If there’s one thing you probably don’t want to hear when you’re 40,000 feet above the Arctic Circle, it’s the pilot telling you he’s got a problem with his oxygen supply.
But that is exactly the message which was relayed to the passengers of an Air Canada flight from London to Calgary last February, shortly after they’d crossed the icy depths of the Atlantic. Two of the UK’s nicest snowboarders, Nelson Pratt and Andy Nudds, looked at each other in quiet terror. They’d only intended to do a little polite riding in British Columbia, perhaps eat a pancake or two; now they were set to play a starring role in a real life disaster movie. Poor old Nelson hadn’t even had time to order a last cup of tea.
The pilot had only one option – an unscheduled landing at the nearest available airstrip. Which is how Nelson and Nuddsy came to find themselves sampling the culinary delights of the mess hall at Goose Bay, a small military base somewhere in the frozen wilderness of Eastern Canada.
* * *
Meanwhile, Scott McMorris and I are waiting forlornly at the arrivals gate in Vancouver as the last few passengers file out. It’s the last flight of the evening and the cleaners are already beginning to mop the floors. We’re stumped as to why the boys have missed their connection. It was a simple enough plan: meet in Vancouver and head inland to explore some of BC’s lesser known powder gems, hopefully rediscovering what Canada is all about along the way. Little do we know our friends are still being anally probed back at Area 51 (“Ed, it was weird!” a wide-eyed Nelson would later tell me. “It was the strangest place I’ve ever been to in my life. It was…. I mean… just… well… weird!” And that was that.)
When, numerous frantic phone calls and a night in the airport later, our bleary-eyed crew is re-united, we drive out to the burbs and meet up with Cherie Carswell, a designer for Westbeach who lives in a bohemian little apartment surrounded by vintage sewing machines and old mannequins. We didn’t even know her before this trip, but since Nuddsy is on the Westbeach team and snowboarding is a friendly little world, she’s offered to put a couple of us up.
Cherie gives us a tour of town that includes various parts it’s safe to say aren’t on the official Vancouver guide map – like the notorious corner of Chinatown where the bums hang out in long lines smoking crack, or the street where protesters have hung massive banners demanding housing for the homeless. Oh, and the gay district, which takes Nelson by surprise when he realises he’s being eyed up from a café window. We grab a pack of beer and drink them at the beach as the sun goes down, watching the joggers, yachts and distant container ships. Vancouver might have its seedy side, but it’s pretty obviously an amazing place to live – one of those liberal west coast cities that seems to have it all: minutes to the beach, minutes to the mountains.
Downtown, the streets are buzzing. Every other person seems to be wearing a hockey jersey and from banks to bus destination screens there seem to be movie posters featuring The Big Smoke’s most famous landmarks – the city’s other name is Hollywood North due to the massive amount of film sets in these parts.
“The city has really come out of itself since the ‘Lympics,” says Cherie. “we came out of our shell – now it’s like we’re showing the world all this stuff we used to keep to ourselves. And there’s buskers, the bars are open late… I love this city. It’s exciting!”
We don’t have much time to soak it all in, though, for the next day we load up the minivan and set out for the quieter surroundings of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. This is the place made famous by Craig Kelly, the former world champion who retired from professional snowboarding to become a guide here, chasing lines in the magnificent local steeps until an avalanche claimed his life in 2003. Back then, Revelstoke was a little–known logging town whose peaks were only accessible by heli. Today, it is developing rapidly into a modern ski area to rival Whistler, with high-speed lifts and luxury holiday apartments. Granted, it is more isolated than Whistler, some six hours inland between Vancouver and Calgary, but the ace up its sleeve is the mountain itself – blessed with massive vertical, serious steeps and of course, crazy amounts of annual snowfall.
Vancouver is one of those liberal west coast cities that seems to have it all: minutes to the beach, minutes to the mountains
Only this, as everyone knows, is the year Canada has had hardly any snow – or at least, nothing like the quantity they’re used to. Here in Revy things are a little better compared to Vancouver, but it has still been nearly two weeks since the last dump and, for a powder mecca like this one, that’s not ideal.
