Richman, Poorman: Death By Powder

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Powder King sign 0900

"You're going to be a father soon," said my good friend Scott.

"No I'm not." I felt that the denial thing was really working for me.

"Your wife is pregnant."

"No she's not."

"A boy. Due in three months."

"That's not true."

"Soon your life as you know it will be over."

At which point I burst into tears. I knew he was right. Sure I was looking forward to the little fella on the way, but in the meantime, I was mourning the loss of my former life. No more running wild with my compadres down narrow, death-defying backcountry ski trails, no more late nights with poker chips and single-malt scotch. In short, no more fun. Soon I would change diapers, worry about college tuition, and wash the driveway. I would have to play it safe, which is to say, not at all.

I would become Ward Cleaver.

"My former self is terminally ill," I blubbered, "and I give it only another three months to live."

"There, there," said Scott. "Every problem is an opportunity. It's time to throw a wake for your former self. We will go forth on a ski bum road trip once more before it dies."

OK, yeah. I liked it. A wake, a road trip, one last gasp-call it what you will-I would bury the old self and baptize the new under 6 feet of fresh powder.

The woman at the car-rental shop in Prince George, B.C., asked us if we wanted the extra collision damage insurance. Ward Cleaver, of course, would refuse, as an unnecessary expense. Ward would be prudent. But we were here in northern B.C.-in a milltown that looks like a giant strip-mall, smells of paper-plant sulfur, and has signs outside bars that say "leave your knives and guns in your truck"-for the precise purpose of being not prudent. So we said yes. Did she hear the screeching or smell the tire smoke when Scott got that late model Cherokee up on two wheels peeling out of the parking lot?

We had flown to Prince George, population 75,000, so we could drive to Mackenzie, which didn't even exist until 1966, when they crushed the trees, built a dam and created the largest man-made lake in North America. Most guidebooks to British Columbia don't mention Mackenzie. But Mackenzie is Manhattan compared to our final destination: a ski mountain where the nearest phones, mail and corner store are 45 minutes away. It's so far out there it's not even in an official town. We were headed to Powder King.

Powder King, I'd heard, has about 2,100 feet of vertical, 500 inches a year of the lightest, fluffiest, blow-it-off-your-windshield powder, fewer skier visits each year than Vail gets in a weekend, lift tickets that cost 23 bucks U.S. and three-night, four-day ski-and-stay packages that cost just a hundred-some dollars. To two ski bums on a wake, Powder King looked like the Holy Grail.

The sign on the highway-the only highway-directing us to Powder King has been pocked by buckshot. At the end of the access road, snow piled 8 feet high along the sides, there's nothing but a rickety old building and some school buses with chimneys poking through the roofs. Wrong access road. When we finally locate the right one I feel as if I've traveled back 40 years. The parking lot is the size of a tennis court and the "hotel," several metal trailers bolted together, looks like the Mir Space Station. Inside the lodge they've got a snack bar, a dozen picnic tables and a retail shop that consists of a few shelves in the rental shop. No computer spits out our tickets: They hand-stamp the date. I love it.

When we hook up with Ryan Press, a telemarking, backwoods-guiding, patroller friend of a friend, he's looking a bit down. Big cotton balls of snow are falling onto a base that would have them jumping for joy back in New England, but he's worried: It hasn't snowed since they got a foot three days ago, which at Powder King is a serious drought. He and fellow patroller Two Dogs, a hip guy in a knitted Peruvian cap, are determined to remedy the problem. "We need to have an Ooo-lar tonight, eh?" suggests Ryan. "We try not to eruse him," he says of the Norse God of Snow. "But whenever we call on him it never fails to puke down snow the next day."

Scott and I know immediately that we have found the right place for our wake. At too many big-glitz resorts, Ullr has been replaced by modern, decadent gods such as Ski-Out Condo and SUV. At Powder King, we discover, corduroy and cappuccino aren't as important as booting up to the back of some distant peak for fresh face-shots. Especially on a cold January night when the mountains turn green and iridescent with the Northern Lights, here Ullr still lives.

Ryan shows us the mountain-just a double chair and a T-bar, but never a wait. There are 24 trails, some of them groomed, but that's not why we're here. Powder King has all manner of tree skiing, bowls and hikable stuff. There are 14,000 acres open for play, and the locals make the most of it.

We follow Ryan on a long traverse out to 86, a drop through trees, gullies and chutes of almost untracked snow so deep that when I fall I feel as if I'm drowning. Scott and I are loving it, and Ryan is astounded. All the fresh lines are gone, making it, by Powder King standards, worse than mediocre.

