Viva Las Vegas

Disclaimer #1: This article in no way condones avalanche surfing, alcohol use, irresponsible credit-card abuse (read: buying helicopter time), urination (except in designated zones), gluttonous meat consumption, cheese-wedge (a.k.a. booter) building in scenic locales, or excessive decadence of any kind.

Disclaimer #2: There is simply not enough room to explain all of the safety measures taken, which included thousands of dollars spent on two mountain guides and the professional abilities of three of the world’s most experienced big-mountain riders.

March 5, 2000¿Las Vegas, Nevada

It’s a fair bet to assume that 98.5 percent of the snowboarding industry and 75.8 percent of the pro riders are lurking here. Some are negotiating contracts and/or fishing around for bargaining power. Gambling. Some are winning, most are losing. Drinking. Some are maintaining, some are puking. At the TransWorld Riders’ Poll Party, some are giving out awards, some are receiving them. In the men’s big-mountain category, the three nominees are noticeably absent¿alphabetically Jeremy Jones, Johan Olofsson, and Brian Savard. March 9, 2000¿McGillivray Pass, B.C., Canada

My eyes open at 5:55 a.m. I lay in my sleeping bag performing a ritual of body checks. Everything is fine except for my head, which feels like an orange on the end of a toothpick. Cradling it, I rise and shuffle past Jones, Oloffson, and Savard, who are in their own respective bags, and head down the narrow steps of the Whitecap Cabin. Out the door, I’m moving a little too fast for my own good: slippery steps and suddenly I’m airborne. Rubbing my tailbone, I head down a little trail and up to a sign that reads, “Gentlemen, start your engines here only.” This is the caretaker’s number-one rule. He likes the snow around his cabin like he likes his faceshots¿white, not yellow.

Back inside, Keeley Higgins is busy prepping for breakfast. Her man Eric Berger is still snoring upstairs, a set of novelty teeth Poli- Gripped to his gums and 60 rolls of exposed film lined up in little rows at his feet. Tom Day is sleeping next to boxes of exposed film marked for Standard Films delivery¿a content smile on his face. The foam-sleeping pad of cinematographer Gary Pendygrasse is empty; he had a run-in with an avalanche in the trees early yesterday. I’d watched him disappear into the powder cloud, then moments later heard the telling “crack” that signaled his impact with a tall evergreen. The tip of the pine that was visible above the powder cloud vibrated only slightly, showing just how much force is required to crush the bones of a foot.

Our guides Woody and Lars heli-evacuated Gary back to the cabin where Ron Andrews (the cabin’s caretaker), Lars’ father, and the resident veterinarian tended to the painful de-booting process that revealed a suspect lump. Fumbling through a well-stocked backcountry first-aid kit in search of painkillers that ranged in strength from Motrin to morphine, Ron told a pale and grimacing Gary, “You can go anywhere you want today.” Twenty minutes later, Gary was kicked back reading a Surfer magazine. Judging by the drugged grin on his face, he was somewhere in Fiji.

Despite this one injury, the week went extremely well. It shouldn’t be overlooked that Gary had previously ridden another slide successfully for well over 200 feet, clenching his priceless tripod in one hand and gripping his sunglasses in his teeth. Likewise, Berger shook hands with no less than three sloughs, and rode out a slab. The mountains were talking, and safe zones were the havens of choice¿ridgelines. The snow was epic, and bluebird skies reigned.

Not to bore you with details of first descents and untracked powder, but all those on hand agreed this was a far better place to hang out while most of our friends were in Vegas. Even the showgirls weren’t missed, especially after Johan stumbled upon a pinner chute with a near-vertical entrance. It was abt as tight as they come¿no room to turn. And if Johan wore size-thirteen boots, he couldn’t have squeezed it, but as it was he had an inch to spare and pointed the whole thing. Our lead guide, Swede, who hunts wild grouse with a slingshot, graced us with his presence for the first couple of days. Swede called Johan’s line Viking’s Crotch in honor of their homeland, “tight and straight.”

The beauty of joining a trip like this isn’t all the thousands of untracked vertical feet you get to ride on someone else’s dime. It isn’t even the musical talents of inebriated Swedes, confusing guitars with drums and wailing garbled lyrics at the moon. It isn’t the fact that you’re so drunk, the music actually sounds good. It isn’t witnessing a liquored soul jumping onto the dining-room table and surfing the unwieldly plank while spraying whipped cream at all those in range. It isn’t the drinking buddies willing to step up and test the limits of their livers. (In four days we polished off beer, ten cases; wine, twelve liters; Baileys, 40 ounces; Captain Morgans, 40 ounces; Crown Royal, 26 ounces; Cuervo, 40 ounces.) Oh, and then there was the food. Our elected cook was a bit concerned about protein, so she allocated half a pound of meat per person … per meal. And 42 loaves of bread.

