Photos by Eric Berger

February 28, 1999 Dave Basterrechea, Shin Campos, and I huddlebeneath the A-Star’s spinning rotors, perched atop a rocky saddle not far from Tatlayoko Lake. We’re inthe Coast Mountains of British Columbia, near the Homathgo Ice Cap. A mile away across a deep ravine isa cluster of dots on a snowy ridgeline-our guide Peter “Swede” Mattson, photographer Eric Berger, andStandard Films cinematographer Tom Day. From inside the helicopter, our Yugoslav pilot Max gives athumbs up and the A-Star lifts off, trapping us in a momentary hurricane. Then silence. Shin walks one waytoward a line he scouted from the heli, and I follow Dave in the opposite direction. Radio contact with thedots informs us of the snow conditions. Swede has dug a pit on the same exposure at similar altitude as theface we’re about to ride. “The top layer will probably slough,” he warns. “Keep an eye behind you and havean escape in mind if it goes.” Dave and I split up among the rocky scree rimming the sparkling bowl belowus that rolls off into space. As we clear the first roll, we’ll see the various snow channels between the reddishcolumns of rock that were visible from the heli. One channel ends with a 100-foot icefall, mandatory air tocoffin.

Another exits with a more manageable, but still mandatory, ten-foot icefall-or so it appeared from theheli. Still another funnels down, then doglegs into a pinner, straight-line chute with nothing but the deep whitevalley below to speed into. Basic, unless you rag-doll. Another line deadends into a rock wall. A terraintrap-the kind of place an avalanche could bury you until the spring melt-off. Dave chooses the icefall notrelated to the coffin. I intend to take a different line for the first 1,000 vertical feet and then hook up near histracks for the final 500 feet and icefall exit. Mine is the employee’s side-entrance to the couloir he’s ridingstraight into, fall-line from the right side of the bowl, airing two islands of rock that block his path to theentrance.

A giant shadow drifts across the sunlit peaks, and I mentally note which channels not to enter farbelow. “Weather’s moving in,” crackles the radio. A new voice announces, “I’m on top.” It’s Tom Burt,who’s on another peak one valley over from the dots. He’s out of our view, but we’ve all seen the face he’sabout to negotiate. It’s classic T.B. terrain-steep and rocky with a nice line through the maze that’s “pleasingto the eye,” as he always puts it. But from the top, the view becomes disoriented. Left turns become rightturns.

You rely on a Polaroid if you’ve got one. If not, it’s your memory or someone with a radio talking youdown through what you can’t see. Shin, Dave, and I are 100 yards apart from each other on a peak twomiles away from T.B. We listen in as Tom Day clarifies the line off the east side of Guerrilla Peak before theweather turns everything flat. We’re each in our own little worlds, attention glued to our radios. Whiteout inthese conditions would kill the chance of a heli pick-up this high, and one turn on the way down can get thewhole mountain moving with you-challenging enough with good visibility. More clouds spill gray over themountains, blocking the sun, and the wind picks up, too. Suddenly things are interesting. I bury my face inmy collar like a turtle in a shell and listen. T.D.: “So you see that shadow down there?” T.B.: “Uh, yeah.”T.D.: “You see the ridge?” T.B.: “I see a rocky ridge, nothing with snow.” T.D.: “Okay, so below that, yousee the rock?” T.B.: “A rock, as in one?” T.D.: “Yeah.” T.B.: “No.” T.D.: “Don’t worry, you will.” There’s along pause, and I envision him strapping in on some precarious sliver of snow. The radio comes to life. T.B.:”Okay, 30 seconds.” T.D.: “Ten-four.” T.B.: “Ten seconds, two, one, dropping.” I hold my breath as theradio goes silent. February 21, 1999 The Chilcotin-”Big fish, big grizzlies, big mountains, and bigadventure.”

Or so says a newspaper article taped to the p phone outside the Chilcotin Hotel’s CoyoteClub Pub, our caravan’s final rest stop eight hours after leaving the hustle and bustle of Whistler. This outpostcrop of buildings is an abrupt sight after miles and miles of sprawling Canadian wilderness. A list of sevenlocals who are “absolutely prohibited from entering these premises” is framed permanently behind glass onthe front door. Three of the banned names have “and wife” printed faithfully alongside their husbands’ names.Blake Suib, a friend of Berger’s along for the trip, joins T.B. by the pinball machine, just across the roomfrom the gaping steel jaws of a monstrous bear trap with a plaque that reads “Chilcotin Squirrel Trap.”

