Skunked - Ski Mag

Skunked

What do you do when powder doesn’t pan out? It rarely happens at magical Red Mountain, B.C. But when it does, well, we are skiers. We’ll find the joy.
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“Somebody coming down last run said that this is the worst day they’ve had in 10 years,”Vinz says cheerfully as we skate onto the base lift at British Columbia’s Red Mountain. The liftie is the only other person we see. It’s 9 a.m.

Vinz is Vinzenz Keller, a local pro whom our photographer, Keri Bascetta, has arranged to shoot. Although with the conditions as they are, we’re not sure exactly what we’ll shoot him doing. We transfer to the Motherlode chair and look down at the moguls of Centre Star. They shine in the watery morning light like shellacked desserts in a diner display case, with a garnish of giant ferns sprouting in the troughs. Low fog hunkers in the dense trees and clings to their mustaches of moss, and a blanket of clouds moves over the sun. I’m thinking about the light here, now a poisonous blue. If New Mexico, with its warm, rich sun, fosters great flower art, then B.C.’s museum walls must be lined with paintings of, say, abandoned cars, rusting into the snow. I put my face inside my jacket.

We knew the forecast wasn’t great. A warm cycle followed by bitter cold has turned the snowpack to concrete. When we pulled in this morning and saw the possibilities of this awesome, hulking mountain, something inside, perhaps near the gallbladder, felt as though it had been put in one of those wall-mounted can-crushers above the recycling bin. Keri shut off the car and checked her phone. She’d gotten a text from her boyfriend back home. “Fourteen inches at Eldora last night,” she said, sounding betrayed. We got out of the car, and exactly one breath later my nose hairs stuck together. The warmth on my ass from the heated car seat dissipated like a bowl of soup put in the freezer.

The plodding Motherlode chair rumbles over the sheaves on Tower 1. Vinz is telling us how he grew up dirt-biking on the prairies near his family’s Manitoba dairy farm, and how he didn’t start skiing until they moved to the Kootenays when he was 10. And when the chair crests the ridge and the wind blows right through us, he laughs and says, “Oh man, what a crazy awesome day to be out!” I blink at him, eyes watering inside my goggles.

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We get off the lift and I don’t know whether to shield my face with my hands or shield my hands with my ass. And what Keri and I do next cannot really be called skiing. I can feel wind seeping in every zipper and seam, and in the space I never knew existed between my head and helmet.

But Vinz…Vinz is doing grabs off the catwalks, railslides through brush piles, and all kinds of other tricks whose names I should know but don’t. I remember being a kid, watching my brother throw what we called “airplanes” off every bank while I poled and skated to keep up. Vinz somehow skis up a tree trunk and down a low limb, flips sideways, and lands switch. Keri and I look at each other and laugh. This guy’s awesome.

I start to look around. We’re on the back side of Granite—Red has three peaks: Granite, Red, and the new Grey, which was just added last season. The terrain back here would be so, so good after a storm: wide-spaced trees, perfect pitches, sneaky traverses into the woods. Just across the valley, we see Mount Roberts, with its steep Y of couloirs, the best backcountry run I’ll never ski.

We get on the Paradise chair and suffer through another couple laps, sticking to the groomers. What looks like corduroy sounds like it’s giving my skis a base grind.

Then, near the bottom of our third run, Vinz ducks into a sneaky traverse through the woods. We follow. The tang of woodsmoke hangs in the air, and the moss muffles everything, including, thankfully, the wind. I get a curious feeling, like…I’ve just walked through the door of some magic wardrobe.

Red Mountain is as close as any resort gets to a 100 percent pow guarantee. It boasts more skiable acres and puckering steeps than Jackson Hole, comparable OB terrain, and only a quarter of JH’s skier visits per day. And though it has only 300 “reported” annual inches, locals report much, much more. Each storm here lasts an average of four days, which, by my admittedly suspect calculations, gets you roughly 120 pow days out of a 120-day season. If I were to draw a Venn diagram of Red’s pow days and the days the resort is open, the circles would overlap perfectly in one big happy face.

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It’s day two, and Keri, Vinz, and I are now standing under the chutes on Grey Mountain, looking up at steep, narrow shots that with pow, or any kind of snow, would be sweet. They’re newly opened this season—part of 1,000 new acres of skiable terrain—but they’re not actually open. Where snow should be lie huge debris piles among the sprouting trees. It’s not like we couldn’t ski it if we wanted to—“It’s a ‘soft closure,’’’ a patroller informed us casually. “We don’t mind if you head in”—but we don’t because we don’t have chainsaws. If I were to draw a Venn diagram of this day, it would look like a dick and some balls.

Figures. I have been skunked on more pow trips in my 10 years in the industry than most people have in their lifetimes. Island Lake Lodge? Barely saved by an early corn cycle. Snowbird? Corduroy so frozen I could feel my body swelling up from my feet. Chile? Three inches of rain polished by 90-mph winds. Valdez? Five-thousand-foot runs of frozen ocean that bashed our group to bits (four broken ribs, one face laceration, one concussion, and six consistent, low-grade Yukon Jack hangovers).

But there’s something I realize as I watch Vinz press up on his ski tips on the catwalk. There’s not one minute of any of those trips, even this molar-rattling, knee-swelling, hand-searing day, that I would rather have spent doing something else. That’s the truth. We are skiers. Shit conditions are part of the deal.

