Friends on a Powder Day

Bow Valley ski areas are open and in great shape for this time of year and even though the backcountry is busy and snow coverage is great, the avalanche hazard is worrisome and a bit difficult to manage right now. Last year we talked about early season crusts and why they are good or bad.

So we're heading west to test the new skis in the Esplande Range. This is a story about skiing the Esplandes with Fresh team riders Chris Rubens and Eric Hjorleifson to get you dreaming of powder and good times. 

Friends on a Powder Day

Click. I’m landing in chest deep powder and that is not the sound I wanted to hear. As I tumble forward and flail about I’m already worrying about finding the ski. When I finally come up for breath cursing, everyone else is laughing... some kind of friends. My embarrassment turns to disgust as I hike back up the slope to thrash around looking for my lost ski.

I feel terrible making everyone wait on such an epic day. I keep expecting them to take off, “No friends on a powder day.” Minutes pass with no luck. When I finally look down completely exasperated I see four guys in different spots probing and digging with me. It’s one of those “warm the heart” kind of moments and it almost makes me feel better about being such a kook. Luckily, before I get too choked up, someone makes fun of me, we all laugh and then find the ski. This is male bonding and I wouldn’t want to blow it by saying something wimpy about how much I appreciate everyone.

It’s the first day of our week of ski touring, bullshitting and hacking on each other in a private hut north or Roger’s Pass called Sentry Mountain Lodge. A group of good buddies in an amazing lodge only accessible by helicopter. Over the years our different “jobs” have meant we get out skiing less and less. Now we’ve found an excuse to go play together for a week. Even better, Sentry’s forty-square-kilometre playground is ours alone.

Eric Hjorleifson and Chris Rubens are the professional ski bums of the group. Which is to say, they travel around all season looking for perfect snow and when they find it they have sponsors willing to pay for the helicopters or whatever else they need to capture the best images possible. That’s where Damian Cromwell comes in. His high-pressure job is to capture every jaw-dropping moment for magazines everywhere. Our final friend, Tim Grey, set up the trip as the communications liason for Sentry Mountain Lodge and he’s along to capture video for them and to ski for Damian. I’m here to ski all the powder I can and at some point much, much later write lies about it over a bottle.

sentry lodge

Our home for the week sits at 2110m in the middle of funky, rolling terrain. Above are peaks and alpine bowls a short tour away and below are well -spaced old-growth cedar forests full of deep, protected snow. Abundant variations in altitude and aspect around Sentry Mountain Lodge insure that you can find good snow any week of the season and the bench-y terrain is tailor made for ski touring.

Our original plan was to take the pampered ski superstars (Chris and Eric) into the rugged backcountry and see them suffer for their shots, but Sentry makes it too easy for that. There are no long approaches to deal with here. You either ski right from the lodge or right back to the lodge with no wasted time or effort. You earn your turns, but you make a killing on the deal.

To make it even easier, we have a guide breaking trail for us and showing us the path of least resistance. None of those character building “bush-wacks” I usually find myself on with these guys. Our guide’s name is Dave and his other, even bigger job is to keep everyone safe and deal with any emergencies. The poor sucker has no idea what he’s getting into. During the week we’ll force him to watch us launch airs, drop pillow lines, and just ski general gnar while he plans out what a rescue would entail should something go wrong.

After a few days Dave is starting to get comfortable with our stunts when Eric finds a monster of a cliff. It’s a solid 50 footer, which in December looks like the biggest drop any of us has ever seen. We all humor him and agree it, “Looks great, buddy.” Truth is, it looks ridiculous. Tight trees lead into a long launch ramp that isn’t steep enough to gain speed if you didn’t bring enough with you. The take off is around a dead standing tree with brittle old branches waiting to grab your jacket if you get too close. The landing is steep and deep, but only if you don’t go too far. Coming up short isn’t an option either. The cliff is not a vertical wall, but more of a disjointed tumble of sharp rock.

I’m not the only one who’s impressed by the look of the thing. Damian has set up a black and white camera and makes Chris push the button for a second angle while he shoots his color set up. Tim is salivating over his video camera and even Dave has his point and click out (probably preparing for an eventual insurance claim).

As Eric skis into the behemoth it looks like he’s going too fast, but as he comes around the dead tree and leaves the snow behind he is perfectly balanced. His confidence is obvious and contagious. I know immediately that he has dialed it. His hands don’t move and his skis are pointed perfectly towards the landing. The calm lack of movement and the sheer size of it all give the allusion of slow motion. As if I was already watching the movie.

Then the landing comes hurtling towards him and I realize how fast he’s dropping. The snow detonates in a violent white cloud but our hero comes out in the same perfect form. The whole group erupts in cheers. My next instinct is to cut him back down with some wisecrack like, “What, no grab?” but I can’t seem to talk yet. It’s something I’d be impressed to see in a movie, but don’t know what to make of in real life.

sentry ski tour

Back at the lodge that night, someone finds the waivers we should have signed before flying in the helicopter and skiing like little hellions for two days. “I’m not taking responsibility for myself!” Damian blurts and we head to the sauna laughing. After a few drinks in the steam, the conversation deteriorates. Like schoolboys we make fun of each other’s flaws and pick on anyone who doesn’t retaliate. While joking about Damian and Chris’s ability to grow Lanny MacDonald moustaches overnight, Eric admits “I’d trade all the hair on my body for a moustache.”

This is what we all thought the dream would look like: traveling around skiing sick locations with good buddies. But, the reality of pro skiing, photography and industry jobs is that you spend a lot of time away from your friends traveling on other people’s schedule. This early season trip together seems like a vacation. There are no distractions. No one is on email trying to get paid from a mag or sponsor. No one is on the phone trying to schedule his next month or book plane tickets. Instead, we spend the nights catching up or laughing about past trips. The one-liners fly and the booze evaporates.

