Saving Grace

How Whitewater, B.C., salvaged a season during a cruel winter

About to get weird at Whitewater Photo: Lindsey Ross

Words: John Clary Davies

On February 19, several colleagues and friends of mine were involved in an avalanche outside the Stevens Pass boundary. The slide killed three in yet another tragedy in the middle of a grim season that had already claimed Jamie Pierre and Sarah Burke, among others.

The next day, I left for Nelson, B.C., to cover a story. It was my first trip to the area, and I had little desire to go skiing. I was feeling existential, questioning being a skier and working in the ski industry. In the face of this especially cruel winter, I slapped on my Dynafits and started following my subject up the skin track.

That night it started dumping. It snowed so hard we scrapped our plans to return to the backcountry zone we had shot the day before. Instead, we cruised to Whitewater Ski Area and left our packs in the car. Whitewater is no frills, just an old lodge, three slow chairs, and good vibes --eccentric, and unselfconscious.

"If you can't be yourself at Whitewater," said my friend in line. "You can't be yourself anywhere."

The spirit of the place makes you feel like you're a kid again. It was exactly what I needed in a time when, all of a sudden, I felt overly serious and reverent toward skiing.

Empty chairs wrapped around the bullwheel while it continued to dump. It was a midweek powder day and the locals were going nuts waiting for the lift to open. A couple in front of us donned capes. Dreadlocks and old ski equipment were abundant. It seemed everybody knew one another, the community palpable. When the liftie let the first riders on the chair, the cheers were thunderous. As we ascended, we watched the first skiers come down an untracked lift line. Everybody was going for it, just bombing down and taking airs and eating shit and blowing up and laughing. No attitude or heckles, just laughs and smiles and cat calls.

That set the tone for the day. We took our time--enjoying each other's company and living in each turn. We giggled and yelled and pillaged powder on the way down and sang Joe Cocker's “With a Little Help From My Friends” on the chairlift back up. It felt cathartic and fun and safe. We let go. "Oh yeah, this is why I love skiing," I thought. We stopped skiing at 1 p.m., because we were tired. We went into the lodge and had hamburgers and yam fry poutine.

Three weeks later, I was back in Nelson to follow up on the assignment. Jackson Hole locals Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer had just passed away in an avalanche in Grand Teton National Park. My first two nights back in B.C., members of my group set off soft slabs. Rob Liberman, a well-known Telluride local, died while guiding a group in Alaska. Things were heavy again. I felt like drinking a Tecate on the beach. On the last day of my trip, I went back to Whitewater with a photographer for my story. There was powder to ski but we took it slow. On the chairlift we talked about life and stopped regularly mid-run to continue our conversation. I skied like hell, just all over the place. It was the opposite of progress, of pushing it or getting after it. I was laughing with each turn. It was Whitewater.

(Photo by Lindsey Ross