King of the Hill - Ski Mag

King of the Hill

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"WHEEE-hee-hee-he-he!

Steve Kuijt is standing on the Witches' Tit. And when he stands on the Witches' Tit, a ridge that falls away into a bowl as smooth and white as the inside of a Ping-Pong ball, he whinnies—hatless head tilted back, mustachioed upper lip shuddering. It sounds like a made-for-TV Western on low volume, rising from a man in a longish red parka over a button-down flannel shirt over a cotton turtleneck, a man with beat-up leather gloves that read s-t-e-v-e across the knuckles, and a pair of skis from the rental pool.

"Oh, and check this out! he demands, then yells, "Vas fur essen die studenten?The crags reverberate with "Enten!…Enten!…Enten!... He looks back. "I said, 'What do students eat?' And the rocks said, 'Ducks!' That's pretty cool, eh?

Someone calls over. A few ski tips are poking out into air. "So what are we going to do now?

"Shralp the shit out of it, Kuijt (pronounced Kite) calls back, then ski-cuts the slope, stomping a line across the satin sheet of snow and watching it move under him. The group follows, everyone looking downhill, one sighing at the blank slateness of it all, another hanging back, adjusting helmet strap and poles and buckles, waiting. "Ohhh-kay! he signals, and one by one, people float powder turns before disappearing over a roll. We stop at a stand of pines before the mountain tumbles away again, and Kuijt pulls his sunglasses up and over hair that's been windblown back to the mid '80s. "Oh. My. God. He tries to run in place, highstepping, tele skis clattering, bases slipping.

When we're back in the cat, he puts one boot on the windowsill and pulls out a salami sandwich. "I got one for you, he says, taking a bite. "What's the difference between God and a mountain guide?

Heads shake.

"God, he grins, "doesn't think he's a mountain guide.

If you didn't know his reputation, you might think Steve Kuijt is a fool, or at least plagued with a dose of A.D.D. And you might think there's no way in hell you'd ever follow him into the mountains. But then you'd hear him start a thought by showing you how his hat, handmade by his wife, can switch from Canadian (flaps down) to Middle Eastern (flaps tucked, fez-like) to Amish (upside down, into a bonnet)—and finish it by explaining how bonding, cloud layers, and surface hoar will make tomorrow "a complicated day in avalanche terms. And then you'd take off after him.

Behind Kuijt's blue eyes and Starsky and Hutch hairdo is a mountain mind built on decades of experience. He grew up in Vancouver, the oldest of five kids, but didn't start skiing until his family moved to Germany for a year when he was 12. "Right there, he says, "my dad decided we'd be a skiing family. Afterwards, the Kuijts moved to Lethbridge, three hours from Fernie, where they skied almost every weekend. Just out of high school, Kuijt taught skiing at Fernie for a year and spent two winters each in Whitefish, Montana, and Smithers, B.C. During the summers, he drove grain harvesters to make money, and eventually got a two-year degree in environmental science. His father has a Ph.D. in botany, his mother is a psychologist, his twin brother is an archaeologist, and his younger brother has a Ph.D. in computer science. "My family is a bunch of academics, he says. "When my dad first visited me in Whitefish, where I was skiing, he said, 'I could never see myself doing this—but I can see how you could.' When Kuijt decided to settle in Fernie, B.C., he became the snowcat driver for the resort so he could ski all day—and log what he calls "hardcore time. From there, he started driving cats at Island Lake.

"Steve was just a kid when he came here to drive, but he was charming, intelligent, and good with people—the Tom Cruise of Island Lake, says the operation's founder, Dan McDonald. "But he could rip. I always thought he was one of the world's best skiers.McDonald started with a single cat and hired four people to build a passenger cab and run the place. Oneas Reto Keller, a Swiss mountain guide. Keller smoked a pipe on the way up the hill, and Kuijt would sometimes stuff it with sausage instead of tobacco. When Keller tried, unsuccessfully, to flip fried eggs at breakfast, Kuijt would eat them off the floor. "Ah, we were so nasty, Keller says. "But Steve did laundry, and helped cook, and everything. And when he became interested in guiding, he caught on quick.

