SKI BIG 3 TRAVERSE
Words by Kevin Hjertaas | Photos by Bruno Long Contradiction, they say, is the key to humour. Perhaps that’s why Rob Heule,...
It’s cold and dark at 6:45 a.m. in December at Island Lake Lodge as I head out with our lead guide, Greg Inman. I’m wearing every layer I possibly can, doing my best impersonation of an overstuffed Gore-Tex sausage. I can’t help but think of the copious amounts of gourmet food, wine, beer and Jameson I’ve been stuffing my face with for the past three days. Perhaps my hungry ski bum eyes were overachieving, but being that it’s my first cat-skiing trip, I feel I’ve made a smooth transition to lodge life.
A few short weeks prior, I received a call from The North Face asking if I was free to go on a team trip with Johnny Collinson, Rob Heule and Austin Smith. This is a call most aspiring professional skiers, myself included, hope for. When the time comes, I eagerly make the pilgrimage to Fernie, British Columbia, where Island Lake is based, and crash on my friend’s couch for the night. It’s a far cry from the cozy luxury the lodge will be serving up, but a welcome rest after the long drive from Lake Louise.
The next day, the crew begins to assemble, with Heule and I arriving first. He’s a moustachioed man with a big smile, undeniably Canadian accent and some infectious stoke. We talk about how amazing the conditions have been the last few days in Fernie and speculate about what the impending storm system is going to bring. Heule, who spends a lot time in Fernie and has skied at Island Lake before, proceeds to describe the steep, gladed trees and huge limestone peaks and chutes we’ll be skiing over the next few days, fuelling my anticipation. Collinson and Smith show up a little later, driving a rented Honda Civic with all-season tires. They pile into the cat following the three-and-a- half-hour drive from the Calgary International Airport in a questionable vehicle, happy to be at their final destination, and eagerly accept a beer. With the team in tow, the cat begins purring its way through 10 kilometres of cedar forest towards the Red Eagle Lodge, our home for the next few days. Affectionately known as The Spread Eagle or The Dirty Bird, this lodge is the building where most media crews stay, and despite the decadence and debauchery that’s surely gone down within its walls, it feels like a cozy family operation.
This down-to-earth vibe comes from Island Lake’s humble beginnings and natural environment. Located in the Cedar Valley, a smaller offshoot of the Elk Valley that cradles the quaint city centre of Fernie, the lodge was originally used by a variety of logging companies, and that atmosphere remains. With impressive log structures deep in the wild, it’s a monument to the forestry industry that skiing has piggybacked on throughout the B.C. Interior.
The next morning, we hop in the leather-detailed, bluetooth-equipped cat and begin making our way up through Island Lake’s tenure. For our first run, we warm up on Monashee Trees. I click into my skis and push off into a well-spaced glade. With 25 centimetres of powder sitting on a supportive base, perfectly spaced trees and a steep slope, I can’t help but feel the anticipatory stress of the trip evaporate with every turn. As we group-shred through the alleyways, our only form of communication is a series of hoots and hollers. After cruising through a blur of white and green, we get to the bottom a few face shots richer.
Our next ride up, the vistas change drastically from treed forest to high alpine. We survey the Island Lake snowscape with the iconic Three Bears spires sitting proudly above the 7,000-acre tenure at the edge of the Lizard Range. But we only catch a quick glimpse before it’s time to get back to business.
We promptly drop into the trees, lapping the area until dark. Each time we’re dropped off at the top, we stare at chute after chute and bowl after bowl of mind-melting options. It’s easy to see how this veritable buffet of terrain inspired the likes of Scot Schmidt, Craig Kelly and Greg Stump, who made it one of the most sought-after destinations in the ’90s with films like P-Tex, Lies and Duct Tape. Now a mainstay in the ski movie arena, Island Lake boasts a laundry list of segments with film companies such as Matchstick Productions, Sherpas Cinema, Teton Gravity Research and Warren Miller, to name a few.
Overnight, a low-pressure system crashes against the range, shrouding the alpine in cloud and snow. Some flurries were suggested in the forecast, but the “Fernie factor” is in full effect: underestimate and overachieve. Over the next two days, the storm pulses an unexpected but not un-welcomed 60 centimetres of blower pow over the valley.
With fresh padding, we take advantage of the soft landings. Collinson kicks it off with some huge backflips, making it look like it’s just another casual day in the office. Smith spins a 720 on a 173-centimetre fish-tailed snowboard. Heule seems to spend more time in the air than in the snow. With the crew psyching me up, I pick out a 10-metre cliff with a flat but doable landing. I push my nerves aside and cruise into the takeoff confidently. In the air, I’m fairly solid and only roll down the windows once, compressing into a cloud of white on impact. I pop up and ski away with a mild, pole-raising claim.
Way too soon, the day turns to dusk. We all take one last glory lap down the aptly named Beer Run to the lodge. Upon arrival, the après ritual commences, and we raise a cold, frothy glass to the good times had at Island Lake, as a team.