When was the last time you spotted a mother skiing fluffy powder with a baby in her backpack? While that may be a rare sight locally, it's the daily norm at Interior winter-sport destinations. Such an early bonding of snow and outdoors fun epitomizes the Kootenay spirit in towns that are habituated to massive snowfalls, like Nelson.
And how do the denizens of the Selkirk Mountains cope with such abundance? If last February's experience — when Pique journeyed to Nelson to attend the Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Fest — is any indication, half the residents mind the store while the rest head 30 kilometres uphill to Whitewater Ski Resort, babies in tow. Soon enough those toddlers will be trading their soothers for snorkels to handle the face shots washing over them from waves of waist-deep powder.
If you're not used to such wintry conditions, rise early while in Nelson to catch a ride on the Whitewater Shuttle bus service, particularly during the ski festival's seventh anniversary [Feb 22-24]. And to float on that crystal ocean of powder, pack along your fattest skis. Even then, standing in the lift line at Whitewater may prove intimidating where fat planks predominate. Gear considered adequate elsewhere sticks out like a Honda Civic at a monster truck rally.
To gauge the festival's drawing power, glance around the parking lot at license plates from throughout the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Idaho. Daytime activities range from a host of instructional telemark and alpine-touring clinics to some serious backcountry randonée action on the slopes of 2,403-metre-high Ymir Mountain, appropriately named for a frost giant in Norse mythology.
Frosty is a state of being at this time of the year in the West Kootenay. In turn, the Coldsmoke Powder Fest is a carnival-like response: if you can't take a joke, why ski here? When reached by phone at the Nelson office of Kootenay Culture Magazine, publisher Peter Moynes told Pique that the festival provides a window into the grassroots culture whose chief characteristics are a reverence for the quality and quantity of fluffy powder snow. This is shared by a unique set of local individuals dedicated to living a mountain lifestyle shaped, in large part, by the flavour of the local ski hill.
"We want people to come see how we do things here," he said. "This isn't a place where locals guard their secrets. Instead, visitors will find that we'll happily show them where the best backside powder stashes lie. We share a common passion for the backcountry that's catching on among skiers looking for a unique self-propelled mountain experience away from the crowds. That's the reason skills clinics at the festival sell out each year. More skiers and riders want to increase their interaction with the mountains by taking challenges to another level where you have to be much savvier about things like gear and avalanche conditions."
Not that acquiring new skills is all work and no play. Far from it, as confirmed by events such as the "backcountry Olympics," where teams of two skiers compete to be the first ones to sprint uphill, uncover an avalanche beacon buried in the snow, assemble a rescue toboggan from the contents of their backpacks on which to drag a team member to the bottom, then build a fire on which an egg is cooked and eaten. For spectators, the event is best appreciated from a chairlift, the antics providing hilarious entertainment while at the same time offering participants a test of all the different backcountry skills needed to survive in an emergency. Of course a sense of humour goes a long way too, as witnessed by some of the outfits worn by those participating in the 20-kilometre Randonée Rally.
Moynes confirmed that he would once again emcee the opening event, the BBQ Social and Film Fest, held at Selkirk College where an evening of slides and films by local photographers kicks off the weekend. Interspersed with the presentations are skill-testing contests with plenty of top-quality gear as prizes. A sample question: If a pound of Kootenay bud sold for $3,200 in 2006, what is it worth today? The correct answer: about half, which perhaps accounts for the fact that while Nelson's population recently surpassed 10,000, a lack of jobs locally has meant that more workers leave town to work seasonally in the Alberta oil patch to finance their recreational habits.
The Coldsmoke Powderfest's success has spawned a similar event — the two-day Spring Loaded Telemark Festival — at Silver Star Resort near Vernon in the North Okanagan Valley (March 23-24). Guy Paulsen, Nordic manager at Silver Star, told Pique that the demand for telemark and alpine-touring lessons keeps growing. "Last year, we didn't have enough gear on the mountain to satisfy demand. It fits with us. The new gear resembles alpine not so much in look or functionality but in what you can achieve in bounds. You can rip a line like anyone else." Don't forget to pack a snorkel, just in case.
Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book (Greystone). For more information, visit www.jackchristie.com.