I can’t remember where I left my gloves, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting help with that any time soon. One of our group of French pro riders is alone in the outdoor hot tub, with a face that suggests he’s sitting in cat piss. The others are nowhere to be seen. Production has slipped way behind schedule, and today looks like a write-off before it’s even begun.
Two questions loop in my mind as I head to the chairlift, accompanied only by filmer and fellow Scot Will Nangle: how did it come to this, and can things be salvaged before it’s too late?
There aren’t many ‘hidden gems’ left in the snowboard world. Given how easy it has become to spread the word about the good spots, secrets don’t stay secret for long. However, in the interior of British Columbia, one resort is bucking the trend.
Red Mountain lies just over the border from Washington State, approximately 500 miles due east of BC’s world famous Whistler-Blackcomb. It’s even further removed in other ways: there are only five chairlifts; the locals are actually locals, not fly-by-night seasonaires; and crowding is a rarity. Yes, despite the limited uplift there’s a whopping 4,200 acres to spread out on, across the three peaks of Red, Granite and the newly-opened Grey Mountain. Plus there’s the ample and affordable catboarding. Too good to be true? Maybe. There is, of course, only one way to find out.
It’s about 1am local time on a freezing cold February morning when we arrive at our lodge. My body clock is all at sea, and only Will’s gloriously erratic iPod – nothing short of sonic Russian Roulette, blasted at full volume – has kept us out of the roadside ditches during the three-hour drive from Spokane. We rouse our two French companions, pro rider Valérian Ducourtil and Whitelines photographer extraordinaire Matt Georges, and pile in. Despite feeling like death warmed up, it’s hard not to be excited; we’ve got eight days of riding and filming with the WhatWeWant crew – spearheaded by Gerome “Coincoin" Mathieu, Tyler Chorlton and their filmer Marc Vaudroz, aka Serge – to look forward to.
The sun is blazing when we wake the next day, and after fuelling up at the base station’s breakfast grill we head off to meet Dano, a Red Mountain local of 23 years and our guide for the week. Knowing it’s powder we’re after, he takes us to a zone located a short and shallow hike from the piste. It’s amazing to see how much fresh is still around, given that it hasn’t snowed for days. The stuff is so deep and light that hiking without snowshoes is an absolute nightmare; Matt sums it up pretty well as he watches my one-step-forward-two-steps-back efforts: “il fait du moonwalk." Fortunately Vale is making progress further ahead, and before long we’ve managed to get a hit ready. It’s not ideal having only one rider to shoot, but the others won’t make it over from Whistler until this evening so we might as well make a start. Besides, the one we do have is more than up to the task. Despite the sketchiest run-in in history – one hit is aborted after a protruding branch claims one of his gloves on the way to the lip – Vale gets some shots in the can before the fading light forces us to head down.
By the time we return from the shops in Rossland, the local town, the rest of the crew has arrived. Most of them have wasted no time in cracking out the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and hitting the tub. There’s Coincoin and Serge, as well as Whistler legend Martin Gallant (aka ‘the Godfather’). Tyler, meanwhile, favours chilling indoors. So that makes three Frenchmen, a Swiss and a Quebecois, and it’s not long before I’m starting to regret not paying more attention in language classes at school. As a Morzine resident, Will knows enough of the lingo to follow what’s being said – with the possible exception of Martin’s Montreal drawl – while Tyler has lived in either France or Andorra for almost his entire life. I’m the only one not up to speed, but every so often someone switches to English and explains why they’re all laughing so hard. More often than not, it’s at one of Martin’s stories about raising hell and trashing vans when he lived here in the nineties. Everyone’s in good spirits by the time I turn in, the sound of bizarre French pop music creeping through the walls.
It’s our first day with a full roster, and the sun is out once more. Dano suggests heading up to Mount Roberts – a nearby peak behind Granite Mountain – and dropping down the north face. It’s a 45-minute hike, so getting hold of some snowshoes is a must. They do the job, although clearly my choice of breakfast (poutine topped with a generous serving of bacon and eggs – when in Rome…) was a poor one. Fortunately some of the guys are living up to the French stereotype and stopping for regular cigarette breaks, which give me the chance to catch my breath. At the top we regroup and enjoy the spectacular view before riding down into the trees. Martin drops for what, it turns out, are his first turns of the season. His exact age is a mystery – answers depend on whom in the crew you ask, and how long he’s taking to get his boots on at the time – but his many stories about what Whistler was like twenty years ago help to narrow it down. He’s spent all winter building his own log cabin in Squamish, but as he slashes a spine it’s clear he’s ready to make up for lost time.
