December 10, 1996. The foothills of Southern Alberta. Ice on the road. My first ski trip of the year. The jet stream arcs southeastward across the sky, a great, grey streak heading for Montana, playing hopscotch with the border. I blew in on it from Vancouver yesterday, 290 km/h tail-winds tossing us across the Rockies like a paper bag. Now I'm trying to get back into that flow. Back to the snow. Back underneath the systems piling westward from the Pacific — the B.C. Interior, northern Montana, Idaho, wherever the white stuff's falling.
The Front Range is plastered with snow like a rime-encrusted fence. The radio gurgles with familiar voices arguing over familiar topics: hockey, Québec, winter. I'm the only one on the road. That's a good thing. It's beautiful.
Fresh snow in Crowsnest Pass. The Frank Slide — where a mountainside of rock buried a town and killed hundreds — looks strangely innocent in white. Then Sparwood, trailer parks, and the world's largest truck. I make excellent time and reach Fernie in under three hours. So much snow — more than I've ever seen here — but also evidence of recent rain. It warmed up in the valley for a few hours the day before and drizzled for a while. A local photographer friend is apologetic, but it doesn't matter. It's sunny now and skiing is great. The rain didn't affect the mountain; the snow, though slightly dense, is still the 50 centimentres of powder that was being skied yesterday. We lay down a few hours of reunion turns then go to lunch to catch up.
On the way back to town I pick up a hitchhiker — an Australian girl here for the winter; turns out she knows an Aussie photographer friend of mine as well. In fact, it seems that I met her in Australia when I was skiing there a few summers ago. I pick up maybe two hitchhikers a year and now I'm randomly giving a lift in Canada to someone that I met in Australia. White Planet, small world.
Next morning it's snowing: five centimetres an hour from 6 a.m. onward. The skiing rocks. Easter Bowl opens up. We have a killer run there, then on the next cycle traverse all the way to Stagleap, then bootpack up the ridge to Currie Bowl to ski buoyant, angel-food untracked. The snow falls more heavily into the afternoon. Huge, fat, nasty flakes. The best.
Somebody's daughter's birthday that night, so dinner at their house. All talk is of the epic snow and how big it is for this time of year. Like back in '84 when the hill opened in early November. Like back in '71 when people tunnelled through the snow-pile meridians thrown up by plows on Main Street. Like back in the day. On the way home, we stop in at Island Lake Lodge's office to visit. Everyone's out except the head guide. He asks my buddy about his leg; we were skiing here last year when his ski went under a log buried in the snow. Snap. Sitting at the bottom of the run waiting to evacuate, the guide had been encouraging: "You might have just sprained it," he offered optimistically. In the hospital, my friend asked the X-ray tech how the pics looked. "You'll have to wait for the doctor to tell you," she'd answered, "But, um, well... you do seem to have a very high pain threshold."
It warms up overnight. Drizzles in town again. Appears to shatter hopes for another epic day, so we dally at breakfast. After considering a day off, we drag our asses to the hill around 10:30 a.m. It's unexpectedly epic. Snake Ridge is open and though it's a haul to reach, our first run is there — wicked, untracked, and even softer than the day before. Deep, digging face shots on steep unoccupied slopes. We make two circuits; the second, closer to Red Tree, is awesome. My friend yelps; I exclaim. We rip.
Today is also opening day on Granite Peak at Red Mountain. A mutual friend who lives there wanted us to come. Another filmmaker friend from Red also called to coerce. But neither of us really wanted to brave the certain crush for pow at Red, and it's always warmer in Rossland than here. When we find out that the Salmo-Creston Pass is closed, the discussion ends.
The roads are bad all over. A writer friend from Vancouver checks in about joining on a hurriedly arranged trip to Rogers Pass; says he's worried about the drive but coming anyway. The posse is gathering. I'll leave first thing; others will come from Calgary; my friend will depart Fernie tomorrow afternoon; another crew from Canmore will hit the road Friday evening. Saturday is the day.
Go north — it's colder. That's what we've all figured, sending a disseminate group scampering like ants across 800 kilometres of mountain ranges that are all competing to drag winter down from the skies. It's only early December but the fever is in. It's going to be a killer season.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.