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Story and Photos By Geof Harries
Howling winds, big ass turns, untouched pow and nobody in sight; does it get
I blame it on those videos.
Those blasted snowboarding videos in which some overpaid, underworked professional freerider is ripping down some sick, helicopter-assisted face in Valdez, Alaska, all for the glorious record of the camera. It was those scenes, played over and over in my young impressionable mind, which drew me to the Far North.
Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory to be exact.
During the winter of 1997/98, I was living as a snowboard bum in Whistler, B.C., being paid below minimum wage to maintain (i.e. shovel and rake) Blackcomb’s snowboard park. It was a great job at first; I was strapped into my board 6 days a week, and I got to ride for free at North America’s greatest resort. Or so I thought.
The problem with North America’s greatest resort is that there are tourists. And not just any tourists. These were Hell’s very own tourists, and they insisted on being treated in that same demi-god fashion. Hand and foot, head to toe and tip to tail, our responsibilities to please the “guests” were above all other conditions. Including conditions of the untouched, nipple-deep powder variety.
As you can probably tell from the harshness, my year as a snowboard bum was not an overly cheerful one. Admittedly, I did have some very good, and mind-blowing, powder days where I got in some of the best runs of my life. But those days, sadly, were few and far between.
Then one morning, on April 14, 1998, destiny fell into my lap.
I was sitting cross-legged on the living room floor of my very small studio apartment, looking out the window, staring at the line-up of skiers and snowboarders attempting to board Whistler’s Creekside chairlift. A day earlier, I had been approached by my then-boss about driving the salt truck on the glacier for the summer.
For obvious reasons, I was thinking how the hell I could get out of Whistler as soon as possible, to get on with my life and put an end to this torturous dreamscape I had created for myself. Driving the salt truck was not my idea of a fruitful career path.
It was at that moment that I saw it.
A dog-eared, sun-faded cover, worn-out copy of the Tourism Association of the Yukon’s brochure. Everything you ever wanted to know about the magic and the mystery of the
Yukon Territory. See that black spot? Way down there in the valley? Somewhere down there is your soul. That’s what the ad copy read.
Well, I guess I did see my soul down there, because the next thing I knew, I was leafing desperately through the brochure, searching for outfitters and adventure guides that would employ a poor, overeducated sap like me.
So, one did. Cloudberry Adventures Ltd., based out of Whitehorse. Cloudberry was the only outfitter in the entire brochure that offered backcountry snowboard tours; my invitation in, and my ticket out of Whistler.
I worked for Derek and Jean (husband and wife; owners of the company) for the summer as an Assistant Manager in their retail store. At that time in late April, there was still plenty of backcountry snowboarding to be had. I was burnt out on snowboarding at that time, and in dire need of removing myself from the whole bro-brah, fashion-driven scene that the modern snowboarding industry and lifestyle had become. I thus declined Derek’s many offers of heading out into the backcountry to shred the spring corn snow.
May, June and July hit. In between bouts of mountain bike racing and skateboarding, I began to really miss snowboarding. Watching snowboard videos (especially the Valdez, Alaska video clips mentioned previously) in mid-June didn’t help much either. To top it all off, Derek’s friends had been filling my mind with countless images strung from tales of the Yukon’s breathtaking views, endless runs and virgin powder fields.
Winter could not come fast enough. But it did, and it came faster than anything else I had ever lived through. By late-August, Whitehorse residents were scraping frost off their windshields in the mornings. The middle of September brought snowy peaks to the surrounding mountains. By the beginning of October, tales of backcountry adventures were trickling into the store. I was chomping at the bit, foaming at the mouth and drooling on the floor when the new snowboard videos arrived.
Winter had officially begun.
But this long-winded tale is not about the beginning of the season. The start of the season is notoriously dangerous for avalanches and rocks disguised as lethal snow submarines. The start of the winter season may be full of anxious wonder and anticipation, but it is also very hazardous.
This tale revolves around February 1st, 1999.
I had gone snowboarding in the Yukon backcountry nearly every weekend that winter. I’d had some very good days, but experienced in the majority, concrete-crust, whiteout conditions. All those tales of how good Yukon snowboarding could be were starting to fade in my mind. Holes in the wondrous stories I had been led to believe began to appear. Wait until the spring, they told me. That’s when it gets really good.
