You’ve spent all summer waiting for it. You’re probably counting days down like a seven year old in December. Like most skiers, you want nothing more than to put summer behind you and officially start the ski season with that one day that flicks the switch from off-season to ON-season. It’s a magical day, but the question is: would you like to relive opening day over and over again for two months?
Think before you answer that one. There are two sides to the opening day coin. By definition, opening day is destined to be surpassed by almost every other day of the season. Most hills open meager amounts of terrain with the bare minimum amount of snow. Logic would dictate that opening day should only be rivalled by closing day when it comes to marginal conditions.
But the quality of skiing isn’t the whole story for the crowds of smiling skiers that turn up to get their pass scanned for the first time. Around that pathetic strip of man-made snow or dangerously thin powder you’ll see as many happy ski bums, hear as many cheers and feel as much excitement as you will on any January powder day. The stoke defies logic, but it’s pervasive. Even the lift lines aren’t a nuisance on opening day as much as a reunion of people you haven’t seen all summer.
“Opening day is always amazing, man.” Ross Janzen is trying to explain the “spirit of opening day” to me and laying out his outrageous plan to be a part of it as often as possible. Ross, Faction Skis’s marketing and team manager, has decided to spend November and December driving around to every opening day he can get to in B.C. and Alberta, and he’s convinced his better half, Martha Burley, telemarker and freeski contest stand out, to go along with him.
The Fernie duo have their 1993 4Runner tuned up and ready; they have parties planned at various hills; they’ve even secured a beer sponsor for the trip! Most of us would wait until mid-season snow for a tour of this magnitude, but Ross and Martha can’t sit still thinking about the first fresh-tracks of the season at all those hills. They’re already on the highway with the stereo blaring.
The Opening Opener:
Lake Louise, Nov. 10
Start your engines, the Wee Waxy 500 kicks off another ski season: barely. The bunny hill otherwise known as Wee Waxy has just enough man-made snow to ski. There’s grass poking through in spots and the rest of the mountain is brown, but it’s freshly groomed and there are hundreds of skiers eager to slalom each other down it.
The lift opens at 8:58 and the whole crowd cheers. Everyone bombs the strip run after run doing minimal turns. Four laps later, the crowd is still growing and the lift line is up to an hour long. Ross chats up another skier and returns freaking, “I’m loosing my shit man! Someone just told me Mt. Norquay opened last week. We can’t have screwed up the tour on the very first one!?” The team rushes to the vehicles and blasts back to Banff and Mt. Norquay before lunch. There’s a feeling that they are performers and they may have let down the crowd already.
Norquay opening, 2007
Norquay Nov. 10
Sure enough, Norquay ran a lift last weekend without publicity, but their official opening isn’t until December. The strip of icy snow is even dodgier than Lake Louise; a 10 centimetre deep base that is 20 metres wide and six Super G turns long. It’s almost dismal, but don’t tell that to the hundreds of stoked skiers. Everyone is having fun just getting on their skis after a long summer and skiing off some rust.
Ever the optimist, as Ross prepared to drive back to Fernie after a double header of groomers, he told me, “We’ll get powder some time right? It will all pay off sooner or later!” The thought of how many miles they’ll be driving in the next two months for days like this made me wonder. If there are ski gods out there, you would expect redemption for these two believers at some point. I just had no idea how quickly it would come.
Sunshine Village, Nov. 15
Five lifts are running and it’s not just beginner terrain this time. No one even looks at the groomed runs. There is powder to be had and Ross and Martha jump in.
It is consolidated enough to ski like mid-season snow, but way too shallow to fall. Chris Rubens is here and he has the place dialed, so the group follows at mach speed and tries to keep up without killing themselves. There are daggers of rock or stumps over every roll, but after a summer of waiting for powder, no one is slowing down until the lifts close.
By the end of the day, Ross had sold his first pair of Factions for the trip. One could be forgiven for thinking he looks like a sleazy used car salesman as he schmoozes around the hill. But look closer and you realize the moustache and fashion flare are actually an inner rock star oozing out. And he’s on a province-wide tour with Martha singing backup.
