Perched at the peak and cautiously overlooking a crest of hard-pack, the Red Bull Ultra Natural course revealed itself. I had checked out the videos earlier in the week, but they failed to do it justice. Trying to discern a rideable line — never mind working out how to hit and land any kind of air — seemed impossible. There were more than a few in our group who could have been persuaded to try, but thankfully it was early in the season and Ultra Natural wasn’t ready to teach me any lessons. We reached out to take some awkward photos, making sure not to disturb the crest, listened to statements of bravado and restraint then turned around to strap in. The backside of the mountain was calling and in much better shape, so we followed our guide over the top. The sun was shining and the snow was softening. It wasn’t even 10:00 a.m.
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AN OFF-PISTE ESSENTIAL
Aether Crest Down Jacket
Straying away from the lift-lines and leaving fresh tracks in untouched backcountry is the best thing you will ever do on skis or a snowboard. But heading down an uncharted mountain means you need to be equipped with the right gear to keep you warm and protected in all kinds of scenarios; you never know what you might (almost) run into. Designed with an unwavering attention to both form and function, the Crest Down Jacket is Aether Apparel’s warmest offering to date. Featuring 800 fill power, gray-goose down insulation and a 3-layer waterproof yet breathable nylon shell, the Crest will keep you warm and dry on the frostiest of peaks. In action, the articulated sleeves, complete with thumb-looped linings, make stretched movements like strapping in or nailing a frontside rodeo an unexposed affair. The helmet-friendly hood keeps elements out while waiting to drop in and, miraculously, doesn’t billow behind you on strafing runs. Elongated vents running pit-to-torso feature 2-way zippers to keep you from overheating but are devoid of a mesh lining: they open the Crest up completely to the snowy world you’re trying to conquer. Should disaster strike, the Crest is also equipped with a Recco rescue reflector that helps search and rescue teams pinpoint riders lost in an avalanche. $725
For the uninitiated, Baldface Lodge is the mecca for powder hounds with a passion for backcountry in its purest sense. If corduroy is your jam, seek recreation elsewhere. Looming over the picturesque mountain town of Nelson, British Columbia, the section of the Selkirk Mountain range within which Baldface is nestled boasts over 32,000 acres of unadulterated terrain. The mountain routinely receives over 500 inches of fresh snow per season and calls 40 visitors max capacity — and heroes loom everywhere. Free ride pioneer and snowboarding legend Jamie Lynn is referred to as the lodge house cat. He trades time, helping out where he can — including prepping my board — just to score some time on the mountain. Kevin Sansalone works as a tail gunner guide and Travis Rice is a regular. The only way to the lodge itself is via a short chopper ride from Nelson’s airstrip — or a long combination of boat, sled and snowcat, should you miss the helicopter — and there are no ski lifts. All runs are serviced by snowcat (hence “cat boarding”) and nobody traverses the mountain without a locator beacon. In a word, it’s rad; in a more eloquent word, it’s Elysium.
Provided, that is, you don’t show up during a thaw. Within an hour of ducking under the rotor, talk of contingencies had already begun; an unseasonal warm air mass had settled into the Selkirks, and with it came rain. The hope was that things would cool off overnight, that the cold might dry things out or at the very least render some powder. It didn’t. The next morning, the thickness of the fog was rivaled only by the icy cap coating a large portion of the mountain. Conditions would be tricky, to say the least. With a base of almost four feet looming beneath, staying above the crust would be key to successfully navigating the trees, rocks and streams along each run. It would be physically punishing if you didn’t.
This mountain doesn’t give a fuck about you or your enjoyment. It will swallow you whole the moment you ignore its warnings. If you’re lucky, it will spit you back out. You are not ready for this.
Our group settled in for our briefing on backcountry survival. Any nerves I had about tackling this adventure prior to arrival — it had been a while since I’d been on my snowboard — were amplified by day one’s conditions and my introduction to avalanche rescue and survival protocols. While the instruction was certainly more informative than scientific, it replayed in my brain thusly: This mountain doesn’t give a fuck about you or your enjoyment. It will swallow you whole the moment you ignore its warnings. If you’re lucky, it will spit you back out. You are not ready for this.
My first run was crippling. Despite 20 years of experience it felt like I had strapped into my board for the first time ever. I was stiff. Self-doubt, trepidation and bewilderment disconnected my mental and physical states. It took mere moments for the snow and ice to turn me into a passenger, a rag doll. A fat, winded rag doll. The tumbles were fine; getting back up wasn’t. My hands immediately punched through the creme brûlée and into the custard, affording me no leverage at all. I reached the bottom of that first run, chest burning and disgusted with myself. A Samuel Beckett quote ran through my mind as I apologized profusely to the group and trundled, sweating, back into the snowcat: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.
Where day one sapped the confidence and enthusiasm of many in our group with each scraping turn on the ice and impromptu tumbles, the next two days would restore our faith. The fog lifted and the rain stopped. Cloudless skies and unending sun immediately put smiles on our faces. The added warmth meant not just actual visibility, but that the crust, which had tossed me hither and thither like a first-day grom, would soften throughout the day. We loaded up the cat and set off in search of redemption.
The change in mood and group dynamic was palpable at the midpoint of our first run: this was more like it. We were still missing out on the surf-able joys of powder, but this was very much the type of mountain free riding we were looking for. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had woken from his funk. There is no better feeling than being able to string together a series of successful switchbacks in carving first tracks on a wide-open bowl. I felt lighter. My chest no longer burned; we were all having fun. The conditions and riding only got better and better as the day marched on. Hell, the runs even sounded better. Perfect conditions be damned: Baldface has some of the best backcountry skiing in the world.