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Ski Racer’s Salvation

Former racer finds solace in the wonders of the mountains, along with mascara-wearing ripper GFs on a girls-only trip on the Powder Highway

STORY: S-Media
BY: Claire Challen. Photography: Paul Morrison

I always vowed to return to each resort I had visited as a ski racer or coach, to enjoy simply as a skier; a tourist following my own docket.

In my early days of ski racing, I skied all over the world but had only seen the insides of hotels and a handful of ski trails, salted to a firmness most people avoid. But I’d never truly experienced skiing until I hung up those stiff boards and parked my two-sizes-too-small race boots in the free pile at the dump. Nevertheless, the day I skied in my final race, I felt my insides weeping with an ache so deep I didn’t know how I would ever recover. I always vowed to return to each resort I had visited as a ski racer or coach, to enjoy simply as a skier; a tourist following my own docket. Ski hard, but take part in all the other bounty that ski resorts and towns offer without the repercussions of a 5am morning run or 7am lift load. This vow was to be my salvation. It would make my years of ski racing worth something. I would ski for fun. A lot. And enjoy après without a curfew.

Ski Sirens

kootenays-037In order to excel, a girl needed to throw femininity out the window and embrace the walk, talk and attitude of her male teammates. That was the world order back then. The fastest girl preferred to be one of the guys: her life mission to hang with them, or better yet, beat them on and off the slopes. Rarely found was a gentle, petite girl winning ski races. Now with the likes of media-sensation Lindsey Vonn gracing covers of sports and fashion magazines, girls can be as feminine as they want to be and still kick butt in their sport. Now it’s more acceptable to truly BE a girl – whether hucking your chick meat from what was previously hucked-by-men-only cliffs, throwing huge tricks in the park, or tearing up the downhill course with highlighted locks and doe-eyes enhanced by lenses of pink. A girl can be a knock-your-socks off bombshell in the looks department and she may blow your mind if she can ski too.

On this day, I was headed out on the Powder Highway in the Kootenays in southern B.C., a 15-passenger van full to busting with three other girls and just enough room to sit down and buckle up. My travel companions were physically tough but perfectly feminine, mountain-loving girls. We would loosely follow the Nonstop Ski and Snowboard company’s route from Calgary to Kicking Horse and then Fernie. Surrounded by gear bags, likely filled with numerous wardrobe options and hair styling implements tucked away amidst the bulging duffel bags.

All different backgrounds brought together for one week with a solid common ground – our love for skiing and riding the mountains. I was about to embark on a girls’ ski trip. No racing involved, unless you include competing for that last piece of chocolate or scoop of ice cream.

Skier girls are a different breed and also the type of girl I connect with best. It’s that innate toughness, a simplicity of desire to ski as much as possible and the attitude that there are no rules regarding a girl’s role in this world. It’s okay to take up the axe and chop the firewood, see who can climb that tree the quickest, shotgun a can of pilsner and release the after-effects. Absolutely healthy most of the time, but that doesn’t mean she’s afraid to mow down a tray of poutine once in a while. This is the kind of girl who can be wined and dined, treated like a gentle flower, and she’ll love it. But wake up the following day and challenge her to a chinese downhill, and she’ll love that too. One of the cool parts of skiing for me is meeting like-minded souls who have a love for the mountains and relish the freedom and challenge that skiing can bring. Connected even before we met through our shared love of skiing, we’d find the connection drew deeper as we explored our penchant for fine dining, good wine, laughter and chocolate throughout our week together. All in Western Canada for the same reason – namely the love of the mountains – these girls and I were going to get along just fine.

The Entourage

Teacher, skydiver and snowboard-park princess Emily Park is heading into her eighth gap year from the UK and sixth winter as an instructor for Nonstop. At first she was quiet, choosing her words carefully, but underneath her calm exterior is a tigress who wants to throw herself out of an airplane whenever anyone will open the door. She’ll tell it like it is, even if that means telling you that your hair looks scruffy and you probably don’t want your photo taken looking like that.

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Detail oriented, open and friendly, Nonstop’s marketing gal Christy Sutherland exchanged her job at the Australian Department of Defence for a quieter life in the Kootenays. It’s never a good idea to embark on a ski trip unless equipped with your own personal undercover ninja who could bust out some life-saving manoeuvres, should the need arise. Christy’s mad life skills, which I could only imagine, combined with a winning smile took a load off my mind. Like a true Aussie, she always made sure we had enough liquid sustenance in case we should need it.

Determined to move to B.C. from the time she was a wee dot in the UK, Jen Mitchell began her B.C. days as an instructor and moved up the ranks to ski school supervisor in Fernie. Jen’s character was a perfect fit and Nonstop easily persuaded her to join as a host/instructor, where she inspired new recruits to seize any opportunity to stay in the Kootenays. Taking advantage of ever expanding Fernie, Jen also has her own home painting business which helps to satisfy her entrepreneurial side. Spin bike instructor and mountain bike enthusiast too, this gal is game for pretty much anything you might throw her way. And if you want to have a giggle, she’s a good one to get you there.

