Jan. 30, 2008 - Issue #641: Trashing Health Care Premiums
Riding shotgun into undiscovered powder country
Unexpectedly, I found myself atop a three-metre drop in the Hidden Valley range at Brundage Mountain Resort. Cliff jumping was not yet in my repertoire. “What should I do?” I yelled down to ski instructor Corey Whitney, standing knee-deep in powder. “You should jump.”
So I did. Brundage was my fourth stop of five resorts in as many days. My quads were begging for mercy. I found myself humming to match the buzz in my legs, coaxing them through yet another powder parade.
It was the last run of the day, and we were discussing where to leave our mark. We passed the ski patrol putting up the ropes to close the Hidden Valley. “The rope isn’t up yet,” I pointed out. “You’re right,” replied Corey, still hesitating.
“And you’re doing your job, showing the Canadian around,” I reminded. “You wouldn’t want her to be disappointed. Besides, she needs to jump off another cliff.”
We ripped into the rocky, treed area on the resort’s boundaries. We ended up a bit too low to go back to the cliffs, but fallen trees work too. Our other riding companion, Sean, went first to check the landing four metres below. A plume of white fluttered above him. “Your turn,” chided Corey. I was off, weightless, falling into feathers.
My adventure had begun three days earlier at Silver Mountain Resort, two hours east of Spokane. It’s easy to find: just follow I90 from Coeur d’Alene and it’s on your right. Silver is very hard to miss, but if you blink you just might—the first three phases of condos built in the growing base village sold out within a day. I can see why: all you have to do is roll out of bed, grab a complimentary locally roasted coffee and jump on the gondola. What more could you ask for? Other than disgusting amounts of snow?
A fresh foot had fallen the morning of my arrival. After the 20-minute pleasure trip up the gondola, ski patroller Serena greeted me and pulled out a trail map. “The ropes haven’t dropped yet. You’re in for a treat,” she beamed. “PK wants me to show you his runs.”
PK is the brains behind the shaping of the Chair 2 Basin, some of the best chill glades I’ve ever ridden. The angle wasn’t intense, but the trees were playful. “They were made by skiers with skiers’ lines in mind, so they’re really awesome,” said Serena proudly. No argument here.
I also didn’t argue when Serena and I stood above the completely untouched North Face Glades, and she let me go first. I was, after all, the guest. We spent the majority of our time in the North Face, steeper than the Chair 2, which transitioned from wide to tight. Pine trees bent in agony at the foot of snow bearing down. I could hardly contain squeals at the line choices before me. Smooth, deep, untouched snow lay down, sweetly steep and waiting to be ravaged. I followed Serena a little ways into the trees. She stopped and stepped aside. “I don’t want to ruin your line. Have fun.”
The search for gold in the Silver Valley (guess what they actually found) began 120 years ago when Noah Kellogg’s jackass stumbled over a shiny chunk of rock. The rest, as they say, is history: the Jackass Ski Bowl opened in 1968 and kept its fantastic name until 1973. They still have a run named Jackass, to skier’s left of what used to be the Jackass chair (now ingeniously named Chair 4). Seems management didn’t like the moniker, but I like to think it spoke to the small-town good nature of the people on the hill. Similar to many resorts in the west, mining is what brought the people but riding keeps them here. It’s a blue collar village-turned-destination resort. The longest single-stage gondola was built 15 years later and the resort village followed. Now, Silver is aiming for gold amongst destination ski resorts in Idaho.
Usually, word of good resorts gets around. We all know about Whistler, Red and Whitefish. Without ever being to Idaho I’d heard of Brundage, Tamarack and Schweitzer. But I’d never heard of Silver Mountain. Few others have, either—as evidenced by my shock at seeing 10 people in line at 10:30 am, the first we’d seen all morning.
“Why aren’t people here?” I asked incredulously over a delicious vanilla bourbon stout at noon. I was reeling from adrenaline. Cathi Jerome, Silver’s marketing director, replied, “They think Pacific Northwest snow is heavy. They call it Cascade Crud.”
