To most people the Kootenays equate with powder, a lifestyle so consumed by the pursuit of fresh tracks that powder ranks up there with the other basic essentials of life: oxygen, water, food.
To me, however, the Kootenays spell nostalgia. Though I have spent a large portion of my life chasing snow around the world, it’s right here at home in B.C. where some of my most formative wintry experiences transpired. Three particular experiences always bubble to the surface, touchstones in the murky, sometimes smoky, archives of my skiing life that are linked to three places in that region of the province now marketed by winter tourism promoters as the “Powder Highway.” Last winter I hit the road with Steve Ogle to revisit a few of these memories.
REVELSTOKE—where my inner skier was first freed
It was mid-winter 1982. I was crammed into the back of Coach Gatien’s windowless black Chevy van along with T.K. and Ace, the three of us members of the resurgent Tod Mountain Ski Racing Club out of what is now Sun Peaks. A classy operation. It was around 7:00 a.m. and we were winding through Three Valley Gap in a raging snowstorm, headed for a regional slalom race at Powder Springs Resort, like Tod Mountain another anachronism from a time before corporate interests began turning ski hills into real estate machines. For those of you with short memories, Powder Springs is what the ski hill on the lower flanks of Mount Mackenzie was called prior to the development of Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR). As usual I was nervous, seeded deep in a pack of more than 100 junior racers. It would be survival ski racing at its finest, down a well-rutted slalom course to the finish line.
More than 30 years later, I ponder these memories as I ride the Stoke Chair with Steve and a couple of stoic Euro tourists, who stare straight ahead, emotionless. Nearing the top station I watch a little kid, maybe three years old, shuffle past the ski patrol hut and launch himself down the black-diamond fall line of SWF, assuming a power snowplow position. A man, presumably his dad, turns casually behind him. It’s a bluebird day, with fresh powder still to be found following a storm three days ago.
Today’s weather is in stark contrast to the blizzard that raged as I shivered in my tight race pants near the top of the slalom course at Powder Springs. The one-lift wonder of a resort is now mostly just a figment of my imagination, a relic from a time before Don Simpson, a Coloradan shopping mall developer, dumped a fortune into Mount Mackenzie and opened RMR in 2008—just as North America’s financial meltdown gathered steam. Within two years, he’d lost his shirt, and sold to the real estate-developing, restaurant- and hotel-owning Gaglardi family of Vancouver.
After off loading, Ogle and I jump into line, following the bucket steps to the sub-peak of Mount Mackenzie above the Stoke. We pass a couple of teenage snowboarders in T-shirts, no gloves, baggy pants slung so low their ass cracks are showing. We’re headed for one of the many couloirs that drop off the north side of Mount Mackenzie. Steve is sweating off the tail end of the flu, but I have no sympathy—the conditions are perfect for dropping a steep line. We leave the crowds snapping selfies next to the weather station and follow the ridge that meanders beyond the area boundary and climbs toward the summit proper. In 20 minutes, we’re peering over the cornice into the 50-degree-plus chute called Door 4—our line of choice. Previous skiers have stomped out a chunk of the overhanging cornice, leaving a two-metre entrance drop.
My mind drifts back to Powder Springs, and the sound of the beeping timer gate. Below me lies a slalom course, invisible beyond a half-dozen gates in the sideways driving snow. Beep, beep, beep. I kick off. Three gates in I’m swallowed by waist-deep ruts. Halfway down, 45 seconds in, I clip a flush with my tip and my racing weekend is over, almost as quickly as it started. But I’m quietly relieved. As much as I enjoyed those weekend road trips in the back of Coach Gatien’s black van, as well as the skills that bashing gates gave me, the discipline of ski racing proves ultimately to be not my thing. It was the thrill of exploring unknown terrain at new mountains that stoked my fires as a teenager. And I suppose that’s when I realized I was more of a freeskier, of sorts, than a ski racer.
With one last courage-summoning look down Door 4, I slide off the precipice onto the steeps, four body lengths wide and flanked by rockwalls. I extend my body to absorb the landing, but it comes softly and smoothly, my ski edges digging into the grippy snow with a reassuring scrape. I exhale, relax and revel in the adrenaline and this fantastic line plummeting directly into the north bowl.