Mike Basich is a true free spirit and a snowboarding nomad. Existing on the fringes of the industry, he has carved an unorthodox career out of pure, personal freeriding. With his beloved husky Summit in tow, Mike spends weeks on end living in his RV in Alaska, often camping deep in the wilderness (a lifestyle made famous in David Benedek’s film 91 Words for Snow).
British photographer Dan Milner spent a week living and riding with Mike in his native Tahoe, where he has just completed work on a private backcountry retreat.
I’m trying to duck down as low as I can behind the snowmobile’s tiny windshield, struggling to protect my rapidly numbing face from the 50 mph blast of cold air that’s coming our way. Riding shotgun, I’m completely at the mercy of Mike Basich’s sled handling prowess; half of me wants him to slow down, the other half is loving the experience. It’s not everyday you get to snowmobile full-pelt along a Californian highway, weaving in and out of cars and drifting around bends. The sled’s metal skis chatter on the icy asphalt below as they try to gain some purchase and steer us away from the enormous snowbanks that loom all-too-fast towards us.
The storm only rolled in a day earlier, but the three feet of fresh it has already deposited leads Mike to (somewhat diplomatically) suggest that sledding the steep pitches near his cabin might just be a little more than I can swallow on my first day back in Tahoe. In Europe, we associate the word ‘sled’ with Father Christmas and his reindeer, and I have a hotch-potch experience of driving them. Previous forays into the petrol-driven world of backcountry access have been spent hanging on for dear life or, as on this occasion, trusting my life to other drivers. Basich knows a thing or two about sledding – he’s hauled my ass about the backcountry plenty of times – and for now I bow to his superior wisdom and decision making. Instead of digging my sled out of bottomless tree-wells for the day, Mike figured we should head over to Sugar Bowl resort and ride the storm there. On finding the highway largely un-ploughed, however, he made the impromptu decision to just leave the truck idle and sled the eight miles to resort instead – which brings us to my terrifying passage down the tarmac.
Hanging out with Mike Basich is never without surprise. He has a knack of turning the simple and mundane into something exciting, and usually it involves some homemade, Heath Robinson-looking contraption. I’m tempted to call him a nutter, but he exudes a warmth and trust that make his offers of adventure hard to turn down. A while ago he persuaded me to spend five days camping in a teepee, which we erected on a snowy mountain plot he’d bought near Truckee, Tahoe. I still bear the scars. But now, four years later and with my frost-nipped extremities almost fully recovered, I deem it time to return to the secretive hideout of Mr Basich to see what else he can entice me to endure. The fact that he has replaced the teepee with a nice, cosy cabin has little influence on my decision to return – I can assure you.
I’m actually in Jackson Hole when I call Mike to check all is still okay with the week ahead. “The storm’s coming in now,” he says, in a calm but chirpy tone. “Should be good… we got twelve feet forecast… what time’s your flight?” He continues without punctuating, like a schoolkid reeling off his Christmas wish list. Did he say twelve feet? When I tell him the flight gets in late he pauses for the first time and adds, “Okay, I hope we can get back over the pass,” as if getting stranded on the interstate is no more cause for drama than burning the morning toast. It’s a different kettle of fish for me of course, originally heralding from Luton – a place where people just don’t get stranded in snow by the sides of interstates – and the call leaves me pondering the adventure that lies ahead. When you spend time with Mike, I have found, you learn a lot about yourself. I smile as it dawns on me that the last time I visited Mike’s place, I landed square in the middle of the biggest storm Tahoe had experienced in forty years. The weather channel is predicting something similar. It’s deja-vu.
