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New Blood in the New Territories

Features
By David Oliver Relin
posted: 11/15/2002

"DUDE, IT'S TOTALLY PUKING OUT, DUDE!"
I press the phone to my ear and squint out the window of a shag-carpeted motel room in Rossland, British Columbia. A gray-blue blur of a snowstorm obscures the view of nearby Red Mountain Ski Area. The voice in my ear is local freeskier James Heim calling an hour before I expected to be awake.

Too few minutes later, I'm wedged in the backseat of Heim's sticker-plastered, non-four-wheel-drive shitbox, driving into the storm. Heim's six-foot, four-inch bud Kevin Erwin, 19, is balled up beside him, riding shotgun. Both sport peroxided hair and hoody sweatshirts. My boots are propped on a mound of crushed Coke cans and cracked CD cases. When Heim, 20, speed-shifts gears, I try unsuccessfully not to slam my face into my knees. Between the thrash-metal on the stereo and the car fishtailing up the icy access road, not even my serious caffeine deficit can keep me from waking up completely.

I knew there'd be some scary moments when photographer Pete McBride and I planned a 10-day road trip through the B.C. Interior to follow storms, word-of-mouth, hundreds of miles of icy two-lane highway, and hoards of baby-faced, indestructible local talent through the snowy center of the province. I just didn't plan on being terrified by a 10-minute ride to the hill. Our mission was simple enough: coax B.C.'s young blood into revealing the best of the Interior's big guns-Red Mountain, Panorama, and Kicking Horse. Like a secret laboratory, these isolated mountains quietly produce uncannilygood skiers on some of the most impressive terrain this side of Chamonix. Now I just need to stay alive long enough to start skiing.

BETTER RED THAN DEAD
When the first chair turns, we ride to the top of Red, the smaller of this resort's two lift-served peaks. With just over a thousand feet of vertical and wide boulevards, the terrain looks uninspiring. Then Heim leads us past an out-of-bounds sign. It's the backcountry that makes Red much more impressive than it appears on the trail map. A traverse off the back of another peak, Granite Mountain opens a wormhole to 5,000 acres of deep powder and steep glades. It used to be closed, but management has given up trying to restrict access. Next season, if Red expands according to plan, a T-bar will whisk skiers to the top of nearby White Wolf Ridge and turn this rugged backcountry into a gladed zone of lift-served fall lines.

Throwing up wakes of the waist-deep snow that fell overnight, I ski ahead, greedy for first tracks, and then slam on the brakes as the pitch falls vertiginously away. "Careful!" Heim shouts. Below me a cliff drops 50 feet down to a V-shaped gully. Over a ridge, there's another identical formation. Heim explains these are the "pits"-excavated entrances to the shafts, now sealed, from the days when the mountain was a gold mine.

"Hey Heim," Erwin goads, "drop it. "With a shrug, Heim surfs the lip of the cliff, spraying snow-plunges 20 feet to a pillow, which obscures him in a powder cloud when it explodes-then bounces clear, pivoting, in ideal position to drop the final 30 feet to the bottom of the gully.

No one ever mined anything more valuable on this spot.

Eight hours east of Whistler, Red Mountain is off most skiers' radar screens. Before the ski area opened in 1947, the gold mine on the mountain was the heart of the local economy. Enough wealth trickled downhill to build the charming, time-warped Victorian town of Rossland. But the plain blue wooden buildings at the ski area base still look like the excavation-equipment sheds they once were.

The lack of any amenities beyond deep snow and steep terrain could be the reason that no mountain in North America has sent more skiers to the World Championships than Red. "There's nothing to do here but ski or play hockey," says Heim, who took second out of an international field this winter when Red hosted the Molson Extreme Freeskiing Championships"You either get really good, or you get bored and get out."

Heim got really good. Trying to keep him in sight through the storm, I speed past snow ghosts-pines sheathed in wind-sculpted jackets of frozen ice-which materialize out of the mist like hallucinations. I dodge one that looks like a pumpkin-headed fat guy listing drunkenly to one side. Then I swerve around a shaggy dog frozen in the act of shaking dry. Scenery this surreal makes you mistrust your eyes.

So does skiing with the locals. Especially on Pale Face, a double-black glade near the socked-in summit of Granite Peak-a craggy, dormant volcano with 60-odd named trails spilling 2,900 vertical feet off its summit. With bottomless snow, sudden rock bands, and blind airs that pop out of the mist, it has some of the most challenging tree skiing I've ever seen. The slope is almost more fit for ice climbing than skiing.