Indeed, many of Silver’s media quotes emphasize how light the snow is. It reminded me of cocoa—light and fluffy but with enough substance to make your mouth water. Not unlike the stout I’d just enjoyed. Kellogg and Wardner peaks provide a tonne of terrain, although finding something crazy steep is more of a challenge.
At an affordable $46 per pass for nearly eight metres of snow per year, 760 metre vertical drop and 1600 acres of terrain, Silver Mountain Resort is pretty gnarly. But snow, particularly the 43 centimetres that were falling while I was at Silver, can make driving a nightmare. I stayed at the comfortable Morning Star Lodge for two nights and decided to head to Schweitzer in the morning, as TV stations sputtered a perpetual stream of heavy snowfall warnings.
I left in the dark. Flakes resembling flat, wet insects slapped the windshield. Thirty-seven school districts in Spokane were closed and travel advisories choked the airwaves. I crawled along Highway 95 north to Sandpoint. As snow accumulated on the highway, so did the ants in my pants.
An agonizing three hours later I arrived at Schweitzer. I checked into Selkirk Lodge and threw on my gear in less than 12 minutes. Jennifer Ekstrom, communications manager, met me for breakfast at the Mojo Coyote Café adjoining the hotel. “You made good time,” she said.
Less talk, more rock, I thought, but we sat down for the pleasantries. Jennifer was feeling me out, telling me about the recently added high-speed quad and a triple chair, increasing the resort’s uphill capacity by 28 per cent. Schweitzer has also been added to Skiing Magazine’s top 25 ski resorts in North America. Then she asked me what I wanted to do. “Ride,” I answered. “How much snow did you get last night?”
“We’ve had eight inches in the last few hours. Some writers hesitate and say they haven’t skied much in the past year—that’s why I ask. But you look like you’re ready to go,” Jennifer smiled.
“We can talk about the hill on the chair,” I murmured through a yummy black bean burrito. She picked up her board on the way out. “What do you have for trees?” I asked hurriedly, searching for the sleeves of my jacket.
“Skiing Magazine rated us the third best glades in North America,” she said proudly.
I almost choked, “What the hell are we doing in here?”
Basin Express ferried us up 300-plus metres in four minutes. To be polite, I asked Jennifer to go ahead, showing me the requisite blue runs off the new chair. The run, Midway, was an anticipatory warm-up. Blue runs are not why people come here.
Now, there’s something you need to know about Schweitzer. The resort was open 28 days when I arrived, and a bluebird had only peaked her head out of the fog twice. Though I could see no more than 50 metres ahead of me and the light was flat, Jennifer tried to familiarize me with the terrain lay-out. We traversed along the Great Divide and all the way to Australia, so named because the trees are in the shape of the continent.
I couldn’t see the fog for the trees. Bent like they had belly-aches, the snow ghosts stood sentinel while Jennifer and I zigged and zagged between them. I could hear her laugh through the quiet fog, glimpses of her green coat popped between white mounds. The glades ended in a lingering, lactic ski out to the Snow Ghost chair. “Third in North America? That’s it?” I was breathless. Jennifer and I got back on the lift. Feeling selfish, I asked, “Why do you want people to know about this?”
“I feel so fortunate to be here,” she replied, “I want people to come play in my playground.” With more than 2900 acres to explore and a 720 metre vertical drop, Schweitzer’s new tagline is “Carve your own space.” I was feeling more like a playground bully. No matter how big Australia is, it’s still too small. Especially in trees like that.
We later stomped through Siberia and Pucci’s Chute, and I was beside myself. I spent my entire thigh-charring day there. But I don’t agree with Jennifer. I wouldn’t want people to go there if it was mine, even if lift tickets are only $55. Bumper stickers in the parking lot read “Don’t come here.” And maybe they won’t—yet. Kirk Johnson, who runs the repair shop where you can get your boards waxed for $10 by morning, asked me over pints at Pucci’s Pub if I knew what Schweitzer meant in German. “Can’t see shit!” he laughed.
