COLUMN: Waking up to Whitewater
I can’t believe it took this long.
Ever since I moved to Nelson three years ago, I’ve gotten pretty good at making excuses for why I haven’t checked out Whitewater Ski Resort yet — it’s too expensive, I hate winter driving, I don’t have the gear – but I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been hyper-envious of the blissed out hill junkies roaming around Baker with wind-reddened cheeks, their lift passes dangling from their jackets.
It reminded me of how I felt in high school, when the cool kids would come back from a weekend at Whistler with hideous goggle tans, fun new jargon and sometimes broken bones. They carried themselves around like members of an ultra-exclusive, gilded club that I could never hope to join.
So this year I made a New Year’s Resolution, enlisting my friend Evie as an accomplice, to finally infiltrate this subculture and learn how to properly snowboard. It was primarily a mental health maneuver, a way to stop the grey suicide cloud-blanket that hovers over town all winter from slowly draining my life force. If I was going to survive another chilly season, this is what needed to be done.
As we approached the resort through swirling snowdrifts on the first day of 2017, nothing but vast wilderness visible through the windshield, a bright-clad parking attendant waved us into a spot amidst a sea of half-buried vehicles. At first it seemed like we had stopped at some random, remote spot in the alpine — is this even a parking lot? — but pretty soon I spotted all the neon skiers whipping along the trails above us, and the tiny ski lift in the distance.
When we reached the lodge, clomping the snow off our boots, I started to pick up on the Whitewater vibe. Already there was a different energy in the air. Instead of moping into coffeeshops half-asleep and grumpy, like everyone back in town, these adventure enthusiasts seemed to be vibrating on a higher frequency, red-faced with stoke. People were rushing, laughing, yelling, swapping stories about crazy wipe-outs and brushing sweaty hair out of their faces. I recognized many of them.
So this is where everybody’s been.
As it turns out my instructor for the day was a fellow journalist, Brendan Quinn, who has been teaching lessons for over a decade. He’s worked at resorts all over North America, but according to him Whitewater’s scene is the best, mostly because you don’t have to spend much time waiting in line. It’s the main reason he moved here in the first place.
“Locals will come up, see that there’s a ten minute line, and just go home,” he told me, with a snort.
“Some of the other places I’ve worked it was normal to wait half an hour, forty-five minutes, just to get on the lift.”
It’s true that the first thing you notice about Whitewater is how small and communal-feeling it is, like you've traveled back to the 1960s. He joked, as we headed up to the Little Mucker run, that the clanky old lift was being powered by a team of oxen underground. I marvelled at how small the safety bar was, watched people hurl themselves through the trees below me, and tried to imagine what it would be like to jump off. Snow was collecting in my beard.
Perhaps the most humiliating part of the day was simply trying to pump my snowboard to the top of the run, struggling, while six-year-olds coasted by with ease. (“Everyone has to start somewhere, everyone has to start somewhere,” I repeated to myself.) A few times I ended up on my ass, heaving and frustrated, my goggles steamed. Were it not for Brendan and Evie coaxing me along, I might have given up right there.
“Picture yourself like a falling leaf,” Brendan told me, once we got where we needed to be. He demonstrated how to switch back and forth, facing downhill, while keeping the pressure on my heels.
And then I was off. For the next forty five minutes Brendan watched as I fell repeatedly, struggled to flip myself over in the snow, and tried to decipher mid-moment the difference between various shades of white. I don’t mind saying that it was really hard — leg muscles I didn’t know I had were shrieking at me — but it was also the most engaged I’d felt for a long time. I wasn’t stressing about money or fixating on my life problems, I was free to suck back nostril-shots of mountain air and gaze overwhelmed at the beauty around me.
“You’re a natural,” Brendan told me, taking my hand in his, as he tried to teach me how to turn from heel-side to toe-side on my board. We waltzed across the slope while Evie cheered. Even if he was just saying that, it made me feel awesome. Like I’d accomplished something.
By the time we got to the bottom of the run, I’d had enough. This was the toe dip, I could save immersing my whole foot for another time. As Evie and I got lunch in the lodge we strategized about when we would come up next, who we could bug to join us, and how I could source my own gear. This was just the beginning of a project, something I could invest my time and attention into. I was on my way to becoming part of the Whitewater world.
It felt like waking up.