It was dark and cold on a March Sunday at 4:30 a.m. outside the Sawtooth Hotel on Ace of Diamonds Street in Stanley, Idaho, many days the coldest town in the continental U.S. Right on time, Karl Weatherly, the well-known, fine ski/mountain photographer, pulled up in front of the Sawtooth in his 2002 BMW M3 which, I was soon to learn, he drives, as noted in my journal that night, “…with skill but like a maniac and I am really uncomfortable in the car with him.”
Maniac. Uncomfortable. Really.
Karl and I had met a few times but didn’t really know each other when he asked if I was interested in going to White Grizzly Lodge near Meadow Creek in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia for a few days of cat skiing. I checked out its web site, which proclaims “Hibernation is for wimps.” It seemed interesting, different, quirky and, you know, worth a try, and so it proved to be. We all live in Ketchum, but my partner Jeannie Wall and I spent that weekend at the Sawtooth for a book reading/signing at the hotel, some backcountry skiing on Banner Summit and the best food in the Sawtooth Valley in the company of friends. So I rose early and left lucky Jeannie to her sweet dreams and another day in the backcountry and joined Karl in the BMW. He had made the hour drive from Ketchum in 45 minutes and we had 12 hours to do the 15 hour drive to catch the last Ferry across Kootenay Lake in order to be at orientation and dinner at White Grizzly, but I didn’t know any of that until we were on the road and words like “maniac” and “uncomfortable” were sliding through my mind the way the BMW was (skillfully) sliding through the twisty black ice corners of Highway 75 on what is known in daylight hours as the Salmon River Scenic Byway. Committing to long drives with casual acquaintances is never risk-free.
After one particularly unnerving slide, Karl noticed my discomfort and immediately assured me with his soft North Carolina accent that, because of the superiority of the car, the tires on the car and the skill of the driver of the car, there was nothing to worry about. Everything was under control. After all, his car is equipped with radar detector and GPS. Besides, he explained, he likes to drive fast and outlined the time constraints involved in catching the ferry and, with what I have come to know as a particularly Karl Weatherly (maniacal?) smile, he immersed himself in what he likes to do, a trait I recognize, admire, practice and, my own discomfort notwithstanding, consider healthy for both individual and society. Still, it was a wild, stressful (for the passenger), amazing ride I’ll not soon forget, and, as I learned, a perfect warm-up and introduction to White Grizzly Lodge cat skiing.
We made the Kootenay ferry with 45 minutes to spare and dinner that night was worth the drive.
White Grizzly Lodge is a labor of love and the love of labor of its owners, Carole and Brad Karafil, who, though they have university degrees in things like biology, special education, business and accounting, have devoted their lives to skiing. They met in 1990 when Brad was 19 and Carole 29 and have been together ever since, and, in my view, they are both personally and professionally wonderful. They have owned and operated White Grizzly since 1998. I have been skiing for more than 60 years in a wide range of mountains, terrain, snow conditions, skiing pursuits and challenges, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like what Brad and Carole offer.
I mean, White Grizzly Lodge is not for every skier, not even for every good skier, not even for every very good powder skier. The lodge is rustic and spotless and the food exquisite, but among the many souvenirs, oil paintings, mugs and skiing accessories for sale are two revealing bumper stickers: SKI GOOD OR EAT WOOD and KEEP UP OR FUCK OFF.
Brad puts it this way: “I’d rather have eight skiers with the skills and experience to enjoy what we are offering here, than have eleven where three of them struggle and hold up the group because they aren’t fit for the terrain … We screen our guests because we aren’t willing to take those risks on the mountain. It’s about finding a balance. I value safety because I want to keep on doing what I do, and we only bring in guests that love steep powder, so my reward is being with them on the mountain every day.”
According to Carole, the French Canadian: “It’s the art of experience really, paying attention to all the details. What we do is a labour of love, and I want to celebrate that. I would really like to see more creative works coming through cat skiing. It’s all about carving the white, however you see it. It’s a very subtle thing.”
