PLAYING IN THE SNOW
I recently had the opportunity to go cat skiing with Canadian Olympians and Para-Olympians, thanks to Chris Welner, editor of Impact Magazine, and jumped at the opportunity even though this would be my first attempt at such an endeavour. What could be more fun than hanging out with cool people, making some turns in deep powder and taking a few photos under a blue-bird sky?
After an early morning and a long drive, the group met in the day lodge at Castle Mountain near Pincher Creek. Coffee and muffins, introductions, the safety briefing, instructions on the use of the avalanche beacon, bag lunch in the backpack and we were off.
The Powder Stagecoach cat skiing operation uses Castle’s Huckleberry chairlift to get us part-way up the mountain The snow cat then crawls up Giddy-Up Trail taking us to chutes and bowls that run off Haig Ridge. Up top we practice finding a buried avalanche beacon and then we’re off.
Into the fog we ski following our guide Darrel Lewko and photographer Jan Schoelzel. I make a few turns behind them, conscious that I’m struggling in the deep powder and feel uncomfortable with borrowed fat skis. But I make it down the first couple of pitches without pitching over and join Jan to make some pictures of the other skiers.
With a 20 mm lens mounted on my camera I wait for the first skiers to come out of the fog. This isn’t just a bit of fog. I doubt I’d see Sam Spade if he stepped out from behind a tree. I can only just see the trees 25 metres away.
Then Graham Nishikawa, guide for visually impaired Nordic skier Brian McKeever, cuts across in front of me and makes a tight left turn only a couple of metres from me. McKeever, fresh off his multiple-gold-medal performance in Sochi is right behind him riding telemark skis. They keep coming – cross country skiers Brady Lehman and Ivan Babikov, ski cross racers Louis-Pierre Helie and Brady Lehman, McKeever’s brother Robin, and Para-Olympians Michelle Salt and Alexandra Starker. And I’m shooting with the widest lens in my bag!
The group stays close together, following guide Lewko’s shouts and the barely visible tracks from other skiers in our group. The next couple of pitches are sweet and I begin to get my powder legs. The Olympians are having a great time, skiing fast, whooping and hollering. Finding joy in movement and the snow.
Then the snow turns a bit crusty, the terrain gets steeper and the trees are just a bit closer together. Not wishing to interact with a dangerous tree well, I slow down. After stopping to catch my breath a couple of times I reach the cat track at the bottom of the run, turn left and head down to the bottom of the Huckleberry chair, exhausted and elated.
Funny, the 20-and-30-something Olympians seem to have more energy than I do. Duh?
As we wait for the snow cat, Lewko’s certified avalanche rescue dog Huck and his young trainee dog Anfo play in the snow. The cat was hauling the other group of Olympians and media up the hill so we had a short break. Thank God.
I feel more comfortable on the next run, but fall a couple of time near the bottom. Damned those trees and narrow chutes.
On the third run the fog has lifted a bit and I decide to forget about pictures and just enjoy the run. Nice idea, but my legs refuse to cooperate, my balance is all wonky and I have no energy. I fall several times, the soft powder making the falls painless, but making getting back on my feet awkward. Our other guide Tom Ross stays with me, patiently encouraging me. Getting to the bottom is a relief.
I decide to call it a day.
But I did it and enjoyed it. I got to meet and photograph some terrific people and have another wonderful adventure.