The Deep: The Birth of a Catboarding Operation

(The Following is what’s called a “Preamble.” A section of writing designed to get a writers creatie juices flowing before they dive into the hell of writing the actual story. Editors usually cut this stuff because it gets in the way of the real story. Well, they missed this one, didn’t they.)

You may know that John Steinbeck sent a letter to a friend almost every day before writing East of Eden, which is one of his most famous novels. You might also know that he used the letter as a warm-up to the 1,000 words he forced himself to write every single day for months while toiling over the plot and completing the manuscript. I, on the other hand have only 2,000 words to write about the snowcat operation, Monashee Powder Adventures. Steinbeck is one of the most famous American novelists. I am not. East of Eden has grossed millions of dollars for Steinbeck’s estate. This story might pay my phone bill. Millions of people have read East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Cannery Row cover to cover. I’ll be lucky if you make it through this first paragraph. Steinbeck’s novels usually have no pictures and lots of words. This story has lots of picture and few words. Obviously the parallels between John Steinbeck and I are staggering, and in order to follow even more in his mighty footsteps, I was hoping I could warm up on you, oh connoisseur of snowboarding literature.

Dear Reader,

It was December, when the rest of North America was still trying to pin a name tag on La Niña, and a cluster of Weatherhaven tents were in the midst of a raging blizzard. The days between Christmas and New Year alone brought eight feet of snow to this particular plateau nestled at 5,300 feet on the western slope of the Monashee mountains in British Columbia. It proved appropriate grounds for these hearty Quonset-hut style tents, which were designed for deep snow, and whose past occupants had been the cast and crew of such movies as Alive, K2, and Seven Years In Tibet.

Anyway, it was still snowing on January 4 when Jason Ford, Mikey Basich, Derek Heidt, and Joe Curtes joined photographer Mark Gallup, cinematographer Jake Hauswirth, and me near a bridge 30 miles north of Cherryville-a sort of crossroads in the middle of nowhere-which serves as the trailhead to Monashee Powder Adventures, the newborn cat operation founded by Nick and Ali Holmes-Smith, powder addicts with extensive backgrounds in riding-horseback riding. They’re both skiers and veteran Equestrian 3-Day event competitors. Nick is also an ex-equestrian Olympian who competed for Canada in both the Seoul and Barcelona Olympics.

The Olympics in his wake, Nick became somewhat resentful of the financial requirements for heli-skiing. He vowed to provide an option for the powder-hungry masses with a hardpack budget. With a pile of maps and the services of longtime friend, Ben the trapper, Nick explored one of the only areas in the Monashees that wasn’t under license by any of the big-gun heli operators. Since then, Ben has traded his leather tennis-racquet snowshoes for snow-sliding equipment, figuring he’d rather slide on powder than posthole through the deep to pick dead animals out of a trap line. Still, some of the locals mention that Ben’s vegan girlfriend might have had something to do with the decrease in his trapping pursuits.

Craig Kelly was just leaving as we drove in-he’s a man of few words when trying to fix a flat tire in a raging snowstorm. Three in particular stood out, “Too much snow.” How could the master of the deep make that comment about something there could never be too much of?

A three-hour cat ride through a torrent of silver-dollar flakes deposited us into the middle of Craig’s endorsement. The scene was straight out of The Thing. An Arctic exploration setting, cylindrical tent walls piled high with snow, interiors glowing a luminescent yellow, and the ever-present hum of a near generator. Inside the mother tent, a wood stove cranked out heat, and Ali (with baby Carmen in a backpack) greeted us alongside Clyde the monstrous St. Bernard-malamute puppy-who has the personality of a mild-mannered bear cub, and a wagging tail strong enough to knock over small trees.

Evidence of the snow war was obvious; there were shovels posted near doors, sagging floors from snow melting underneath, and dark circles under the staff’s eyes. Anything left outside became a white mound in short order-overnight and it was gone. Poof! Like magic! Shortly after we finalized sleeping arrangements, we were snoring.

I woke from my tropical oil-stove heated slumber at 5:00 a.m. to stumble past Nick, who was already up (or never slept) chipping the ice between the kitchen tent and the shower tent with an ice axe. Half asleep, I followed a freshly shoveled track to the outhouse. Two glowing eyes greeted me from the middle of what I thought was a snowbank, “Cujo?” I asked half joking, half serious, hoping Clyde remembered my scent. The snowbank erupted in an explosion of powder, answering my concern with a good-morning lick and full-fledged tail beating.

All trips in wild terrain begin with safety lectures and transceiver practice. This one was no different. Our guide Reto broke it down for us, “If something goes down, we’re responsible for each other.” The volume of snow confined us to the trees-the “Monashee Special,” with steep lines all the way to the valley floor. Below camp, are 2,400 feet of vertical that end at the Shuswap River, and above camp are 2,600 vertical topped by Alpine bowls and gullies too dangerous to think about right then.