“Fortunately some of the guys are living up to the French stereotype and stopping for regular cigarette breaks, which give me the chance to catch my breath"
Roberts is a challenging descent at times, but seriously fun; even at the parts that are tracked out, you can whip thorough the trees on someone else’s berms. Will, Matt and Serge have their work cut out for them though, trying to find spots that the riders could hit without wrapping themselves round a tree in the landing. By the time we get to the bottom they’ve managed to get some shots, but there’s not the opportunity for the kind of airtime that they’re looking for. Still, with six days to go and a supposed dump on the way, it’s surely only a matter of time before these guys are flying.
Thursday is another scorcher; we’ve been incredibly lucky with the weather, but what powder remains is disappearing fast. While we wait at the base station, Coincoin laps the nearby T-bar and unleashes a mighty cloudburst on the way down. Matt’s not quite satisfied with the shot, though, and calls for another. It’s so quiet that in the ten minutes between the two runs, not another soul has descended down the immaculate corduroy. “Imagine if you came here just after a storm," says Martin. “You’d be scoring powder for at least a week". Just then a voice starts beckoning to him from below the balcony. It’s an old friend from Whistler who’s now based here; someone who, for reasons that are becoming clearer by the hour, ventured to Red from the crowded super-resort some years ago and never looked back. The two of them shoot the breeze for a while before we all head off with Dano once more.
He leads us to an area on Red Mountain, which has a lot less trees than Roberts but plenty of natural hits. Better still, you can get there from the top of the chairlift without having to hike. We’re instantly taken with the terrain; this is definitely closer to what the guys had in mind. It’s just a shame that there hasn’t been enough snow to open up the bigger stuff. “With an extra metre of base, this would be in…sane" says Tyler, but as things stand we have no choice but to move on. Serge has to pick his way down some tricky terrain lugging two camera bags that, frustratingly, have had to remain shut. I give him a hand with his tripod, and soon we’ve found our way down to a cat track.
The guys are gathered around an old mining structure – a reminder of the area’s once-booming gold industry – by the time we catch up. Matt has his camera out, and Martin is on his way to the top. Proving there’s life in the old chien yet, he bomb-drops to a nearby snow bank. Unfortunately the landing takes its toll on his knee, and he goes down hard. Cue a lot of shouting in Quebec French, followed by howls of laughter from the rest of the guys. A quick translation tells me what’s been said: “right, I got the shot, the weather’s nice, now I’m going to Mexico!"
“’Now we’re talking!’ says Tyler as he admires the terrain in front of us. ’C’est paradis’"
As he disappears to lick his wounds – and presumably take a look on Skyscanner – the rest of us head back to the zone from the first day. Unfortunately the sun has baked it to a crisp, so we make tracks for the lodge. For obvious reasons we’re spending as much time as possible off the beaten track, but the home run is a joy; a long, snaking green with side-hits all the way down, as well as plenty of detours and shortcuts through the trees. Seemingly incapable of passing up the chance to get airborne, Tyler is spinning and flipping off everything in sight. A full eight minutes later he’s finally unstrapping at the bottom, having passed only one skier on the way down.
That night Fran Richards, head of marketing at Red, has offered to take us out for dinner. Like Martin, he’s a man with many stories to tell, having been around during North American snowboarding’s early days. He’s held various positions over the years – including publisher of Transworld Snowboarding at one stage – but now he’s keen to show the world what Red has to offer, and is optimistic that an approaching storm is going to deliver the goods. Fingers crossed.
The next day is another warm and sunny one, so we decide there’s little point in looking to the backcountry. Coincoin and Serge will drive to Rossland to look for street spots, and Tyler will go with Dano to see a potential kicker-building location. Meanwhile Will, Vale, Matt and I hit the chairlifts, looking for something inbounds with which we can work. I appreciate the opportunity to razz around Red’s immaculate pistes which are just as quiet as ever, and before long we’re shaping a tree jib that Vale has scoped. It’s right under the chairlift for maximum showoff points, and so the locals are shouting words of encouragement down to our French. After a few close calls he absolutely nails the redirect with a super-smooth backflip. “Hey, you guys are pretty awesome!" comes a voice from above. It’s not until we hear a familiar laugh that we realise it’s Tyler, trying out his best Canadian accent. The kicker spot was a no-go, so he’s come to join us.