I didn’t have to wait until the spring though. I had February, baby. And February in the Yukon is definitely NOT your archetypal spring. It is still very cold, dark and the temperature often dips below -40 degrees Celsius.
There was one day which I will remember for the rest of my life. One day which will certainly be the magnet drawing me to the North once again.
On February 1, 1999, my backcountry touring partner, Jeremy Roscoe (who was born in Dawson City, Yukon and now lives in Whitehorse) got an invitation to go snowboarding with a crew of people we had never ridden with before; his dad’s friends.
Mix “Dad’s friends” with backcountry riding adventures in the North and you get one potent drink. A drink mostly laced with carbon monoxide fumes billowing from five hard-driving, tricked out snow machines. Five snow machines piloted by your stereotypical Yukon resident; no gloves, wind-burnt face, missing teeth and a yellow and black Ski-doo baseball cap to match.
I could tell it this was going to be a day for the history books.
Our destination was Skagway, Alaska. The area is a land full of empty mountain faces, steep, intimidating slopes and lines never imagined, let alone ridden.
After getting several trucks stuck in the massive snow banks whilst attempting to drive in as far as possible before parking, we called it quits. We found some adequate flat spots on the slippery, icy road and started unloading the sleds.
Soon enough, we were dressed, had completed a short avalanche transceiver test, and on our way up to the powdery treasures that awaited our plundering.
Our ascension was like no other I’d ever experienced. The snow was so deep and solid that traction for the sleds was never an issue. Massive whales of snow lined the old mining road that carved its way to a mountainous doorstep of our dreams.
Two hours later, Jeremy and I found ourselves parked in the valley floor of a huge pitch we called the Saddle; a tongue-like slope that stretched up as far as the eye could see, lined with giant windlips, rock booters and rolling cliffs.
Out of the nine guys we were with, only four of them were actually there to snowboard or ski. The rest of them came only to roost their snowmobiles around the backcountry, high-pointing massive banks and dropping off cliff faces into powder pillowy goodness. No problem with Jeremy or I. All the more cherry virgin, hip-deep dream snow for us.
We had two sleds with us, owned by the other half of our four-man ski and snowboard crew. We each took turns shuttling the other people to the top of the run, and then zooming back down to await our next run. I enjoy snowmobiling as much as the next guy, but I was truly there to be as much of a powder slut as I could be.
And if what came next was what being a powder slut was all about, then sign me for lifetime employment at the backcountry brothel.
I was whisked to the top of the run in about 20 minutes, taking a myriad of routes to avoid the steep pitches below. When we arrived at the summit, the driver dropped me off, waved his goodbye and took off down the very route he drove up.
I was surrounded by the deafening silence of solitude.
The wind had calmed, the sky had broken up into a white and blue stained glass window, and I could see across the horizon. I could see…forever.
This was the moment I fantasized about. This was the moment that I had envisioned myself living through as I watched those videos. At that very moment, me riding down this run of dreams was all that consumed my thoughts.
I strapped in, adjusted my backpack, padded around my jacket for the avalanche transceiver and took a deep, peaceful breath. Tweaking my goggles, and reaching down to fasten my rear ankle strap a notch tighter, I cleared my head of all concerns, and dropped in.
Have you ever watched the movie “In God’s Hands”? Its theme is centered around a band of surfers dedicated to riding the biggest, gnarliest, most breathtaking waves nature can create. And all through the movie, when the surfers are riding down these massive watery faces, there is this impending sound of thunderous power echoing through the speakers in your T.V.
That was the sound I heard.
That was the thunder that broke.
I will never again ride so numbingly fast.
I will never again put together such unending, monstrously sweeping carves in my life.
For every edge that I laid into that run was met with powder so deep, I knew that if I fell, I would very likely, drown in my own dripping self-indulgence.
The run never seemed to end. I was bounding from one pillowy drop to the next, launching off every hip I could sink my tail into and slashing my turns at every interval. Rejoicing in the massive rooster tails triggered from a heelside turn, showered with a suffocating curtain of flying snow on the other.
I was alone in a world pervaded with winter fantasies; fantasies being wholly fulfilled.
This is how my dream shall conclude. This is how that run shall be forever etched in my mind. Because, yes, that run did come to an end. But in my memory, it will always live, and with God’s will, it will never stop.
This is backcountry snowboarding in the Yukon.
This was the way I always imagined it to be.
And it all came true, February 1, 1999.
The greatest snowboarding run of my life.