Out here there is no sound. Since the chopper dropped us at the cabin and turned back towards civilization, its rotor blades receding to a faint echo over the ridge, we’ve been on our own. Mountains can often seem ominously silent, like sleeping giants, but this is a whole new level. There are no foreign-tongued murmurs from the piste, no steel edges chattering on the hardpack, not even a low hum from the chairlift. A thick blanket of powder coats the vast natural bowl around us and muffles all but the most immediate sounds: my ‘skis’ treading down the snow beneath my feet; my steady breath.
There’s plenty of time to ponder things when you’re splitboarding. As I climb the slope I’ll soon be riding down, I wonder if this is what it feels like to be Jeremy Jones or Xavier de le Rue, burning up calories in some remote corner of the world, high on endorphins. Well… if this is the dream, then I’m certainly living it.
It’s a sad fact that most of what you see in magazines and videos is beyond the realms of the average snowboarder. Hundred-foot kickers, double corks and heli drops atop some perfect pillow field might make for great footage (especially if your name’s Travis Rice and you’ve got several million dollars of Red Bull cash burning a hole in the pocket of your signature pants) but it’s about as far from your typical riding experience as dwarf porn is from first-time sex.
Most people get a solitary week a year to satisfy their snowboarding fix – two if they’re lucky. The first part of any such holiday is spent regaining your previous riding level a.k.a. ‘getting your legs back’. By the time you’re up to speed and have stopped crawling from bed like a particularly bruised piece of roadkill, you’ve got about a day or two to left to ‘progress’ before it’s back on the transfer bus for the cold hard slap to the face that is Monday at work.
Without packing in your career and moving to the Alps full time, how can you seriously progress your riding and learn to tackle proper powder terrain safely, like the pros?
Powder? At times it can seem like a cruel myth made up to taunt you. Your week-long weather window is just as likely to feature bullet-proof pistes or impenetrable mist – possibly both. And if the Gods do bless the mountain with some fresh, you’ll be battling for obvious lines with the masses, or else taking your life in your hands and hiking out of bounds – without a guide – in a resort you barely know.
So how does an ordinary rider improve on the holiday experience? Without packing in your career and moving to the Alps full time, how can you seriously progress your riding and learn to tackle proper powder terrain safely, like the pros?
The answer, just maybe, is out there. I’m in the Kootenay Mountains near Fernie, Canada, to sample a six-week coaching course offered by a British company called NONSTOP Snowboarding. It’s called ‘Master the Mountain’ and it focuses squarely on improving your off-piste skills. If you’re serious about your riding, their intensive plan promises to take your ability to the next level and, ultimately, help you get the most out your time on the hill. That’s the theory anyway. Together with UK legend James Stentiford (who knows a thing or two about riding powder) it’s time to see how the latest group is getting on.
We arrive in Fernie and move into the Red Tree Lodge, a large hotel now run exclusively by NONSTOP to house their clients. There are basically two types of guest: those doing an 11-week instructor course (who leave with a CASI certificate) and those doing the 6-week Master the Mountain programme. Both courses are in full swing, so by now everyone is pretty familiar with each other and the atmosphere in the corridors is like a relaxed youth hostel.
With the snow falling hard, we spend a morning in the company of one of the local coaches, getting to know the terrain on which the groups have been training for a solid five hours a day, four days a week. Fernie has been chosen specifically for its reliable powder, and it doesn’t disappoint. Situated in a dramatic natural amphitheatre above the old mining town, it boasts steep faces, multiple open bowls, epic trees and, most importantly, over 29 feet of annual snowfall. Today it’s a freezing whiteout so we stick to the forested areas, threading our way through giant redwoods and sending up choking face shots that stick to my hat and beard – conditions known locally as ‘blower pow’. Our guide explains that the lift system is divided into the ‘old side’ and the ‘new side’, based on recent expansion into additional bowls. “People swear blind that one side is better than the other,” he says, “but really it’s all good!” Since the owners took the decision to remove the kickers on safety grounds there’s no proper park in Fernie, just a handful of rails, but this only emphasizes the fact that ‘Nonstoppers’ are here to learn how to ride the real mountain. Anyone keen to catch some air can fly off one of the many cat tracks or natural pillows.