The session is soon in full swing, but given our visibility and proximity to the trails, it’s not long before a piste patroller shows up. ‘Game over’, I think as he comes to a stop a few feet away. However, provided we break up the hit when we’re finished, he’s happy for us to continue. “If the shit hits the fan, here’s the number to call," he tells us, before departing with a friendly “alright, keep on keepin’ on!" It’s been a fun day, and Serge cooks up a massive feast for us in the evening. Everyone’s soon laughing and joking around the dinner table; about what, I have no idea. “It’s a shame you don’t understand French," Matt says to me. “Your whole article could just be quotes from Martin and Coincoin. It’s like ten jokes a minute!"
When we wake on the Saturday morning, the sun is nowhere to be seen but it looks like some fresh snow has arrived at last. Whether it’s quite enough to truly turn the week around is another story. We go back towards the first zone, where Coincoin finds just enough space between some trees for a decent-sized hit. It’s a straight-air-only situation – the margin for error is seriously small – but he stomps it, tickling the high branches as he goes. That’s our lot for the day, though, as that’s the only workable spot and the temperature is south of -20°C. Once again Tyler rinses the home run, which has benefited greatly from the extra snow. There’s still no-one else around – isn’t this a Saturday?
“’Imagine if you came here just after a storm,’ says Martin. ‘You’d be scoring powder for at least a week.’"
By this point we’ve had five of our eight days; it’s been a blast, but we’re definitely short of useable footage. The WWW guys are already behind schedule thanks to poor snowfalls elsewhere, and while it’s not exactly Les Misérables, there’s a creeping tension as riders and filmers alike start to feel the pressure. What’s needed is an opportunity to clear our heads and relax for a while. Fran has just the thing: some free passes to Red Mountain’s inaugural beer festival – aptly named ‘Beer Goggles.’ We sample some of BC’s best brews before heading to the Rafter’s Bar for some live music, and as giant plates of nachos and poutine float by, it’s easy to see why this place is consistently ranked among the best resort bars in the country. Coincoin is first to turn in – as a rule he’ll never have a late one before a full day on the hill – but the rest of us enjoy the music and forget our worries for a while. We all eventually make tracks after the show, with the exception of the still-crocked Martin who has made some new friends; who knew that “back in ’93…" was such a good chat-up line?
Heads are a little fuzzy the next morning, and the weather – flat light and not as much new snow as we’d have liked – isn’t helping the mood. Another day of scrambling for shots in less-than-ideal conditions will probably do more harm than good, so the pros reluctantly opt for a rest day. Everyone’s on a bit of a downer right now, something I really couldn’t have foreseen when we arrived in resort, but hopefully the atmosphere will improve before tomorrow. At least Will is chipper – he’s seizing the chance to ditch the heavy camera bag and come with me to meet Fran, who has offered to show us a little more of the resort.
We head up Granite Mountain and hit a zone called ‘Powder Fields,’ an appropriately-named playground with natural hits aplenty. It’ll need some more fresh before the likes of Coincoin, Tyler and Vale can make the most of it, but there’s serious potential here – as well as loads of good lines for intermediates. I ask Fran how long it takes to get tracked out after a dump. “Oh, about four days or so." And why would we doubt him? Even though it’s still the weekend, we’re straight on to every chairlift and enjoy run after epic run almost entirely to ourselves. It’s a welcome change of pace to the production headaches of the last few days, more like a holiday – in this respect, we’re agreed that Red will be hard to top.
When we return to the lodge, it’s clear that the rest of the guys haven’t had quite as good a day. On a local tip they had driven out of town to look for spots, but nothing had presented itself. Worse still, Coincoin’s truck now won’t start. Matt takes us out in our car to have a scope of our own, but we eventually yield to the freezing cold and head back to the lodge. The snow is falling, but with only two days left we’re up against it.
“Coincoin unleashes a monstrous frontside 900, easily the best thing any of us have seen all week"
By the following morning it’s clear that the forecasted super-dump won’t be arriving, but there’s definitely more to work with. We once again drive a couple of miles out of the resort, looking for the entrance to a trail that we’d been told about. With only one car we have to do it in two loads, so Matt takes Tyler, Vale, Will and myself along before heading back for Coincoin and Serge. We’re forced to split up at a fork in the trail, but after another ten minutes it’s clear that Tyler and I took the correct route. “Now we’re taking!" he says as he admires the terrain in front of us, and immediately hails the others over the walkie-talkies before signing off with “c’est paradis."