Mounted near the bar is an anti-tank slug the size of a soda can “taken from a moose body in 1979.” Swederests his hand on my shoulder as I soak in the ambiance-a stain on the pool table that looks suspiciously likeblood and a sign that reads “If things get rough, the games get shut.” He tips his beer and waves it around us.”This place is just a glimpse of the mountains,” he says, then mutters under his breath, “stinky,” and walksaway. Stinky, I’d find out later, is Swede’s favorite adjective, synonymous with anything steep, sketchy,exposed, dangerous, or just plain BIG. Coincidentally, stinky doesn’t mean it’s not doable. Back on the roadand Highway 20 is a memory. Swede has me riveted with a survival tale he witnessed farther north towardthe Yukon. He’d been guiding a group of skiers when they discovered a moose surrounded by a pack ofwolves in a snowy meadow: “First day, he trampled a platform in the deep snow so he could be quick andprotect himself. The following day, the circle was a little tighter, but the moose was holding his ground. Thethird day-” I confirmed, “Third day?” “Yes, third day, and there are specks of blood on the snow. Thewolves are braver now, closer. The moose is tired.” Swede suddenly falls silent when, out of the darkness,looms an illuminated monolith of a cabin. We’re surrounded by logs, 10,000 square feet of them. TheShining comes to mind as I choose a room at the Bracewells’ Alpine Wilderness Adventures mainlodge-one of the largest log structures in Canada.

Although the lodge is usually closed in winter, 75-year-oldAlf Bracewell plowed us a road out of the wilderness. There are eight of us, but there’s probably room for200. Long corridors meet at a central living and dining area downstairs around a three-sided iron fireplacewith a kitchen in the corner. Upstairs are a pool table, bookshelf, and a twin fireplace to match the onedownstairs. In the spare space you could probably squeeze in a miniature golf course. Slipping and slidingaround in socks on the wood floors are three tiny Bracewells: Bobi (age eight), Aaron (four), and Anna(two).

Little Aaron is already being talked to by his family with a hooked finger. “Redrum, redrum,” can beheard echoing down the stairs as gear is lugged inside. Huge windows face the mountains where, through thedarkness, long narrow veins of white are evident below the cloud cover, draining into avalanche paths thatfan out into a prominent treeline. Inside, Alex Bracewell introduces each of us to his mother and father,Gerry and Alf. Alex is transitioning the one-time hunting lodge into a destination for eco-tourism, or “softadventure.” Soft means no bullets: wildlife photography trips, fishing, hiking, ski touring, pack trips,horseback riding, wildflowers. He brings people in by bush plane and lands them on the lake or the airstriphis family cleared nearby. The logs that became this cabin were milled on the spot. We’re an experiment,assessing the surrounding terrain as potential helicopter-accessed snowboarding and skiing. We’re the firstheli-boarding group. Ever. Grandma Gerry makes us feel warm and welcome before she heads “up-valley”with the two girls to civilization. Civilization is 25 families who inhabit a valley roughly the size of LosAngeles.

She tells each and every one of us, “No outdoor shoes on the wood floors.” She shakes her head,and we find ourselves shaking ours, too. “Just tell me when to call in that chopper,” she sings out as she exitsthrough the boiler room and into the valley she’s called home for more than 60 years. She protected thefamily cattle from the resident grizzly population as a teenage cowgirl and eventually began guiding”flatlanders” into the 2,000 square miles of rugged beauty we’ll sample with our own private heli. No roads.

No pre-mapped landing zones. No prearranged runs. This is not your ordinary snowboarding trip. Ioverhear Swede conversing with Alex about the proximity of the closest medical facilities. An outpost clinicis a three-minute chopper ride away, but there are no trauma facilities. The closest trauma center is atwenty-minute heli ride. No heli? No way. Tatlayoko-this corner of B.C.’s Chilcotin region the Bracewellscall home-is remote. Not like Alaska, where there’s probably another heli nearby for support. Here? There’sone other heli up-valley, but reaching it depends on the radio reception, which hasn’t been tested. It will bethe first time our pilot’s flown in these parts. Just to call him in involves a relay from two-way radios to aphone, then Gerry makes the phone call to Pemberton; a couple hours later, he’ll show up. As a safetyprecaution, we’ll be a semi-self-sufficient crew. Emergency medical and survival equipment will be on-board.

Oxygen, crevasse rescue gear, backboard, the usual. The looming question isn’t posed out loud, “What ifsomething happens to the heli?” Connie Bracewell is in charge of keeping us-along with little Aaron-in line allweek. Bribery with food becomes her best weapon-she’s also our cook and Alex’s wife, as well as an artistand aspiring writer. She brings out huge dishes of lasagna, salad, etc. and we settle into a routine of totalimmersion, Bracewell style. Alex apologizes, “Until I can get out and dam the creek, raise the water level upabout five feet, it’s three baths at a time.” Someone asks, “Is it okay to drink the water?” Alex answers,”Mmmm” as though it’s the finest cognac. “You run yourself a glass. You drink it. long pause Well, gottarun another glass. He chuckles And feel free. It’s not like William’s Lake he grimaces. Up here, it’sbeeeeautiful water.” As a sidenote, we stopped for gas in William’s Lake, and I drank out of the tap in thebathroom and remember thinking it was damn good water-cold, clear, sweet from the source. No chlorine.