Mikey was riding his new 241 board, complete with a compass, signal mirror, thermometer, and snow stability test diagram built in. It’s the type of board you’d expect from the Swiss Army, but Mikey designed it as an aid to backcountry riding. The compass is especially handy for clarifying tricks, “I’m gonna pull a northeast-facing nose poke, grabbing my west-facing edge before landing on the east side of that snow ‘shroom. Fakie. Or how about a northeast, west, south, northeast corkscrew spinning from west to east.” The point is you just can’t name tricks that bitchen without a compass on your board.

We doubled-up in the trees, watching out for each other and regrouping on cat tracks, where small avalanches spilled down and piled up reminding us why we’re not in the Alpine. Cut blocks-wide-open expanses of deeply buried tree stumps left over from logging-provided roof-high snowmounds for ego-boosting air to pillows as well as hip-riddled lines, almost like gullies without consistent transitions.

It’s easy to flow from hip to hip until you find yourself upside-down in quicksand, your arm buried to your shoulder every time you try to push yourself up and out. It only took once-falling was not an option. Keep your knees loose, and point it for freedom. Ann Peacock a 60-something-year-old snowboarder from the Northwest, joined us for a few runs. She ripped down steep lines through thick trees, at speed and with style, ibuprofen tablets rattling in her cargo pants pocket all the way down. She swore it was Viagra.

We’re part of the exploration of this brand-new operation, which added something to the general air of the adventure. We would ask Reto, “What’s over there?” and he’d honestly answer, “I don’t know, let’s see.” Of course, “let’s” meant, “I’ll see” and he’d scout forward to ward off us bombing straight for an 80-footer that probably wouldn’t kill us anyway in snow this deep. Drowning from multiple face shots timed during inhales instead of exhales was a more pressing issue.

Nick told me later about James, their snowboarder cook, who broke the cardinal rule of guided snowboarding in wild terrain: “Never pass the guide.” James did, however, and found himself airborne off a cliff that should have gotten him a one-way ticket to the hospital. It didn’t, but the run is now called, “James Was Bad, VERY BAD.” Despite his bad, James is a very good cook.

The snow was so deep, speed became our best friend and snow formations were plowed into and through with little concern for something hard underneath that might soprano your voice on the road to infertility. It was open-season to ride on, over, or off whatever the hell you wanted, just watching out for mega tree wells, and keeping an eye on your partner. Jason split the goal posts of a lightning-struck tree with a powder ‘shroom growin’ out of its crotch. Poof! The mushroom evaporated as he boosted through it with a floaty straight air.

Reto broke out his pipe and packed it with Captain Black tobacco before jibbing a laid-over tree on his fat skis, performing a stunning impromptu front flip, ending up right side up, skiing away with his pipe still lit. Two minutes later he held up our posse while he ski-cut a convex slope, let loose a surface slide, thus controlling a potentially dangerous pocket of snow above a gully. Then he waved us on.

It was the perfect example of Nick’s philosophy for this operation. “We don’t want people getting hurt or avalanched. Our guides are serious to a fault, but if the caliber of skill permits it, they’ll let you do some radical terrain. Big steeps, cliffs, whatever. We want to stay with guides who have the confidence and experience to read the customers’ skill levels and allow for this kind of riding, because too many operations are terrified of being sued. Too many people stare at terrain they can handle. If it’s at all possible, we want to get you to that terrain.”

The wooded area above our enclave of tents, now dubbed Monashee 4077, became our next agenda of exploration. Through the still-falling snow, the cat pushed higher and higher, opening up more lines. Eventually a tree-topped ridgeline appeared with icefalls, double cliff drops, and Canadian-sized tree alleys-long, steep, and wicked.

We donned snowshoes and hiked the pitch. Mikey and Joe claimed different descents on a double dropper, but both upper sections sloughed after the first turns-a waterfall of snow freefalling alongside relaxed and composed snowboarders who make it look like a walk in the park. Derek negotiated a rollover vertigo of turns alongside a rusty-colored icefall of dagger-like stalactites-evidence of minerals in the water and a significant waterway when things warm up.

Jake rolled film, Gallup’s shutter ripped, and the cat driver pulled up and took it all in. Mikey had topped a steep flute that appeared to be nearly vertical. With little anticipation, we watched him drop in and air over the whole section I thought for certain he’d ride down. Mikey charges the natural terrain with the same gusto as taking on the big-air jumps he’s famous for flipping off of. I’ve witnessed him smash his face into a hardpacked landing from twenty feet up, only to hike back up instantly and get back on the horse. Hardpack doesn’t faze him, so the deep powder here must increase his bravery twofold. After that jump everyone agreed his bravery was dragging in the snow.

