Words: Joe Lax
Photos: Delaney Zayac, Bradley Slack
Jello Biafra, lead singer of The Dead Kennedys, once snarled, “A haircut is not a lifestyle, imagine Sid Vicious at 35?” That line has stayed with me throughout the years. Like Biafra and his frustration with with the punkat the time, I have always felt a bit out of step with what has been cool in snowboarding, especially as the trends come and go. For me it has always been just about snowboarding in the mountains and finding a way to keep doing it for a lifetime. As the shred demographic from the “peak era” of snowboarding ages, those that have kept snowboarding as the centerpiece of their lives have had to make strategic choices to ensure that their next winter will always be their best. The “snowboard lifestyle,” as defined by those who live at ski resorts, gets old. The realities of wage slavery and high living costs can have a souring effect as time adds up. Sacrifices are made as a means to snowboard as much as possible, but life has a way of catching up—and still all I want to do is get board wild. So, together with the friends who’ve stuck around, our better halves, and now our kids, I’ve found ways to leave the “life after boarding” chatter in the rearview.
I have always been jealous of the surfing lifestyle. The simplicity is inviting; live near the water, grab your surfboard and head out. I picture waking up early and hitting the surf—getting the fix—and then going to work and getting on with the day. I have friends on coastlines that live this way. Surfing seems to come standard with longevity. It has always appeared to me that there is more there than in snowboarding to offer for those that consider the chase a lifelong pursuit. Perhaps it’s easier on the body, too? Dave Basterrechea, Chris Ankeny, and I have looked to surfers who position themselves where the waves are consistently good as we’ve built our lives around the priority of being ready and available to get into the mountains when it’s on. We’ve spent years establishing ourselves in Pemberton, BC, where the local breaks are unbelievably good to those with the ambition, skill, and understanding to access them.
Backcountry or “Big Mountain” snowboarding— whatever you want to call it—often feels like a lot more of a sacrifice than resort boarding. The time commitments can be huge. The importance of timing and the need to drop everything because the conditions are right has probably made me appear like a selfish asshole more times than I care to admit. But around my snowboarding I’ve built a stable life for my family, while maintaining a consistent amount of time on snow. It’s taken creativity, but I’ve managed to reject the norms of a five day, 50 week work life. In the words of the Ramones, it’s not my place in the nine-to-five world. See, in my younger days I developed an itch for rugged and remote lines that just doesn’t get reliably scratched riding the lift on the weekend. Lining up with the masses is enough to make a person want to avoid the resort environment completely—even if it’s conveniently a short distance down the road. But when your taste wanders into the backcountry, finding a way to survive financially is a constant challenge—there’s no getting around working for the average person.
I started forest firefighting out of Pemberton in my early 20s with the knowledge that it was a good summer job, both physically demanding and sometimes very exciting. I didn’t realize at the time, but I was entering into something that would become a career. Firefighting is full on manual labour to the extreme, but it’s also a job where you need to think and be ready to react. Strong work ethic should be a core foundation for any forest firefighter as well as the stamina to suffer a bit while working in an environment that is often unforgiving. Working on a team is a large part of the job and can be as challenging as the physical work itself. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time navigating the hills, developing plans and immediately putting them to action, all the while looking at the landscape and visualizing how the fire may react to the forest and the terrain. In a way this is very much like traveling and snowboarding in the backcountry, where similar assessments are made about snow and avalanche potential with respect to the terrain. These powerful forces of nature each have a way of putting you in your place, and demand a high level of respect and situational awareness. It’s not always exciting, and often the work can be monotonous, but we make jokes and no matter how long the days are, they all seem to fly by. The job provides the chance to work a lot of hours in a short amount of time—to squirrel away some cash as a means to potentially worka little less in the winter.
14 years later I still find the job fun, and just as challenging, but now my roles are a bit different from when I started. I have a supervisory position, and with that comes responsibility and the pressure to make important decisions promptly. The work is demanding, and by the end of a busy fire season your body and mind can feel pretty taxed. But overall the opportunities I’ve had with this job have been like no other, and after all the places and things I’ve seen over the years I feel pretty lucky. And through it all, as I’ve exercised the professional development I see as part of a full life, my work has been like cross training for boarding. Fighting fire in BC, coastal BC in particular, can be very challenging based on the terrain and location of fires. I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out how to access tricky places—great practice for solving puzzles getting on peaks. The mountains, whether in summer or winter, aren’t always forgiving, and year-round I’m asking whether risks match up with rewards. It’s important to recognize when it’s go time and when it’s time to take a step back.
