Features // February 2, 2016 // By


Nelson’s Baby

The annual Coldsmoke Powder Fest at Whitewater is an enviable community celebration that goes well beyond the Kootenays.

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In 1867, gold and silver were discovered near the shores of Kootenay Lake in the southern Selkirk Mountains of B.C. At the time, the waterways that followed the valleys below were considered virtually inaccessible, but the resolve of enterprising pioneers seeking their fortunes in trade routes knew no limits. In the years that followed a small rush of prospectors opened up the region. Though the most precious of metals, it turned out, weren’t plentiful enough to hold the rushers’ interests for more than a decade, other resources did flow that inspired people to stay—most notably, water.

The result was the town of Nelson. Today, the bustling little city remains limited in its physical footprint by the steep and rugged hillside it clings to, but it bursts with liveliness. The community has worn many identities over the years: mining hub, logging town, farming paradise, haven to draft dodgers and dissident Russian Doukhobors, enclave of hippies and misfits, arts-and-culture centre and, more recently, arguably the best ski town in Canada.

Whitewater Resort, just a 20-minute drive up the road and aptly nicknamed WH20, came to life in 1976. Forty years later, you could almost swear no time has passed. Not just because of the leagues of locals still using vintage equipment, the original lifts, the lack of WiFi and mobile phone reception or the home-cooked food, but because of the attitude. Whitewater remains a throwback to the longhaired, free-spirited energy of the ’70s.

Combined with some of the steepest and best tree-skiing in the country, there are few places you can still find skiing this big in a package this small. And there’s no better time to visit than during the annual Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Fest that takes place over three days every February.

by Matt Coté    photos Steve Ogle    in December 2015 issue

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Now going into its 10th year, Coldsmoke isn’t just a party, it’s a manifestation of values. This is a gathering of industry professionals and civilian ski bums alike at the foot of the pointedly handsome Ymir Peak to celebrate classic ski culture and deep, fluffy snow. The festival spans the entire weekend of February 19-21, 2016 and starting on Friday, WH20 hosts a series of clinics put on by pro skiers like Allison Gannett and Eric Pehota, and renowned guides like John Buffery, on everything from shredding steeps to honing your mountain skills.

Karen Reader has been organizing the clinics for the last four years. “There are three prongs to the festival,” she says, “the contests, the socials and the clinics.” She describes the clinics as “intimate,” with six people per group, “because it’s a powder festival and we want people to enjoy non-groomed terrain.”

Though clinics run during the day, the real kickoff to the weekend is the Friday evening film fest at the Nelson Civic Theatre, a gigantic social hosted by local ski-biz mogul Peter Moynes, who’s been emceeing the Friday-night opener since its humble beginnings. Moynes says the inclusive, artsy side of Nelson is what everyone comes back for. “The area has the reputation of being a cool, hip place, and I think we’ve done a good job of showing that to people every year.”

As part of the entertainment, guest speakers also take to the stage. In the past they’ve included the likes of ski-touring superstar Greg Hill and author and ice-climber Margot Talbot. “We’ve been able to invite people from all over North America,” continues Moynes. “It’s a well-known festival. It also showcases what we have in terms of skiing, and there have been years where it’s been really sick.”

Greg Hill reflects on this sentiment: “What I love most about the festival is that it’s a source of inspiration mixed with education. So not only do people get psyched, they get armed with the right tools to get out and about in the mountains.”

More often than not, though, Friday night finishes at local watering hole Mike’s Bar in the historic Hume Hotel. But don’t get carried away, because morning comes quickly, and typically soft and deep.

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Saturday’s early light launches first into the Valhalla Pure Slopestyle, which takes place on the Powderkeg cliffs, an area accessible to competitors via bootpack from the Summit-lift side of the ski area. This particular slopestyle doesn’t use built features, though, just natural hits. With a mellow ridgetop leading gently into steep, deep landings, participants test their mettle in the fluffy wilds that Mother Nature provides.

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As a family-oriented resort, WH20 has long produced some of the most talented young rippers in the province, so it’s no surprise that—with age categories for all—it’s the kids who rule this event. Backflips, fronts, off-axis inverts and spins are all part of most Kootenay kids’ rubbery-boned repertoires. Ask coach Peter Velisek and he’ll tell you the steep and natural playfulness of the area is why Nelson kids become so cat-like. “The constantly changing terrain forces you to become a centred skier, which allows you to feel the snow,” he says.