Marmot Basin, Nov 16
It is usually a three hour drive from Banff to Jasper, but it takes four as the crew hits its first winter driving.
Jasper is where Ross, the showman and perpetual spreader of stoke, really hits his stride. Lot 4 becomes a showcase for the Faction/Skier truck with skis lined up on the hood and swag being given away out the back.
On the hill, five runs are open with good snow and no crowds. It’s mellow skiing compared to yesterday, so back at the truck Ross has a small crowd around him checking out the skis and drinking free beer. Some people are taking out demo skis for a couple runs, others are happy to get a free t-shirt. Everyone is having a good time.
It’s a long drive to Whistler from here, but our stars aren’t leaving anytime soon. The fans come first and Ross and Martha aren’t going to let them down.
Whistler, Nov. 17
The truck pulls into Whistler at 3:45 am after a 12 hour drive and their first run in with the law. You have to be smooth to talk your way out of a speeding ticket when the cop notices eight flats of beer in the back. Luckily, Ross is.
Faction team skiers, Shane Carmichael and Ryan Oakden, join the band for what is the most rockin’ show yet. A 50 cm base with 50 plus of fresh make for the best conditions so far. Line-ups are huge, but skiers are free to hike the upper mountain and ski all the fresh lines they want. The snow is so good you can point it off airs like it’s mid-season.
Enough people are claiming, “Best opening day EVER!” to make us wonder if the tour hasn’t peaked too early. There is still more than a month to get through.
Blackcomb, Nov 22
At 5:30 am the truck rolls back into Whistler in time for one hour’s sleep and it’s well worth the drive! Blackcomb is coated in the same great snow as Whistler, but there are pillows to bounce off all day long, and less of a crowd to boot. Martha and Ross feed off the team’s energy one last time before hitting the road, again as a duet, for the next long leg of the trip. Oh, the life of a touring band.
Apex Nov. 23
Apex is not the gig they were hoping for. High-speed groomers couldn’t compete with yesterday’s powder, but they still put on a good show. Martha impresses the crowd by ruling the ice-climbing wall in the parking lot while Ross doles out the beer and swag. Then it’s back on the road for the long haul north to Prince George. “The truck is a bit sluggish at 120 km/hr but lightens up at 130 and just floats at 140.”
Powder King, Nov. 24
The band arrives in P.G. at 3:30am and is up by 6:30. The King of Powder has delivered and the whole town seems to be up here for it. The lift lines are almost as big as Whistler’s. Skiers have been lined up since 7am and by the time the lift opens at 11:00 they’re amped to ski.
By 2pm, everyone has gotten fresh tracks and skied themselves silly and it’s a good thing because the lift’s engine catches on fire and the day is over. No one seems upset though, just stoked to have been up here. It’s the spirit of opening day I guess.
On the way to Smithers, Ross finally got his first speeding ticket, even though he’d now been pulled over five times. Undeterred, the band arrived a few days early to prepare for what might be their best show yet. There’s 50cm in town and it’s still snowing!
Smithers, Nov. 30
Wanting to really blow the top off this one, Ross and Martha rent a legit touring van for the weekend and once the front-side runs are tracked out, they start running shuttles from the back parking lot so that locals can carve the fresh down the unopened backside of the mountain. The crowd goes wild.
Ross claims, “Best run of the year!” twice. I again start to wonder if they aren’t peaking too early. I’ve seen enough rock biographies to know that highs like this end with a crash.
The drive back to Fernie took 29 hours because of blizzards and 3 different road closures. Our two heroes arrived at their cozy home in Fernie exhausted to find three feet of water in their basement. A frozen water line had burst and ruined everything down there. The high of Smithers had found its counter balance. On the phone Ross sounded terribly low. The only thing that could make it better would be skiing some powder immediately, but it was pissing rain in Fernie and they bumped back their opening day.