Near the bottom, Erwin rail-slides over a fallen tree trunk, then Heim launches off a 20-foot icefall holding a stylie Japan grab all the way down. Two skiers then emerge out of the trees and stand atop the icefall. "Think I'll huck a back," I hear a kid say. (I later find out it's a 17-year-old named Geoff Hatch.) He sets a base-shredding course straight down the cliff's face, rockets off a crooked kicker on the side of a frozen stump, and lazily rotates a back flip, which he lands in the middle of a mogul field. His friend Mike Hopkins, also 17, follows him off the cliff, throws a high, arcing dinner roll off the stump, which looks about as hard for him as rolling out of bed, and lands in perfect rhythm to slam through the moguls.

Because the storm, which hasn't let up in three days, cancels practice for Hatch and Hopkins and their fellow racers on Red's team, our posse keeps growing, drawing on a seemingly endless pool of talent. We ski at demonic speed under the Motherlode Chair on Centre Star. Hopkins hits a kicker that fires him higher than the lift cable; he uncorks a massive laid-out flip. "Coach would kill me if he saw that," he says, after he lands so hard his nose bleeds.

These aren't just kids throwing new school tricks. They're skiing tough terrain with style and old-school fundamentals. And a staggering amount of recklessness; it's like they believe they can't get hurt. Off the next cat track, Erwin fires a loopy, off-balance helicopter, hip-checks a chairlift full of screaming preteen girls, then somehow makes a catlike twisting correction in mid air and lands on his skis.

"Whoa!" he shouts, delighted. "I'm a menace!"

PANORAMIC GROWTH
Not willing to sacrifice a day on the slopes, McBride and I four-wheel late into the night through the Selkirks and Purcells toward our next stop, Panorama Mountain. We pass through the town of Nelson, where wooden cottages are buried to their rooftops. A sign on a shuttered garden-supply store reads: Due to budget cuts, spring has been cancelled. At an all-night truck stop, we buy a John Lee Hooker greatest hits CD and play it straight through five times while herds of beady-eyed bighorn sheep and immense bull elk observe our passage. Long after midnight, we motor up the Rocky Mountain Trench, a full moon illuminating the stark white massifs of the Rockies on the right and a Switzerland's worth of jagged Purcell peaks lighting the night on our left.

After that eerily lonely drive, Panorama's posh slopeside stone-and-timber village comes as a shock. I worry that Panorama is more plush than rush. But a trip to the summit sets me straight. Panorama is owned by Intrawest, which calls the place a "boutique" resort. They must mean boutique compared to another little place they own named Whistler. Only in Interior B.C. could a resort with 4,000 feet of vertical be considered quaint.

We hook up with local rippers Josh McNulty, Mike Reid, Matt Lyons, and Courtney Foxgard, all in their mid 20s, and limber up on the groomed cruisers that swoop down the skier's left of the mountain. Though we're all letting our skis run, McNulty proves impossible to catch, a result, probably, of the years he spent as a slalom specialist on the Canadian National Team. The two chairs and two T-bars we have to ride back up to the summit-Panorama's most glaring flaw-give him time to explain why he stopped racing. He stumbles over his words, mumbling something about the freedom that comes from skiing where and when he wants. "And the other thing," he says, smiling, "was I got tired of getting my ass kicked by Bode Miller."

From the 7,800-foot summit, any idiot can see why this place is called Panorama. After so much fog and snow at Red, the sparkling view of the Purcells' shark-fin peaks is overwhelming. The trade-off is that we've moved north of the storm pattern, and nothing fresh has fallen for days. But Lyons and Reid lead us through tight glades off the summit, where plenty of light snow is stashed just yards from the spot where I'd concluded the mountain was skied off.

Then we head for Taynton Bowl, a bounty of new terrain that transforms Panorama from a nice regional resort into a serious destination. After a 10-minute walk from the summit along Outback Ridge, we arrive at the bowl, 1,000 acres of experts-only chutes and glades, formerly the exclusive playground of the nearby R.K. Heli operation. I trace the sweep of Taynton's summit ridge and plot the dozens of stomach-churning descents that drop off of its cornices and funnel to a runout more than 2,000 feet below.

Foxgard, a three-sport athlete who teaches skiing, snowboarding, and golf, leads the charge. Her crimson-streaked blond pigtails bob as she rides the crest of a rock fin down into the bowl, then stops, balanced on a limestone finger 20 feet high, trying to get a look at her landing. "C'mon scoochybooch, you can do it," coaxes Lyons sweetly enough to provoke giggles all round, instantly revealing himself as the boyfriend.