Andrew Flaschenreim, who waxed my board and gently told me it sucked, did a damn fine job of waxing it none the less. “The holidays bring the numbers up, but the fog keeps them away.” He likes it though, and described Schweitzer as if you’re walking on the moon. “There could be hundreds of people around you, but you can’t see or hear them.”
Perhaps the fog is what makes Schweitzer better. You’re supposed to be able to see three mountain ranges, three states and Canada. I was having a hard time thinking of home, so I didn’t care that I couldn’t see it. But I think I left a piece of my heart in Siberia.
Next, my adventure turned south to Boise where I had the unique pleasure of night-time skiing at Bogus Basin Recreation Area. Driving north of Boise, the road progressed from flat city streets to a twisting narrow road within 45 minutes. Snow drifts reached far above the car roof.
Despite being in the high plains desert, Bogus is a 2600-acre area with a 540 metre vertical drop that gets around four metres of snow per year. I was surprised to see that it was so big, and more shocked to learn that Bogus Basin is a non-profit, charitable organization, run by an all-volunteer Board of Directors whose sole purpose is family fun.
I may have had more fun if a howling 50 km/hr wind wasn’t blasting me with shrapnel. My cheeks were raw as the sun set over the city lights, but it didn’t seem to bother the vast number of kids ripping down the runs.
Riding at night was relaxing, even if I had to ride with my mitt over my face. Bogus is made of three bowls and marketing director Jenifer Johnson and I spent the majority of our time on the backside of the mountain, where the wind was slightly less harrowing.
Bogus, so named because of fool’s gold found there, has been operating for 65 years. Its unique combination of city proximity, intermediate terrain and admirable ideals brings close to 300 000 people every year. Fifty thousand more enjoy the extensive Nordic and snowshoe trail network and tubing park.
Despite the weather, night skiing made for a new perspective on riding, which was fitting considering the type of recreation that Bogus encourages. Jenifer was pleased to show me around the hill she is obviously very proud of—and who wouldn’t be? A ski hill that successfully serves over a quarter of a million people per year is not for profit? With discounted programs for schools and at-risk youth, and adaptive programs for people with disabilities? In an often elitist sport, Bogus has a refreshing business outlook.
The following morning, The Littlest Hobo theme song was running through my head. I hopped in the rented CRV in search of the Big B—Brundage—and headed north. I’d driven through the cute town of McCall two years ago on a road trip through Idaho, Montana and Utah, stopping for a milkshake at Bryan’s Burger Den which sadly no longer exists. As I passed the tranquil Payette Lake and Brundage Mountain Resort, I’d wondered at that time if I’d ever be able to ride there. Seems things have a way of working out.
This time, relentless snow and bundled parkas replaced sunshine and beach bums—and I was OK with that because Brundage supposedly has “The Best Snow in Idaho™.” It’s a lofty phrase, considering the state competition.
Communications director April Russell was assured and confident I would agree with the tagline. The snow is like talcum powder and there’s a shitload of it—10 metres per season. As I walked up the stairs to the lodge, she approached me saying, “You must be Bobbi. I know you like trees and powder, so when you’re ready, we can get out there.”
I looked at her quizzically. “I Googled you,” she explained. “We don’t need to mess around on the blue runs, although we only have about four. Do you need to do a warm-up run?”
Standing above North, a blue run flanked by trees, each individual branch laden with fresh snow on a backdrop of white fog, I was getting the impression that April meant business.
“Uh, not really,” I replied, although my legs were still wooden from Schweitzer.
“Good,” she said, disappearing into the trees. I liked her instantly.
To be honest, I was expecting a typical local hill with groomed blues and greens, and that the tagline was just because it rhymed. I was utterly wrong. Local hill, yes. Beginner friendly, hell no. Sure, there’s a ski school and a day care, but chances are mom and dad were born and bred powder hounds who’ve been ripping those 1500 acres, as were their parents, since it opened in 1963.
In the humble lodge, I asked April why Brundage maintains its family-run roots—there must be several lucrative offers, especially with Tamarack down the road. “We’re a no frills mountain. People come here to ride. The community wanted to keep it simple, so they’ve kept it in the family and we all love them for it.”
