I first met Flame McNeill on an early winter, snowmobile-accessed hut trip, deep in the Purcell Mountains, south of Parson, British Columbia. While pulling into the local general store to meet up with my group and purchase last-minute beers, premium gas and fireworks, I couldn’t help but notice the guy in the flame-print, button-up collared shirt, blue jeans and heavily worn ski-touring boots. Despite the bitter morning cold, he wore no hat—revealing a long mane of unwashed auburn hair. I approached and offered my hand in greeting. “Flame” he gruffly rumbled, cutting me off and grabbing my palm with a bear trap of a handshake.
The sled ride in was a tortuous affair, with the bite of the morning’s frigid air chilling us all to the bone. Flame pulled up casually, still with no toque on, in his jeans, and a smouldering cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. “We gonna get some pow or just stand around all day?” he growled, then began fiercely sticking climbing skins to his skis. There was nothing else to do, so we sucked it up and followed suit.
After a day of deep pow we might have missed were it not for Flame, we retreated to a simple cabin for dinner and cocktails. Over many beers and many now perfectly legal “left-handed smokes,” I learned Flame was born in Banff in 1992, and then raised in Parson amongst a community of transients and drifters. His father, a highway patrolman in a nearby national park, routinely worked 25 hours a day. His mother, a local nurse, delivered every baby in nearby Golden, B.C., over a 20-year period. Throughout that time, Flame basically raised himself. Now, he was a throwback to the freebird STD-laden ski scene of the ’70s—which still prevails in Parson. Unconcerned with Instagram likes, “getting the shot” or constantly checking for “snaps,” he always has his head in the mountains, his skis handy and a cold beer at the ready.
Later that trip, Flame continued to outpace me. Using every mental trick I had to continue my upward trajectory, I reached the summit of Mount Rad as he cued up EZ Rock FM on his 1980s VHF radio, cracked two beers and handed me one. “It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll,” Bon Scott’s screechy voice exclaimed over the crackly speaker. I took in the view and anticipated the descent to come. Meanwhile, Flame rubbed a paraffin candle on his 210-centimetre skinny bases. “My old man came dead last in the Lake Louise Downhill with these in ’89,” he said, adding, “he turns too much.”
In a world of millennial skiers who sometimes confuse social media attention with true skiing pleasure, Flame is a reminder to stay focused on the tangible world. In the end, skiing is a simple sport: it’s about finding some good pow with your friends, picking up your buds after a big crash, and a whole lot of indulging. —MIKE CATTIE