Author: Lisa Richardson | Photos: Robin O'Neill | Issue 12.1
THE BUZZ OF ANTICIPATION AT THE PROMISE OF A WEEKEND OF powder is on as I toss my bag in the back of Tessa Treadway’s hatchback, hand my skis to Laura Ogden to muscle into the Thule, and we begin the long climb up the Duffey Lake Road from Pemberton. Destination: Revelstoke, B.C. We are four days on the heels of a press-release-triggering snowstorm that dropped 38 centimetres in 24 hours, plumping up the substantial 272-centimetre base. “Save some for us,” we wrote Izzy Lynch, the Revie connection who’d promised to show us around. But there was no reply; she was too busy reveling in the stoke of fresh lines.
If someone had actually walked out of a marketing brainstorm session with the idea of calling a new ski area Revelstoke Mountain Resort, they would have earned a pass straight into the Branding Hall of Fame. As it is, the name—and eponymous town—owe their provenance to Lord Revelstoke, who, in 1886, as head of a U.K. investment bank, bailed the Canadian Pacific Railway out of bankruptcy, enabling completion of the rail line to town. That was a long time ago, but over the five winters since the much-hyped 2007 opening of the five-phase, 16,000 bed, 25-lift fantasy, the name has become synonymous with the continent’s longest, most consistent lift-accessed vertical, massive snow volume (11 metres last winter), and an unapologetic appeal to advanced skiers. “Revelstoke” is enough to give any skier goosebumps. Unfortunately, investors, too.
In 2008, the collapsing global economy and credit market turned the original developers’ golden dreams to iron pyrite—a 1 billion-dollar vision against which they had trouble securing loans of even 10s of million. Now, 125 years after being rescued by his lordship, Revelstoke has another corporate superhero, a saviour from amongst the one per cent whose substantial cash injections now entitle them to rename pretty much anything they want: the Vancouver-based Gaglardi family, who have pockets even deeper than the mountain’s famed snow. Once a tiny ’60s-era community-owned ski hill called Powder Springs, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is now part of an empire that comprises more than 2.5 billion dollars in assets, including the Dallas Stars hockey team, 49 Denny’s Restaurants, four other restaurant chains, Sandman Hotels and the Sutton Place Hotel chain.
Not that we care about the life and times of the rich and famous as we wend our way over the Duffey into the B.C. Interior, and along the Trans- Canada Highway to the snow-locked town whose position between Eagle and Rogers Passes sees it isolated due to avalanche-triggered road closures some 60 days a year. We only care that we’re driving toward our own version of bounty: three days of heliskiing and mountain slaying in B.C.’s powdery heart. And we are, quite simply, stoked.
You can drive from Pemberton to Revelstoke in six-and-ahalf hours, as long as you stick mostly to the speed limit and grab to-go sandwiches and coffee from Timmy Ho’s for sustenance. Eating bagels on your lap is part of road trip mojo— as is comparing and sharing snacks (Snow peas? Pass. Dill pickle chips? More, more, more), and pit stops. (You don’t know what ice cream is until you’ve eaten a cone at the D Dutchmen Dairy in Sicamous. I don’t care if it is February.) But this trip has an extra dimension: a bass track that hovers and pulses beneath the ebb and flow of conversation.
It takes almost four hours—somewhere in the stark, dry grasslands around Kamloops—before I feel the true weight of it; this will be the first time that Ogden and Treadway have skied together since the day Jack Hannan died. Almost two years earlier, in spring 2010, Ogden and Treadway, along with their respective husbands, Jack Hannan and Dave Treadway, were skiing the 2,000-vertical-metre face of Mt. Currie when an avalanche swept Hannan away.
Mt. Currie dominates the skyline of Pemberton, impossible to ignore. Says Ogden, “It’s kind of hard to see it there all the time. It’s such a beautiful mountain, but you can’t get away from it. It makes me think about it constantly.”
A year later, Ogden had gone back to ski the mountain with some new friends and Jack’s ashes. “The light was all pink, I’d sprinkled some ashes, and I was like, ‘Thank you, Mt. Currie.’ I was really determined to not have that taken away, to keep skiing.”
Treadway hasn’t returned.
“Ski Currie again? I don’t think I will. It was a fluke—a total fluke.”