No, even with well rounded and expertly prepared culinary delights, the true beauty is the camaraderie of a self-sufficient crew working together and respecting each other in a harsh environment, especially observing the teamwork of these three amigos. Not only riders, but gentlemen at the top of their game. They would fly into amazing cirques (deep steep-walled basins) and make sure each rider had an equally satisfying line before landing. If one line was, for some reason, slightly less appealing, the rider who took it would have first choice at the next location. But of course, the sheer adventure of being in the middle of nowhere and standing where mountain goats play was also fairly inspirational.

If you look at an avalanche from above, it rips down the mountain, shaking trees and uncovering rocks, scouring the snow surface or stripping the snow straight to the ground. But eventually it hits the bottom, and if there’s a valley floor to spill out upon, it does so in a river of rubble like a pudgy human tongue. In a way, it’s like the mountain is taunting us as we escape, or warning us to stay away.

Jeremy likes to choose his lines in twos: a primary choice and a secondary. He keeps his options open on the hill in case the mountain starts grumbling on the way down. On one such line, he was faced with a blind air that would deposit him on a slope above four possible couloirs, one of which squeezed itself down to a rocky crux. Not a good idea. Another was clean, but didn’t look too interesting as a filming line. Another had a bit of a turn in it, a few salt and pepper rocks, and a substantial jump. Still another was narrow and sweeping, like a banana. That was choice number one. Number two was the one with the jump. Brian, who had already taken his line, could see Jeremy’s lines from below. He talked him down with radio directions and confirmed that the snow quality was good, but smoky, meaning it would blind you if your slough got ahead of you. Jeremy confirmed his route again from the filmer’s vantage point, and then Johan counted down for the cameras: three, two, one, dropping.

Upon impact from a fifteen-foot cliff drop, the snow cracked and choices became critical as an avalanche ripped just behind Jeremy. The four options unfolded before him and he swept across the slope, passing up his secondary choice, which seemed to be collecting his slough. His first choice, which appeared to be the bad choice if a slough occurred, became the good choice. Jeremy flowed into the banana chute, disappeared behind a rock wall, and a split second later, ripped out the bottom just in front of the slough that was careening out of the neighboring couloir. Picture-perfect slough management, teamwork, and a shot in the can for the boys slobbering all over the cameras.

Johan had the next conversation with the mountain. It was atop a pyramid peak that appeared legitimately vertical from a distance. Of course, the onslope truth was somewhere around 50 degrees with a couloir-strewn cliff band halfway down to a mandatory air over another cliff band at the bottom that opened up to a wide open bowl. Consulting a Polaroid snapshot of the face, Johan counted down from five seconds to one, slowly. The top section was a collection of beautiful pow turns upon a gully-like slope, but as it rolled into a much steeper and fluted section, a slab of snow pulled away, taking Johan along. He rode the giant slab as it disintegrated around him until there was nothing but rocks below him and one narrow rib of snow to his far left, but somehow, he composed himself enough to point it to the only safety island in a sea of mayhem. He stopped, acres of snow pouring down around him, put his hands on his hips, and commented into his radio, “That wasn’t so good. Do you want to shoot the rest?”

Tom Day, who was still busy filming the avalanche as it spilled down the valley, returned: “If you want to ride it like we want to shoot it, that’s fine. But if you just want to get down, that’s understandable.”

Johan counted down again with a mandatory air below him, his original snowy take-off zone now a rocky mess. From my point of view, I had no idea where he was planning on going. He dropped. Three turns on a snowy patch released a secondary slide that enveloped him in a powder cloud as he threw on the brakes, slough tugging him down toward the cliff. He pulled out the radio, his heelside edge barely gripping the snow above a rock pile, and commented coolly, “That wasn’t such a good idea.”

Swede took over, directing him to the left where a hint of snow still remained above the rocky cliff: “Go really, really slow, Johan. I think your only way off it is that little snowy nub.”

Johan must have seen something we didn’t. He pointed his board toward the edge, jumped, and took flight for a 25-foot drop onto the upper edge of the bowl, stuck it, and flew down past the tongue from his original line, going Mach ten. All we could hear in the still mountain air was the fluttering of his jacket.

Next was Brian’s line, chosen with a cleaner exit in mind. Likewise, the slope avalanched, leaving Brian on top of what was in effect, a loaded gun. Essentially, when Brian dropped, he pulled the trigger. He was atop a knife-edge ridge that had terminal exposure on either side. Traversing over to his line was about as tense a legburner as I’d ever witnessed. As quickly as possible, Brian confirmed the terrain below, identifying key markers like a big rock to skier’s right of a sweeping right-hand turn.

It was pretty clean all the way to the valley floor. Cameras ready, three, two, one. As expected, the slope let go in a manageable slough that built as Brian flowed his line. The slough sped up, clouding up behind him and to his left, enveloping the clean line in a whiteout. Brian’s turns were just barely distinguishable from a straight line, he merely flew alongside the avalanche with mild pressure from one edge to the next, throwing up his own wake of afterburner smoke, inches from rock, calm and composed with hellfire off his left shoulder. But to keep the line interesting, he headed straight toward an outcropping of granite, hit it, and floated a long drawn-out air, riding out his landing in a pocket of snow just ahead of the avalanche cloud and riding out his landing on the tail of his hovering board.