The rest of the skiing world wasn't lost on the prodigy's unengineered rise—or the terrain possibilities at Island Lake. Word got out about the place and the guy who knew—and could ski—every inch of it. Co-founders Mark Gallup and Henri Georgi started sending photos, often of Kuijt, to North American ski mags. Greg Stump caught wind of it and flew in Scot Schmidt to film 1994's P-Tex, Lies, and Duct Tape. Shortly thereafter, "everyone on the planet showed up wanting to get in, says McDonald. The next year, Schmidt came up again with Steve Winter to film Matchstick Productions' Fetish, and it became what Schmidt called "the deepest powder segment ever caught on film. I skied in four feet of feathers.

It was often Kuijt who led the way for Schmidt and snowboard pioneer Craig Kelly (who died in a 2003 avalanche), for the brothers Egan and DesLauriers, some of freeskiing's best. Once he'd guided them up and they'd seen him ski down, they'd film him, too. Every skier was at his mercy. "After a day of filming and a night of partying, Steve woke me up and hiked me up a three-foot-wide chute on Mama Bear, says Micah Black, who was at Island Lake filming Teton Gravity Research's The Prophecy. "It fell off to the right a thousand feet. He was laughing, swinging his ice ax, a Canadian giving a poor Yankee a thrill.

Most of the time, of course, Kuijt doesn't get to climb to the highest reaches of the Lizard Range with cinematographers and freeskiers in tow—he just guides clients who have paid some $2,500 for the best skiing of their lives. He's but one actor in an elaborate production, a three- or four-day cycle that takes place in the confluence of countless avalanche paths, and that pits a few snow-safety brainiacs against some of the most aggressive terrain in cat-skidom: near-vertical couloirs that pour into coliseum bowls, undulating pitches that dip and drop into old-growth glades, sinkholes that could swallow anything from a Beetle to a Greyhound, all covered in 20 annual feet of Rocky Mountain snow.

The guides' room, cramped in the basement of the main lodge next to the six-foot dollies of unbaked dinner rolls, is skiing's answer to the think tank. The white board charts humidity, wind speed, and settlement. Aerial photos of every run are tacked up on the far wall. Everything looks official—except for spoofs of motivational office posters: freedom. inspiration. sharing. Sharing powder with a friend is great, unless the f#%&er snakes your line, and then it's war. And a photo of Steve Kuijt in a pink wig.

Since 1984, 230 people have been killed in avalanches in Canada; 49 percent were backcountry skiing. The Canadian Avalanche Association estimates that 95 percent of the fatal slides were triggered by humans on skis or snowmobiles. And during the '02—03 season, 11 skiers and boarders died in British Columbia alone. But Island Lake, in 13 years of operation, has yet to see a fatality. Kuijt—and his snow-safety team—is a big reason why. Every morning at 7:30, he breaks out three highlighters—green for "safe, yellow for "possibly sketchy, red for "no way—and marks every run. "Beer Gut: green. Beer Run: Skied it yesterday at two o' clock and crashed twice—heinous sun-crust, eh? Call it yellow. Elevator: yellow. Lunch Chucker: Mmm, call it green.

It takes an average of five years to become a full winter ski guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides—you need to have team-guided a minimum of 15 one- to two-day tours in high-alpine terrain; two five-plus-day tours; five five-day tours in remote, glaciated terrain; and five peaks requiring mountaineering skills. You also need a logbook with at least 50 days of recorded snowpack and weather information; a Level 2 avalanche certification; and 30 days of guiding apprenticeship. Once you've put in the time, you still have to pass a seven- to ten-day exam that includes beacon tests, crevasse rescues, avy scenarios, and touring trips. It took Kuijt three tries to pass—which is about average—after learning from Keller, heli-guiding at Wiegele and CMH, skiing in New Zealand for a winter, and starting his own guiding service, Mountain Pursuits, back in Fernie.