The avalanche had propagated high above the group when the sun unexpectedly came out. The forecast had been for overcast weather, and a spring sun likely heated the snow at the top of Currie’s famed Y chute. The group was spread out, each standing in safe spots as Hannan skied lower to check out a line. He’d determined that it wouldn’t go, and was skinning back up when they saw it rip.
“In the fraction of time it took to get to us,” says Treadway, “my brain thought, if I ever get out of here alive, I’m not going to do this again. I have no idea how it passed over me. Absolutely no idea. When it had passed, I lifted my goggles up to look around, and in that moment of lifting them up and putting them back on my face, they were packed full of snow—that’s how much was in the air. You couldn’t see anything. And then I saw Dave, Laura. But no Jack.”
Surrounded by the steepest and loftiest peaks of the Monashees to the west and the Selkirks to the east, the area around Revelstoke sees some of the deepest snowfalls in B.C.—and highest avalanche activity in the country.
Even before the resort opened, Revelstoke was famed as the heart of B.C.’s heli- and cat-skiing country, with the Canadian Avalanche Association, CMH Heli-Skiing, Mica Heliskiing, Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, Eagle Pass Heliskiing, K3 Cat Ski, Revelstoke Cat Skiing and Mustang Powder all based there. We pull into town just in time for our heliski safety briefing. We’ve been watching forecasts for the best weather window to fly in, and we’re set for the a.m., so an evening briefing will give us a jump start on the day.
We meet up with the rest of our crew in the lobby of the Hillcrest Hotel, Selkirk Tangiers’ staging zone. Pro riders Izzy Lynch, Lynsey Dyer and Tatum Monod have just wrapped a storm-drenched photo shoot with Rossignol and are psyched to make some turns. Girls Do Ski founder Leah Evans is decompressing after a ski trip in Kyrgyzstan, and packing for her next mission to northern B.C. Photographer Robin O’Neill drove out a day ahead of us to scout locations.
The safety briefing takes about an hour and a half to run through. (At least, it feels that long when you’re outside in the snow and only half dressed.) As we run scenarios, playing hide-and-seek with our beacons, it’s quietly awkward. I don’t look at Ogden or Treadway. Normally, the safety briefing seems abstract, hypothetical. Tonight, in the cold, under the dripping deck of the Hillcrest where German heliskiers are enjoying après and a few cigarettes, it’s as charged as a windloaded south-facing slope after a storm.
Selkirk Tangiers has been in operation 35 years, the last five as part of Revelstoke Mountain Resort, which added the company’s expansive heliski tenure, as well that of a longstanding local catski operation, to its lure. It sounds like a solid history, but in Revelstoke—once dubbed “Capital of Canada’s Alps”—35 years is nothing. Skiing has been part of Revie’s DNA since the Revelstoke Ski Club was inaugurated in 1891 and a large, wooden-scaffold ski jump was erected near town. As far back as 1923, a spunky 16-year-old Isabelle Coursier was demurring offers of a handhold and hucking off the famous jump on her own, holding the women’s world record for ski jumping for the next eight years.
If we’d been thinking of Coursier, we would have raised our coffee mugs to her this morning, as we prep outside the hill’s deluxe Sutton Place Hotel for the helicopter. After all, it’s International Women’s Day, and we’re a bird full of girls. Evans calls it: “This is an extremely rare thing.” Everyone nods.
Dyer, Monod and Lynch spend the last few days filming and editing their viral video, #shitskiergirlssay. The fact that they can make serious fun of themselves makes me like them, even though the only real connection to the “skier girl” personas is their incessant Instagraming, which leaves O’Neill—hauling a huge camera bag—shaking her head. Normally, she has the photo monopoly. At least they’re helping her cause by texting each other in the morning to coordinate outfits (“Are you wearing the pink jacket?” “Can I borrow your headband?” “Well, I haven’t decided which one to wear yet…”). Sponsors would be proud.
By 10 a.m., we’re somewhere in Selkirk Tangiers’ half-million acres enjoying an unexpected sunny break. O’Neill is up ahead with lead guide Jeff Honig, scouting for a line to shoot while the rest of us stand around on a ridge with mountains, snow ghosts and lip-smacking terrain in every conceivable direction.
“So, who’s got a joke?” says tailguide Anne Keller. Ogden speaks up. The helicopter is long gone, and her quiet drawl is the only sound to break the silence.
“So, a chicken and an egg are lying in bed after making vigorous love. The egg rolls over, lights a cigarette and kicks back, blowing smoke. The chicken says, ‘Well, now we know who came first.’”
