NASCAR to Nowhere, BC; Cole Pearn and Golden Alpine Holidays
Racing through snow-covered trees, Cole Pearn spotted the powder landing, passed Jen Ashton on the inside and launched the cliff into the fresh stash below. With a clean landing, he accelerated away, leaving a cloud of smoke behind. The three-time world freeskiing champion, Jen, recalls, “We were hesitating above this drop, and our tail guide just rips down and launches it.” It was early December 2019, and Cole was notjustthe tail guide; he was also the new owner of the lodge they were skiing touring out of. He didn’t mean to snake the champ, but when you’ve been racing your entire life, it’s probably hard to turn that instinct off.
Jen Ashton skiing powder at Sentry Lodge
The son of a stock car driver in Ontario, Canada, Cole got behind the wheel of a go-cart at age nine, dropped the pedal and didn’t stop. He was Canada’s kart racing champion three years in a row and went on to race stock cars. After earning an engineering degree, Cole quickly found his way back to racing in 2007 as an entry-level engineer in NASCAR. He worked his way up to lead engineer and then in 2014 to Crew Chief of the Furniture Row team. They found success quickly with him at the helm. Between 2017 and 2019, they were the winningest team in all of NASCAR, including a championship in 2017.
NASCAR’s seventy-five million fans were understandably shocked when Pearn suddenly announced his departure from the sport in 2019. Fox Sports pundits couldn’t imagine where he’d end up or why on earth he’d quit. But Cole and his wife Carrie had a plan. Racing put him in the limelight but behind the lights was a skier and devoted family man spending too much time away from those two passions.
Before each race season, Cole would squeeze in a ski trip. In 2013 he found his way to Sentry Lodge, a fly-in touring lodge 20 miles NW of Rogers Pass, British Columbia, for the Hoji Freeride Camps. There he skied and tinkered on gear with backcountry skiing’s pied piper, Eric Hjorleifson. Eric appreciated Cole’s engineering mind, and Cole liked Eric’s ingenuity and drive. And the skiing. Cole loved the skiing. He’d learned to ski as a kid and a ski bum season in Revelstoke, between race jobs in 2010, introduced him to the backcountry.
After that Revelstoke winter, Cole joined Furniture Row, in part because they were the only team based anywhere near the mountains, in Denver, Colorado. Thursdays are flight days in NASCAR, where the car you’ve been working on all week travels to the next race. By catching a late flight himself, Cole could usually squeeze in 3/4 of a day at one of the local resorts. But when the team moved to North Carolina for 2019, Cole and Carrie started looking for exits.
Touring at Sentry Mountain Lodge
He and his team had been incredibly successful. They’d celebrated victories with celebrities, been thrown lavish Vegas championship parties, and been hosted at the Whitehouse. But powder skiing still tugged at Cole, so in 2019, he went hunting for it in Japan. Serendipity, or Ullr, arranged that John Bell, the owner of Golden Alpine Holiday, was also on that trip. GAH runs Sentry Lodge and three others across the Esplanade Range. John was looking to get out of the ski business, and after a week of deep powder, good food, and onsens, Cole was definitely looking to get in. A late night of sake sealed the deal.
But everyone dreams of a quieter life sometimes, and vacations are just vacations. Could isolated mountain living really satisfy someone who’s moved so fast his whole life?
Cole Pearn (left) and friends.
It’s now 2021, and Cole is into his second season at GAH. Where he used to change engine parts, he now changes outhouse barrels. Instead of stressing over exhaust pipes on network tv, he worries about micro-hydro pipes freezing in the middle of nowhere. Cole spends the morning on his laptop at Meadow Lodge (one of GAH’s other huts) with Hoji and a film crew. He’s been moonlighting, consulting for his old team. There’s no wifi or even electricity, but earlier, Cole had downloaded wind tunnel data, and now he’s by the fire, plotting curves that will help adjust the car’s aerodynamics.
Finished, he loads the computer in his backpack and climbs Cupola, the highest mountain in the range. With Hoji and friends, he kicks precarious steps up a steep couloir. “Nothing like a bootpack to get you going.” He laughs. At ridgetop, in blowing snow, Cole sits on his pack and drapes his jacket over him like a tent fly. Underneath, he opens his laptop, which links to his phone, which in turn is strapped to the tip of his ski, standing tall in the snow to catch a distant cell signal.
As soon as the data is sent, those tips point back downhill into the Black Diamond Couloir, a striking chute with tall black walls on either side and a dogleg in the middle. Halfway down, everyone stops by a rock tower to let sluff run past. Hoji gives Cole the right of way and watches him carve big fast turns back down to the hut.
One of the main reasons Cole and Carrie left Carolina was for their children. They wanted Callum, 8, and Freya, 7, to grow up in the hills, building relationships with other outdoor kids. Now settled in tiny Golden, BC, near GAH staging, they mountain bike and hike with classmates all summer. In the winter, they take Fridays off school to ski with a club for local kids who want to enjoy Kicking Horse Mountain Resort before it gets busy on the weekends.
It sure looks like “the slow life” is working out for them.
A few days after Cupola, the group tours up Caribou Ridge to a 1,500-foot unnamed face broken into steep funnels and protruding ridges. The crew discusses how to navigate what even Eric calls “huge terrain.” Being the only non-pro-skier in the group, Cole gets instructions to stop in a couple of safe zones to avoid his sluff.
Cole’s been racing his whole life, though. As he drops in, it’s obvious he won’t be stopping. He floors it for a few turns, then, with a quick shoulder check, he crosses the sluff lane and accelerates. Near the bottom, the cloud of snow is racing hard, but Cole outmaneuvers it to take the checkered flag. The tiny crowd of six cheers, but there’s no popping champagne or television interviews after. Tomorrow he’ll head back to town for a long stretch of family time in their new home. Team “live slow, ski fast” has a new champion.