Carving the white is subtle, but skiing steep, deep powder in closely spaced trees in the company of 15 yelping, yodeling closely spaced other skiers (some of them sometimes a bit spacey) is as exhilarating as Karl’s driving, as subtle as one can make it. There is room at White Grizzly for 12 guests. One of three snowcats is used every day and each customized (by Brad, a master metal worker) snowcat is big enough for the guests, four guides and a driver. The lodge tends to get repeat customers, often repeat groups. The week we were there, I was one of two White Grizzly neophytes. The main group of seven Canadians had skied together for 25 and more years and consisted of Andrew Buck, Jay Wilgar, Matt Walker, Chris Andrews and Matt Stemerdink, who grew up in Ontario and learned to ski on the 200 vertical feet of Chicopee Ski Hill as boys; Tom Kusomoto of Calgary; and Darin Cox of Vancouver, B.C. Stemerdink and Wilgar had skied together since they were three years old, and the tradition of an annual road ski trip to an exotic location was started by Stemerdink’s father, John, before the boys were old enough to drive. John is reported to be looking forward to the tradition continuing with the grandchildren. Responsible, respectable, traditional, energetic members of middle-age mainstream society, all but one of them family men, the seven gather once a year for a holiday (sometimes at White Grizzly) break of hard skiing and partying with a fervor and return/regression to youthful abandon that made Karl’s driving seem comparatively tame. The lone bachelor, Kusomoto, is engaged to be married and the group is plotting a 10-day bachelor party for him in Chamonix in 2013.
French Canada was represented by two Quebecers, Francois Morin, the lone snowboarder in the group, the only one besides myself unfamiliar with the scene; and Jean Francois Racine, a talented artist who painted snow-covered mountain landscapes of the area to sell and, for an additional fee, will include you in the painting making your best powder turn of the day.
The U.S. was represented by me and Karl and Tony Crocker, a California ski journalist, blogger and actuary who rolled skiing-related statistics, risks and costs off his tongue as easily and blithely and with as much obvious pleasure as he danced through the spaces between trees in deep powder snow, carving the white.
Francois and I had more than neophyte status in common. We were both Buddhists and vegetarians and, I surmised, were suspect members of the group of three Brad referred to, candidates for holding up the group. Francois was not only the lone snowboarder, but he admitted to me that he had never before boarded in powder. My deficiency was that, with the exceptions of Karl, who turned 60 that week and who skis as well as he drives and with a similar ethic, Tony, who was 59 and experienced in steep, deep powder in the trees, and Carole, 51, who lives for carving the white, I was 30 years older than anyone in the entire group. I suspect I passed Brad’s screening on Karl’s recommendation.
Thanks, Karl. Thanks, Brad.
Like snowflakes, clouds, people and parties, no two turns on a pair of skis are ever the same, and each run and day at White Grizzly was different from the others, while, at the same time, being remarkably organized, scheduled and thought out, an orchestrated improvisation worthy of Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane or Jerry Garcia. (I’ve already alluded to my age.) The schedule got the most out of a day: up early, eat, 20-minute car ride to the staging area, load into the cat, hour ride to the top of the White Grizzly Peak adjacent to the Goat Range Provincial Park and 11,000 skiable acres that receive an average of 11 meters of snow each season. Unload. The cat leaves. Saddle up. Ski down about 1,000 vertical meters on a different route each time to where, miraculously, we popped out of impenetrable woods onto a road where the cat was waiting. Load into the cat for a 30-minute ride back to the top. Repeat. Repeat again and again until 5 p.m. Gourmet snacks, drinks and lunch during the five to eight rides a day, depending on tree well burials, lost skis, lost skiers, photo ops and photo set ups. Then back to the lodge for evening festivities, which will be described shortly.
