On my first true ski-bum journey, Merl, Lee and I had finally made it to Banff after a blizzard-filled drive west.
We spent our first few days in the YMCA hostel, while diligently searching for a place to live, haphazardly scanning for employment, and purchasing Norquay-Sunshine-Louise tri-area ski passes (for under $200). We found a furnished basement apartment at the end of a cul-de-sac, one bedroom and two pullout couches that, when deployed, filled the rest of the space — bad news if the bedroom occupant (Merl) wished to use the bathroom on the opposite side of the apartment at night. We immediately filled the fridge with the strongest beer available — O'Keefe Old Stock Ale — and the cupboards with Kraft Dinner, spaghetti, and cans of tomato sauce lugged from Ontario. In minutes we'd successfully re-created the university digs left behind.
Merl got a job at a Chinese-Canadian diner, Lee at a gas station, and I cruised for a while on my savings, until word was passed that a film production was looking for extras. I showed up to the casting call for CBS Movie of the Week's Ski Lift to Death (seriously — Google it) and was immediately hired on by a loud Los Angeles producer in sunglasses, moonboots and a raccoon coat right out of the roaring '20s. It was the best deal a dirtbag ski bum could dream of — full days of pay, meals included, for the two weeks of planned shooting, whether you were actually in a scene or, as was more often the case, on call, waiting around with dozens of others, getting stoned on the hash-oil joints in vogue at the time.
I dressed as several characters over the course of the shoot — a cop, a skier, and best of all, a judge at a wet T-shirt contest. That scene, staged in a bar, required a dozen separate takes of the male lead — Don Johnson, who went on to fame in the TV series Miami Vice — pouring a pitcher of beer over the buxom, blond star. A few days of shooting were given over to re-creating a freestyle contest at Lake Louise, my first glimpse of that storied ski area (ski bums more sage than I referred to it as "Lake Lousy," citing its high rock-to-snow ratio; I had to concur as each day spent there required hours repairing the bases of my skis). Though we wouldn't see it ourselves, my mother watched the result at home that March, reporting that my eyes "always looked kind of funny."
The person who'd tipped me off to the film shoot was my sometimes girlfriend (in that convenient '70s way of only being true when you happened to be in the same place), an arrangement established when I spent the previous summer in Banff hiking, climbing and getting into trouble as a dishwasher, a carpenter's assistant, and a night-cleaner at the Banff Springs Hotel, in whose mayhem-filled residence I met Diane.
Diane was from Nova Scotia, and a full-womanly 26 to my peach-fuzzed 19. An aspiring actress with singing and dancing chops, she was also more worldy — and clearly more ambitious — than I. She was also kind of trippy, in a harmless kind of way, except her circle of friends was even more so. Despite being the only one of my troika with a female connection, I remember very little of time spent with Diane. Probably because that time was itself very little. We were, after all, there to ski.
The first part of the season saw enough snow to keep us believing we'd arrived to the gates of heaven. There were never, however, the kind of heralded storms we were used to at home — obdurate, gunmetal skies that levitated up from the western horizon pushing the smell of precipitation ahead. Instead it was high overcast one minute and not snowing, the next high overcast with flakes in the air. We skied mostly at Sunshine, whose altitude both drew more snow and preserved the coverage, something that became critical when it stopped snowing after Christmas and the cold set in.
Having grown up in Eastern Canada, I thought I knew what cold was, but this cold was different. It didn't oscillate on the ebb and flow of low and high pressure, but rather seemed to move in for weeks on end. It was my first experience of true -40C and I can't say I was keen to make its acquaintance. Ditto the van; many was the time that, despite installing and plugging in a block heater, we had to crawl under it to unfreeze the linkage between the steering column and the transmission.
Still, there was never a question of not skiing — we went up every day, no matter what. Often I wore everything I owned, pulling over top of it an old, shit-brown, one-piece boilersuit found in a secondhand store. I'm not sure it ever helped, as it was cotton and more often than not froze solid, but I painted my name above the breast pocket as a mechanic might do and wore it what seemed religiously. More so, perhaps because skiing was now my religion.
For Part 1 go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com, Jan 12 issue. Next week: The Sojourn III: Redemption
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.