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Searching for life’s inspiration, I find myself crossing the border into Canada at Osoyoos (O’sue:ews). I’m heading for the northern confines of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia to challenge my skills in a Nordic Boot Camp at Silver Star Resort. Revered by enthusiasts, the mountain is known for its Interior BC feather-light powder, and a season that kicks off 3 weeks earlier than most in the region.  For 4-6 weeks starting in November Nordic Camps attract skiers of all of ages, some with skills that range up to National Team and Olympic caliber.

At an elevation of 6,000, Silver Star makes for the perfect aerobic training ground, which was the launching point for many hopefuls during the 2010 Olympics at Whistler/Blackcomb. 

An easy flight from Seattle (1 hr) or Vancouver (38 min), I’ve chosen to drive in order to immerse myself in the visual impact of the country-side. A valley that in the summer months reflects the far northern reaches of the Sonoran Life Zone, it includes semi-desert landscape species found nowhere else in Canada. The Okanagan is considered by many the Napa Valley of Canada, and called by locals the Wine Country Center of the World. As I make my way past the towns of Oliver, Penticton (home of the Canadian Ironman), Summerland and Kelowna it’s obvious that wine flourishes here as every side road boasts a vineyard or Estate Winery, some which appear to end at someone’s home grown garage. A scene dominated by Lake Country, the tranquil up-valley passing of Osoyoos Lake, Vaseux Lake, Skaha Lake, and 70 mile Okanagan Lake keep me engaged with every twist of the shoreline.


What is it that the Europeans know about the interior mountains of Canada's British Columbia that Americans don't? Masses of Swiss, Germans, Austrians, Italians, Brits, and Aussies flock to this secret region every year for their winter walk-abouts. Maybe it's because they have a historical connection through Swiss mountain guiding for the Canadian Pacific Railroad that began at the iconic Rogers Pass Glacier House in 1899, or possibly they are compelled to come after hearing for 45 years about the areas unique first-class powder that produces 90% of the world's heli-skiing. Whatever the inspiration, the Euros know that between the alpine bookends of Whistler/Blackcomb and Lake Louise/Banff lies the vast, underpopulated ranges of the Monashee, Selkirks, Bugaboo, and Purcel Mountains.

Laced with plentiful access options, this Kootenay Region boasts of powder fields packed with Continental crystal-light and little competition for turns.  


 Diverging off the beaten track in southwest Alberta, we've headed east from 'The Powder Highway' (an area chock-full of ski area options and a propensity for deep fluff) in search of a ski mountain we had just heard of in local whispers. Traversing a region rich in coal deposits and lean on population, it's a backcountry drive that takes us over Crowsnest Pass, which is also the richest archaeological zone in the Canadian Rockies. Passing through the skeleton town of Frank, Alberta, it's an eerie site.  In 1903 the cataclysmic Frank Slide occurred on the north slope of Turtle Mountain; where 82 million tons of limestone (seemingly half a mountain) caved-off and partially buried the town, killing 70 of the town's 600 residents.

Taking in the visual, we seriously hoped that it was not a fore shadow of powder avalanches yet to come.

 

Emerging onto the high prairie from our super scenic and melodic Rockies crossing, we hovered over the route map. Taking a right hand turn at Burmis, then again at Beaver Mines we make the approach up the Westcastle River Valley to its abrupt in-your-face mountain range dead end; having done an end run to the back door of the Eastern Rockies.  

 

Bumping into some 40 cars in the parking lot, we get a quick hint of the uncrowded slopes rumored at Castle Mountain. Due to the unusual skier density, stories float that fresh tracks typically can be found even at day's end within the mountain's terrain pockets. Additionally, the Continental Divide Chinook winds that sweep Castle Mountain tend to refresh its slopes; covering old tracks run after run. Unfortunate for us, we discover that regional storms often localize in these parts, and the pow we had experienced at Fernie just days before had missed Castle. It would be a sunny, windless Sun Valley like day on wind-buffed packed powder. Nice! We'll take some of that if you please.

