Conor Pelton took me by surprise with the question. It may have been New Year’s Eve, but it hadn’t really dawned on me yet that we were about to end the decade. I took my time to answer. Had the past ten years gone to plan?
“Well, look where we are,” I said. We were riding in a snowcat in the expansive and exclusive tenure of Island Lake Lodge. Rachael Burks was in the jump seat, smiling out the window at greybird skies and lightly falling snow. Sander Hadley, to our right, was in the middle of a quick nap, recharging from two-and-a-half days of bell-to-bell powder skiing, hiking lines, and obligatory après. Then there was Matt Beers, the newly anointed Team and Community Manager for Dynastar and its sister companies, amid his first cat trip. Island Lake’s marketing guru Mike McPhee was there too, along with tail guide Jonathan, and videographer Liam Gallagher. Up front, cat driver Andy Phibbs and lead guide Tyler charted the course. Most of us were in our 30s, some their 40s—except Sander, of course. At 27-years-old, the dude’s just entering his prime years. So why was he the one napping? Could be that he had been bootpacking and sending double backs and waiting out weather squalls atop cold ridgelines and staying up a little later than the rest of us. The novelty of our current confines wasn’t lost on him.
And, well, how did we get here? We got here through a love for the mountains. We were all at work in one way or another, after all. But work is a relative thing. When you make your work your passion, as cliché as it might sound, work becomes play. This was a group that had chosen their own line in life, and that line led here, to Island Lake, to untracked powder, to alpine environs—to three days of shooting Dynastar’s new freeride ski collection with the “Hunt Your Line” tagline. We could not have been in a better spot.
“Yeah, I think this is exactly where I’d have liked to see myself,” I told Conor.
Riding untracked powder with a few friends? That’s pretty much the dream. Shooting photos and writing about it? I’d put in the hard yards and poverty-level income for long enough to find some semblance of comfort in life with the bonus of such extravagant perks as annual trips to Island Lake. We all had. Rachael has chased the dream for nearly two decades, spending off seasons on fishing boats, moonlighting as a restaurant server, and more recently, taken a path into real estate so she can reap the rewards of winters on snow. Conor spent time on the Freeride World Tour and now balances his work as a freeride judge and coach with that of a pro skier. Sander earned a degree in Strategic Communications and carved a niche as a skier via self-made web parts out of his hometown of Pocatello, ID. Mike has parlayed a media/marketing balance since the 90s into his current position at Island Lake Lodge, where he’s churned out award-winning content and campaigns at the storied stomping grounds near Fernie, BC. Those storied grounds where Scot Schmidt and Craig Kelly built something special three decades ago, pioneering lines in the shadow of the Lizard Range.
That groundbreaking spirit is still alive at Island Lake. The catskiing operation now boasts world-class lodging and cuisine and the best views I’ve ever encountered from inside a sauna. They’re often booked out before the season even starts, and those lucky enough to experience a tour at the lodge usually drop back in for the following year immediately. Yet even after a dozen trips to Island Lake, the mountains always offer a new wrinkle to complement the perfect tree skiing that we’ve come to expect. At the end of 2019, it was a bootpack up the backside of the ridge, where Conor hit a chute-to-closeout and Sander skied a dramatic hallway at the end of the ridge, then Rachael, having been skunked by sugar snow on rock on her climb, put up a sender off the saddle and whipped a few backies. We’d never been able to access those lines before, but this year, the mountains let us in.
So it went for our tour at the lodge, equal parts incoming weather and glimpses of the sun, knee deep powder, from treeline to valley bottoms, chilled out by the cat rides and energized by the fall line. And by this, the afternoon of the last day of the 2010s, we’d had a good fill.
With his simple question, Conor triggered the nostalgia of a decade’s hard work. But soon, we were climbing out of the cat and back into the moment. Wind whipped fresh snow off the ridge. A storm was closing in. With two hours left to ride, Sander dropped first, boosting off a little popper and disappearing. Then Rachael, Conor, and the rest of the crew, finding their own lines, hollering through the trees.
Now that I think about it, 29-year-old me would call this the definition of happiness.