Bubbles & Meat

We cruised into Kicking Horse to tuck into some pub fare at slope-side Winston’s, fuelling up with jugs of ale and specialty burgers. Our local host – ticket window Andy, Kicking Horse’s one-man marketing army and RMR marketing guy Matt Mosteller – filled the room with inspired life stories of sacrifice, ski bum style. A far cry from racing days where the chat would have been in the form of a team meeting discussing the wax and choosing the line. My stomach would have been aflutter with nerves, but the only thing it was full of now was beer bubbles and meat. Lush Mountain accommodation had provided us lodging in a glorious chalet. With just four of us, it was huge – three expansive floors connected with a flowing staircase fit for a girl to make a ball-gown entrance – or in our case, our matching powder blue long underwear and knee high ski socks. Sorry boys, there was no pillow fight.kootenays-016

Making up for the lack of champagne powder (as expected at this time of year), we made a stop at the Eagle Eye mountain top restaurant for killer views and champagne (the drink). Scallops were on the menu and became the food of choice thereafter. How long does it take to get the disease of kings anyway? Hopefully more than a week if one is genetically predisposed.

Showered and glammed up after an apres-ski calorie burn at the Dawn Mountain x-country trails just minutes from our condo, we headed off to our dinner invite. Passing through an unlikely area that screamed Kootenay hillbilly haven, we turned in through the gates of a wilderness oasis. Cedar House Restaurant and Chalets is one of Golden’s hidden gems, tucked away in the woods only a short distance from the town. Whisked inside by our hosts to our own private dining area, another evening of indulgence playing the relaxed tourist began. I would have been pounding down the pasta in years gone by in hopes to gain a couple more pounds for the downhill the next day, but now I could seek out that scrumptious glass of wine to go with scallops the size of golf balls.

Pineapple Express

The trip took a strange twist the next morning as we headed to Purcell Heli-Skiing. We ended up a few minutes late to the lodge, but it was immediately apparent there was no sense of urgency. Fresh baked muffins and hugs from owner, Rudi Gertsch eased the blow that we would not be heli-skiing due to the Pineapple Express that had rolled into the area.

Touted as one of the “grandfathers of heli-skiing”, Gertsch is no stranger to no-fly days. We were expected farther down the road later that day so we couldn’t stick around to see if the helis would fly the next day which was tough on Christy and Jen especially. This would have been another tick on their bucket lists. Even though the snow was less than ideal, given the go-ahead these girls would have jumped in heli-ready, gear on before the rest of us would have had time to think about putting on our boots.

kootenays-113-Edit-Edit-EditYogi Bear’s Campground

Any day not skiing is not as good as you may have planned. Alas, the girls and I were determined to continue our adventure in high spirits. As a closed heli-door opens another door, or perhaps gate to the world’s largest enclosed grizzly bear habitat, as it was in this case. Boo, resident grizzly at Kicking Horse Resort, emerged from his make-shift den, eager to fatten himself back up after a long winter. Unfortunately, I would miss the gondola deer dinner toss, but I was happy to see him munching away on fish and vegetables and could have stayed for hours, but the girls were waiting.

Next up was a tour down an active logging road towards a natural treasure called the Lussier Hot Springs. The springs, set up against the Lussier River, made the hot-cold treatments relatively easy to manage, unless you’re me. With a little slip and plunk I was in. Who would have thought such a shallow river could pack such a punch, I thought, as I was carried quickly away from the group. I knew those girls were special already but after they clamoured to catch me, all shrieks and splashes to grab an arm or leg and drag me back.

Bavarian Champagne

Eager to get back on the road, we zipped along in the sunshine past snow-free fields, wondering if we had skipped a month or two and now it was summer. It’s unique to me to travel in a passenger van neither as coach nor racer. With the Nonstop logo plastering the van, it’s obvious we are on tour. Peek in through the windows to the laid-back vibe inside and again, it’s obvious. Drinking water and nibbling girl friendly gluten-free road snacks, I compare this road trip to the old days in vans filled with racers where I was the pseudo mother, keeping a constant vigil on what the racers were putting into their bodies. No pop, no candy, no fast food, COME ON guys.

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Memories of college racing road trips, the van filled with nasty olfactory overload after a Macdonald’s feast and Euro bodies ejecting remnants of their Triple Big Macs. I still wince at the thought of those times; the air was so thick in the van I thought I might pass out. Such a nice change to be in a van of all females, where the air smells sweet, albeit slightly sulphurous after our dip in the springs.

“We’re here!” shouts driver-extraordinaire, Jen. The quaint town of Kimberly welcomes us with colourful homes and quiet streets as we pass through up to the nearby Kimberley Resort. Resident hair expert Emily graciously whipped her magic hands and tools through my hair to make me quickly presentable for the evening.