The White Grizzly learning curve for me was as steep as its terrain and not nearly so soft as the powder. The first morning I went up with my backcountry randonee set-up, the one I normally use for powder days in Sun Valley and for all backcountry adventures. The skis are wider and shorter than I normally use for lift-serviced Baldy groomers and even moguls when they are covered in fresh white. They have served me well on Baldy powder days, where I ski with a circumspect velocity and trajectory suitable to the natural governor built into the muscles and reflexes of age. I have, of course, observed with interest the young dudes and dudettes skiing the bowls of Baldy on powder mornings with a verve and velocity I fully appreciate and vaguely remember with a mixture of nostalgia and envy, the best of them on HUGE twin-tip rocker boards, each nearly the size of a monoski. Such big boards require more strength and better reflexes than mine and I never gave them a second thought for personal use until I’d spent half a White Grizzly morning skiing the heaviest, deepest powder to my arm pits that I’d ever skied (and I grew up skiing in the Sierra Nevada). The steepness and the trees were manageable, though I managed (sic) to get clipped three times by my faster comrades in powder, but it was clear I would not last a day, much less a week, at armpit exertion levels. (Four feet of fresh powder had fallen in just the previous three days.) Karl had suggested switching to larger skis during our drive the day before, but I was too fixated on the present moment’s velocity over which I had no control to focus on the subtleties of a future over which I had even less than no control.
After a few runs, Brad made the identical suggestion to Karl’s of the previous day and he had a couple of pairs of giant twin-tip rockers on the back of the cat, just in case someone lost a ski or an old guy came to his (literal) senses. I put them on and life in the trees and powder of the Selkirk Mountains immediately became easier, more enjoyable and worthy of carving the white. After a few turns on the giants, I was only sinking to my knees in powder that miraculously wasn’t quite so heavy, and I knew I had knee-deep energy and would be able to carve the white and make it back to the lodge for dinner. And so I did.
And each night it snowed. And each morning we rose early, ate and went back up to fresh powder on White Grizzly Peak. Group dynamics, always interesting to the attentive participant/observer, range from the harmonious worthy of the Grateful Dead or the Sun Valley Summer Symphony to the cacophonous worthy of the U.S. Congress. I have been on climbing expeditions that ended with some members of the team never speaking to each other again and others that formed lifelong friendships, and, when strangers are brought together even for something as enjoyable as powder skiing, it can go either way. During the cat rides between runs, this group easily engaged in a comfortable, harmonious dialogue of story-telling, jokes (among the seven Canucks often at the expense of one of them), questioning and philosophy, and, in truth, Brad and Carole were master conductors and the core group of Canadian friends treated everyone as family. As the elder of the group with the most mileage both on and off skis, I was sometimes called upon by the conductors to recount an exotic tale or two from earlier days of skiing and skiers. Judging by the intensity and intelligence of their questions and responses to my remembrances, as well as their skiing skills and enthusiasm, it was clear that my comrades were true lovers of the well-carved turn, the adrenaline high and the satisfaction and personal growth that can only come to those who pursue what they like to do.
Because slopes are steep, snow deep, trees closely spaced and branches loaded with snow that drops like a bomb from time to time, there is ample opportunity for skiers to get in trouble at White Grizzly. And, given enough time and turns, those who ski hard, like those who party hard, always get in trouble. Thus, at White Grizzly, the buddy system is used. Skiers are paired up for each run and encouraged to stay close to each other, as all pairs are encouraged to stay close to the other pairs. A skier, for instance, who fell and was trapped upside down in a tree well and could not get out on his/her own, would not likely survive the hour and a half it would take to make another lap and track him/her down. Almost every year, someone dies in a ski area boundary from the tree well scenario, in a more skier-friendly environment than the Selkirk Mountain woods. At White Grizzly, skiers keep track of each other for good reason. Each person also chooses a yell/yodel/yelp/woof/call/song/sound to emit from time to time so that the partner and the others have an auditory idea of location. My yell was HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!! Others were more imaginative and melodic.
One guide always took the lead with instructions to stay close to and either left or right of his tracks and to give him a head start. Then, in pairs, with a few turns in between the teams blasted into the powder snow magic of the woods of British Columbia.
HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!!!! HOOOOO!!!!!!! HAAAAA!!!!!!!! OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH!!!!!! WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO!!!!!!! BUGGGGAAAAA BUGGGGGAAAAA!!!!! KA-CHING KA-CHING!!!!!!!!!