Nevertheless, after a few beers and an ice hockey match at the ‘Last Drop’ pub we’re feeling positive, and the next morning we head up the new gondola to see why this place has attracted so many big name pros over the past few years. The slopes are blissfully empty, and we spend a fun few hours getting our legs back by charging down runs with the kind of amusing names you only get in North America; runs like ‘Ripper’, ‘Stoked’ and (my post credit crunch favourite) ‘Kill the Banker’. There are some impressively long descents here, including a home run that winds down through massive evergreens for nearly 10km. As for the freeriding, we can certainly see the potential: the pitch in Revelstoke is consistently steep, and a short hike over the summit ridge brings us to the North Bowl, a giant shadowy crater that offers numerous routes through cliffs, pillows and open lines, all of which funnel back down into those massive trees. The only problem is, there are more tracks than an iTunes Beatles promotion. Yes the hill might be quiet, but that’s only because the locals appear to have rinsed the powder weeks ago and disappeared home to wait for the next dump.
None of us have ever seen so much evidence of powder starvation; every single patch of un-groomed snow, every last landing and tree well, has had a turn put through it by some bearded freshie fiend. It’s a brutal lesson in the first law of the mountain jungle: locals first. I’m left to reflect on the fact that you can travel thousands of miles across the ocean in search of perfect snow but you’ll always be at the mercy of the weather – and more often than not, at the back of the queue. In fact it’s in places like this – resorts with big reputations – that the frustration is felt most keenly. Even on a good day, you’ll be fighting for runs with hordes of dedicated seasonaires who know the drill and will be up at the crack of dawn to hit their favourite spots. Don’t believe me? Just try queuing for the Grand Montets cable car in Chamonix after 50cm of new snow. The tell-tale sign you’re in a freeride capital like this is the local population of Australians. In Canada, the Aussies traditionally hang out in Whistler, but after just a day in Revelstoke it’s apparent that they’ve started colonising this new mountain faster than a surf break in Indo. We’re served by several of them in the local bars, and are passed by even more on the hill, including a dreadlocked guy with a DaKine heli pack and a stuffed monkey velcroed around his shins – a sure sign of an antipodean powder hunter if ever I’ve seen it.
We make the best of the cards nature’s dealt us, however. Right above the ‘Stoked’ chairlift we follow a boot pack through strange snow covered nobules (buried trees, really) to a weather station on the summit ridge, where we’re rewarded with an epic view over the Kootenay range and the mighty Columbia River. After some eye-wateringly fast runs, comedy backcountry building projects and a few spins over the resort’s many piste rollers, we warm up at the mid station with the biggest servings of shepherds pie known to man. The food down in town is pretty good too. Revy is a quiet place – the Olympic zoo of Vancouver seems a long way away – but it’s got everything the hardcore need including some cool restaurants. The best of these is the Village Idiot, where they serve up fantastic gourmet burgers and homemade pizza. Having made a couple of “poor selections” back in Vancouver, Nelson is now convinced that in North America, you’re always, always best to order the burger. “Anything else is a risk,” he explains sincerely, mid chew.
After a brief downtown rail mission at which Nuddsy steps up with some stylish tricks honed on the dryslopes of Yorkshire, we pile back in the van for the second and most exciting part of the trip: catboarding. Canada is famous for this cheap alternative to heli-skiing, and we’ve heard a lot of good things about the operation we’ve booked a three day stay with – Monashee Powder Snowcats.
The Australians are colonising this new freeride capital faster than a surf break in Indo
Weather-wise, though, things don’t look much more promising as we head towards the pickup location. The valleys are bare, the sun is out and to be honest it feels more like spring than February. At the backwater hamlet of Cherryville, we pull into a run down golf course and meet our driver – an old, plaid-shirted dude with a grey moustache called George, who’s tucking into a bowl of chilli as he waits for a new round of guests to arrive. We also meet Jon Cartwright, a legendary former pro rider from Vancouver who’s now heading up Westbeach’s Canadian operations.