It's a mountain of training, but Island Lake demands it. The 7,000-acre spread, just a few miles from Fernie, covers all aspects, high and low, north and south, and every guide's job is to figure out where the best snow is. It's a tall order: "That place is like a mini-Chamonix, says cinematographer Stump.

The challenge for guides? Paying guests don't ski like Schmidt and Micah Black. They're the cardiologists, the attorneys, the egos. They're the expectant, the wowed, the demanding. And they're often the clueless. "When your client is on a rope, you can control where he's going, says Keller. "With skiing, you can tell him where to go, and give him space, and then the yahoo could head off where it's whiter. That's when it turns shitty. On a good day, guiding is close to effortless; on a bad day, people die.

Kuijt is one of the charmed ones. But the notorious '02—03 B.C. winter shook him. "There was a snowmobile wreck near Fernie with a few fatalities. Then I had to fly to Crow's Nest Pass to find a guy who'd driven off a cornice and fallen a thousand feet with a beacon that didn't work. Right after that we heard about seven gone at Rogers Pass. And then seven more. He sighs. "I know people whose kids were supposed to be on that trip. It hit too close to home.When he talks about accidents—about almost being buried in an Island Lake slide, about losing his good friend Craig Kelly in a slide in Revelstoke, about close calls with clients—his eyes have a way of deadening. He's over 40. He has a wife and two girls at home. Something—the years, the accumulation of accidents, the feeling of life settling—occasionally humbles and quiets him. "Now, I look at lines I did with the Egan brothers—oh my, he says. "What were we doing? We were either totally tuned or totally lucky. But there's the occasional exception. Two winters ago, when the TGR crew filmed at Island Lake, Kuijt was still the man to scope the best lines. "I got itchy feet again, and I skied a single line with them, in my tele gear, above Face Shot bowl. That was it. I don't feel as confident.

Which is perfectly fine for a guide. The trick is to make it look routine, safe, easy—without letting it feel easy. When it's a no-brainer, you're not doing your job. Kuijt is the ultimate alpine leader: outwardly infallible, inwardly guarded. He draws people to him, lays out his rules, then lets them go, but they never know that he's sitting back, calculating a hundred things about aspect and weather and temperature all at once. It looks like nothing is happening at all, save for conducting the occasional German conversation with himself wherever the landscape offers an echo.

Ben Harper's latest album is playing on the stereo. Kuijt pulls up a green velvet chair to a table long enough for 12, and sinks down into the seat cushion until he's as small as a seven-year-old. There's a leather knife case on his belt, and he's wearing a flannel button-down—the same kind of button-down he wears every day on the hill. For a moment, he's subdued, watching clients arrange napkins in laps and pore over the wine lists propped alongside the candlesticks; it's as if he decompresses to another timeline, leaving a dozen hours of work behind in a few sighs before moving on.

"The tough thing here is to stay under 200 pounds, he grins. "I call it cat gut. Too much good food. A server setterrain; and five peaks requiring mountaineering skills. You also need a logbook with at least 50 days of recorded snowpack and weather information; a Level 2 avalanche certification; and 30 days of guiding apprenticeship. Once you've put in the time, you still have to pass a seven- to ten-day exam that includes beacon tests, crevasse rescues, avy scenarios, and touring trips. It took Kuijt three tries to pass—which is about average—after learning from Keller, heli-guiding at Wiegele and CMH, skiing in New Zealand for a winter, and starting his own guiding service, Mountain Pursuits, back in Fernie.

It's a mountain of training, but Island Lake demands it. The 7,000-acre spread, just a few miles from Fernie, covers all aspects, high and low, north and south, and every guide's job is to figure out where the best snow is. It's a tall order: "That place is like a mini-Chamonix, says cinematographer Stump.