Exactly how much snow is that? On average, 12m per season. Combined with the amount of terrain accessible around the resort, it would be easy to imagine the place crawling with lifts. But according to WH20’s Sales and Marketing Director Rebeckah Hornung, that would defeat the point.

“We’ve purposely stayed small,” she says. “It’s been a conscious decision not to develop. A lot of ski resorts try to be everything to everyone. When people come [to Whitewater], they come to experience the Kootenays and the special vibe we have here.”

Part of that vibe is a symbiosis with the local community, one whose merchants sponsor Coldsmoke’s events and set up booths in the makeshift village by the base lodge every year. Transitioning from the slopestyle event to the ROAM Randonée—which carries the namesake of the local mountain shop that sponsors it—your foray through the village offers every opportunity to chat with local businesses or try next year’s gear.

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For those who step up to it, the ROAM Randonée is a ski-mountaineering race that blasts its contestants—self-propelled—up and down 1,558m of terrain over as little as two hours. There are several categories and variations on the course, but the overall feeling is, ironically, quite relaxed. With the exception of one or two ringers every year, it’s really just an excuse for people to get together and burn some calories doing what many already do here every day.

If you’ve done both the slopestyle and randonée at this point, and your legs aren’t jelly, you’re only two more events away from being in contention to win the title of either King or Queen of the Fest. It’s an honour bestowed each year on the top male and female who compete in all four events over the weekend. The remaining two are The Backcountry Poker Run, complete with dual slalom, and the Backcountry Olympics. But with Saturday now in the bag, you get to fill up on food and take in the night at the Backcountry Buff-EH. Noticing a theme yet?

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For those looking for the most vertical, six years ago WH20 installed the Glory Ridge triple chair to bring a historical backcountry stash off the “backside” into the fold of the in-bounds area. This represents more than 500 hectares of leg-pounding glades as you thread lines through the hemlocks, spruce and cedars proudly wearing old-man beards. Some of the finest groomer runs are also here with 623m of vertical to the bottom. Just make sure you pay attention to what time it is, because if the Glory chair closes, you’ve got a full four-km walk back to the base area. Good thing the signage is clear, and the liftees are stern in their friendly reminders, “Last run on Glory!” Don’t be too sad, though, this means it’s time to eat and imbibe.

In keeping with the internationally renowned food from their café—made famous by their own cookbook—WH20 takes pride in being organic. What that means is what the people want, the people get. Back at the Buff-EH, dance-offs, marshmallow roasting, a beacon-search contest and live music keep the spirit high. The boisterous Mitchell Scott—one of the ski industry’s top media madmen—takes over to emcee the night’s festivities. All the while, people flirt with acting out the namesake of the local favourite organic winter ale from the Nelson Brewing Company: Faceplant.

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Sunday morning, with all its cobwebs, brings with it the most gusto. Fluorescent colours and outrageous wigs are the motifs for the day as everyone dresses up for the poker run. This is basically a scavenger hunt across the entire resort to bring back five cards, from which you later play a hand of poker. Those who go into the dual slalom—mandatory for King and Queen contestants—collect an extra card.

The ensuing scene of cowboys, ghostbusters and 1960s-apparel-wearing goofs schussing madly across the expanse of the resort is enough to remind anybody that our sport should never be taken too seriously. But for those keen to prove they can get their partners out of a jam when things do get real, the Backcountry Olympics event remains.

On the Silver King side of the resort, use all your energy and training to hike into position, locate a buried dummy with its beacon, extricate it from the snow and then build a toboggan from your skis, poles and other supplies to evacuate your “buddy” from the scene. Fastest time wins.

As the competitions come to a close, the patio is packed and there remains the small matter of crowning a King and Queen. In 2015, the honours went to locals Scott Jeffrey and Ali Schroeder, rising to the top of a pool of eight crazy souls vying for the coveted titles.

“I initially entered intrigued by the wide spectrum of all the events,” recalls Queen Schroeder. “It’s something I’d never come across before as competitions are generally one-sided. But the Coldsmoke festival, in true Nelson fashion, is jam-packed with a little something for everyone.”

Schroeder highlights that it’s very much the prominence of old-school community values and an appreciation for diversity that makes the Kootenays special. That, and piles of snow. So as long as the sky keeps on producing at the little ski hill that still wears its hair long, people will celebrate cold smoke, in all its glory.

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