By the time I land at Reno and climb into Mike’s chip-fat burning F-350 van, the I-80 road back to Truckee is shut down. We spend the night holed up in the tower of chintz and slot machines that is the Casino-Casino Hotel, before continuing our journey the next morning. Our final destination is the slice of mountainside Mike calls Area 241. Tucked away five miles off the interstate, this landscape of forested slopes and rocky outcrops serves as the testing ground for Mike’s clothing label, 241. There are no signs announcing its whereabouts, no mailbox at the end of the drive; he likes to keep it hush for good reason. Dotted about the terrain are hundreds of cliffs and short, snow-jammed chutes, all accessible by sled or snowshoes, or a combination of both. I am familiar with several of these secret spots from my last visit, but now Mike says he’s found a whole load more. As we pull up at the parking lot and break out the shovels to dig out his buried sled, the snow is coming down so heavily that I can barely see the hillside. I can see why he chooses to test his gear here – just strolling to the corner shop for a pint of milk and a Sunday paper would be a good enough test for any technical attire. With shovel in hand I pause to survey the scene. It looks similar to the last time I saw it – everything buried under snow – and fond (but cold) memories come flooding back. I’m eager to see the cabin he’s built, but with a good two foot of fresh and a full load on the sled (including Mike’s dog ‘Summit’ and a home made luggage trailer) the going proves too tough. Half way up the climb I dismount and pull out my snowshoes, opting for the forty-minute hike instead. As Mike pulls away I shout after him to put the kettle on.
Answering nature’s call becomes one of the most endearing experiences of my stay at Area 241 – the ritual trudge through snow to sit on an icy seat, and the simple reward of sitting outside among silent trees on a snowy mountainside.
By the time I reach the cabin the kettle is only just starting to boil, sitting atop a wood burner that is nestled to one side off the cabin’s single room. The burner is both slow at boiling water and the cabin’s sole source of heat. All summer Mike had been e-mailing me pictures of the building’s construction progress, but somehow it had always looked bigger in the photos. Don’t you just hate Flickr? In front of me now is a metal-beamed, granite-walled house with less square-footage than our modestly-priced room at the Casin. As I stare at the hefty roof-top cornice that hangs threateningly outside the cabin, it strikes me for the first time that Mike has built a hobbit-house, complete with an oval door you have to duck through on entering. ‘Bijou’ would be an estate agent’s term of choice when asked to market the property. “Well here it is,” says Mike, brimming with pride. It might be bijou, but instantly I love it. He has every right to be proud.
The closure of the highway upon my arrival means we’ve lost too much time to ride today, so we set about the household chores instead: unloading hefty bags of wholefoods from the sled-trailer, excavating a path to the hobbit hatch and stoking the wood burner to return the cabin’s interior to an inhabitable temperature. A brief lull in the storm parts the clouds that have concealed the surrounding terrain, and I get my first chance to see the mountainside and forests that provided so much fun on my last visit. The cabin itself is perched atop a small peak, its location chosen to (at least in theory) allow the wind to carry off snow and prevent it from being completely buried in winter. It’s only January, but it looks to me like both the wind and Mike’s shovelling efforts have a challenge ahead of them. Out back, beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows, are a set of solar panels. These top up a rack of car and boat batteries stored under the cabin, providing the whole cabin with 12v power – a voltage that, as Mike points out, is pretty convenient considering most things we like to play with nowadays use a 12v power source.
When I ask about the toilet facilities, Mike points outside to a shovel and an old toilet seat fixed to a welded, portable frame. Answering nature’s call, it turns out, becomes one of the most endearing experiences of my stay at Area 241 – the ritual trudge through snow to sit on an icy seat, and the simple reward of sitting outside among silent trees on a snowy mountainside. This one experience, something that anyone can relate to, becomes synonymous with every part of life in the cabin. After only a day I find that I am immersed in a strangely yin-yang existence, balancing the hassle now involved in performing normally effortless daily routines – washing, eating, shitting – with the joy that simple cabin living breathes into your mind and body. My whole pace of life seems to have slowed down to something like the speed of Mike’s wheezing old 1977 Imp snowcat, and it’s a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In the absence of T.V we sit quietly in our chairs, supping on mugs of tea and catching up on the gossip. It’s good to catch up. Meanwhile, outside, the snow starts up again – and it doesn’t look like it’s going to abate any time soon.
