When I was a kid I spent a lot of time skiing and touring with my dad in New Hampshire's Presidential Range. Ever heard of it? Though modest by western standards, these are still impressive mountains - the highest peak in the range, Mt. Washington, thrusts its grizzled snout all the way to 6,288 feet. Not shabby at all given its age...
Long colonized by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest outdoors club in the U.S., the Presidential Range is crisscrossed with trails and access roads and modest huts and refuges lovingly maintained by its members. As for backcountry skiing, it features some of the most rugged and (dare I say) extreme conditions anywhere east of the Mississippi. It also played a major role in the history of skiing in North America.
If you were a young skier growing up on the eastern seaboard in the years between 1935 and 1975, performing the annual pilgrimage to Mt. Washington in the springtime was considered a rite of passage. I remember as a pre-teen sharing the three-sided shelters halfway up the mountain with Harvard professors and McGill arts students and ski bums from Stowe, all keen to test their mettle on Tuckerman's Ravine, a legendary snow bowl that dropped 1,000 vertiginous feet from rim to floor. It was a three-hour hike from Pinkham Notch to the shelters and I still have fond memories of watching young toughs carrying flats of beer on top of packs already loaded down with skis and boots and sleeping bags and food and cooking gear and other sundry stuff. Yet they always had the time to smile and say hi to the kid standing on the side of the trail watching in mute fascination. It was a very collegial atmosphere. And one that played huge with my imagination.
Why? A number of reasons. It was partly the buzz of sharing such a mountain jewel with such an in-crowd. To stand at the top of that big hulking ravine as a 12 year old and look down at the crowd lunching on Picnic Rocks far below was entirely intoxicating. Skiing in May! And with all these cool Snoweaters. It was also an introduction to the magic of skiing in a wild environment. Earning your turns; you know, finding out what it felt like to drop onto a frozen-schmoo pitch of unimagined steepness when your legs were already pumped up from a 1,500-foot climb and you'd spent the night sleeping virtually outside freezing your buns off. No poseurs here, I soon found out.
More than anything though, it was the fact that people honestly loved and respected the place. Tuckerman's Ravine, everyone knew, was a mountain shrine. It deserved to be treated with deference. And AMC members weren't shy to remind visitors of that. There was an understanding - even 40 years ago - that this was a special and unique environment and should be honoured accordingly.
I get the same kind of feeling when 35-year-old Lars Andrews talks about growing up in the mountains around McGillivray Pass. A third generation skier - and a fully certified ACMG mountain guide and examiner - Andrews is on the leading edge of that new generation of B.C.-born-and-trained entrepreneurs now trying their luck in the burgeoning eco/adventure tourism market. Ever heard of Whitecap Alpine? That's the fly-in, ski touring business Lars runs with his dad, Ron, out of a backcountry lodge high up in the Bendor Mountains (roughly 60 kilometres due north of Whistler). "The lodge is almost at the height of the pass," Lars tells me. "Right at timberline - 6,200 feet, 1,800 metres. The snow up there is fantastic. Drier, colder than Whistler. And though we don't have the massive glaciers you have, we're surrounded by some of the highest peaks in the Coast Range. It's pretty wild." He laughs. "Wild enough that in the summer we often get grizzly bears joining us for breakfast."
He takes a breath. And right away I can see just how much he cares about the place. "I started skiing those mountains when I was five," he continues. "And then as soon as my dad decided I could make my own decisions - I must have been around 15 or 16 - I was set free. It's been my private playground ever since." He smiles, a totally genuine, totally guileless grin that reveals both the unabashed host and ambitious businessman in him. "And now I get to share it with my guests. Every week, I get to introduce our little corner of mountain paradise to a different group of skiers." But not too many. Boasting 8,500 hectares of high-mountain playground - roughly 50 square miles - Whitecap Alpine welcomes a maximum of 12 guests per week.
Talk about intimate - and about as far from today's industrial ski resort experience as you can get. But is it too small to survive?