Our day was only interrupted by one thing: a well-deserved pint at Smoky’s Pub, named after the one-eyed dog that saved the lodge from burning. It’s too perfect to describe.
After lunch, the air grew thick and heavy grey clouds continued to unload. I did not visit the backside Lakeview Bowl, not because I couldn’t see it but because the unmarked area known as Mexico was too sweet to leave. It’s thick with trees and gullies, but the fall-lines are perfect for snowboarders—not once did I have to struggle through a painful traverse.
There aren’t many marked runs at Brundage. They leave discovery to you. Your morning starts at the apex of a crescendo that opens to heart-swelling, face-aching glee. I was standing in the Meadow Bowl, heavy air pressing down on my shoulders when I remembered a horoscope I had read six months ago. It read this year would be a turning point. That I would find “my power spot, my mother lode, my sacred ground.” And there it was. I left Brundage after the best day of riding in my life. Enough said.
I woke up at Tamarack Resort, eyes stinging, head aching, legs hissing, hungry, dehydrated and discombobulated. You might even say I was cranky. But then I saw something I hadn’t seen in five days: blue sky.
One red-eye coffee, a litre of water and a breakfast burrito later, I was off for first tracks with the Club. The Club is an exclusive group for Tamarack homeowners and their guests; they have priority access to all activities at the four-season resort: world-class alpine, nordic and backcountry skiing, as well as golfing, rafting, hiking, mountain biking ... the list goes on. Tamarack is a self-sustaining village complete with a medical clinic and church. It’s an oasis, nestled in the Payette River Mountains overlooking Lake Cascade. The sun was breaking over the peaks as the hushed Tamarack Express whisked us 500 metres up the mountain. I was quiet. A further 330 metres placed us at the summit overlooking 2100 acres of terrain. Nearly two thirds of the expected eight metres of snow had already fallen. In the distance, heavy grey clouds were looking to unload some more.
Many of the runs are appropriately named: Me First, Encore, Hoo Ya! Bliss is a ripping groomer that undulates between glades all the way to the terrain park, which includes a monstrous 22-foot Olympic sized superpipe. I got vertigo just looking at it.
Within 12 minutes we were back at the 2300 metre summit, riding over Canoe Ridge to a cornice, dropping into pure Adrenaline, a champagne-filled trackless glade. From leg-burning powder to Mach 10 corduroy, we then dropped into the Grove just below mid-mountain.
It was silent. Looming tamaracks, red against the white snow, stood at attention as we picked our way through the heavy snow. Snowflakes sparkled. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss, knowing I would be leaving within hours. I slowed my pace and watched a snow hare bounce out of a tree well, skip across the snow and disappear into another.
After the Grove, our group split and went separate ways; I continued riding with Jessica Flynn, Tamarack communications director, and her clever boyfriend, Kevin. “What do you have left in you? Want to find some more powder?”
I was thoroughly beaten and burned, but Kevin convinced me we needed to return to the summit. Sometimes my arms are made of rubber, but it’s unfortunate other parts of my body aren’t. We slipped over a knoll and four turns in, I forgot my gospel. My rear leg had dropped into the second circle of hell. I eased off my tail, buried my tip and launched myself into a cartwheel. My head assisted as the fulcrum and rat-a-tat-tat went my neck. I dug in with my toe edge as my legs came around. Catching up to Kevin, he smiled wryly. “How you doing?” he asked as I flopped flat on my back. “I just used my head as a pivot in a cartwheel,” I replied.
“I forgot to tell you that’s not why they call this run ‘The Spine,’” he laughed. “You have to use your head, but not like that.” Thanks, dude. We cruised back to the lodge, I picked up my camera and relegated my hurting body to the sidelines to watch rubbery daredevils flip and jib in a slope style competition.
Fat flakes began to fall. As I retraced my wheel tracks back to Boise to fly home, I listened to C’mon, Whitey Houston, Black Mountain and Neko Case. Loud. I filed my snow-laden memories into a box and tried to shut off my heart. White sun blazed down the canyon walls. Will Idaho change your life? Perhaps. There’s only one way to find out. V
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