Sometimes it snows here for seven or 10 days in a row. Ryan says that of the 50 days he skied last season (Powder King is only open four days a week), on half of them they had big powder. Here in the foothills of the Northern Rockies (if you can call 6,000-foot peaks "hills") the weather pattern is such that storm clouds roll down the valley and swirl around the mountain for days. The top is treeless, the bottom thick with conifers, the middle sparsely treed and bisected by a giant power line. On both sides of the runs, as well as along the ridge and over the top, locals find enough untracked bowls and tree skiing to keep them happy for days.

In the afternoon Jason Colthorp joins us, a grinning telemarking genius who loves to get air. None of my Eastern tele buddies go near jumps, but all the locals here do. Ryan front flips off a lip like it's just another dance step. Then I realize that when you ski at a place where the ground is covered with deep white pillows from December to May, you don't fear landing like you do back East.

At four o'clock the lifts close. For most people. There's still a fat stripe of untracked snow on either side of the T-bar, and a big group of patrollers, lifties and traveling ski bums on a wake have gathered. All want to rip up some fresh lines. "What's the best way to ski fresh powder?" I ask, then answer the question: "First." I dive under the ropes and carve fat turns in the deep. It's like water-skiing, except that I'm hotly pursued by 20 dudes and dudettes all yelping with joy. One of them lands at the bottom of the T-bar in a tangled mess of snow and goggles, says, "Oh, this is too fun," grabs the lift and goes up for more.

And then it starts to seriously snow. Fat flakes are falling. Ryan tells us his knee is twinging, a sure sign of storms to come. No need to bother Ullr tonight.

The next day, a Saturday, Powder King still has no liftlines, but lots of activity. It's Suit-and-Gown day, so all the young men and women who staff the place look as if they're headed for the prom. It's also Liftie Appreciation Day and Boarder Cross competition day. Next week they'll throw a Big Air Contest, the week after a Telemark Classic Race; after that comes Pond Surfing.

But no big dump. This would be a perfect day anywhere else-4 inches of fresh snow fell overnight, which doesn't even register as snowfall in the Powder King world. There's warm weather and sunshine, but at Powder King they can't believe their bad luck. Four days without a major dump.

"Without a doubt," Ryan says to his buddies. "Tonight we're doing an Ooo-lar."

Richard and Janie Doyle have owned Powder King since 1995. They also own a logging company in Prince George. Richard, a smaller version of Bill Murray, once ran a "peeler joint." He likes to party.

That night a crowd gathers-residents of those school buses, employees, ski freaks from Mackenzie and Prince George-and they torch up a bonfire. Besides trees and branches, they pile on old skis, snowboards and boots. Richard rushes from bar to bonfire with a big metal bucket of beer, which he vigorously pours down our throats while howling into the night, "Oooooo-Larrrrrrr!" When was the last time you saw the owner of Deer Valley do that?

Not to be upstaged, Ryan and his patroller buddies emerge from their patrol shack with a sacred effigy they've just built: a tall guy, horns on his helmet, boots in a tele stance-could it be? None other than; that's right, it's Ullr himself. As the effigy sizzles in the fire and the crowd screams, it occurs to me that this is always the way: The anti-swank places in the boondocks have the fun people and the wild parties, whereas the swank places with fly-in/fly-out condos have the security guards telling you to take that crown of bones off your head right this instant or you'll be arrested and beaten with phone books. So why, I wonder, would anyone want to go swank?

As we leave for our hotel, 45 minutes south in Mackenzie, a pajama party breaks out-Janie will have to roust many a hung-over liftie from his or her bed the next morning-but not a flake in the sky.Sunday we awake in Mackenzie to two inches of freshies. But what does this mean at Powder King, thousands of feet higher and two valleys away? When we get there, it means whiteness falling so fast and thick that you can barely see. "Every time he's called," Ryan says, "he answers."

The snow is so thick we have to cancel a planned snowmobile trip into the backcountry because it'd be too easy to get lost. We also stay off Azu Peak, the bald tip of Powder King, because so much snow is loading on its cornice that it could avalanche. But even the groomed trails, with a coating of freshies are, as local hipster Rick Webster puts it, "like butter, aye?"

From the top of the T-bar we hike up to just above tree-line, a chute called the Kitchen Wall. Wow. Wide-open meadows of knee-deep, feather-light freshies so sweet to turn in that when I get done whooping with pleasure I have to hike up and do it again. Booting up in this stuff is hard-you sink to mid-thigh. "Hate to tell you," says Ryan, "but for here this isn't deep."

It feels like the remotest wilderness, except that after snaking through a natural tree run called Magic Forest we can cut back to the bottom of the T-bar and do it again.

"Wow," I say to Ryan. "This is like lift-access backcountry.""That's what this whole mountain is like."

By the end of the day I'm so blissed out on powder and Powder King that I'm ready for anything, including a Ward Cleaver lifestyle. My soon-to-be son, I tell Scott, has got to ski this place. Snow is coming down so fast and thick as we tear ourselves away that people tell us, "Drive carefully going down the pass."

