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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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".Watch the video.