And then there’s the benefit of time spent in helicopters. While the focus is the task at hand, such as scouting new fires or developing plans for existing ones, scenic flights over the high ground of the Coast Range have been common. I often picture the mountains with a winter coat, letting myself daydream just a moment before smoke and fire bring me back. It’s not healthy to start the winter countdown too early in the summer, but by default, snowboarding these mountains is always on my mind.
Dave Basterrechea’s exposure to the local ranges came during the 90s as a professional snowboarder, riding and filming in the Whistler backcountry. Dave B is a humble dude whose talents took him around the world with legends like Craig Kelly, Tom Burt and Canadian snowboard heroes Jonaven Moore and Brian Savard. By the late 90s and early 2000s the marketing focus of the snowboard industry had changed, become more jump and street orientated, and caused big mountain heli budgets to shrink. At the same time, snowmobile technology quickly evolved and opened possibilities for travel through steep and technical terrain. Snowboarders turned to sleds to explore the backcountry, and Dave B was on the front lines. Basterrechea was tagging serious features like the legendary double stage behemoth “Papa Jordan” on the Pemberton icecap and pioneering the near vertical spine walls of Brandywine and beyond.
There is something about Dave’s American spirit that seems to drive the entrepreneurial. The Idaho transplant designed and produced the first snowboard rack for snowmobiles, under the now iconic banner Cheetah Factory Racing. At first it was for straight up function, as a way to travel more efficiently via sleds in the backcountry without having a board strapped on a backpack, but Dave soon saw that he could grow CFR into his personal piece of that surfer’s paradise lifestyle. His company has progressed over the years by developing products alongside the rapid advancements in snowmobile technology. It took some time for the business to gain enough traction to become a full-time income provider—Basterrechea also worked locally as a forest firefighter for several years while CFR was growing. But he put in the time and effort, and now each generation of Whistler jumpers and pow-chasers is kitted with his racks. The growth of the business is somewhat bittersweet—at the same time as Dave’s ridden the boom in all things backcountry to security, more people are out in the pow, which can sometimes feel like a limited resource. But it’s a small compromise as the business itself has allowed him the opportunity to build a life in Pemberton with his wife Vanessa Stark and son Drake.
Besides, the drive to shred big mountains has never left Dave. His curiosity and persistence to go further has put him on top of many beastly lines in the Sea-to-Sky Corridor. A commitment to pushing the limits of snowmobile access has been key, but he’s also learned that having the fitness and skill to splitboard and use mountaineering techniques is essential to extending the dream to reach the lines that parallel the heaviest of waves. And of the crowds of people who use his products very few have the dedication to compete for tracks with Dave.
Local boardsman Chris Ankeny moved up to Pemberton in 2005 to work for industrial design house FYi, which at the time was designing Burton’s AK line. Ankeny, being both a talented photographer and veteran big mountain shred, immediately recognized the potential of the area as a mecca for backcountry exploration and powdery line tagging. The maritime snowpack—deeper and friendlier than his continental home range in Montana—opened his eyes to the possibilities of this playground. Chris and his wife Lisa jumped through major hoops with Canadian immigration but, after a long haul, successfully made Pemby their permanent home.
As a self-proclaimed coffee nerd, Chris immediately recognized the gaping hole in the local caffeinated offerings. Gas station coffee dominated the scene. Ankeny was looking for something to support a future in this new paradise. He decided to go for it against the advice of local naysayers, purchased a retail space and opened up what is now a local icon: Mount Currie Coffee Company. Situated in the village that by design looks up at the legendary mountain (which he has ridden many times) Chris branded his business after the multi-peaked monolith. The shop was developed as a means to continue an existence fuelled by a love of snowboarding—what better way to cement that ideal than tying its identity to the peak that is Pemberton’s most visible symbol of that love? With mountains and business, timing plays a crucial role, but so does motivation and work ethic—both of which Ankeny has in spades. In recent years he’s expanded MCCC into Whistler, offering high quality coffee, food, and mountain stoke to folks rambling down main street or, as is the new norm, taking the time to cut across the village for a better cup.