Down at the Griz Bar at the base, we catch up with the 11-week crew. Though they still have more than a month of shredding and lessons ahead, today marks the completion of the first half of the course and they are picking up their Level 1 instructor certificates. There’s a lot of stoke in the room. The pitchers are in full flow and before long someone has cleared the long table, soaked it in beer and cleared a path through the crowd for three plucky guys to do some naked belly surfing. Unfortunately for the last dude, his extended run-up ends with him hitting the wooden tabletop after all the alcoholic lubrication has been swept off and he stops dead on his nut sack!
Amongst the revellers filling up on Kokanee is Wibs, a wiry would-be instructor from Ipswich and a nurse in his former life. Having spent time with his seasonaire brother in Tignes, he decided he wanted to improve his riding and booked himself onto the extended course. Wibs tells us that since his arrival in Canada he has become the chief cheerleader for the local Under-21 ice hockey team, the laughably named Fernie Ghostriders, so we agree to join him for their next game.
Before that, however, lies a day of snowmobiling – an optional extra for the guests and a chance for Stenti and I to get some face time with two of the NONSTOP coaches. It’s a freezing bluebird morning as we jump in the pick-up truck with Jay and Ryan. Both are seasoned Canadian snowboarders, totally comfortable in the macho world of manoeuvring snowmobiles onto seesaw ramps, tinkering with spark plugs and of course, hauling ass.
Forget luxury chalet lounges and Playstations: there’s no internet, no TV, not even a telephone!
At the ‘staging area’ in a valley outside town, we join a caravan of fellow slednecks. Apparently we’re the only ones with snowboard kit. “Most sledders don’t snowboard,” explains Ryan, “so they’ll think we’re a bunch of hippies.” There is some serious dollar on display; guys are riding top-of-the-range skidoos down ramps out of huge enclosed trailers, dressed like Bond villains in menacing black leathers and helmets. They rev the crap out of their machines, sending petrol smoke into the cold morning air, before tearing off down the cat track.
I’m not immediately comfortable myself with the noise and power of the sleds. I go two-up with Jay and my arms are almost ripped off as he pushes the trigger throttle on his 800cc two-stroke and we accelerate over the snow. It’s bumpy – sled tracks create hideous mounds that have to be regularly groomed – and I struggle to figure out how to balance as we bounce along and soak them up. Jay is a great teacher though, and his relaxed approach soon has us working together on the corners, leaning the heavy machine around each bend.
High up the mountain we peel off the trail and practise turning in powder. You have to use all your weight to shift from side to side, but up ahead Ryan skips his feet effortlessly over the saddle and surfs the machine on its side like a powerboat. When I finally get it right, the sensation of floating up a steep incline is incredible. “Sledders will tell you it’s an addiction,” shouts Jay above the screaming engine, “better even than the run down!”
Far from the crowded pistes, we take turns riding our snowboards down the empty slopes to a logging road and hitching a ride back up. With two such experienced guides for company I’m not really worried about getting lost or triggering an unexpected avalanche, so I’m able to focus fully on my riding. Watching Jay and Ryan carve up the pow themselves, I can see why they’re held in awe by Wibs and the rest of the pupils. Ryan is a solid freerider, totally at home in his native BC backcountry, while Jay is the quiet technical master, an expert at ironing out any kinks in his charges’ riding style. NONSTOP claim this is no accident: thanks to more generous wages they can cherry pick the very best coaching talent from the local pool.
Although our fellow guests are split between the six-week ‘Master the Mountain’ camp and the longer instructor course (which has an added emphasis on teaching) both programmes offer a similar opportunity to break down your technique before testing your new skills in the ultimate terrain. Five weeks in, it’s time for both groups to go catboarding, so we join them the next day for the short drive to the Fernie Wilderness lodge. At the wheel of our big blue converted school bus is Adam, a Yorkshireman with an impressive handlebar moustache who is stoked to be acting as guardian for some of the younger guys on their backcountry day. It’s obvious he enjoys the shred as much as any of his clients.
A welcome meeting and obligatory waiver-signing session is followed by beacon training, then it’s into the yellow piste basher for the slow trundle up through the glittering slopes dotted with ‘snow ghosts’ – small glazed from top to bottom with snow, like icing on a cake.
