PHOTOS: Garrett Grove
An old Toyota Dolphin floats down Highway 97 in Washington. Drew Tabke, the 2013 Freeride World Tour Champion, tunes his phone to "Hip Hop Party Starter." Driving the rig is Jim Delzer, a heli guide who used to live in the Dolphin. He slams the pedal out of Leavenworth south toward Oregon. Photographer Garrett Grove and skier Reese Bradburn follow in a support truck. We hear there's a pond in Hood River to skim.
Pond skims have become the staple end-of-the-season party for many ski areas across North America. Each place puts a personal touch on the concept. Mammoth, California, throws a rail into the water. Big Sky, Montana, ensures multiple trajectories and wicked water explosions. On one side is a jump to a 20-foot pool landing. On the other? A 10-foot pool with a rail. Sunday River, Maine, holds their pond skim in the middle of Parrothead Weekend, one of the largest gatherings of Jimmy Buffet fans in the country. At Squaw Valley's Cushing Crossing, two gentlemen dressed as one llama flop into the water, sparking big cheers from a happy-drunk crowd. The late-Shane McConkey used to back flip after crossing to the other side. For the Dolphin crew, we are on a search for the pond—an off-piste pleasure puddle to put one more day on the season tally.
The Dolphin swims up the concrete stream leading to Timberline. The mountain is hosting the annual Cutter's Camp, an educational gathering of cat drivers from all corners of the snow world. Our hope is maybe one of them will have the sense of humor to build us a beautiful pond among the melting snow. They do not.
Over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, we hold a group meeting in the R.V. Tabke is hesitant about traveling to Mount Bachelor because of conditions—the natural pond forming in late spring-early summer might not be ready yet. While Bachelor is promising, it is not a slam dunk.
My phone rings during the debate. It's a Hood River number.
"Hey…this is Maurizio," says the voice. "I hear you guys are looking for a pond to skim…"
Delzer fires up the Dolphin.
Fat skis made the difference. Once rocker entered the picture, the flood gates opened. Longer ponds became more feasible. Eventually, you could make a turn and throw buckets for precise splashes. Then two turns. Then a gap jump to two turns. The revolution of ski technology made pond skimming better. "Look-at-me" media like GoPro cameras, YouTube, and Instagram made it amazing. Google "pond skim 2014" and you'll get over 400,000 results, including videos of high-flying insanity the likes only weird mountain culture can produce. In today's world, pond-skimming style is as advanced and nuanced as powder skiing.
"The key is surface area and speed," says Uncle Sergei Scurfield, resting on a pool table inside Mad Trapper's Saloon in Sunshine Village, Alberta. One of the biggest of its kind in North America, the 86th Annual Slush Cup is the next day. Taking a detour from the Dolphin itinerary, I'd come here with Grove to see the madness.
Uncle Sergei has participated in the Slush Cup for over 30 years, but not even he knows exactly how it got started. I ask an old-timer bellied up to the bar and his story goes like this: Two men skied up Healy Creek to Sunshine Village in the late 1920s. They were headed for a cabin built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, a resting area during their journey across the Great Divide. Deep snow prevented the two men, Cliff Whyte and Cyril Paris, from locating the cabin. Instead, they dug a shelter into the snow. They were the first people to ever ski the area. That spring, skiers played in the slushy runoff, and so began the long-standing tradition of what became known as the Slush Cup.
"Most of that story is true, except for the pond skim part," says Kendra Scurfield, daughter of the resort's owner Ralph Scurfield. She says "86" is a bullshit number. "I don't know how long it's been going on, but I know it's tomorrow," she says.
The next morning, revelers stand on a deck, drinks in the air, shaking their hips to a '90s rap song. Skiers wear ridiculous costumes. Chicks are in tight onesies. So are the dudes. Superman and Batman put back tequila shots. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are on the hill. "The skiing is still good up high," says a woman dressed as giraffe, "a little slushy." She sips from a Molson can. Everyone is in ski boots.
Uphill, a skier prepares to drop in. I am a little drunk. So is everyone else.
Below the wooden deck rests a manmade pond—a 25-foot gap to a 50-foot stretch of icy water—a tempting cocktail of distance, speed, and ingenuity. Bane, the Batman villain, rushes by multicolored hillside bystanders, skis pointed directly for the jump ending in a flat-water tranny. Nearly 2,000 hooting and hollering people are on hand to bear witness.
The Dark Knight and Man of Steel, now outside, salute the comic-book villain with drinks in the air as Bane's ski tips hit the lip. The next two seconds will end in either liquid glory or failure.
Bane cuts through the air, launching 30 feet to the water. "He's too far back," says Scurfield. The tails of Bane's skis meet water with a decisive slap. Out of the 60 competitors that day, only a handful make it to the other side. But just making it isn't the goal. The Ninja Turtles flirt with a couple girls dressed up as rabbits—snow bunnies. Bane is soaking wet and cheering on his friend dressed as Mario.
The Hood River pond is 50 feet across, 25 feet wide, with a rope-swing on one side and a diving board on the other. It's nestled in the midst of an apple orchard, owned by the von Flotow family, and requires a little backyard building—two tarps for an in-run over a dock, a gas-powered winch making the pull, and a muddy beach exit.
Skiers are seldom ready to say goodbye to snow, chairlifts, and the feelings that downhill skiing evoke. Maybe that's why pond skimming has become so popular: skiers milking every drop of fun from the inevitable close of the season, and the perfect excuse to throw a huge party.
Using a gas-powered winch, Tabke and Bradburn take turns swishing across the von Flotow pond, their skis arching water-ski turns into the warm spring air. Mrs. von Flotow serves freshly baked chocolate croissants. Hood River local Hudson Knoll joins the tow-in skim. Tabke successfully skims switch, progressing pond skimming a little further. Bradburn skims with one hand clutching a PBR for dear life. There isn't a care in the world or a face without a grin.
After two hours of skimming, we say goodbye to the von Flotows, and point the Dolphin toward Mount Baker. Tabke remembers seeing a natural pond out here some years back on a spring corn mission. At the lot, we attach skins and start climbing. After less than a mile, sure enough, there it is: 40 feet of natural pond. Grove slips into a wetsuit and glides into the glacial pool to shoot underwater images.
"Try it, Rogge," says Tabke. I bootpack to the top of the in-run. Tabke calls out: "Just don't do anything."
Drifting down slope, I go faster and the pond gets larger. When my tips meet the edge, I lift my arms in the air, and as Tabke instructed, I don't do anything. My skis cut through the top layer of a beautiful body of water to an icy landing on the opposite bank. Sometimes, it is about making it to the other side.
This story was first published in the February 2015 (43.6) issue of POWDER