No grimace. I think Alex would puke if I ran him a glass of my tap water at home. I doubt he’d even shavewith it. February 22, 1999 Blake’s awake before anybody in the crew. He’s a sound engineer who splits histime between Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, Whistler, and the road, where he’s been on tour for seventeenyears with the likes of Iggy Pop, Steve Miller, Stevie Nicks, Green Day, David Bowie, and Prince. Restassured, he’s not up because he’s a seasoned early riser. It’s because this is his first heli trip. A cup ofcowboy coffee is cradled by both hands as he stares blankly at a maelstrom of flakes swirling about-gray,cold, and nasty. I can already tell that waiting for good weather is gonna kill him. Alf sleepwalks from thekitchen carrying a yellow mug and sits with his back to the fire, one eye half-open. The aroma of fried eggs,pancakes, sausage, and bacon is pouring from the kitchen, and Alex announces the weather report. “Doesn’tsound good, shitty for a day or two.” He walks over to the window and looks up-valley, where it’s evendarker. “Yep.” Blake asks, “How accurate is the weather report?” Alex sighs, “He’s got it down. He studiesthose satellite maps.

You see, he’s a farmer, and when the time’s right, he has to cut his wheat. If he cuts it, itneeds three days to dry or it goes to hell. Three days of sunshine. If it rains … holeee crow … well, he’sscrewed.” The crew has assembled by now, and I confirm my assumptions with Swede, whispering, “We’regetting our weaths, “No outdoor shoes on the wood floors.” She shakes her head,and we find ourselves shaking ours, too. “Just tell me when to call in that chopper,” she sings out as she exitsthrough the boiler room and into the valley she’s called home for more than 60 years. She protected thefamily cattle from the resident grizzly population as a teenage cowgirl and eventually began guiding”flatlanders” into the 2,000 square miles of rugged beauty we’ll sample with our own private heli. No roads.

No pre-mapped landing zones. No prearranged runs. This is not your ordinary snowboarding trip. Ioverhear Swede conversing with Alex about the proximity of the closest medical facilities. An outpost clinicis a three-minute chopper ride away, but there are no trauma facilities. The closest trauma center is atwenty-minute heli ride. No heli? No way. Tatlayoko-this corner of B.C.’s Chilcotin region the Bracewellscall home-is remote. Not like Alaska, where there’s probably another heli nearby for support. Here? There’sone other heli up-valley, but reaching it depends on the radio reception, which hasn’t been tested. It will bethe first time our pilot’s flown in these parts. Just to call him in involves a relay from two-way radios to aphone, then Gerry makes the phone call to Pemberton; a couple hours later, he’ll show up. As a safetyprecaution, we’ll be a semi-self-sufficient crew. Emergency medical and survival equipment will be on-board.

Oxygen, crevasse rescue gear, backboard, the usual. The looming question isn’t posed out loud, “What ifsomething happens to the heli?” Connie Bracewell is in charge of keeping us-along with little Aaron-in line allweek. Bribery with food becomes her best weapon-she’s also our cook and Alex’s wife, as well as an artistand aspiring writer. She brings out huge dishes of lasagna, salad, etc. and we settle into a routine of totalimmersion, Bracewell style. Alex apologizes, “Until I can get out and dam the creek, raise the water level upabout five feet, it’s three baths at a time.” Someone asks, “Is it okay to drink the water?” Alex answers,”Mmmm” as though it’s the finest cognac. “You run yourself a glass. You drink it. long pause Well, gottarun another glass. He chuckles And feel free. It’s not like William’s Lake he grimaces. Up here, it’sbeeeeautiful water.” As a sidenote, we stopped for gas in William’s Lake, and I drank out of the tap in thebathroom and remember thinking it was damn good water-cold, clear, sweet from the source. No chlorine.