Not at all, says Lars. Because his dad owns the lodge (and Lars owns the business), there's no pressure at Whitecap to turn a big profit overnight. "My whole idea is not to get carried away and grow this company ultra-fast," he explains. Another smile. "You see, I want to enjoy what I'm doing. And I won't be able to do that if I'm too busy building the business." But it's not like he doesn't have other goals for the future. "I have this dream of bringing visitors to British Columbia - both in summer and winter - for a week of totally exclusive experiences. I want to give them everything our mountains can offer: terrain, elevation, weather and wilderness. The whole B.C. package." A slight pause. "I can easily see it happening in my imagination. I just have to make sure I've got the timing right..."
So far, Andrews's timing couldn't be better. "I had this same conversation with a childhood friend of mine recently," he says. "He was telling me how uniquely authentic he felt the experience was at Whitecap. And he was right. This is a log house that was built in the mountains for people to live in. It's a home first; it was never built for commercial purposes. And our guests feel that. The personality of the lodge really comes through. The fact that it provides access to such amazing and inspiring terrain, well, that's just the icing on the cake."
So how did this all come about? How did the Andrews family ever find a piece of free-simple land in this remote (and largely inaccessible) chunk of Coast Mountains anyway?
"It's a great story," says Lars. "An Austrian guy by the name of Helmet Weinhold - he was an engineer at Pioneer Mines in Bralorne - first homesteaded the land back in the late '50s." The story goes that Weinhold had once had a job maintaining the telegraph lines that used to run over McGillivray Pass and had fallen in love with the country. "Turns out the guy was an astute businessman and he quickly found a way to exploit a loophole in the law governing the sale of Crown land," Lars explains. "Weinhold's dream was to build a resort up there. So he made sure he bought enough land to do that - over 40 acres. "
But the resort was never built. Ironically, the Wenihold's, husband and wife, were both killed in an avalanche in 1965 and the estate was put up for sale. Eventually, a group of Lower Mainland skiers decided to buy the land; they built a cabin there in 1972. That's when Ron Andrews first heard about it.
Andrews Senior grew up in Calgary and cut his skiing teeth in the Rocky Mountains. A veterinarian by trade, Ron was a passionate backcountry traveller - "still is," says Lars - and fell for the quirky beauty of the Coast Range soon after moving to the West Coast. "My dad found out about the McGilllivray Pass Cabin through the Vancouver Outdoor Club," Lars recounts. "So he decided to check it out for himself. He rented the lodge and brought a group up for a week of skiing."
Nobody but Ron really knows what happened that week. But whatever it was, it changed the Andrews' life forever. "It was 30 years ago that my dad finally bought out the original partners (all but four)," says Lars. "There was no thought then of transforming the place into a commercial operation. For us it was simply the family cabin; the place where we spent Christmas and spring break and maybe a few weeks in summer."
They say that the apple rarely falls far from the tree. In this case, it didn't fall far at all. For Ron's love of mountaineering was soon mirrored in his son's activities. "I started working as a ski guide in the Interior during the winter of '94," Lars recalls of the 10-year freelance guiding career that took him to some of the most exclusive backcountry operations in the business. "I got to ski and work in some very, very nice places," he says. "And I learned a lot. But every time I went home I'd realize anew just how great our spot was. And the idea that it too could be developed into a viable operation started to grow."
And grow and grow. Today, says Lars, Whitecap Alpine is a going concern. It's not like they're making money hand over fist, he adds laughing, but the future does look promising. "We're in an incredibly fortunate position," he says. "We own the lodge, we own the land. We could shut down today and start up again next year... and nothing would have changed."
So how does he keep it all in perspective? How does he keep himself from getting complacent and lazy? Easy, says Lars. "I love surfing. That's my passion. And though I'll never become a pro surfer, I've put an awful lot of energy and work into becoming better at it." He grins. "When I look at the people coming to our lodge, they reflect back to me why I surf." A last pause. "It's all about respect, you know. It's all about appreciation for wild places. Whether mountains or ocean, it doesn't really matter: nature has a lot to teach us. Seems to me we should be listening a whole lot more than we are..."