Conditions are, to quote the guy in the lodge, “as good as they get”: bluebird skies, dry pow and empty lines. We start off on some mellow gladed runs, then progress to a steep and open pitch that has me gasping for air as I kick up a cloud of vapour and punch through the white room. One or two of the pupils take a tumble in the deep snow, and the tight paths out through the forest lead to the occasional unstrapped binding, but most have progressed to the stage where they’re confidently blasting down every slope the guides put in front of them, whooping and hollering. Back in the warmth of the cat, we swap stories of our runs, chow down on generous packed lunches and generally bask in the glow of a perfect powder day.
With two such experienced guides for company I’m not really worried about getting lost or triggering an unexpected avalanche, so I’m able to focus fully on my riding
As the banter flows thick and fast, we see that the group have become good friends. Months living together in the mountains will do that. Like regular seasonaires, the guys and the girls on the course have bonded strongly and shared the odd bed (we’re told that one of the blokes scored by turning up at a girl’s room clutching a pack of condoms and a six-pack of Red Bull – lad!) There’s the odd gripe about the food at the Red Tree, but no one has anything but good words to say about the coaching that has prepared them for this epic day.
Like seasonaires, moreover, they’ve got to know their adopted town well, regularly setting up shop in their favourite watering hole, the Kodiak Bar, where they sink $3.50 beers beneath a giant stuffed grizzly bear. And with the catboarding mission successfully chalked off, Stenti and I meet them here later for a pre-match beverage before hurrying across the frozen streets to the ice rink, where it’s time for the Fernie Ghostriders to take on local rivals Kimberley. The NONSTOP crew have turned these weekly matches into something of a ritual, bringing English football chants to the usual Canadian mix of ice and violence. Drowning in an oversized Ghostrider shirt and clutching a fluorescent blue Slush Puppy, Ipswich Town fan Wibs leads the way, banging on the plastic crowd barrier till his thumbs hurt. “Fuck ‘em up!” he shouts. Soon we’re all chanting along at the red haired hatchet-man from the opposition (“Duley is a wanker! Duley is a wanker!”) before breaking into a rendition of “Your team is shit, your birds aren’t fit, Kimberley, Kimberleeey!” The locals either politely tolerate our chants or actively enjoy their stadium’s new intimidating atmosphere, and although the players themselves largely ignore the crazy Brits baying at them from behind the Perspex, it certainly seems to motivate the home team, who spank Kimberley 9-2 to win the series.
The end of our stay in Fernie coincides with the climax of the Master the Mountain course – a half-week spent splitboarding in the remote Canadian backcountry.
Dawn has barely kissed the craggy peaks when the bus deposits us at a farmhouse somewhere in the wilds beyond Fernie. It’s a random place for a helipad, just a small field beneath the impassive gaze of the mountains, but before long a faint disturbance in the air reveals itself into distant speck, and seconds later the chopper arrives in a storm of noise and snow. Seeing your board loaded into a cage and climbing aboard a heli is the stuff of dreams, and the faces of everyone in our group tell the same story: eyes popping with adrenaline, wide grins hiding just a little stomach-churning fear.
Riding shotgun, I have a brief ‘mare trying to figure out the four-point seatbelt while the pilot next to me concentrates on the controls. The blades don’t stop because heli fuel is expensive, so it’s all about a quick turnaround. Then we’re off, lifting smoothly up and backwards before banking around and swooping up the mountain, skimming the evergreens. A 10-minute flight in clear conditions brings us over a ridge and into a giant bowl, where a modest collection of log cabins sits in one corner. Two figures hunker down in the snow against the rotor wash, and as we descend towards them it’s clear that this will be our home for the next few days.
As we descend towards the cabins it’s clear that this will be our home for the next few days.
Boulder Hut, as it’s called, is not your average chalet. Forget luxury lounges and Playstations: there’s no internet, no TV, not even a telephone. The weekly heli shuttle and a two-way radio are its only connection to the outside world, meaning our arrival is just as much an opportunity to stock up on fresh supplies. Large batteries provide the hut with limited power, but most of the energy – at least in heating and cooking terms – comes courtesy of the wood burner, where two kettles of tea sit permanently stewing. A second stove warms the Casa dos Suenos (‘House of Dreams’), a rustic dorm next door in which we’ll be sleeping side by side.