“My mom told me that one,” offers Ogden, laughing even harder.
Thanks in part to the 38-centimetre dump that preceded us, stability is poor. It loaded an already complicated snowpack that features several nasty layers in the top metre-and-a-half, and no one is sure what might trigger it. For a day and a half, we ski mellow lines, looking for photo ops, constantly on guard as the trees shed snow in huge clumps and the guides and pilot share epic avalanche tales.
By afternoon of the second day, everyone’s feeling antsy.
“Do you girls just want to burn a few laps?” the guide finally asks.
Hell, yeah. We chase each other through the trees, spinning laps, hooting and hollering and throwing random spread eagles, streaking flashes of colour across an all-white stage.
By day three, weather has closed in entirely. We tumble out of the Sutton Place and walk twenty steps to the Revelation Gondola, past guys in smoking jackets puffing on cigars, wheeling barbecues behind them. It’s GNAR Day, the cult celebration of radness and nudity that honours the late Shane McConkey. The barbecue haulers just earned themselves double points for cooking breakfast in the lineup while wearing epic attire, with potential bonus points for hooking up the lift operators with food.
After a lap through Greely Bowl and the Beauty and Back 40 Glades, Ogden, Treadway and I load the Stoke Chair. As we ride, buck-naked skiers flash beneath us, skiing straight under the lift wearing only transceivers. It’s a trigger for Treadway.
“Yesterday afternoon was the first time I’ve had fun skiing the backcountry since….” Ogden nods. She came on this trip mostly to reconnect with Treadway.
“One thing Tessa said has really helped: ‘You just have to do what will make you happy.’ I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to keep on loving skiing, but I haven’t really felt it. It used to feel so happy and carefree.”
“And now, it’s complicated? There’s scar tissue?” I wonder.
“Yeah, and you don’t know when it’s going to come up.”
Treadway echoes her. “My mom called when Sarah [Burke] died. She said, ‘Have you heard?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘that sucks.’ My mum said, ‘Wow, you’re harsh.’ That upset me. It was; I had become harsh. And I don’t want to be. I don’t want to react that way.”
“Do you think you’ve changed?” I ask Ogden.
“I’m more crusty,” she says as the chairlift shudders over the rollers. “I don’t want to have changed. I want things to be the way they were.”
“After Jack died, people said to me, ‘You owe it to him to keep skiing the backcountry; he’d want you to keep doing it,’” says Treadway. “And I thought, ‘He’s dead, how can you know if that even matters anymore?’”
Ogden leans back against the padded seat. “I think Jack would just say, ‘Be happy.’”
And, then, another naked guy charges the lift line below us—the ultimate display of radness. None of us can help but laugh.
Maybe it’s the rain, but on Sunday morning, as I linger over coffee in a café filled with people waiting for word the highway is open, Revelstoke feels weather-beaten and world-weary. The global economy that kicked everyone in the nuts has sobered the bullish optimism that initially defined the town’s resort aspirations. The golf course has been benched, property developments sidelined, deposits returned to investors for condos that didn’t go ahead; summer operations have been scuttled and the owners are consolidating their winter product.
Although the Gaglardi’s have been frank about their investment in Revelstoke Mountain Resort— calling it “horrific”—they insist they’re in it for the long haul. The mountain is actually turning a profit, and besides, Revelstoke has endured 130 years of B.C.’s cyclical boom-and-bust. It can withstand another few. Which is why Revie, even through a rainy Sunday hangover, remains an amazing draw for skiers. With the manufactured gung-ho development slowed, the base is a concentration of “essential” amenities—the mouthwatering La Baguette deli, an après sports bar, a wine bar, the Sutton Place, and the Snow School and Guest Relations offi ces. On the mountain, the initial design plan has outpaced itself. According to the owners, there’s now too much lift-serviced terrain for the number of riders they have. Sucks for the Gaglardi’s. But from a skier’s perspective, it’s an awesome problem.
On the way home, Ogden, O’Neill and I stop at Herbie’s Drive-In, a little burger joint at Cache Creek, and order milkshakes and fries. Ogden slips a toonie in my pocket to cover her share, forestalling my protest: “Find it one day when you put your hand in your pocket, and think of me.”
A few months later, I do. And a little burst of stoke comes with it. I rub my fi nger over it, like it’s a magic lantern, and make my wish: be happy, Laura Ogden.