 


 Sometimes you get what you get, and upon passing through Mt. Fernie Provincial Park we weren't sure what we had. With a few parked cars and no sign of an Island Lake Lodge infrastructure, the remote snow-lot didn't build a lot of one's confidence. As we staged our gear for the 5pm pickup, two state-of-the-art 12 passenger ILL Snowcats emerged out of the forest; presenting the first sign that our intended adventure was really going to happen.

As my long-time ski buddies, Eric and Marilyn, and I piled our overnight ski gear into the front loader box of Cat 2, extreme skiing pioneer Scot Schmidt jumps out of the adjacent machine. Apparently Scot had just finished a stint with clients under his business venture 'Going with a Pro'. In the mid-nineties Schmidt and snowboarding legend Craig Kelly had partnered with some 28 Island Lake investors to secure the Lodge's longevity and its unique mountain experience. Helping to define its destiny, Schmidt's return to the Lodge before our eyes foreshadowed that something special was about to happen.

Jumping into the cab with our cat driver, Russ, I hear the local's perspective as we make our 10k approach to the Lodge. Unlike most cat skiing operations, Island Lake is close to the town of Fernie and logistically compelling as it sits in the next valley over from the Fernie Alpine Resort. For those workers and guides that are tenacious enough to secure a position, it means a near normal life for a typically vagabond career. After adventuring all day in the backcountry, workers head down to Fernie for townie living, and then return at 7am the next morning to begin their shift. With staff tenure typically cresting 6 years, experience and quality go hand in hand – defining job and lifestyle security.


Riding the I-90 jet stream out of Seattle, Eric and Marilyn set their GPS for little known Fernie, B.C., compelled to go there by rumors of unchallenged powder stashes and abundant adventure alternatives. Nine visually entertaining hours later we land in the darkness of the Alpine Resort under heavy overcast skies; unable to make out much of anything except that we had arrived.


Two weeks have gone by since the nation’s elite sprinters, skate and classical skiers, competed at the Official 2009 US Cross Country Ski Championships (Dec. 31-Jan. 9th) in Anchorage, Alaska. Around 500 competitors made the journey in hopes of realizing their athletic dreams at arguably the most important domestic races of the season.

Given the timing and proximity to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Nationals would typically be the final punctuation in helping U.S. coaches determine who makes the U.S. Olympic team, but last weekend (Jan. 16-17th) there was one more event that could impact the results of hopefuls.

Providing the perfect final tune-up, the Methow Valley USSA Super Tour offered one last chance to lay down on the line years of focused training before the world descends on Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics. The Methow stop, one of eight in a nationwide race circuit, that provides skiers the opportunity to compete for cash prizes and series points; with the many complexities involved in choosing the U.S. team — the fact that the Olympics are in Canada this year opens up the possibility for a larger contingent from the U.S. team, the Methow race could be what puts some skiers over the top for getting the nod.

“We kind of lucked out securing this date,” MVSTA event director Kristen Smith said. “This is the last time the athletes will do a major race before they start to taper and get ready for (the Olympics). “The team will be chosen primarily on Monday (Jan. 18),” Smith said

Leading Saturday's sprinting charge, two-time Olympian Torin Koos of Leavenworth, Wa. put his signature on the race while mixing it up with other hopefuls such as 2006 U.S. Olympians Leif Zimmerman and Chris Cook, 2006 Canadian Olympian Drew Goldsack, Kenyan Olympic hopeful Philip Boit, and Iranian Olympic hopeful Beejan Kangaloo.


"The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for."  Louis L'Amour.

Rolling up to the Cub Creek Trailhead, our Fab-Five of mixed ability XC skiers are locked into finding the meaning of life by removing all the clutter. As Phil loads the hauling sled with up to 300lbs of everything imaginable, we throw in our stripped down packs (like three quarters of those who have gone before) in order to move free and feel the flow. For Jessi and Matt, who are XC skiing newbie's, it's hoped that keeping the weight off their back will minimize the "Agony of Defeat" as we skate the 10km and 2000' vertical to our destination, the Rendezvous Hut.  An original from the '80s, upgrades and improvements in recent years make it the perfect Refugio for our relaxed pace, and for filling our lungs with the crystal clean air of our mountain crossing.  One of five evenly spaced huts, the Rendezvous with its pinnacle perspective is located 8 kilometers (5 miles) apart from the others along a 37 kilometers (21 miles) matrix of groomed trails.