At the end of each day, we were deposited by our pilot Max on Standard Ridge, where Tom Day filmed a nightly time lapse¿his specialty, on 35mm film¿while the rest of us soaked in the red to orange to purple to midnight-blue darkness, far from the stale air of Vegas casinos. And finally it came time to sigure-perfect slough management, teamwork, and a shot in the can for the boys slobbering all over the cameras.

Johan had the next conversation with the mountain. It was atop a pyramid peak that appeared legitimately vertical from a distance. Of course, the onslope truth was somewhere around 50 degrees with a couloir-strewn cliff band halfway down to a mandatory air over another cliff band at the bottom that opened up to a wide open bowl. Consulting a Polaroid snapshot of the face, Johan counted down from five seconds to one, slowly. The top section was a collection of beautiful pow turns upon a gully-like slope, but as it rolled into a much steeper and fluted section, a slab of snow pulled away, taking Johan along. He rode the giant slab as it disintegrated around him until there was nothing but rocks below him and one narrow rib of snow to his far left, but somehow, he composed himself enough to point it to the only safety island in a sea of mayhem. He stopped, acres of snow pouring down around him, put his hands on his hips, and commented into his radio, “That wasn’t so good. Do you want to shoot the rest?”

Tom Day, who was still busy filming the avalanche as it spilled down the valley, returned: “If you want to ride it like we want to shoot it, that’s fine. But if you just want to get down, that’s understandable.”

Johan counted down again with a mandatory air below him, his original snowy take-off zone now a rocky mess. From my point of view, I had no idea where he was planning on going. He dropped. Three turns on a snowy patch released a secondary slide that enveloped him in a powder cloud as he threw on the brakes, slough tugging him down toward the cliff. He pulled out the radio, his heelside edge barely gripping the snow above a rock pile, and commented coolly, “That wasn’t such a good idea.”

Swede took over, directing him to the left where a hint of snow still remained above the rocky cliff: “Go really, really slow, Johan. I think your only way off it is that little snowy nub.”

Johan must have seen something we didn’t. He pointed his board toward the edge, jumped, and took flight for a 25-foot drop onto the upper edge of the bowl, stuck it, and flew down past the tongue from his original line, going Mach ten. All we could hear in the still mountain air was the fluttering of his jacket.

Next was Brian’s line, chosen with a cleaner exit in mind. Likewise, the slope avalanched, leaving Brian on top of what was in effect, a loaded gun. Essentially, when Brian dropped, he pulled the trigger. He was atop a knife-edge ridge that had terminal exposure on either side. Traversing over to his line was about as tense a legburner as I’d ever witnessed. As quickly as possible, Brian confirmed the terrain below, identifying key markers like a big rock to skier’s right of a sweeping right-hand turn.

It was pretty clean all the way to the valley floor. Cameras ready, three, two, one. As expected, the slope let go in a manageable slough that built as Brian flowed his line. The slough sped up, clouding up behind him and to his left, enveloping the clean line in a whiteout. Brian’s turns were just barely distinguishable from a straight line, he merely flew alongside the avalanche with mild pressure from one edge to the next, throwing up his own wake of afterburner smoke, inches from rock, calm and composed with hellfire off his left shoulder. But to keep the line interesting, he headed straight toward an outcropping of granite, hit it, and floated a long drawn-out air, riding out his landing in a pocket of snow just ahead of the avalanche cloud and riding out his landing on the tail of his hovering board.

At the end of each day, we were deposited by our pilot Max on Standard Ridge, where Tom Day filmed a nightly time lapse¿his specialty, on 35mm film¿while the rest of us soaked in the red to orange to purple to midnight-blue darkness, far from the stale air of Vegas casinos. And finally it came time to sign the logbook¿the last entry was from a free-skiing group who had built a gigantic cheese-wedge on a slope above the cabin. The kicker stood out from the landscape like a gigantic, menacing pimple on an otherwise beautiful face. Word had it, Murray Wais and Smiley Nesbitt’s group never hit it, though they spent hours shoveling. We certainly didn’t poach such an eyesore, though we did agree with their words in the log: “There are times in people’s lives when they are moved to a special place. We think this may have been one of them. There are many pleasures in life, but none so grand as staying in this cabin with a private heli.”

Amen. sign the logbook¿the last entry was from a free-skiing group who had built a gigantic cheese-wedge on a slope above the cabin. The kicker stood out from the landscape like a gigantic, menacing pimple on an otherwise beautiful face. Word had it, Murray Wais and Smiley Nesbitt’s group never hit it, though they spent hours shoveling. We certainly didn’t poach such an eyesore, though we did agree with their words in the log: “There are times in people’s lives when they are moved to a special place. We think this may have been one of them. There are many pleasures in life, but none so grand as staying in this cabin with a private heli.”

Amen.