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,...
The first time I met Jasmin Caton was on a peak in British Columbia’s snowy Kootenay region, where I had recently hung my own hat in Nelson. It was a big day trip to the Slocan Valley, so my group got an early start, yet at the halfway point, we were lapped by a group of locals from the aptly named nearby hamlet of Hills, B.C., already on their way down during a late-morning jaunt. It turned out to be the Caton family. I remember their beaming smiles, in contrast to the icy grimaces amongst our crew. I didn’t re-meet their eldest daughter for another 10 years after that encounter. During that decade, the Kootenay gal became certified as a ski and rock guide. It took another five years—last winter to be exact—before I finally made tracks at her family ski lodge, Valhalla Mountain Touring (VMT).
Paradise for gods.
Caton, at a spritely 37, had recently moved from the rock climbing mecca of Squamish, B.C., where she lived for a good part of her adulthood, back to the snowy hub of Nelson, an hour and a half south of her hometown of Hills. These days, she might gripe for half a minute about the work required as the sole owner of a backcountry lodge, but it doesn’t last for long. The mood always sways to giddiness—the kind fueled by a long-awaited Kootenay homecoming.
After years of waiting for an invite to the Caton estate at VMT, last winter I finally got the call. “It’s dumping at the lodge—get up here!” is the personalized snow report I receive. With this, I head up the next morning via my beater snowmobile, while guests rode up in style in a cozy snowcat.
The queen’s castle.
As special as I feel about the exclusive powder getaway, I arrive at Valhalla Mountain Touring to find it chock-full of paying clients who’ve known Caton much longer than I have. She’s got that kind of following: devoted skiers who return year after year, but in this case they double as longtime friends—some knew her as a teen when her dad, Dale, was running the place. Like many ski guides, Caton is as strong in will as she is on the skin track. Decisions, such as which segment of the 4,000-acre tenure to ski that day, or how much wood to split for the sauna, are calculated and focused. In her case, however, it’s a softer side that rises above this when interacting with guests, and it’s genuine.
At Valhalla Mountain Touring, royalty works the hardest.
“My dad taught me to snowboard on the cat road when I was 12,” relates Caton, who also drives a pretty mean snowcat, runs a serious chainsaw and changes the hell out of a propane tank at -30 ̊C. Obviously, she’s learned a lot from a backwoods Slocan Valley upbringing, and owes it in large part to one man
The days of yore.
The now-retired Dale Caton remains the on-call lodge handyman, but he mostly enjoys skiing for fun around his old tenure. He did his time running the VMT show since 1992 from his outpost in Hills, directly down the fall-line from where we stand. The lodge, now a seven-bedroom masterpiece, was originally a miner’s shack. But it hasn’t lost its Kootenay vibe: old tele setups and even older snowshoes adorn the walls. Outbuildings, including a new guide’s hut, keep the business side separate from the eating, sleeping and lounging areas. Micro hydro powers most of the guests’ modern needs, and when it’s time to unwind, nothing beats the sauna—truly one of the better ones around. A self-guided group of Calgarians is already stoking it for their afternoon session, while specializing in their own eccentric après ski cocktails. I learn this the hard way later on that night.
Pass the Mezcal.
The next morning, our host ploughs an uphill trench through all the fresh. I’ve taken up the caboose position. Between us are a lively posse of Caton’s friends, including professional skier and Girls Do Ski founder Leah Evans of Revelstoke, who also often lends her expertise to an annual women’s week at VMT. This is a crew that’s happy to be re-connecting under the lofty heights of the Northern Valhallas.
Leah Evans is never going back to Midgard.
While Rugged Peak and Big Sister Mountain trap the swirling storm and unload its moisture upon us, we hammer up, smoothing out a 40-centimetre-deep skin track that eventually leads to the top of a narrow ridge above the lodge. It’s still snowing hard as we stare down Late for Dinner, a monstrously steep, powder-choked avalanche path heading straight into the void—or as some call it, the Slocan Valley. On the tamer aspect, we’re tempted by a run called Big Mama that’ll drop us directly back to the wood stove, but decide to save that for later. You can guess which direction Caton’s skis are pointing after she peels off her skins. It’s all we can do to keep up as she drops in, snorkel deep, and one by one our helmets and pom-poms bob down the deepest run any of us has skied all season. By the time I reach the bottom, she’s already got her skins on to lead us to one last run.
Caton working for the weekend.
We will indeed be late for dinner, but the Calgarians will ensure we’ll be on time for après. Unbeknownst to us, they’re brewing a concoction called La Perla de Oaxaca. Key ingredient: Mezcal. By the time we get to Big Mama, it’s the best run of the day. And as testimony to maxing out every second of daylight, our final turns are highlighted by a nocturnal family of flying squirrels that airs over us in succession. Once again, I’m lapped by a clan of wild creatures in the heart of the Kootenays.
Valhalla Mountain Touring – vmt.ca