First chair is an art. PHOTO: Grant Gunderson

First chair is an art. PHOTO: Grant Gunderson

This is the first essay in the ongoing series, Skiing as Craft. This story appeared in the November (42.3) issue of POWDER.

WORDS: Steve Metcalf

It’s a Monday, a Tuesday, or a Wednesday. The details are blurry. Schools are closed. Cars are buried. Streets are chaos. The weekend annoyances of yeehaw cowboy characters from Calgary have vanished like ghosts. When we finally make it to the base of Fernie’s Elk Quad, snow hangs from every conceivable tree and roofline as a thick whipped frosting. The entire town is standing in line.

The upper mountain won’t open for hours—maybe even days. The steepest terrain available will be on Boomerang Ridge, a small but meaty section of runs and glades right underneath its namesake triple chair. All the big dogs in the lineup are gunning for it.

This will not do. First tracks on a day like today are sacred, and next to impossible. But there was a chance. Four of us consult quietly, check the clock on the lift shack and begin walking past and behind the jubilant maze. Awkward looks. Some heckles. Heads down. Don’t look back. Thirty-five minutes before the lifts open. We’ve got time. At the forested edge of the base area, we duck into the woods. Almost instantly the firm underpinning of the groomed snowpack gives way to the honest depths of the season. We are postholing, big time. Jackets undone, we alternate breaking trail every few minutes. Sweat pours down our backs.

I don’t know how far it is from the base of Elk to the bottom of the Boomerang Triple Chair, but the thin ski-out trail is balls deep and uphill most of the way. The two lifties digging out the queue are surprised but indifferent to see us. One of them hands us a shovel. “The snow’s not gonna move itself,” he says. Our shit-eating grins evaporate as we take turns on the business end of sneaking past 200 ravenous powder fiends.

Boom! Whump! Boom! The sporadic thumps of avie bombs add even more tension and excitement to the work. Nine o’clock comes and goes and not a word is spoken. We are still ahead of the crowds. Patrol hasn’t been here yet to open the lift. We’re still first.

A couple of patrollers show up to check the lift. We recognize one of them as a guy named Mark who is also a serious contender for the Powder 8 Championships. He gives us a wry look and a veiled smile. “Let us go cut a couple sections,” he says. “We’ll be right back. Elk hasn’t even started loading.”

Somehow a perpetually stoned snowboarder named Ziggy makes his way to the bottom of the lift as well. He doesn’t lift a finger as far as shoveling goes, but is good for a laugh (or a tab of acid). Patrol skis up and less than five minutes later, we are all on the lift.

Eventually the throngs find their way to Boomerang Ridge. To those that cared, it’s obvious we bested their efforts for first tracks—and we don’t hide our victory. Boastful pride, however, quickly gives way to simply immersing ourselves in the day as a community of frenzied shredders hammers their quads to the limit.

Those big Nelson Brewing Company beers taste pretty good down at the day lodge, until someone asks me if I have any Advil. “What do you need Advil for?” I ask. He nods his head toward the window. It’s snowing. Again. In Fernie.