We load our gear onto an old yellow school bus and bounce along a dirt track for over an hour. There’s snow on the road and up the sides of the valley but it’s heavy and wet. We’re worried. Finally we reach a lay-by where we’re met by a pair of piste bashers with giant boxes on the front. We’d assumed the bus would take us to the lodge, but the kit is transferred efficiently into these, we clamber in the back and once again we’re on our way.
We’re talking about an area the size of many ski resorts, being ridden by about 30 people. Guaranteed powder doesn’t come much more guaranteed than this
As we climb up the mountain, the snow begins to look a little lighter. Up and up we wind, for an hour or more, and soon we’re getting really excited. This could be epic! Inside the cat is a so-called ‘fun-o-meter’ which measures the inclines using a simple weight on a string. More ominously, there’s also an ‘avalanche count’ above the door with tally markings. It currently stands at 28. It’s almost dusk by the time we reach the lodge – a large wooden building perched alone on a remote plateau, a warm glow coming from the windows. This isn’t an ordinary chalet though; outside is a special garage for the snow cats.
The welcome meeting involves a big chat about avalanches. Things are really, really twitchy, which means the guides are even twitchier. The fluctuating temperatures and inconsistent snowfall which have played havoc with the locals’ powder fixes have also introduced a couple of really sketchy layers to the snowpack. Most of the guests are well-off older men who have no intention of dying on their luxury holiday, so everyone is bricking it a bit, though no one says anything. The lodge rents out ABS backpacks for 35 bucks a day – the ones which inflate when you pull a ripcord – and we’re given a demo of how they work. It’s surprisingly loud.
I’m struck by how organised everything is at the lodge. We’re a long way from civilisation up here, but the owners really have thought of everything. There’s a pair of ski workshops downstairs, a well-stocked bar, an outdoor hot tub, TV, satellite phone, free wifi, even a communal guitar in the lounge; there’s a drying room with row upon row of pipes to stick your boots on, an in-house masseuse (though she costs extra!) and baskets of ear plugs in the bathroom, just in case your room mate snores (or, if his name’s Scott McMorris, makes noises like a light aircraft coming into land). Everyone is assigned a standard avalanche transceiver, and these sit in racks with your name on and are checked daily. It’s like a perfectly planned space station.
Day one begins with a healthy breakfast and an update on the latest conditions and avalanche forecast. There’s also a big spread of food for us to make our own lunch with – wraps, bread, meat, cheese, carrots, celery, cookies, fruit… the list goes on! Nelson takes his time loading up a full bag of goodies. Next, we’re straight outside for beacon training, in which we bury our beepers and take turns finding them again. It’s fun, in a dark ‘treasure hunt’ kind of way. The way the guides talk, it actually sounds like there’s a good chance we’ll be digging our buddies out of the snow, but reassuringly one of the crew reveals that he’s actually never had to do a rescue. Not a single one. That’s not because the risk has been talked up, but because they do a good job of minimising them and keeping us all on stable faces. I think back to my seasons in France, where I lived in a chalet belonging to the head of off-piste for the local ski school, a serious bald-headed chap called Aimé Favre. Aimé was involved in search and rescue operations on a regular basis, including numerous fatalities. Such is the difference in culture between ‘controlled’ off-piste riding in North America and Europe’s ‘laissez faire’ approach.
We’re assigned to a guide called Mark, and a cat, which is driven by the owner Tom. They sit up front in the cab while we take our place in the glorified box on the back, and soon we’re trundling up the track at a steady 10km/ph, staring out of the window at a snow-laden forest which just begs to be ridden through. I’m literally shaking with anticipation; these are the famous BC conditions we came to shred! Then, without warning, the vehicle begins to spin on its own axis (turning on caterpillar tracks is definitely a weird sensation) and the throaty engine settles down to an idle. A couple of blasts on the horn from Tom tells us it’s time to get out.