She's airborne, waggling her poles for balance before stomping the landing.

"How was it?" Lyons shouts.

"It was cute," she says. "But I was thinking I should go bigger next time."

She does. The rest of the day, we ski laps in Taynton Bowl, hiking farther and farther out the ridge and finding fresh tracks for each run.

It's goateed McNulty who, with one move, ascends into legend on the last run of the day. He's been eyeing a 50-foot drop into a gully a shoulder's width wide. The landing has to be perfectly clean to set up a straight runout between rock blades. At the speed he'll be traveling, brushing the walls would be like passing through a paper shredder.

McNulty skates up to the cornice and launches. His position looks perfect, except that his right ski has come off and it's pinwheeling through the air in front of him. He lands, blowing a bomb hole dead center in the gully, then pops up on his single ski, straightlining past the paper shredders, holding his line for all he's worth until he hits open snow and decelerates, still standing, next to the spot where his runaway ski has speared a snowbank. "It's true," he says, panting. "Your life does flash before your eyes."

KICKED IN THE HEAD
After an hour of early-morning motoring, we reach the dazzling Dogtooth Range just as the lifts open at Kicking Horse. North America's largest new ski area, isn't really new at all. It's the expansion of a 1,000-acre mom-and-pop ski hill once known as Whitetooth into a megaresort.

Kicking Horse rises out of bench land on the eastern edge of the Purcells near some of the most storied heli terrain on the continent. And as the Golden Eagle Gondola glides over the original Whitetooth area and crests a ridge, the first view of the resort's steep, serrated upper peaks and broad alpine bowls is so unlike most lift-served terrain you're tempted to look up for rotor blades.

Critics of Kicking Horse complain that the gondola, the resort's main kier's left of the mountain. Though we're all letting our skis run, McNulty proves impossible to catch, a result, probably, of the years he spent as a slalom specialist on the Canadian National Team. The two chairs and two T-bars we have to ride back up to the summit-Panorama's most glaring flaw-give him time to explain why he stopped racing. He stumbles over his words, mumbling something about the freedom that comes from skiing where and when he wants. "And the other thing," he says, smiling, "was I got tired of getting my ass kicked by Bode Miller."

From the 7,800-foot summit, any idiot can see why this place is called Panorama. After so much fog and snow at Red, the sparkling view of the Purcells' shark-fin peaks is overwhelming. The trade-off is that we've moved north of the storm pattern, and nothing fresh has fallen for days. But Lyons and Reid lead us through tight glades off the summit, where plenty of light snow is stashed just yards from the spot where I'd concluded the mountain was skied off.

Then we head for Taynton Bowl, a bounty of new terrain that transforms Panorama from a nice regional resort into a serious destination. After a 10-minute walk from the summit along Outback Ridge, we arrive at the bowl, 1,000 acres of experts-only chutes and glades, formerly the exclusive playground of the nearby R.K. Heli operation. I trace the sweep of Taynton's summit ridge and plot the dozens of stomach-churning descents that drop off of its cornices and funnel to a runout more than 2,000 feet below.

Foxgard, a three-sport athlete who teaches skiing, snowboarding, and golf, leads the charge. Her crimson-streaked blond pigtails bob as she rides the crest of a rock fin down into the bowl, then stops, balanced on a limestone finger 20 feet high, trying to get a look at her landing. "C'mon scoochybooch, you can do it," coaxes Lyons sweetly enough to provoke giggles all round, instantly revealing himself as the boyfriend.

She's airborne, waggling her poles for balance before stomping the landing.

"How was it?" Lyons shouts.

"It was cute," she says. "But I was thinking I should go bigger next time."

She does. The rest of the day, we ski laps in Taynton Bowl, hiking farther and farther out the ridge and finding fresh tracks for each run.

It's goateed McNulty who, with one move, ascends into legend on the last run of the day. He's been eyeing a 50-foot drop into a gully a shoulder's width wide. The landing has to be perfectly clean to set up a straight runout between rock blades. At the speed he'll be traveling, brushing the walls would be like passing through a paper shredder.

McNulty skates up to the cornice and launches. His position looks perfect, except that his right ski has come off and it's pinwheeling through the air in front of him. He lands, blowing a bomb hole dead center in the gully, then pops up on his single ski, straightlining past the paper shredders, holding his line for all he's worth until he hits open snow and decelerates, still standing, next to the spot where his runaway ski has speared a snowbank. "It's true," he says, panting. "Your life does flash before your eyes."