In 1970 I was a high school student in Seattle when I first saw Dick Barrymore’s The Performers, a film about five skiers traveling the country in a van on the edge of a new style of skiing. It made such a huge impression on me that in 1972 I schemed my way to Sun Valley, and turned my college education upside down by taking winters off. All I wanted to do was live that vagabond life in front of the camera.

Three years later, through a bit of luck and good timing, I was living the dream as a member of the K2 Team. Along with Jim Stelling, Stan Larsen, Jim Garrison, Mike Grazier, and Wayne Wong, I strutted my stuff in Assignment K2, Barrymore’s sequel to The Performers.
We toured Europe for a month with Jean Claude Killy, an experience I would re-live in a heartbeat.

Stelling, Bob Burns, and Corky Fowler were my heroes back then, but no one made an impression on me like Wayne Wong.

As Skiing magazine's 1972 Freestyler of thee year, he was the poster child of the emerging hot-dog attitude. I remember standing at the top of Round House in Sun Valley, at my first Chevy contest in ’72, watching everyone flipping around and doing their tricks, and then Wong showed up. He had an aura about him. A year earlier he had taken third place at the Waterville National Exhibition, and his image—the white glasses and toothy grin, deeply tanned face, black mop of hair—was everywhere, in magazines and even in a nationally aired Pepsi commercial. I snatched an opening and jumped on the T-bar with him to learn all his secrets. Nearly 40 years later I still have questions for the man behind those mirrored lenses.

On April 16, 2009, Wong was inducted into the Canadian Ski Hall of Fame for his impact on skiing culture. Not too shabby for a kid from Vancouver, BC who loved to ski but had no idea what he wanted to do with his life.

GORDY: So you're actually Canadian...


Oh man, this sucks! I haven't thrown a full load on my back in years, and now I'm paying the price in mental anguish that feels totally terminal. I keep shifting my pack, in which I've tossed out all but the lightest essentials, to minimize the slicing into my shoulders. With some 7 miles of bare White River Trail before us it's unavoidable--my skis and boots are strapped onto my five day load for full effect.

It's counter intuitive. As a habit I resist carrying ski gear. By design they're meant to be on my feet - not the back, and to do so I might as well throw in a couple of rocks for good measure. Focusing on the end game, I endure the pain knowing that the traveling gain will be justified. In fact, that's the point of our venture into the Dakobed Range. Skis, like a rope - ice axe - foot crampons make traverses possible when otherwise it might not be. They provide lateral and vertical leverage; allowing distance to flow unconstrained along the mountain spine. Marcel Kurz, who pioneered the Chamonix-to-Zermatt Haute Route in 1911, wrote, "In the high mountains the ski ceases to be a plaything. Circumstances make it a tool--the most useful aid to the winter mountaineer--but a simple tool intended to make traveling easier--something which we put on or take off like crampons and which is only a means to an end."


As I break out of the trees onto the frozen surface of Rainy Lake my spirit soars with the opening view. It feels good to be out. The muted light that display's eye catching shadows, shapes and lines is captivating, and super surreal. I'm encouraged to shift my up hill mode into touring casual.

After a couple of storm cycles it's certain that epic powder stashes await throughout the high mountain reaches, but the perfect March temps and longer days have highlighted the buena vistas, and the call to slow the pace is in order.


 

Before we left the Zermatt Heli-pad Barrymore gave us our only instructions for the day, "Don't lose a ski". "If you do the day will be lost." As I wait my turn at a run before the camera his words reverberate in my ears. My anxiety about skiing these high glaciers of the Monte Rosa (Europe's second highest, 15,203 ft (4,634 m)) is particularly piqued. I've never traversed in this realm of massive seracs and bottomless crevasses before, and I don't want to screw up now for a number of reasons.