It’s easy—if painful—to see the potential of this place. Last run, we skied through the trees of Roots to get down to the new Grey Mountain Chair. They’re tight, steep, and would be permanently chalky in a normal year. Big rocks on the ridgeline form natural halfpipes, and we looked over into the bowl where skiable cliffs funnel into Coolers and Doug’s Run. It’s as rowdy as you’d ever want it to be, but chill options abound too. Toward the bottom, we hit a mystical low-angle forest, draped in mint-green moss that swayed in the wind. The trees creak. If fairies existed, they’d live here. And from the summit? Easy skin tracks lead to some sweet, open, low-angle aprons on Mount Kirkup that would make perfect powder laps.

On the top of the next run, a dude in a red one-piece stops us and offers some of the resort’s history. Red was the home of Olympic champion Nancy Greene; the Le Roi mine, nearby, started a gold rush here in 1890; and the Rossland Ski Club held the first recorded ski races in Canada. His warmth is typical of the people here. Or at least we think it is, having only run into three so far. One of them advised us to go to Whitewater. Not because the conditions are better, but because it’s “way less crowded.” At this we looked around. A crow cawed from a tree. I could hear his pole tip twist in the snow. And long after he dropped out of sight with a “Woo-hoo,” the scraping sound of his skis reminded me to schedule my knee injections. Wonder if I could file those under workers’ comp.

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On our way back to the Grey lift, the smell of sausage lures us to a trailer parked above the catwalk. The sign says Weiner Take All and sports more umlauts than a New Yorker article about reëlection coordination. (Note from our copy chief, Gillian Burnes: The New Yorker’s two dots are called a diaeresis, which is different from an umlaut and unfortunately has nothing to do with German brats, grilled or otherwise.) Licking ketchup from my white mitten, I make a proclamation: I love this place. And another: It’s time for beer.

At the base lodge, we stomp up the stairs, following the sounds of raucousness, and find that Rafters is going off. It’s packed. Which leads me to believe this is not just an après-ski bar, because as far as we can tell we were among the five people who actually skied today. Local workers in Carhartts and baseball caps pound callused hands on picnic tables with bro-brahs in Flylow. It’s Thursday night, the waitress explains. Payday. For drinking, anyway, our timing is just right.

We meet up with local Leah Evans, 2011 Canadian freeski champ, whom we’ve also planned to shoot while we’re here. She tells us over bottles of B.C. pilsner that the mountain itself is drilled with mine shafts, and a smelter that made part of the Hiroshima bomb is just down the road. The wide floorboards are littered with ski clothes and bags and boots, and by the sound of the crowd playing flipcup around the long table in the back, things are still heating up.

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We order another round, and the Silverlode liftie, proudly wearing his lift staff T-shirt, comes over with a pitcher and invites us to play. I’ve never been to a ski-town bar like this before, where there is no us and them, where the hardcore locals actually want tourists to feel, well, like hardcore locals. We grab red Solo cups and join in. I swallow a quarter. Keri knocks a historical photo off “The Wall of Death” (a memorial to all Red’s legends who have died). And we crush the patrollers, 6 to 0.

High fives and cheers with pitchers ensue. A Bernese mountain dog sneaks in through the back door and loves up to anyone who’s willing. Everyone is willing. The place is a hotbox of camaraderie—and the contact high is better than I ever remember in high school.

Back in the forest on day one, Vinz ducks a tree branch and we follow, snowplowing because the traverse is slicker than a shot luge. An A-frame cabin appears, thatched in on all sides by the moss-tufted trees. Vinz tries the door. Boo-yah! We file into a one-room cabin that’s warm from the woodstove, its table a jumble of jam jars, booze bottles, and rolling papers.

I take off my gloves and gingerly press my hands together in front of the fire. “What is this place?” I ask Vinz, whose own hands are the color of salmon. He shrugs. “These huts are all over.”

A few minutes later, the door swings open and two sets of boots stomp on the floor. “It’s fucking misery out there,” says one of the guys, who seems not at all surprised to see us here. I realize I have a fully formed preconception of what a hardcore skier looks like. And this guy didn’t get the memo. He’s 50-ish with a gray ponytail and wears old bib pants, an Arc’teryx jacket, a 1980s North Face backpack without waist straps, and Scarpa tech touring boots.

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I figure they’re just like us, following woodsmoke and stumbling into someone else’s luck. I don’t find out until a Budweiser and a half into their stash, procured from the old North Face backpack without waist straps, that this cabin—appropriately named the Stagger By—is theirs.

They blame the current state of misery on The Curse of the New Chair, meaning Grey. Apparently every time Red puts in a new lift, it suffers a drought. Which means it’s happened five times…in 111 years. They tell us what to ski as soon as the curse lifts: Mount Roberts, the quintessential conquest, or White Wolf for a safe tour that brings you right back to the Paradise chair. They tell us where to go for beers in town: The Royal Canadian Legion, because the Eagles Club, where they belong, has too many “old chronics.” It strikes me that Canadians are comfortable in their own skins. Which is to say, they don’t really give a fuck.

There’s another cabin called the Klister Klub, they tell us, farther in the trees, where their buddies hang out. Every weekend they’re there, grilling and drinking, after, of course, skiing their brains out in Red’s legendary pow. Their kids grew up here—kids like Colston Beatson, the two-time Canadian Junior Freeski Open champion. It’s like a little hidden woodland village, where the Keebler Elves could be just around the next bend.

A flask of Fireball is produced from somewhere, and we pass it around. My insides burn pleasantly, and we start to compose a poem for their guest book. “What rhymes with ‘curse’?” I ask. “Bratwurst?” offers Vinz, cocking his head.

Maybe someday I’ll get to come back here, to experience Red in its legendary powdery glory. But right now, shooting the shit with some middle-aged construction workers in touring gear, swapping stories about our worst days ever on the hill, I’m happy to just sit and wait for the flask to come around again.

[Photos from top: Keri Bascetta (5), Bruno Long]

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