Red Mountain postponed its opening as well. Most of the interior mountains got rain to the peaks. The tour that was on such a roll was derailing completely. The next stop, Mt Washington, had 80mm of rain on top of one metre of snow. “I’m tired man.” Ross admitted. “I’m not going.”
Panorama, Dec. 7
It’s rained here too, but the PR department is claiming it’s fresh snow up high. Going up the first chair, even the groomed runs look treacherous. Everything has refrozen- hard!
When the Summit Quad fires up, the crowd erupts with the now familiar, “Yeeeooa!” Then the first snowboarder promptly falls off and the lift stops, “Oohh.”
Unbelievably, the skies are blue and there is boot-deep powder in the glades above. After two runs, the crew realizes this may be the best opening day yet. The emotional rollercoaster continues, but no one is stopping to complain, or even catch their breath.
Most skiers are here for their first day and want to warm up on some easy runs. The tour is almost a month old though, and Ross and Martha are skiing like it’s March; trying to track everything they can before the locals realize the season has even started.
Five runs in, Ross crashes into a stump and moans, “I don’t think I broke my arm.” He’s hurt, but he gets up and keeps skiing with one bad wing… the show must go on!
Kicking Horse, Dec. 8
The Faction band is back together for the Golden show. Carmichael, and Oakden are joined by local team rider Tavis Menzies for a night of partying like rock stars and a day of skiing like it afterwards.
They arrive at 8:45 to find 2000 skiers in line for the gondola and another couple hundred milling about. Luckily, it’s a big mountain up there. The lower chair lift has no line up at all, but no one is here to ski groomers.
After an hour of waiting in line socializing, it’s time to leave the reunion behind and load. The locals in the posse lead the way to long steep powder runs that burn your thighs all the way back down to the gondola and more socializing. The snow is all-time and a ton of terrain is open. How many best-day-yet’s can there be?
It’s so good the band extends the reunion tour for one more day. By the end of the weekend, Ross has a drink named after him at the mountain top bar (ask for a Rosco next time you’re there).
The True Opener:
Revelstoke, Dec. 22, 2007
This is the big one everyone has been waiting for. The sold out stadium compared to some of the small, bar gigs the band has been playing. A true “opening day” to finish off the tour of opening days.
The hype surrounding Revy’s new hill has been deafening. Now, everyone and their dog is here to see if it delivers: pros from Whistler, real-estate buyers from Calgary, and seemingly every skier between Saskatchewan and Vancouver. It’s busy but as soon as they finish the big wig’s opening speeches and fire up the lifts, the crowds disperse.
It’s soon clear this will be one of the craziest shows ever. The type of day people will be telling stories about for years to come. And after a month of touring hard, Ross and Martha are ready for it.
The mountain is coated in snow so good that skiers are flying faster than Eddie Van Halen’s fingers in “Eruption”. There are no moguls or tracks under the surface to deal with, but there also aren’t any cat-tracks or traverses leading you to and from anything. It’s a perfectly blank mountain with a lift up it, and there are hundreds of the best skiers you’ve ever seen ready to tear it apart like frothing dogs. Yet no one has any idea where to go.
Every turn is new, every run the first time you’ve skied it or even seen it. Skiers are crazy with powder greed. They don’t know if that was the best run they’ll ever have here or if it’s the amazing new norm. Either way, it was good and they’re in a panic to get back up and try the next line over or the trees beyond that. Almost everyone skis till 4pm without stopping for lunch because this day will only happen once; the ultimate opening day energy countering the exhaustingly long fall lines.
And so the tour ended; with a climactic finale that had heads ringing for days. After beers in the day lodge, Ross and Martha pack up the skis, stickers, shirts, hats and flats of beer and spin donuts in the parking lot while showing devil horns out the window. Real rock stars don’t stop after the show… there’s a whole season of an after party still to come.
This story by Kevin Hjertaas first appeared in SBC Skier, 2007