We’re stood at the top of an inviting powder field, with not another person in sight. It’s hard to believe that only a couple of days ago we were fighting for every last scrap in Revelstoke. Tom fires up the engine and the piste basher crawls back out of sight towards our rendezvous, leaving our small group in total silence.
The run which follows – snow billowing up in our faces into our lungs like cold smoke – makes the whole trip worthwhile. We snake down to a cliff band, slither over the drop and find ourselves in one of those mushroom-style pillow fields from the movies. Scott, Nelson and Nuddsy tear off in different directions like dogs off the leash, all thoughts of photos put on the backburner as they bounce towards the trees. I pick my own line, savouring that magical weightless sensation that only a snowboarder knows. By the time we reach the bottom we’re practically bursting with stoke. We’ve just had some of the best freshies of our lives – all to ourselves – and to top it all there’s a bloody piste basher waiting patiently like a taxi outside a nightclub, ready to take us back to the top! Clambering back aboard, steam rising from our jackets and fogging up the windows, no one knows quite what to say. We just look at each other and laugh maniacally.
Mark doesn’t take any unnecessary risks when it comes to avalanches – none of the guides do – but over the course of the next few runs he’s perfectly happy to show us some cliffs and stand around while our team do a little “meat chucking” as he calls it. I find out first hand just how sketchy the conditions are when, landing a drop, I trigger a small slide. I butt-check down the run-out as the snow builds up in a shallow torrent around me; it’s not massive, but finding yourself pushed along by an apparently living force is a frightening feeling, and I concentrate hard on keeping my nose from getting buried. It slows down as the pitch mellows out and I ride away, adrenaline pumping but unhurt. “Don’t worry, that was just an ankle biter!” says Mark, who’d been keeping a watchful eye close by. Later in the week, traversing a particularly unstable area that hasn’t been skied on that winter, we trigger two more slides on nearby faces. Regular guests wouldn’t have been brought here because of the risk, but we were keen to be shown the whole area and, since were media (and therefore expendable!) they make an exception. “You see how the snowpack is so connected?” says Mark, “Our vibrations here on the flat were enough to unsettle it all the way over there, where it was loaded.” He’s fascinated by it, and digs a snow pit to examine the layers in more detail, pointing out the hoar frost that caused the problems. He can even pinpoint the date it arrived – February 8th – when they had a week of clear nights with moisture in the air. That was the day the rot set in, and the snowpack was essentially ruined for the season. Mark says every winter for the past five years has been weirder than the last, and is sure it’s a sign of climate change. There’s no ‘norm’ any more, no predictable snowfall.
Although conditions are dodgy, we soon come to learn that these guides know their shit. Mark knows exactly which slopes have been skied a lot and are therefore safe from unstable layers, and has an uncanny ability to pick out precarious landings or faces. We stop worrying we’re going to cark it and get on with enjoying the lines we came for. It is amazing to have someone with you who is able to calculate the risks, and it makes me realise just how sketchy my own approach (and that of most riders) is back in the Alps, where we might know the basics of avalanche safety but we’re really taking pot luck every time we drop in.
It makes me realise just how sketchy most riders’ approach is back in the Alps, where we might know the basics of avalanche safety but we’re really taking pot luck every time we drop in
Monashee boasts an abundance of great spots, from a spooky burnt forest where the trees stick out like blackened matchsticks, to a frozen cascade known as the ‘Chocolate Waterfall’ where Nelson and Nuddsy both show some Kodak courage to drop over the icicles for fame and glory (or whatever it is a photograph in a British snowboard magazine is worth). In three days we barely scratch the surface; we’re talking about an area the size of many ski resorts, being ridden by about 30 people. Any time one zone is tracked, guests are simply ushered over to another, until a few centimetres of fresh starts the whole process over again. Guaranteed powder doesn’t come much more guaranteed than this. As instructed, we’re careful not to stray too far from the Mark’s ski tracks, but it’s still easy to find your own line through the forests, and often you can hear the reassuring idle of the cat waiting to pick us up somewhere down below. It feels so awesome to be riding deep snow constantly – so awesome, in fact, that you start to wonder why you ever bothered with pistes or parks. Surely this is what snowboarding was invented for, really? In truth I’ve become utterly spoilt.