"What the hell," I say. "If I die today, I die a happy man."

Details

Getting There Via Air Canada, Prince George is about an hour and a half flight from Vancouver, two from Seattle. From Prince George, two hours driving on Route 97 gets you to Mackenzie, and Powder King is another 45 minutes beyond that.

When To Go Never. Stay away. You'd hate it here. But the snow's driest and lightest in January and February.

Sleeping In For $60 to $65 you can find a perfectly normal room at the Alexander Mackenzie Hotel in Mackenzie (250-997-3266), 45 minutes away. If you want cheap, low-down and on-mountain, "Chateau Atko," a combination of trailers at Powder King, costs $31, or $21 if you bring your own bedding.

Vital Stats Skiable acres: 14,000. Number of Lifts: 2. Vertical drop: 2,100 feet. Average annual snowfall: 500 inches. Lift ticket price: $23. Season pass price: $469.

Contact Not easy, since there's no phone or mail delivery. Try calling (250) 563ight a crowd gathers-residents of those school buses, employees, ski freaks from Mackenzie and Prince George-and they torch up a bonfire. Besides trees and branches, they pile on old skis, snowboards and boots. Richard rushes from bar to bonfire with a big metal bucket of beer, which he vigorously pours down our throats while howling into the night, "Oooooo-Larrrrrrr!" When was the last time you saw the owner of Deer Valley do that?Not to be upstaged, Ryan and his patroller buddies emerge from their patrol shack with a sacred effigy they've just built: a tall guy, horns on his helmet, boots in a tele stance-could it be? None other than; that's right, it's Ullr himself. As the effigy sizzles in the fire and the crowd screams, it occurs to me that this is always the way: The anti-swank places in the boondocks have the fun people and the wild parties, whereas the swank places with fly-in/fly-out condos have the security guards telling you to take that crown of bones off your head right this instant or you'll be arrested and beaten with phone books. So why, I wonder, would anyone want to go swank?As we leave for our hotel, 45 minutes south in Mackenzie, a pajama party breaks out-Janie will have to roust many a hung-over liftie from his or her bed the next morning-but not a flake in the sky.Sunday we awake in Mackenzie to two inches of freshies. But what does this mean at Powder King, thousands of feet higher and two valleys away? When we get there, it means whiteness falling so fast and thick that you can barely see. "Every time he's called," Ryan says, "he answers."The snow is so thick we have to cancel a planned snowmobile trip into the backcountry because it'd be too easy to get lost. We also stay off Azu Peak, the bald tip of Powder King, because so much snow is loading on its cornice that it could avalanche. But even the groomed trails, with a coating of freshies are, as local hipster Rick Webster puts it, "like butter, aye?"From the top of the T-bar we hike up to just above tree-line, a chute called the Kitchen Wall. Wow. Wide-open meadows of knee-deep, feather-light freshies so sweet to turn in that when I get done whooping with pleasure I have to hike up and do it again. Booting up in this stuff is hard-you sink to mid-thigh. "Hate to tell you," says Ryan, "but for here this isn't deep."It feels like the remotest wilderness, except that after snaking through a natural tree run called Magic Forest we can cut back to the bottom of the T-bar and do it again. "Wow," I say to Ryan. "This is like lift-access backcountry.""That's what this whole mountain is like."By the end of the day I'm so blissed out on powder and Powder King that I'm ready for anything, including a Ward Cleaver lifestyle. My soon-to-be son, I tell Scott, has got to ski this place. Snow is coming down so fast and thick as we tear ourselves away that people tell us, "Drive carefully going down the pass.""What the hell," I say. "If I die today, I die a happy man." Details

Getting There Via Air Canada, Prince George is about an hour and a half flight from Vancouver, two from Seattle. From Prince George, two hours driving on Route 97 gets you to Mackenzie, and Powder King is another 45 minutes beyond that.

When To Go Never. Stay away. You'd hate it here. But the snow's driest and lightest in January and February.

Sleeping In For $60 to $65 you can find a perfectly normal room at the Alexander Mackenzie Hotel in Mackenzie (250-997-3266), 45 minutes away. If you want cheap, low-down and on-mountain, "Chateau Atko," a combination of trailers at Powder King, costs $31, or $21 if you bring your own bedding.

Vital Stats Skiable acres: 14,000. Number of Lifts: 2. Vertical drop: 2,100 feet. Average annual snowfall: 500 inches. Lift ticket price: $23. Season pass price: $469.

Contact Not easy, since there's no phone or mail delivery. Try calling (250) 563-3448 or send an e-mail via the website: www.powderking.com. 563-3448 or send an e-mail via the website: www.powderking.com.