By Jon Hartley
A youth spent consuming every ski video that anyone bothered to release on VHS or DVD has conditioned me to see things through a shred flick lens. I relate to far-flung places like Japan, Alaska, and Chamonix by their various depictions in movies. In a mind like mine, a place like Retallack, B.C., is largely relegated to that semi-imaginary realm of places and things that only exist in Movie World. So when I got the call to accompany and document the annual Orage team trip to the British Columbia cat-skiing haven, it was—as they always say in ski flicks—surreal.
As you already know, no decent travel segment begins without some obligatory airport shots, and neither will this story. A very minor delay on the first leg of my trip ensured that my checked bag wouldn't make my connecting flight, so I quickly hit scramble mode. Orage's travel agent did what she could, but it looked like I was going to be stuck in Spokane, Wash., as everyone else shredded mountains buried in the depths of a record snow year. I'd like to say that I coolly struck the pose of a thousand ski movie clichés and stood with my foot up on that ledge they put below big airport windows as dramatic music accented my dark mood, but in reality I cursed the spotty wifi and frantically called the travel agent begging for her to explore any option that would get me to Spokane in time to meet up with Orage Marketing Director, Mike Nick, who happened to be my ride to B.C.
You'll no doubt be pleased to learn that a seat on an earlier flight from Denver to Spokane materialized and I can now get on with the story. The drive through Washington and British Columbia is a long, often rainy, stretch of evergreen trees and prefab double-wide homes. The rain changes to snow only a few miles before Retallack's front gate, but the snowpack on the sides of the road quickly rises from an unimpressive foot or two to a sign-covering, hard-to-find-the-driveway height of about six feet.
Overhead snowpack at the base of a mountain is always a good sign, and it does something to a group's mood. We lugged our bags into the lodge of familiarly cozy exposed wood beams and large stone fireplaces and quickly rounded the corner to the bar to see who had beaten us there. It was instantly obvious that this would be a week for heavy hitters as I was introduced to MSP vet, Eric Hjorliefson and 4FRNT owner, Matt Sterbenz. Between rounds of Pilsner and Faceplant Ale the Orage team trickled in. JP Auclair, Charley Ager, and Banks Gilberti arrived at the ends of their various pilgrimages with bleary eyes from long flights and drives. They had all seen the same deep snow banks and increasingly heavy snowfall on their way in, and the excitement fought past all the travel weariness.
At Retallack, breakfast is served at 7 a.m. and the cat leaves at 8. It was an hour of scrambling to unpack gear and distribute next year's outerwear to the athletes. To the slight annoyance of our charismatic cat driver, Karl the Gnarl, the Orage squad was a bit late, but with big smiles and enthusiasm to compensate.
After a short uphill chug, the cat came to a stop and our guides conducted a safety meeting and avi beacon training. Charley, Banks, and JP are all pretty well versed in backcountry safety, so it was up to me to screw up the "search" setting on the beacon and generally lag behind in all areas of snow safety comprehension. Once the guides were confident that this east coast writer knew enough that I wouldn't be a complete liability, we loaded back into the cat and rolled to our destination in a zone known as High Grade.
The snow hadn't stopped all night, and the guides ensured the team that the snowpack was relatively safe. It was, as they say, on. JP summoned the authority that comes with being a living legend and declared a free run (no video/cameras) to start the day. Whooping, hollering, and other assorted yelling ensued as the guys proved they deserve their reputations as stoked and severely unjaded skiers. By the time I wheezed and hacked my way to where the cat was waiting, plans had already been made to head for some trees in order to give our trip photographer, Blake Jorgenson, the necessary texture for shooting in foggy, snowy conditions.
We slipped into what would become the familiar staccato rhythm of a photo and video shoot; scout zones, set up cameras, and shout back and forth as to what needed to be done to ensure the best shot. Charley and JP dropped cliffs and pillows of varying sizes like their perennial Poorboyz segments have led us all to expect them to—JP with the fluidity of a veteran and Charley with a special brand of wild abandon that formulates a style unto itself. Banks Gilberti, one of those guys who has, to his chagrin, been labeled a park skier had been insisting that growing up in Idaho and currently living in Colorado had made him more well-rounded than anyone thought. He proved as much with more than one shiftied cliff drop between somewhat dense evergreens, but reputations come from somewhere, and it wasn't long before Banks had stepped out a jump with enough "wu" to make any Breckenridge park rat feel at home. He did the honors and took his cork three dangerously close to flat; everyone else adjusted speed accordingly and took cracks at the first jump shots of the trip. Some bobbled and tomahawked landings left everyone hoping for a chance at redemption, but time would limit their chances for the day.
With the first round of footage and photos captured we hit the cat track for the long ride home. I kept up with the pack long enough to see JP air a side-hit to a decidedly Quebecois daffy (a personal thrill), but fell behind as I struggled to control a pair of rockered skis on the alien territory of a cat road. By the time I rounded the final bend, the team was into the first round of après-beers and nageln (a drinking game that involves driving nails into a log with an ice axe).
Retallack was still a half-fictional location in my mind; the snow and fog ensured that every new zone had no visual proximity to anything we had skied before, and watching JP, Charley, and Banks ski can be a bit dizzying. For all I know the day ended with one of those great party scenes that used to be so prevalent in videos a few years ago, but all I can tell you is that the pillow-top mattresses and down comforters at Retallack are extremely conducive to a good night's sleep.