The wives, or “old ladies” if you will, pretty much control the scene—although none of the dudes like to admit it. Now that kids are in the picture we rely on each other to make it work, so all can maintain sanity. Mental health is managed by frequent trips into the mountains, in a give and take scenario where strategic planning and “chip collecting” can often begin early in the summer. You want to do a multi-day mountain bike trip with your friends, honey? Ok. I will save those chips for a sunny pow day a few months from now. It’s funny but true—the women in our lives love the mountains as much as we do and are self-employed as artists, graphic designers, and screen printers. I owe a lot to my partner Ulla—she allows me to follow my dreams and I do the same for her. It rarely comes together that easy, but neither of us would have it any other way. This type of life, in the mountains and living our passions, defines who we are—it’s worth protecting through compromise and the clarity of mutual respect.
When time is a precious commodity, having kids is the ultimate test of patience. It’s also a source of constant inspiration. When my four-year-old daughter told me that she wanted to “grip it and rip it,” as we rode the chairlift this past winter, I felt like less of a failure as a father. Why even have kids if you can’t force them to like the things you like? Watching my daughter Freja link her first turns this last season almost brought tears to my eyes. Ankeny and Basterrechea’s kids, too, are finally at the age where we can start riding with them. We are all treading pretty lightly as to not push too hard. Our efforts are focused on keeping all the early mountain experiences positive, to leave the right impression of the sport and what it should be: fun. As a parent, you can’t take it too seriously. But we figure we’ll show them the foundations for the lives we’ve built while they’re young, and that they’ll have a basis for understanding us as they grow older. Hopefully they’ll want to follow in our footsteps—if watching Freja make a few turns is that good, I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when she comes back from bagging her first peak.
This past March, Ankeny, Basterrechea, skier bro Delaney Zayac, and I lined up one of the best days of the season. Taking advantage of new snow, stability and clear skies, we cracked into one of the spined up walls hiding out yonder. Making the alpine at sunrise is something we always strive for. Waking up early is a real deterrent for some and often the reason others choose not to join us, but 3:00 am wake-ups are the norm. Getting out for some boarding with the fellas isn’t quite the same as paddling out—it’s more like snowmobile 100 km in the dark and get frostbite on your face—but it’s this adventure that keeps things interesting. On this particular day we were out the door without a hitch—on the home front it’s a get the fuck out of the house type scenario, before anyone wakes up and changes their mind, but the chips were cashed and we were on our way. Unfortunately MCCC isn’t open at three, but we got lucky and Chris showed up with a thermos of the good stuff (and crack-filled espresso brownies for pick-me-ups later in the day). After the caffeine and our commute into the zone, we welcomed the day’s cold, emerging bluebird skies and the morning’s golden light. We parked our sleds at the bottom of the line in a safe spot, consolidated our boards onto the up-sleds’ trusty CFR racks, and hopped on in tandem mode. After sending it across the glacier and to the start of our bootpack, we switched to foot travel. Snow conditions this particular day allowed us to ascend without the help of crampons and ice axes—as opportunists; we always appreciate the chance to do things the easy way.
At the top we look down onto the face—it’s near perfection, golden light, blower snow, spines and ribs built up and looking prime. We inspect our chosen lines. The face is a vertical white wave of highspeed slashes and all around good-times. This is the moment when it all comes together. Basterrechea drops first—he’s immediately in the barrel, with sluff pouring down as his board displaces snow. In true veteran style he works his way to the end of his chosen spine, getting out of the way before the onslaught of moving powder gives him any trouble. We each tag our respective descents; at the bottom it’s high fives all around. This is what we’ve built our lives around preserving—time spent in the mountains, at the convergence of exploration, camaraderie, and boarding.
The stoke to ride pow doesn’t fade. In Pemberton, we’ve built around that fact with our careers and network of friends, people we can trust and rely on in the mountains. As the years go by, as family shapes our perspectives and the repercussions of a bad call or misstep come clearer into focus, we’ve learned to appreciate that network even more. And as much as life on the beach seems a whole lot easier, thanks to my friends and family, the life we’ve built as snowboarders is worth the extra effort.