Powder up in the Kootenays
When was the last time you spotted a mother skiing fluffy powder with a baby in her backpack? Although that may be a rare sight locally, it’s the daily norm at B.C.’s Interior winter-sport destinations. Such an early bonding of snow and outdoor fun epitomizes the Kootenay spirit in towns that are habituated to massive snowfalls, like Nelson.
And how do the denizens of the Selkirk Mountains cope with such abundance? If last February’s experience—when the Georgia Straight journeyed to Nelson to attend the Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Fest—is any indication, half the residents mind the store while the rest head 30 kilometres uphill to Whitewater Ski Resort, babies in tow. Soon enough, those toddlers will be trading their soothers for snorkels to handle face shots washing over them from waves of waist-deep powder.
If you’re not used to such wintry conditions, rise early while in Nelson to catch a ride on the Whitewater shuttle bus, particularly during the ski festival’s seventh anniversary (February 22 to 24) this year. And to float on that crystal ocean of powder, pack along your fattest skis. Even then, standing in a lift line where fat planks predominate may prove intimidating. Gear considered adequate elsewhere sticks out at Whitewater like a Honda Civic at a monster-truck rally.
To gauge the festival’s drawing power, glance around the parking lot at licence plates from throughout the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Idaho. Daytime activities range from telemark and alpine-touring clinics to some serious backcountry randonee action on the slopes of 2,403-metre-high Ymir Mountain (named, appropriately, for a frost giant in Norse mythology).
If frosty is a state of being at this time of the year in the West Kootenays, the Coldsmoke Powder Fest reflects a carnival state of mind. When reached by phone at the Nelson office of Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine, publisher Peter Moynes told the Georgia Straight that the festival provides a window into a grassroots culture whose chief characteristic is reverence for fluffy powder snow. This is shared by a unique set of local individuals dedicated to living a mountain lifestyle shaped, in large part, by the flavour of the local ski hill.
“We want people to come see how we do things here,” he said. “This isn’t a place where locals guard their secrets. Instead, visitors will find that we’ll happily show them where the best back-side powder stashes lie. We share a common passion for the backcountry that’s catching on among skiers looking for a unique self-propelled mountain experience away from the crowds. That’s the reason skills clinics at the festival sell out each year. More skiers and riders want to increase their interaction with the mountains by taking challenges to another level, where you have to be much savvier about things like gear and avalanche conditions.”
Not that acquiring new skills is all work and no play. Far from it, as confirmed by events such as the “backcountry Olympics”, where teams of two skiers compete to be the first ones to sprint uphill, uncover an avalanche beacon buried in the snow, assemble a rescue toboggan on which to drag a team member to the bottom, then build a fire to cook and eat an egg. For spectators, the event is best appreciated from a chair lift, the antics providing hilarious entertainment while offering participants a test of backcountry skills needed to survive in an emergency.
Moynes confirmed that he will once again emcee the opening event, the Toast to the Kootenays, to be held at the historic Capitol Theatre, where an evening of slides and films by local photographers kicks off the weekend. Interspersed with the presentations are contests with plenty of top-quality gear as prizes. A sample question: if a pound of Kootenay bud sold for $3,200 in 2006, what is it worth today? The correct answer: about half of that, which perhaps accounts for the fact that although Nelson’s population recently surpassed 10,000, many residents leave town to work seasonally in the Alberta oil patch to finance their recreational habits.
The Coldsmoke Powder Fest’s success has spawned a similar event—the two-day Spring Loaded Telemark Festival—at Silver Star Resort near Vernon in the North Okanagan Valley (March 23 and 24). Guy Paulsen, Nordic manager at Silver Star, told the Straight that the demand for telemark and alpine-touring lessons keeps growing. “Last year, we didn’t have enough gear on the mountain to satisfy demand. It fits with us. The new gear resembles alpine not so much in look or functionality but in what you can achieve in-bounds. You can rip a line like anyone else.” Don’t forget to pack a snorkel, just in case.
Accesss: Nelson lies 657 kilometres east of Vancouver via highways 3 and 6. For information on the Coldsmoke Powder Fest, visit Cold Smoke Poweder Fest website. For information on the Spring Loaded Telemark Festival, visit their website. Details on Whitewater Ski Resort are at their website. The writer travelled to Nelson as a guest of Tourism B.C.; visit Ski It To Believe It website and Nelson Kootney Lake website.