he needed to move before he lost his nerve and backed out. There was a problem though: my already dead-tired legs pretty much picked this exact moment to stop working and the weather picked that exact same moment to take a total nose dive. Clouds rolled in and visibility dropped to less than 15 feet. My rules for skiing anything questionable or sketchy are as follows: get in, get out, ski fast, know your line. None of that was now possible.

We had decided this was going to be the epic finish to an epic trip. It was our last day. However, I didn’t want it to be my last day ever. This may sound hyperbolic, but I dare anyone to go up there and feel good about skiing this thing on their first time ever being on that peak, in mediocre snow conditions, with very low visibility, knowing that a fall means, best-case scenario, you’re probably not walking for a while. I was torn. On one hand, I know I should never ski something like that when scared. On the other hand, I had very determined friend who I didn’t want to let down.

I need you to decide. I have to go.” he said.

I couldn’t say it so I shook my head “no” and my stomach dropped. There was no time for debate. He was going and he was going alone and I was the cause of that. If something happened I knew my guilt would be tremendous. I watched my friend and the guy I’ve spent more time in the mountains with than anyone else in my life ski off into the clouds.

These are defining moments in the backcountry. One guy says yes, one guy says no. Neither is for sure right, both have to live with any consequences. Backing out of that line was one of the hardest things I’ve done in a long time. I was angry at Alex for going alone and angry at myself for making him go alone.

It was a tough, disappointing end to an otherwise amazing trip. Thankfully, it worked out. He skied it and said it was possibly the most terrified he’s ever been on skis. I didn’t ski it and said the same thing.

That night we ate sushi and then got shaken down for money on the street by what we both assume was a Revelstoke hooker. The next day we got on a plane and went home. Epic road trip sought, epic road trip found. Brown Shorts, we’ll meet again someday, but as for this time… “Buddy! I couldn’t see!!!”

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One thought on “This is Not Japan, This is British Columbia

  1. Casey Sowul says:

    You’ve completely side-tracked my entire day with this trip report. First, you had me with all the awesome pics & drooling and craving to go on a BC road-trip… and then you included a Rounders quote. Hero status! Fantastic report & captivating writing. Thanks for sharing – I can now procrastinate all the work I have to wrap-up and will instead plan my next BC trip the rest of the week. *plotting*

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