Through tight trees we skied, carving the white with none of the ballet-like grace of vast solitude and wide-open slopes of the powder skiing of dreams. White Grizzly powder skiing is less ballet and grace, its carve through the white more like break dancing in the Bugggggaaaaa Bugggggaaaaa Bar on a Saturday night in the company of a pack of serious break dancers. It works and it is great fun to dodge trees and other skiers in a skier’s dance in powder, and, as the slowest except, sometimes, Francois, I was always alert to the possibility of OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH or WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO meeting me head on coming around a tree. There were some close misses, but no true encounters and, despite a few crashes, tree well burials, snow bombs dropped, lost skis and a few temporarily lost skiers, we always managed to meet the snowcat for the ride back up, the stories, laughter, hot and cold drinks, snacks, good food and good will. For me, the accent in skiing has always been more on the solitary, even meditative aspects than on group dynamics, but that isn’t possible or advisable at White Grizzly, and I wasn’t alone in having one of the best skiing weeks of a long life of skiing.
One day, Jean Francois spent the entire day at the top of White Grizzly Peak with his easel and paints. We checked his progress after each lap and gained run by run a better appreciation of the rigors, techniques and skills of the art of landscape oil painting.
Several times, Karl set up shots, so that, one by one, two by two, and three by three, skiers could have powder photos taken. Some of these adventures involved cliffs, rocks and other large drops into bottomless powder that cushioned equally the nailed, inelegant and the hopeless landing, all to the whoooooops and laughter of spectators. I refrained from air time, but thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Since there were a couple of web cams on helmets in the group of seven, most flights were recorded from both air and ground perspectives, and the day’s events were shown/relived/celebrated/cheered/booed late into each night in the lodge after proper preparation.
Like the days, nights at White Grizzly were a series of different improvisations on a theme. On arrival back at the lodge, there were hors d’oeuvres, hot tub, drinks, showers, naps, the internet, even reading. There is no smoking allowed in the lodge, so, despite fatigue from the day’s efforts, some of the boys took long walks of smoking indulgence before dinner. The entire crew, including Brad and Carole, dined together and wine, stronger spirits and conversation flowed freely. Long retired from the delights and demons of dipsomania, I sipped water and paddled only in the conversations, and when the talk and the emerging party moved to the lounge, I usually retreated to my room upstairs for reading, jotting in my journal and, when possible, sleep. Karl and the web cammers showed their day’s work to that most appreciative of audiences — the subject of the work — and the sounds cheers, boos, laughter and comments that made their way through the floorboards were muted enough that I usually but not always fell asleep before my roommates Tony and Karl arrived. Soon after, the muted sounds of serious partying were lost in the honking/snorting/earsplitting/unbelievable snorts of Tony’s snoring, sounds unlike any I’ve ever heard before. Still, despite snoring sounds one imagines could be made by wrestling or copulating elephants, I managed enough sleep to rise each morning with sufficient energy to continue to carve the white.
Downstairs, the party continued.
Hard and long.
Difficult for the non-participant to know what transpired at the downstairs party each night, though imagination can easily fill in the blank spots. One Canadian gentleman was so overcome from each day’s carved white exertions and dark night’s indulgences that he managed to fall completely asleep on one of the lounge couches every night. His nightly slumber inspired his best and oldest friends to unbutton his shirt and decorate his face, belly, chest and arms with demonic, humorous and even obscene black paint works of art that were not so easily removed when he discovered them in his morning mirror.
Still, he and everyone else was ready for the morning cat to the top of White Grizzly Peak and a day of carving the white.
On the last morning, after skiing was finished and we were getting ready to leave, I noted in my journal, “Skiing is over and it has been a unique and wonderful experience. I am filled with good will towards and connection to all the people here.”
That feeling alone is worth every and all effort and drive the labour of love of carving the white requires.
Long-time senior correspondent Dick Dorworth is the author of “Night Driving” and “The Perfect Turn.”