The “Bavarian City of the Rockies” evokes images of festivals, dances and song while the cobblestone street, closed off from traffic reminds me of Boulder, Colorado. A lively meal at happening Pedal & Tap Restaurant and Lounge in the heart of the village is topped off with a challenge. Zip around the restaurant on a child’s bike avoiding chairs, tables and people, with knees in your armpits. Do not put a foot down at any time. Emily, always game for a challenge and a photo op, hops on her little bike and we zip around together. But our fun night soon turned to day and we made our move down the highway toward Fernie.

Again we travelled in the sun. Is there anyone skiing anywhere? Waiting for us was Mike Mcphee, sales and marketing guy for Island Lake Lodge cat-skiing. Riding through the forest in a snowcat, we caught glimpses of spectacular terrain opportunities peaking through the tops of the tremendous trunked red cedar trees. Bursting out of the woods we arrive in paradise – a stunning lodge and cabins set at the base of a magnificent bowl and tree-skiing – these are the kinds of views and terrain that make me even more grateful to be a skier. There would be no skiing for us today but we had a lot to look forward to with the promise we could return next season. With the sun continuing to shine and the forecast showing rain, and lots of it, we were prepared for the potential of more days in furry apres moon boots versus our ski boots.

Claire & the Chocolate Factory

Opening the door to our cozy digs at the Fernie Lodging Company , we were pleasantly greeted by a snuggly living room complete with stone fireplace and cottage kitchen. The loft above the living room was to be my space for the next three nights. With views of the slopes from the claw foot tub, I was in for some luxurious pampering.

With a ski resort at our doorstep, we had to go up and check it out. It wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for, yet we made some turns and the girls showed me some of their favourite bowls. Luckily I have been here in mid-winter and know this place to constantly replenish it’s numerous bowls and tree lines day after day.

Down town, we realized yet again that our similarities didn’t end in the mountains as Jen, Cristy and I came out of our change rooms in the same top, which we both ended up buying. Shopping. Check. Tummies rumbling, we crossed the street for casual soup and sandwiches at the bustling Loaf restaurant. A couple doors down, we were invited for a tour of Beanpod. The only bean-to-bar company in Canada that makes chocolate the traditional way,  Beanpod is quite the unique spot in small town Fernie. With flavours such as lavender, passionfruit, and salted dark, this was the perfect dessert. Ensuring the 700 bean espresso bar was in an especially safe spot, we moved on down the road to the next female-friendly stop.

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A facial for Christy, hot pools and lounge rooms for Jen and Emily, and a massage for me at the 901 Spa. Being cold for so many years, I relish any opportunity to be warm. This one-hour long massage in a heated sanctuary was the ultimate. The spa bathrooms allowed us all the space to “recover” from our treatments. I needed time to regain my strength after my ultra relaxation – plus I needed to get rid of my massage face – that wonder ring one gets from being face down in the head rest for an hour. Refreshed and feeling peckish, Yamagoya Sushi would be the ultimate clincher to a stand-out town day.

Back at the resort, the thumping tunes of the nearby Monster Energy Party House resounded through our walls. Neon green and full of big mountain guys here for the Enemy Lines event; it would be sacrilege not to walk across the street to check it out. We strolled over to the party, lured in mainly by the fact that this was the same house from the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. Opening the door we’re greeted by an over-powering man musk, the whiff of ski boots and beer. We receive a tour of the pad from an overly-sauced guy who was most impressed with the super-sized bottle of Jaegermeister they’d just finished and the foosball table. Eying the scattered empty pizza boxes, these finely-tuned athletes were obviously headlong into their training for the big event the following day. Carbs and fat, plus the dehydrating benefits of alcohol, throw in a couple of hours of alcohol-induced sleep, a leftover slab of pizza found atop the sound system for breakfast and there you have a recipe for product sponsorship and a travel budget. Sweet. It’s not everyday that you get to chug beer with such stellar athletes.

Ice cream and champagne

Back at our peaceful haven for our final night together, we finished off ice cream and champagne. In Emily’s words, “It’s a British thing. You just have to get on with it, even if the weather isn’t great.” We had done just that and there were no regrets. We toasted to a ski journey without powder and to new friendships, with the promise to connect for more merriment, including real snowy ski days next time.

In my eyes, skiing is number one when heading out on a ski trip, but a trip can be made or lost with the people, the food and drink, and the accommodation. I’ve lived months in volkswagen buses, peed in parking lots all over North America, slept in ski shops and cooked in shop windows after closing time. I am completely thankful for having had those experiences as it makes me appreciate a 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton bed-sheet in a high-end lodge or an over-priced martini in an upscale restaurant all the more.

I am a recovering ski racer, healed by the wonders of the mountains; the off-piste slopes and the joys that come with travelling to new resorts, meeting new skiers, and divulging in meals of royalty. Why not enjoy the what years of ski racing brought to me in terms of a feel for the snow and a pure love of skiing. Sure, I ski like a girl – and I’m ok with that. But I’ll race ya.

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