Dick and his camera second, Kenny, have positioned themselves out of view around the corner of a huge angular block. My job is simple, blast into sight kicking up snow everywhere for effect, find their location, and ski right at the camera. I get the call and I let 'em rip. As I round the serac I spot the powder stash between us and make the most of it. However, glaciers are ice and a hidden chunk heat-seeks my ski, suddenly launching me sideways. Geez!! In an instant it's chaos! All I can think about is please don't let it end here, as I stare bug-eyed into the black abyss of an impending crevasse. Back pedaling, I hate to admit; I close my eyes and wait for my fate. After what seems like an eternity I open them slowly. Lying on my back in a medium size wind scoop, I stare up at Barrymore and the others in disbelief. Dick shrugs a shoulder and directs me, "Can you do that again, but just don't cut the serac so close" "I lost you in the shot". Yeah, right! At least I didn't lose a ski.


 As Louis L'Amour sings in my ears, "The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you miss all you are traveling for." I pole tap in quick step to keep pace as Lowell takes deceptively long strides. It seems ages since my brother and I have partnered on a mountain adventure together. At one time we were so in tune that each others next move was anticipated, and the mental vibrations were felt on the other end of the rope.

As we chat non-stop up the Easy Pass Trail time flies by, and then seemingly we are teleported to one of our favorite Cascade vistas. It never disappoints, and instantly we are engrossed in the spiritual spender of a varied expanse soaked in brilliant color accented by crisp shadows. During our youth every weekend the mountains were our church; filling us up with awe, inspiration, and self learning. Looking out beyond the reaches of Easy Pass towards alluring Mt. Logan, it feels good. Like time has stood still.


Standing on the Col du Chardonnet checking my anxiety, I watch as Jeff repels into the swirling mist. Vaporizing into its depth of uncertainty we've taken a huge leap of faith; for this 55 degree glazed slot is the switching point. Once this bone yard of steeps and spires is crossed there is no turning back. We've laid our cards down on a questionable weather forecast in an attempt to ski from Chamonix, France to Zermatt, Switzerland; some 60 miles across the spine of the European Alps, "The Classic Haute Route".

It's been a late winter this spring, and most aspirers have been turned back or rerouted.


With the first laboring strides my mind wanders, as it often does, from thoughts of the sketchy breakfast I had to kick off the day, to work related tasks, to the hordes in the flatlands that have queued up religiously in their daily lives. As I gain access to the open staircase of Silver Star Creek, my mind snaps into focus when Ed's CD player overflows my ears, and the first view of our destination reveals itself. For a moment I'm awe struck, and then overwhelmed again, as I'm stunned in my tracks by the grandeur of this place. I've come here many times over some 30 years, but what stands before me can only be described as the cathedral of backcountry skiing.

There it is, Silver Star in all its glory on a windless blue bird day, with 20 degree temps, and 2 feet of crystal powder. I pinch myself. This is crazy madness. It's the end of March, and we are the only ones here.

Anxious to test the high reaches, Ed and I linger little as we confront the lower headwall, while our eyes make note of the numerous plumb lines beckoning the arc of our skis. They will have to wait, as we have bigger vertical to fry. Swapping leads we relish in the effort, punching a path through a new up-line to a ramp that Ed suggests in order to gain the panoramic north ridge. Like every impression of the day, the route doesn't disappoint. I stagger as my balance is challenged by the landscape, and my constant need to take it all in. The truth is I can't. It's simply so overpowering that we agree to take a lunch break to reorient ourselves. Sitting in a lofty state of appreciation, we see Owen making quick work our up-track. Getting off to a slower start, he's been bird dogging us for hours wondering if he would ever catch up. As we share some of Ed's home grown, home made broccoli soup, the conversation flows to the conditions, and where to ski.


Standing on the lofty wooden scaffold trying to calm my nerves, I stared down the parallel track that ran straight as an arrow like railroad rails off into oblivion. With little conviction, I called "OK" down to the knoll. Back came the response, "Clear", which was received with mixed response. My heart leapt as my spirit said "Go", but my reason said, "What are you doing, this is crazy".

I shuffled forward, and instantly was sucked into an acceleration vortex, chest on the knees, head down, eyes maintaining focus on the end of the known world…the "take off" where the rails abruptly stopped. With a quick snap from the knees I launched, arms tucked back pressing my torso forward toward my ski tips searching for an air pillow of lift. It wasn't a big jump by modern standards, but to me it lasted a life time, and once in flight it was total bliss. Putting on the brakes I made a quick 180 turn, heading back to the up lift for another crack. How much was enough? It was never enough. Watch the video.


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