Jeff Pensiero wasn’t trying to redefine the experience of cat-access backcountry operations when he opened up Baldface Lodge near Nelson, B.C. in 2002 with his wife Paula and business partner Jim Fraps. He was simply, as he puts it, opening himself up to something “a little different.” What the three ended up with is one of the most renowned commercial cat operations in North America. With key supporters as diverse as the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and Nate Bendel and the late Craig Kelly, Baldface is the epicenter of all things good-remote timber lodges dwarfed by the jagged, almost fairytale peaks of the surrounding Kootenays; next-level cocktails and gourmet meals; an impossibly down-to-earth staff; and the exalted experience of riding the southeastern B.C. backcountry.
The story starts in 1999, when Pensiero quit his job as a snowboard rep in Tahoe to go in a new direction-one that didn’t involve making money for other people. He connected with college friend Fraps, scraped together some cash, and started looking at parcels of land in Interior B.C. to take people on guided cat-boarding adventures. “We had certain things we were hoping to find that would make the place unique,” says Pensiero about the process of locating their powder haven, “but we left it open to appear to us instead of demanding that everything had to be there.”
They eventually zeroed in on a tract of land a quick heli-ride from Nelson that delivered five peaks united by a connecting ridgeline (a key quality for cat access). After a series of meetings with the powers that be in Nelson, they secured tenure for 36,000 acres of steep, gladed terrain surrounding the “Baldface drainage” in November of 1999-the spot soon to become Baldface Lodge. And just like that, the dream became a reality … well, sort of. The crew still had to build a lodge, procure some snowcats, and figure out how to get their customers to and from the remote acreage.
Over the next couple years, Jeff, Paula, and Jim made a number of fortuitous and enduring relationships that became the crucial catalysts to their ultra-grassroots plan. There was Nelson’s own John Buffery, a world-class backcountry guide who offered up a wealth of knowledge on riding and guiding in the area’s backcountry. Buffery remains a kingpin of the Baldface operation to this day. There was Craig Kelly, who heard about the operation through Buffery in 1999 and became Baldface’s sort of unofficial ambassador. And of course, there was Grohl and Bendel from the Foo Fighters, whose initial investment money actually bought the place its very first snowcat.
The main lodge is now surrounded by a scattering of smaller ones and a stand-alone sauna, the staff is bigger but still tight like a family, and the customers are shuttled in from Nelson with a five-minute heli ride (which, if you get the right pilot, is almost half the fun!). And although Baldface was the first commercial cat operation so close to Nelson and is undoubtedly one of the greatest, Pensiero refuses to take all the credit. “A good idea is a good idea. I think saying that anyone’s following our lead would be kinda pretentious. I remember in the early days talking with Patric Maloney [founder of Snowwater-a nearby heli-ski operation] about how if we all talked the area and each other up instead of talking shit and just all did a good job, we could start getting customers to come back to the region for a lifetime instead of going off to Valdez or Europe the next season. We wanted to get this whole area well-known! And I think it’s becoming recognized around the world that the snow and the experience in Southeast B.C. is an awesome one.”
So what has Pensiero learned from building a lodge and a business with his bare hands? A lot. Obviously. But all those lessons still seemed outweighed by the enduring power of watching people experience what he calls the “Tao of Pow.” “We learned so much about management, staffing, awareness and safety, and construction-it’s been like getting about three more college degrees from the school of hard knocks! But once it got to taking people riding, it always went perfectly. All that other stuff-it was forgotten in one turn up there.”