We’re off to a shaky start when Tyler lands in some bushes, his transceiver the only thing between him and a broken rib. Fortunately his second attempt is better, and he floats over them with a frontside 3. Vale finds a nice double line nearby, while Coincoin works at a spot over on the other side. He launches into a massive half cab that suits his burly style, but can’t stick the landing. With a cry of “POUTAIN!" (there’s a word I remember – if you can’t pick out the profanities at least, what the hell were you doing in French class?), he’s unstrapping and heading back up for another hit, which he stomps perfectly. The filmers are stoked, and morale has massively improved – at least until Coincoin heads down on his own after having a tiff with Matt. With my limited knowledge of the Gallic regions, Matt’s explanation of “it’s cool – we’re both from the south" poses more questions than it answers. The rest of us stick around for a little longer, and a Tyler Chorlton method off a pillow on the way down is a fitting end to the day. Always the most positive of us, he sums things up pretty well: “Days like this are good, where everyone’s got a shot in the bag. It’s great for the whole crew, and for the movie." He’s right – things are looking up. And tomorrow we ride the cat.
The Godfather rejoins us the next morning as we sign our insurance waivers at the offices of Big Red Cats. It’s good to have him back, especially once he has us all in stitches as he ‘lays down the law’ in the cabin: “Here’s the deal: when Coincoin is dropping, it is just him and the photographers and filmers. Everyone else shut the fuck up. They get the shot, and then once Coincoin is down, he shut the fuck up!" Speaking of M. Mathieu, he’s the first to have a crack at the zone that our guides, Kieren and Jesse, have taken us to. Clearly, this is where he belongs, and now that the features are big enough he’s really making the most of them. Further down he unleashes a monstrous frontside 900, easily the best thing any of us have seen all week. Tyler and Vale are bagging great shots too, and although the passing clouds occasionally hold us up, generally we’re cooking with gas. The lensmen even get to leave their bags for a blast through some untouched tree-runs, and as we wait for our ride home the crew is all smiles. Kieren passes the time by telling us what sounds like a heartwarming story about his wife, until he drops the punchline: “…and then she said ‘why don’t you wear the silver condom and come second for once?’" A few smutty jokes later and we’re back in the cat, admiring the seemingly endless trails from the window. If this is what the Red backcountry has to offer with a relatively poor snowfall, then we’ve clearly not even scratched the surface. “I’d definitely be keen to come back her and produce some more," says Tyler as he offers Jesse a hit on his vape.
Back at the lodge Vale is whipping up a stack of pancakes while the rest of us procrastinate; after the day we’ve had, no one is in a hurry to get packed. As we eat we discuss everything and anything; this trip, future plans, and (for reasons that escape me) how grateful we all are that we’ve never felt the need to cry-wank in the shower to Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ – in short, we’re a far cry from the doom and gloom of a few days ago.
A few smutty jokes later and we’re back in the cat, admiring the seemingly endless trails from the window
On our way to the airport I think about the knife-edge that the careers of pro snowboarders – as well as the photographers and filmers that follow – can appear to be on at times. It’s all strikes and gutters, ups and downs, with seemingly limitless variables just ready to ruin your whole season. Fortunately, as I saw this week, the hard graft does tend to get rewarded. And if it means you get to go to places like Red, it’s always going to be worth it.
COLOUR ME RAD
Red Mountain isn’t alone; there’s a whole Crayola box worth of colourful peaks to be found the world over. Some of them are rideable – like the Green Mountain State (aka Vermont) and Ontario’s Blue Mountain Resort – but for these ones you’ll need to leave the board at home:
Yellow Mountain – also known as Huangshan, this Chinese range is a UNESCO World Heritage site and popular tourist destination. It has featured prominently in Chinese culture for over a millennium, and was also one of James Cameron’s inspirations for the planet of Pandora in the film Avatar.
Blue Mountain Peak – the highest point in Jamaica, and home of the world-famous Blue Mountain coffee. Their beans are among the most highly valued in the world, and are also used in the manufacture of Tia Maria. Green Mountain – - an extinct volcano on the isolated Ascension Island, located over 1,000 miles from the African coast. At one time a barren, rocky peak, the introduction of plant life by various explorers transformed it one of the world’s largest artificial forests.
Purple Mountain – “For purple mountain majesties / above the enameled plain!" go the lyrics to America The Beautiful. Whether they refer to the one in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington or Wyoming is not known – but clearly the western U.S. has a thing for purple.
Orange Mountain Bikes – it’s seemingly harder to find an Orange Mountain than it is to find a word that rhymes with ‘orange.’ This bike company is based in Halifax, which doesn’t have any orange peaks. It does have a sort of scummy-green-brown one, though, where you might find Jamie Nicholls of an evening.