LEADING LIGHT – DAVE ERB
Words by Jeff Schmuck “The concept of being connected to something is what fuels me to be invested in protecting it,” responds...
Words by Matt Coté | Photos by Bruno Long
As he drives his skis through a mix of settled pow and thin wind skin, a spray of chunks explodes into the air behind him. Below, the mountain bends left, into a steep, wide face. It’s been a tough spring and the snow isn’t perfect, but stability is, and his turns are as sure as an artist’s brush stroke. He leaves behind a symmetrical trail of calligraphy for the rest of us to follow, making it look easy, then comes to a stop on a rock outcrop above what looks like an abyss. He stares back up for a moment, just kind of placid. “Uh, ski to you?” I yell down. “Yep,” he hollers back. We’re on a ski-movie-calibre face, our host just skied like he was starring in one, and after only two days together there seems to be absolute trust. This, I think to myself, is not your average ski guide. But Whitecap Alpine is also not your typical ski touring operation. Literally raised in the backcountry, Lars Andrews has spent the last 15 years curating his lodge-based guiding business around the ideas of big lines, rustic living and mentorship. Today, he’s one of the most revered gurus in the biz.
Three days earlier, I flew by helicopter from the town of D’Arcy—north of Pemberton, British Columbia—into the fringe of B.C.’s Coast Range. Pressed against the Chilcotin Mountains, Whitecap’s fabled locale draws the same precipitation as Whistler, but with colder, drier snow. Landing at 1,860 metres with photographer Bruno Long and freeski savant Nat Segal, the terrain softens and rolls down to the lodge, as though Mother Nature laid out an invitation to homestead right in this meadow. Just beyond is the rowdy stuff dreams are made of. Whitecap itself is basically a small alpine ranch. The historic lodge (a log cabin) serves as the centrepiece for cooking, dining and socializing, while sleeping quarters, the sauna and bathrooms all lie in a series of outbuildings.
Guides Hayden Robbins and Conor Halliwell, whom are obliging themselves to a high-energy group of ladies from Washington State for the next four days, get us settled. Meanwhile, Sheila Cassels— Whitecap’s chef and Andrews’ girlfriend—prepares wild Alaskan salmon for that night’s dinner. We gear up for safety training and a half-day intro outing to get us started, and Andrews—a demure, stalky redhead—delivers the most transparent backcountry primer I’ve ever heard: “Let us know what your expectations are, because we can do whatever you want right now. We can get into couloirs and steeps, whatever.”
Twenty-four hours later, I watch Segal lay into a long, drawn-out slash worthy of a point break, next to a ramp aptly named the Shark Fin. She regroups with Andrews below her, and I can see him pointing out other features. It’s the third run of the day and we’ve climbed and skied nearly 1,800 metres, but he’s still encouraging her to ski to her top ability. Not very many guides let their clients loose like this, but the story of Whitecap has always been one of pushing boundaries. As has Andrews’.
Growing up in Maple Ridge, B.C., just outside Vancouver, both of his parents were avid backcountry skiers and climbers. His dad, Ron, bought into the fledgling retreat that’s now Whitecap in 1977—when both Andrews and the lodge were five years old—eventually taking it over outright. McGillivray Pass Lodge, as it was called, became their second home for family getaways.
“The original idea for the land [by the builders] was they were going to put a ski resort in here in the late ’50s,” Andrews tells me. “Unfortunately the folks that bought the acreage were killed in an avalanche skiing up here in the spring in the early ’60s. So there was a big changeover in the whole ownership. The issue was they were disorganized, and then Whistler got built, and the Sea-to-Sky corridor got established and this became obsolete.”
To everyone except the Andrews family, that is. From the time their son was 10, they spent about five weeks a year up at the lodge. In between, Andrews refined his turns at Cypress Mountain Resort in North Vancouver and Whistler, eventually becoming one of the most solid backcountry skiers on the Coast. “I’m a visual learner,” he explains, “so I loved to watch ski videos and mimic that. My dad was a great skier, too.”