The real world is waiting though and Damian has freed up just enough time to shoot a cover a day for five days. We need to get after it. Immediately the boys find a super-booter rock amongst one of Sentry’s many boulder fields and challenge each other to a send-fest. Eric launches a lofty back flip that is picture perfect (and if it isn’t in this magazine it is only because Damian blew the shot). Chris is up next and decides to take advantage of the consequence-free deep snow to try a corked 720. He skis away from it, but isn’t stoked on his form. To be honest, the fake humility from these two is getting old but we let it go on because it makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Even Chris couldn’t talk down his next shot, though. As cameras get set and Chris skins up, I look at the feature and try to imagine what he has planned. It’s a sickly steep slash turn above a cliff that I picture being a slow, controlled couple shots. Chris sees it differently, though.

He comes in hot and lays into the turn hard. My mind’s eye sees the stop-frames of the sequence all ready. Sunlit crystals fan out from his skis. Trees, rock and blue sky frame his dialed stance. Then he surprises me and carries all that speed off the cliff. He flies right over the landing I had imagined with a stylish safety grab and greases the landing. My mental camera blew the shot, but I’m sure Damian and Tim got it.

sentry lodge skiing

Powder in the Esplandes by Evan Peters

Back at the lodge, the spacious drying room is the perfect place to free stinky feet from ski boots and to get out of sweaty clothes (can you say male bonding?). It’s also the perfect place to enjoy the first beer of the night and laugh with each other about the day’s highlights and just how lucky we are to be here. The conversation turns to ski touring versus sleds or helicopters when Eric states, “I think I could have stomped that (50 footer) a little further forward if I didn’t have this big pack on.”

Both MSP stars are using alpine trekkers so that they can tour on their usual skis with downhill bindings. The heavy contraptions have to go in their packs on the way down with skins, food, water, and any extra gear they might need. Understandably, the heavier packs are a hindrance when they are flipping and spinning off monster airs. Fatigue would be a problem if both pros weren’t in the kind of shape that makes the rest of us feel pathetic.

The big difference is the possibility of injuries. Sleds and helis can get you out of a place quick if shit hits the fan, but a rescue while ski touring would be a huge effort. How far could we really haul someone up a hill covered in chest deep snow? Dave takes note of where a chopper could land near most of our stunts, but who knows where the nearest machine is and if weather deteriorates could they even get here? The truth is, the guys can’t get seriously hurt up here. They just can’t.

Still, Eric and Chris decide, “We have to come back here with a filmer.” Two weeks later they do and get some of their best shots of the year. With seemingly limitless heli budget why would our heroes come back here to film ski touring? Because it’s just that good here people. I’m not making this stuff up. There are some benefits to filming while ski touring, too. On the slow tour up you can poke around and scope your line from as many different angles as you want and there’s less pressure to perform when someone isn’t blowing thousands of dollars on a helicopter.

No pressure could be our team motto. Our days just kind of slide by. We wake up, not too early. Drink coffee. Eat a huge breakfast. Then got outside and followed our guide to a new area each day. We ski. We laugh. We take pictures. And we get face shot after face shot. Then we head back to our deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere. 

Entering Sentry Mountain Lodge feels like walking into a beautiful family home. The wood floors are shiny and clean. There’s music coming from the stereo. Appetizers are laid out on the table or in front of the couch. The custodian, Jesse, has already stoked the fire and is getting ready to make dinner in the Ikea showroom kitchen. “Would you like dinner before or after a sauna, guys?”

The place is almost too plush. By the last day of the trip everyone has perfected the way of the sloth. We’ve gotten all the shots we need for the article and it’s grey outside, so people are using their last day to sleep in before returning to the real world.

When I finally throw off my down duvet, flick the light on and walk downstairs, Jesse has made coffee but no one else is up. We finish breakfast around 10:30 and just sit there. Eric and Jesse are talking about the politics of ski movies while doing the dishes. Tim and Dave are talking about guiding. Chris and Damian communicate in grunts and farts on the far coach. No one is even looking outside. It’s likely the last time some of us will see each other this season, so we need to get our last harassments in. “Hey, is 12% enough battery power for my beacon?” “We wouldn’t bother looking for you anyhow!”

When we do finally rally out we climb to a ridgeline high above where we’d been skiing all week. We reach a small peak and tear our skins off. It’s an area we haven’t skied yet and Dave takes a moment to explain the terrain below and what to watch out for. All I hear is that there is more than 2000 vertical feet of well -spaced trees below on a steep pitch.

rubens hjorleifson

Friends on a powder day.

I look around at the competition. They are no longer friends, but adversaries in the race for pure fresh. There’s lots for everyone, but there is no better feeling than flying down a mountain and seeing no tracks anywhere. Chris smiles back and I know it’s on. Before Dave has even finished his directions the two of us are racing off. I ski as fast as I can but can’t ditch the bastard.

Our laughter and yells get louder and louder as we ski through corridor after white corridor. The spacing is perfect for one skier, but reckless for two at this speed. The guy behind can see nothing between his face shots and the spray from the skier in front. With a maniacal laugh Chris accelerates past me. I point it in retaliation, accelerating in a desperate, blind attempt t to get ahead again when … Click!

Chris wasn’t stopping to help me search this time. He was off in wonderland and wouldn’t be stopping until valley bottom. Ullr was on my side though, and I found my ski instantly. Kicking it on as fast as possible I could hear the others coming. I wasn’t sure my binding was on properly, but I had to go. I didn’t want anyone else getting my freshies. No friends on a powder day!