My bed is the floor, made comfy by a wad of rugs and an extra sleeping bag. Despite the hefty DIY mattress however, my jetlag-fuddled sleep is interrupted further by the freezing gusts of wind that blow up through the floor. The cabin is not finished – something Mike forgot to tell me when I packed a summer-weight sleeping bag – and the threadbare carpet that covers the floorboards fails dismally in its task of holding back the icy air from creeping through the gaps. Awake, I spend half an hour tearing off bog-roll and plugging gaps in the floor, before jamming the stove full of fresh logs and retiring back to my nest. Next morning I proudly tell Mike I’ve found a way of keeping the stove burning until its morning kettle duties are called upon. “Tell me about it,” he says, looking down at me from his 12 foot high mezzanine. All the time I’d been stoking the fire to keep warm downstairs, he’d been sweating away in the rising heat in the rafters.
For the next couple of days we punctuate cabin life with excursions by sled to nearby resorts, letting the snowpack in Area 241 settle and consolidate. Brief lulls in what would become a six day storm allow us to grab occasional sunny shots. On one such occasion, as we’re pulling out of the parking lot at Sugar Bowl for the gung-ho ride home, we are hit smack in the face by the sight of the snow-laden but untouched resort of Donner Ski Ranch. A ski patroller explains that a power-cut that has prevented the resort from opening all day, and within minutes Mike – a local who grew up riding at Donner and someone never to miss an opportunity – has persuaded the patroller to run us up to a band of cliffs that sit, pristine and beckoning, a few hundred feet above us. To be honest, the patroller needs little persuasion. ‘Hell yeah! I need something to do today,” he chuckles as he starts up the snowcat. The approach to the cliff is blind and a little sketchy, with a convex roll-over laden with three feet of virgin snow. I stand with the patroller below, out of harms way, camera in one hand and shovel in the other. Mike comes into view. He pauses for a second to check his line, and then points his nose at the biggest section of cliff. The landing is deep and Mike’s fifty-foot indy is accompanied by a chorus of cheers from a small appreciative crowd that has gathered back by the parking lot. Photo in the bag, we ride down to the sled, saddle up and head for home, weaving in and out of the traffic again – this time with me at the wheel. Back at the cabin we sit, tea-in-hand, and ponder the day’s experiences. They are surely some that are on my ‘once in a lifetime’ list and I am starting to get the impression that that’s what Area 241 is all about. Every day will be unique.
Back at the cabin we sit and ponder the day’s experiences. They are surely some that are on my ‘once in a lifetime’ list and I am starting to get the impression that that’s what Area 241 is all about. Every day will be unique.
By mid week the snowpack is settling enough for us to safely sled around the spots I came all this way to explore. We head over to a frozen lake, hitting a few rollers and natural hips along the way. There we are joined by Zak Shelhamer and Tyler Walker, two local lads that Mike has taken under his proverbial wing. Both young riders are oozing enthusiasm and attack any jump we find with unparalleled gusto. As darkness draws in and the snow starts falling again, I get the feeling that if we let them, Zak and Tyler would continue riding until dawn. I envy their stamina, and remember that I was once like that, but – jetlagged and feeling the effects of several days spent digging out various contraptions (Zak it seemed is worse at sledding than me) – I adopt the voice of reason and persuade the group that it’s really time we threw another log on the fire and cooked up some hearty food. The suggestion is greeted by enthusiastic nodding all round. Of course, Mike and I haven’t told our two young riders and cabin-newbies that this will take over an hour to accomplish. That they have to learn for themselves – it’s part of the Area 241 experience. They’ll learn that time runs slowly here, and they’ll learn to appreciate that fact – just like I did. Life is simple: eat, sleep, ride and repeat. Tomorrow is a new day, and no one around here is going to snake your line.