No grimace. I think Alex would puke if I ran him a glass of my tap water at home. I doubt he’d even shavewith it. February 22, 1999 Blake’s awake before anybody in the crew. He’s a sound engineer who splits histime between Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, Whistler, and the road, where he’s been on tour for seventeenyears with the likes of Iggy Pop, Steve Miller, Stevie Nicks, Green Day, David Bowie, and Prince. Restassured, he’s not up because he’s a seasoned early riser. It’s because this is his first heli trip. A cup ofcowboy coffee is cradled by both hands as he stares blankly at a maelstrom of flakes swirling about-gray,cold, and nasty. I can already tell that waiting for good weather is gonna kill him. Alf sleepwalks from thekitchen carrying a yellow mug and sits with his back to the fire, one eye half-open. The aroma of fried eggs,pancakes, sausage, and bacon is pouring from the kitchen, and Alex announces the weather report. “Doesn’tsound good, shitty for a day or two.” He walks over to the window and looks up-valley, where it’s evendarker. “Yep.” Blake asks, “How accurate is the weather report?” Alex sighs, “He’s got it down. He studiesthose satellite maps.

You see, he’s a farmer, and when the time’s right, he has to cut his wheat. If he cuts it, itneeds three days to dry or it goes to hell. Three days of sunshine. If it rains … holeee crow … well, he’sscrewed.” The crew has assembled by now, and I confirm my assumptions with Swede, whispering, “We’regetting our weather from a farmer?”

He whispers back, “A farmer on the Internet.”

By his second cup of coffee, Alf’s other eye opens up. Today’s a down day. No reason to call in the heli.Once it’s here, we’re committed to a minimum three-quarters of an hour per day, even if we don’t fly. That’sabout 1,000 dollars, just to stare at it. February 23, 1999 Barometer in an upward trend. Chopper’slanded. It’s time to see what’s behind this first wall of impressive peaks. Outside, we’re done practicingtransceiver searches. Max goes over heli etiquette and we lift off in two groups. Once on top, we joinSwede and T.B., who are up to their elbows in a snowpit, discovering an interesting layer at 30 centimeters.

It’s a wide-open bowl we’ve landed atop that begs for tracks, but everybody is just as interested in the pit asthe powder. After performing a shovel-shear test, this northeast slope is found to have “good stability,” andwe stretch our legs with wide, sweeping turns for 700 vertical feet as the Swede stands by, spacing us out.And regrouping. Two-thousand more vertical feet turn leg-stretch into mild leg-burn. Thank you, Max, maywe have another? Run number two lands us in a sudden overcast moment that turns all the more gray. Muchdeeper snow and a similar slope test opens up another can of whoop-ass on this steep bowl with littledefinition in failing light. “Vertigo” is the apt name jotted down in Swede’s log book, but it drains down into”Gully Land.” Unbelievable Energizer-style transitions that keep going-and going and going. It’s the stuff ofdreams, like an endless glassy wave, with so many good features up ahead, you don’t even need to conserveterrain, you don’t need to cut back. But you do. And you laugh out loud. Not many runs do that, but GullyLand did it to me.

It did it to everybody. Dave bombs past me and takes a high line on one backside wall,boosting huge off an opportune hip, sailing over some bushes as I shoot low beneath him seeing nothing buthis base, a gripped glove on his edge, and a powder trailer. Poof! He lands with a face shot, disappears,and comes out choking on the fluff-a 2,000-vertical-foot gully of perfect transitions after 1,000 feet of openbowl. Taxi? Another gully topped by another bowl-so good, it’s stupid. At the bottom, the residue frommultiple face shots clings to hats, goggles, and unshaved cheeks. Blake’s grinning like he just discovered sex.The heli-meter clicks all the way home, “Fifty bucks, 50 bucks, 50 bucks, 50 bucks,” and nobody cares.February 24, 1999 Outside it looks like Canada (read: snowing). Alf sits in the same spot, warming hisback to the fire. Same yellow coffee cup. Both eyes already open. I walk by: “Second cup?” He returns,”Third.” I stumble in for my first, pouring from the blackened kettle Connie keeps full and hot all day long. Ahunter’s breakfast with homemade biscuits and raspberry jam. Berger strides in wearing his white bathrobe,turquoise longjohns shooting out the bottom, orange Capilene underneath, and a red beanie. He’s grippinghis book-Bravo Two Zero. It’s the true story of a British Special Forces (SAS) squadron on the run behindenemy lines during the Gulf War.

The squadron gets split as they fight starvation and capture while trying toreach the Syrian border. “Holy shit,” he says, slapping the book on the table and buttering a biscuit. “Theyjust had such a fire fight.” He takes a bite. “I feel guilty for eating this.” Dave and Blake are miles from thecabin exploring on snowmobiles when the sky opens up at 2:00 p.m. It’s blue, and they’re afraid they’ll beleft behind. Full throttle they make their way back to find all 10,000 square feet of the cabin silent.Everybody was asleep, but figuring it’s best to fly away the three-quarter-hour minimum, we scramble; asMax preps the heli, we pull on gear. It’s a routine: harnesses adjusted, transceivers turned on, radiochecks-a fire-drill atmosphere. I sling my pack over my shoulder and trudge through the freshly fallen sn