The hut is run by Mark Yancey, an experienced off-piste guide, and his wife Sarah. The couple move into this isolated cabin each fall and remain until the spring, when they swap Canada for Alaska. Their two kids, six-year-old Grace and three-year-old Alden, are home schooled, but seem happy enough making new friends amongst the guests each week and playing in their own private winter wonderland with Rosie, the family’s enormous Pyrenean mountain dog. Two cooks (Ellie and Mel) and a second guide (Darren) complete the extended family.
Above a welcome meal of soup and freshly baked bread, our hosts explain the rules of the house and issue each of us with a personal mug and a Tupperware lunchbox, which we label with a piece of masking tape. It’s up to us how often they get washed up, and indeed we’re to form a rota for the rest of the dishes each evening. Out here in the unspoilt depths of British Columbia, all waste needs to be carefully composted or recycled, while calls of nature must be answered at the ‘pee tree’ marked with a ribbon or a simple A-frame outhouse buried beneath several feet of snow, where a chilly toilet seat covers a humble hole in the ground. Should anyone require some bathroom reading, a handful of Gary Larson cartoons are stapled to the timber walls.
The following morning we fuel up on huevos rancheros (Mexican style eggs and tortillas) and fill the lunchboxes with more carbs, including homemade ‘energy balls’ made from an indulgent mix of peanut butter, chocolate and coconut. Not that we need to watch our weight – we’ll be burning up to 8000 calories during the course of a day’s splitboarding.
Back in Fernie the students on the Master the Mountain course have practised turning their snowboards into skis and attaching the all-important ‘skins’ to the base. Once made of actual seal fur, these days they are effectively strips of sticky carpet but the effect is the same, allowing your skis to grip the snow when walking uphill. Extendable poles complete the transformation from sideways surfer to cross-country tourer. Then we are on our way, hiking in single file up through the trees and onto the sun-drenched upper plateau. Our group, whose multinational mix includes an IT manager from Telford, a Dutch student, a London-based yoga teacher and even an Australian mining expert, boasts varying levels of fitness, but no matter: Mark sets a slow and steady pace and we fall into an easy rhythm behind.
Aside from its environmental credentials, what makes splitboarding special is the sense of immersion within the landscape. You are connected to the mountain beneath your feet in a far more intimate way than catching a ride on a chairlift, and as you slowly gain altitude with each upward stride, the run back down the powder face is already being inwardly savoured. Those in the know call it ‘earning your turns’.
Up ahead, Mark has already reached the summit, accompanied by Rosie the dog – a trotting polar bear in her thick white coat. “I bought her because they’re guardian dogs, and we’ve got a lot of wolves and bears here in the summer,” he says. “Even when it’s minus 25 at night she doesn’t want to come inside. But she’s turned out to be a really good mountain dog too.”
We reverse the changeover process, stripping skins from the skis and stashing them with the poles in our backpacks, then fixing our boards back together. The faster we do this the sooner we’ll be enjoying the ride down, and after a couple of days we will all become super efficient at it. With Rosie bounding excitedly alongside, we drop into the shadow of a north facing powder face and rapidly gain speed, throwing up massive rooster tails of light snow before being spat out into the sunshine of the plateau below. The splitboard’s flex feels a little different to my regular stick but I’m soon used to it, and in conditions of this quality you could honestly ride a canoe.
We make several more climbs, each a little less demanding as our limbs begin to tire, before returning exhausted but exhilarated to the hut. Mark, Sarah and the kids claim first dibs in the outdoor hot tub, a Heath Robinson contraption heated via its own wood furnace, and we follow, darting barefoot over the snow as more flakes begin to fall and huddling in board shorts beside the watering-can shower. Squeezing six blokes into a small tin bath and keeping it topped up with logs is a sure-fire way to raise laughter, and the group bonding continues over a fabulous dinner of wild salmon, which has been caught and frozen by Mark’s brother in Alaska. Five weeks ago many of the people around this table had never set foot beyond the manicured piste; now they are confident freeriders, and talk moves excitedly to the next day’s challenges out there in the untamed peaks.
“Tomorrow we’re going to explore a different zone,” says Mark. “And just to warn you, if the snow keeps up then the heli won’t be able to fly in to pick you up on Wednesday.”
A collective glance flashes across the warm room. Bring on the snow!