Big boards saw all the action, short boards never made it out of the bag. And then one night, it was all a distant memory, along with minor details like your name, where you’re from, where you are, et cetera. Even Nick admitted the justification of any complaints having to do with “the hell tent,” where a back-up in the pipes of the oil stove filled Jason, Mikey, Joe, and Derek full of blackened fumes one night. Nothing deadly, although they were left feeling a little off as the temperature dropped and the weary staff fought yet another battle in the snow war. The fog eventually cleared from their heads, but the weather maintained its steady precipitation; the view from camp is stunning (we saw pictures), but we barely saw above the tops of the old growth pines during our stay at this truly unique and snowboarder-friendly (read: cheap) operation.

The deep. It kept c called, “James Was Bad, VERY BAD.” Despite his bad, James is a very good cook.

The snow was so deep, speed became our best friend and snow formations were plowed into and through with little concern for something hard underneath that might soprano your voice on the road to infertility. It was open-season to ride on, over, or off whatever the hell you wanted, just watching out for mega tree wells, and keeping an eye on your partner. Jason split the goal posts of a lightning-struck tree with a powder ‘shroom growin’ out of its crotch. Poof! The mushroom evaporated as he boosted through it with a floaty straight air.

Reto broke out his pipe and packed it with Captain Black tobacco before jibbing a laid-over tree on his fat skis, performing a stunning impromptu front flip, ending up right side up, skiing away with his pipe still lit. Two minutes later he held up our posse while he ski-cut a convex slope, let loose a surface slide, thus controlling a potentially dangerous pocket of snow above a gully. Then he waved us on.

It was the perfect example of Nick’s philosophy for this operation. “We don’t want people getting hurt or avalanched. Our guides are serious to a fault, but if the caliber of skill permits it, they’ll let you do some radical terrain. Big steeps, cliffs, whatever. We want to stay with guides who have the confidence and experience to read the customers’ skill levels and allow for this kind of riding, because too many operations are terrified of being sued. Too many people stare at terrain they can handle. If it’s at all possible, we want to get you to that terrain.”

The wooded area above our enclave of tents, now dubbed Monashee 4077, became our next agenda of exploration. Through the still-falling snow, the cat pushed higher and higher, opening up more lines. Eventually a tree-topped ridgeline appeared with icefalls, double cliff drops, and Canadian-sized tree alleys-long, steep, and wicked.

We donned snowshoes and hiked the pitch. Mikey and Joe claimed different descents on a double dropper, but both upper sections sloughed after the first turns-a waterfall of snow freefalling alongside relaxed and composed snowboarders who make it look like a walk in the park. Derek negotiated a rollover vertigo of turns alongside a rusty-colored icefall of dagger-like stalactites-evidence of minerals in the water and a significant waterway when things warm up.

Jake rolled film, Gallup’s shutter ripped, and the cat driver pulled up and took it all in. Mikey had topped a steep flute that appeared to be nearly vertical. With little anticipation, we watched him drop in and air over the whole section I thought for certain he’d ride down. Mikey charges the natural terrain with the same gusto as taking on the big-air jumps he’s famous for flipping off of. I’ve witnessed him smash his face into a hardpacked landing from twenty feet up, only to hike back up instantly and get back on the horse. Hardpack doesn’t faze him, so the deep powder here must increase his bravery twofold. After that jump everyone agreed his bravery was dragging in the snow.

Big boards saw all the action, short boards never made it out of the bag. And then one night, it was all a distant memory, along with minor details like your name, where you’re from, where you are, et cetera. Even Nick admitted the justification of any complaints having to do with “the hell tent,” where a back-up in the pipes of the oil stove filled Jason, Mikey, Joe, and Derek full of blackened fumes one night. Nothing deadly, although they were left feeling a little off as the temperature dropped and the weary staff fought yet another battle in the snow war. The fog eventually cleared from their heads, but the weather maintained its steady precipitation; the view from camp is stunning (we saw pictures), but we barely saw above the tops of the old growth pines during our stay at this truly unique and snowboarder-friendly (read: cheap) operation.

The deep. It kept coming down and within a few days halted our progress to anywhere that could potentially avalanche. Which was essentially everywhere. So we packed up, leaving Monashee Powder Adventures to continue its battle with the snow during a time when there was indeed too much of it.

If you would like to experience too much snow:

The price is right and the snow is light.

$325 Canadian, approximately $220 U.S. per day.

Lots of new improvements for this season.

Monashee Powder Adventures

Site 23, Comp. 11, RR #2

Chase, B.C., Canada VOE IMO

Phone: 1-888-353-8877

E-mail: nhs@mail.ocis.netpt coming down and within a few days halted our progress to anywhere that could potentially avalanche. Which was essentially everywhere. So we packed up, leaving Monashee Powder Adventures to continue its battle with the snow during a time when there was indeed too much of it.

If you would like to experience too much snow:

The price is right and the snow is light.

$325 Canadian, approximately $220 U.S. per day.

Lots of new improvements for this season.

Monashee Powder Adventures

Site 23, Comp. 11, RR #2

Chase, B.C., Canada VOE IMO

Phone: 1-888-353-8877

E-mail: nhs@mail.ocis.net