The mountains became everything. And while Andrews was in university studying kinesiology, he also pursued guiding certificates. Once he graduated, that side hustle took over. He became a full mountain guide under the tutelage of icons like Ruedi Beglinger, Rich Marshall, Colin Zacharias and Helen Sovdat. His work brought him to the Kootenays, Alaska, the Alps and Japan—where he still returns every year. But it took some time before he saw the potential in his childhood playground.
“The way I saw this place as a kid, it was just this place we’d go skiing—our house in the mountains. So I didn’t see it as the operation it is now. It took some inspiration from some other guides who came up here and rented it. Colin Zacharias brought groups up here in the ’90s and said, ‘Dude this place is unreal for ski touring.’”
On the skin track, doused in zinc under a beating sun, Andrews shows us a “tombstone” rock JT Holmes and Seth Morrison once built a booter off of they were too scared to hit. Across the way, he points to peaks that appeared in Matchstick Productions films, including one on the cover of 1999’s Global Storming. In the early days of his career, while he was mostly heli-ski guiding for CMH’s Galena Lodge, Andrews would return to McGillivray Pass Lodge a few times a winter for niche heli missions. “Working with ski films up here was loose,” he remembers with a laugh.
Then, over the next 20 years, ski touring became popular, and he realized he had something special to offer that crowd. These days, Instagram pops with skiers coiling rope on remote peaks they climbed themselves, and Andrews’ high-alpine guiding style brings that to some of B.C.’s best freeride terrain. True to this, he unclips Segal as she crests a ridgetop on belay, and gives her a high-five. We’d ogled Whitecap Peak yesterday, never thinking it’d be on the table. But Andrews was stoked to surprise us with an itinerary built around it for the day. Over the years, he’s developed a reputation not just for delivering these kinds of runs, but for being direct and real—and not coddling guests. I get a taste of this when, at the bottom of a delirious 600-metre spine, he takes a moment to counsel me on my love woes. “Dude,” he says, “you’re in the friend zone, move on.”
His nonchalance is often jarringly interrupted by moments of stark pragmatism. It’s something Robbins, who’s apprenticed under him for six years, still gets caught off guard by.
“I’ll get back to the lodge,” Robbins says, “and Lars will be in the hammock and seems relaxed, but he knows exactly what’s going on everywhere. In the guides meeting, everybody will be having this big discussion and he’s just kind of quiet in the corner. Then he’ll pipe in with a comment that’s on point and maybe missed by some people, and just shows he’s totally tuned into everything.”
“You spend so much time skiing in the winter,” Andrews tells me, “and you look for different ways to inspire yourself to keep the stoke alive. A lot of it comes from that mentorship program where they come up here and see it for the first time, and so I see it through their eyes. It inspires me to keep going. You give a bunch a people a bunch of training and inspiration, and they give back.”
Over the years, Andrews has mentored some of the best ski guides in Canada. They include Christina Lustenberger, Greg Hill, Silas Patterson and Andrew McNab, to name a few. What’s the secret to his mystic methodology? Something really simple that a lot of Type As just don’t get: give people space to grow.
“They come in here and have their own take,” he says beaming, “and it’s not my take anymore. They have their own relationship with this place. They understand how to piece the terrain together in the way they think it works best. And I see that and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that done that way before and that’s cool.’ What’s been ringing in my ear lately is I’m not the best guide up here anymore.”
In keeping, for our most ambitious day, Andrews in fact sends us out with Robbins to try to bag Prospector Peak—a faraway giant that requires an ultra-early start. After a super-long approach, though, we find the peak just out of reach, with precarious wind slab capping its top. Turning around is actually harder than summiting, but we’re confident in Robbins’ call. And we’re still rewarded with three epically long runs back to the lodge. When I ask what he’s most learned from Andrews, he says, “He’s taught me to own my role, and to be my own kind of person. To have a voice and to stand behind that. His style is his style, there are some major elements of it that I strive for. But I have my own brand on that.”
As we slide back to the patio in time for beers in the last warmth of the sunset, I can only imagine that, for Andrews, that’s the best answer ever.
For more on Whitecap Alpine, visit whitecapalpine.ca.