KICKED IN THE HEAD
After an hour of early-morning motoring, we reach the dazzling Dogtooth Range just as the lifts open at Kicking Horse. North America's largest new ski area, isn't really new at all. It's the expansion of a 1,000-acre mom-and-pop ski hill once known as Whitetooth into a megaresort.

Kicking Horse rises out of bench land on the eastern edge of the Purcells near some of the most storied heli terrain on the continent. And as the Golden Eagle Gondola glides over the original Whitetooth area and crests a ridge, the first view of the resort's steep, serrated upper peaks and broad alpine bowls is so unlike most lift-served terrain you're tempted to look up for rotor blades.

Critics of Kicking Horse complain that the gondola, the resort's main lift, has a limited capacity, which can lead to 45-minute waits on weekends. Or they rip on the nearby town of Golden, with its hardscrabble Canadian Pacific rail yards and ugly sprawl. But B.C.'s best skiers are voicing their confidence by leaving their home hills and moving to town in waves.

Donovan Skelton, 20, on the gondola seat across from me in a raggedy hat with a maple-leaf design pulled almost over his face, is a case in point. A former racer from Red, Skelton saved up just enough for a season's pass, ditched his girlfriend, and moved into a "crap-shack trailer" in Golden.

"Why?" I ask.

"'Cause girls are the devil, man," he says. "They screw up your plans, and they keep you from skiing."

"No, um, why here?"

"The terrain," he says, like I've just asked him why he wears pants. "This place has everything, and it's all new for exploring."

Slumped next to him and obviously suffering from the effects of the all-night drive from Rossland is James Heim, who's here to see what his buddy Skelton's been bragging about. All day our crew expands, drawing a B.C. filmmaker who featured Heim in a ski-porn flick called Instability and half a dozen of Golden's up-and-comers. The skill level is high, but Heim and Skelton stand out. Where most of us just get down Kicking Horse's Jackson Hole-like 4,133 feet of vertical, these two put their stamp on every run. Dropping down chutes on either side of the central CPR and Terminator Ridges, Skelton batters ahead while Heim flows over terrain features with ease.

From the 7,705-foot top of the gondola, where the new Eagle's Eye Restaurant sinks its talons into the summit, we hike a razor ridgeline to 8,033-foot Blue Heaven Peak, site of a badly needed high-speed quad slated for the 2002-03 season. From Blue Heaven, the potential of Kicking Horse spreads out like a banquet. Seven alpine bowls are within reach, three currently lift-served. A chair dropped down the back side could nearly double the acreage. It's clear Kicking Horse could easily become one of the best skier's mountains in North America. "It's all ours right now," Skelton says. "I don't mind walking."

So we do, for days. Away from the bulletproof groomers, knee-deep powder pools in every wind-protected chute. When we track them out, there's always another bowl waiting.

On our last afternoon, Skelton agrees to reveal his favorite run on the mountain but threatens to beat me to death if I publish its location. All I can say is reaching it involves a lot of mountain goating over a rocky ridge. "You psycho," Heim says, when he clears the last outcropping. "You sure this is skiable?"

Skelton says, "I skied it last week. Those are my tracks."

We trace the slashes down a cliff band. There's no chute, no slope, just 800 vertical feet of snow-pillowed boulders and pine trees. "Ready?" Skelton asks.

I have never seen, and never expect to see again, anything like Heim's and Skelton's descents. Picking separate lines 20 feet apart, they hopscotch from boulder to boulder, dropping 30 feet at a gulp. Skelton overshoots one landing, tucks up his skis, and bombs into a pillow 60 feet below. Heim actually carves turns on four-foot-wide boulders and links them together while falling from one to another. Then Skelton overshoots another pillow and cross-body blocks a young pine tree out of the way so he has room to stick his next landing. Five minutes later, they're both safe on level ground.

Heim heads back to Red, Skelton to his trailer. McBride and I decide to splurge on dinner at the Eagle's Nest to celebrate not being dead. During the 3,800-foot ride down the gondola, a greenish glow starts crackling across the sky-Aurora Borealis. It spreads and swirls like ink spilled in water, tie-dyeing the spaces between the stars. I think, "Unbelievable, but there it is."

Then I find myself grinning, because that's what this place will do to you-make you a believer. Lik

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