It’s not surprising that this place has attracted some of the world’s best skiers and snowboarders, and the lodge is full of framed pictures of local jumps, magazine cuttings and signed photos from the likes of the Burton team and the Pirates crew.
Our own resident legend, Jon Cartwright, earns various nicknames from the rest of us during our stay: Air Canada, Jonny Fartpants, Jonny Shitskids (yes, he just loves letting them off in the cat and even opens his flies to help us savour the aroma) and Jon Cartwheel – coined after his spectacular ragdoll on the very first run. “Just send it!” is his motto when eying up any kind of hit. After more than a decade on the North American scene he’s full of sage advice on how to be productive while hiking and shooting, and he takes our British banter in his stride. He’s also a mean guitar player – no sooner has he picked up the lodge’s acoustic and begun noodling away with some Spanish riffs than the pretty masseuse sashays into the room, attracted by the melody like a cartoon mouse floating along on the scent of cheese. Jon is, literally, a player.
Nelson, Scott and Nuddsy – plus Air Canada – have no trouble bagging photos for the story, and after three all-too-short days in this powder paradise we jump back in the cat one last time for the long drive back to the land of gas stations and mobile phone reception. As the phones start beeping again the locals’ mobiles are the loudest – Canada have retained their Olympic hockey gold in Sochi.
We drive through the gathering darkness back to Vancouver, and Jon receives text message after text message from friends back in the city. Apparently the streets are going mental. “You gotta get back here and witness this!” urges Cherie. We do just that, necking some beers and heading straight downtown at 1am. It’s like New Year’s Eve on acid. People are staggering around screaming and hugging and waving flags. Even the police are getting high fived. “Ca-na-da! Ca-na-da!” They chant. It’s bedlam. We’re a little spaced from the long drive and buzzing on alcohol, but that only adds to the surreal fun. Ice hockey is Canada’s national obsession, and I figure this is what it would be like if England ever won the World Cup. I hope I’m there to witness it some day.
We stay in Cartwright’s trendy warehouse conversion. It’s a proper bachelor pad with guitars in the corner, a mezzanine bedroom and huge floor to ceiling windows – ‘The honey trap’, Nelson calls it. “Girls will be paralyzed by this place – they’ll be powerless!”. Fortunately he spares us a demonstration and the next morning, as the nation suffers a collective hangover, we bid our farewells and leave town with the rest of the circus.
When you’re searching for a new riding experience, Canada isn’t the most obvious destination. Resorts like Whistler and Fernie are pretty familiar to a lot of British snowboarders and, with the 2010 Vancouver Games, BC is now firmly in the global spotlight – busier than ever before. One thing about Canada, though, is it’s got space. Head inland to the likes of Revelstoke and, even in the midst of the biggest sporting event on earth, you can soon be blasting down empty pistes or exploring some insane backcountry terrain. And if you’ve got the budget to do something a bit more special, a stay at one of the country’s cat-ski lodges is like nothing you’ve ever enjoyed on a snowboard. Where else can you shred guaranteed powder with the reassuring company of a guide and just a handful of other people, at a fraction of the cost of a heli trip? So yes – British Columbia has a whole lot more to offer than Whistler; our trip down the powder highway proved that. But the funny thing is, while we came here with the aim of escaping the Olympic crowds, it’s this carnival atmosphere that leaves me with the warmest memory of all.
It feels so awesome to be riding deep snow constantly – so awesome, in fact, that you start to wonder why you ever bothered with pistes or parks. Surely this is what snowboarding was invented for, really?