The challenge for guides? Paying guests don't ski like Schmidt and Micah Black. They're the cardiologists, the attorneys, the egos. They're the expectant, the wowed, the demanding. And they're often the clueless. "When your client is on a rope, you can control where he's going, says Keller. "With skiing, you can tell him where to go, and give him space, and then the yahoo could head off where it's whiter. That's when it turns shitty. On a good day, guiding is close to effortless; on a bad day, people die.

Kuijt is one of the charmed ones. But the notorious '02—03 B.C. winter shook him. "There was a snowmobile wreck near Fernie with a few fatalities. Then I had to fly to Crow's Nest Pass to find a guy who'd driven off a cornice and fallen a thousand feet with a beacon that didn't work. Right after that we heard about seven gone at Rogers Pass. And then seven more. He sighs. "I know people whose kids were supposed to be on that trip. It hit too close to home.When he talks about accidents—about almost being buried in an Island Lake slide, about losing his good friend Craig Kelly in a slide in Revelstoke, about close calls with clients—his eyes have a way of deadening. He's over 40. He has a wife and two girls at home. Something—the years, the accumulation of accidents, the feeling of life settling—occasionally humbles and quiets him. "Now, I look at lines I did with the Egan brothers—oh my, he says. "What were we doing? We were either totally tuned or totally lucky. But there's the occasional exception. Two winters ago, when the TGR crew filmed at Island Lake, Kuijt was still the man to scope the best lines. "I got itchy feet again, and I skied a single line with them, in my tele gear, above Face Shot bowl. That was it. I don't feel as confident.

Which is perfectly fine for a guide. The trick is to make it look routine, safe, easy—without letting it feel easy. When it's a no-brainer, you're not doing your job. Kuijt is the ultimate alpine leader: outwardly infallible, inwardly guarded. He draws people to him, lays out his rules, then lets them go, but they never know that he's sitting back, calculating a hundred things about aspect and weather and temperature all at once. It looks like nothing is happening at all, save for conducting the occasional German conversation with himself wherever the landscape offers an echo.

Ben Harper's latest album is playing on the stereo. Kuijt pulls up a green velvet chair to a table long enough for 12, and sinks down into the seat cushion until he's as small as a seven-year-old. There's a leather knife case on his belt, and he's wearing a flannel button-down—the same kind of button-down he wears every day on the hill. For a moment, he's subdued, watching clients arrange napkins in laps and pore over the wine lists propped alongside the candlesticks; it's as if he decompresses to another timeline, leaving a dozen hours of work behind in a few sighs before moving on.

"The tough thing here is to stay under 200 pounds, he grins. "I call it cat gut. Too much good food. A server sets down an appetizer that's been crafted to look like headwear from Victorian England. The blackboard claims in colored chalk that it's seared prawns on snow pea salad with Thai vinaigrette. Kuijt cocks his head. "Isn't this supposed to be dessert? In four bites, the plate is clean, and he leans back. "Ooooh, yeah. Hey, did you hear what I said to Dave today when he was taking a leak? A few heads tip in over their plates to hear. "Don't lean too far back—you're not hanging on to much!

Laughter. Glasses clink. Someone at the end of the table calls down, "What was that joke again? The difference between God and a mountain guide?

Kuijt shrugs and grins. "I have absolutely no idea. sets down an appetizer that's been crafted to look like headwear from Victorian England. The blackboard claims in colored chalk that it's seared prawns on snow pea salad with Thai vinaigrette. Kuijt cocks his head. "Isn't this supposed to be dessert? In four bites, the plate is clean, and he leans back. "Ooooh, yeah. Hey, did you hear what I said to Dave today when he was taking a leak? A few heads tip in over their plates to hear. "Don't lean too far back—you're not hanging on to much!

Laughter. Glasses clink. Someone at the end of the table calls down, "What was that joke again? The difference between God and a mountain guide?

Kuijt shrugs and grins. "I have absolutely no idea.

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