Day 1: Everyone smiles on a powder day.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on Friday, January 3. In the last 24 hours, Jasper has been blessed with more than a foot of fresh snowfall. At Marmot Basin, where up until now the bulk of the resort’s skiable base has been artificially applied, every staff member, from liftie to line cook, maintenance to management, patrol to public relations, is sporting a snow-eating grin.
Everyone, that is, except Marshall Dempster.
As the assistant director of public safety, today, Dempster is the on-duty head of avalanche control. On any other snow-choked morning Dempster would already be setting up for ski cutting and explosive chucking—critical avalanche control work that enables a ski resort to open terrain to the riding public. But on day one of the annual March of the Bootpackers, Dempster’s already-full plate is teetering dangerously.
“The world is about to explode up there,” he tells us, turning down his crackling radio. “Bootpacking is on hold until 1 p.m.”
I look over to fellow stomper, Ben Waxer, who’s as stunned as I am. It slowly dawns on the group that we’ve got the morning to shred the biggest one-day storm Marmot has seen in years.
“You’ll pay tomorrow,” Dempster says, running out the door.
Day two: Meet the snow makers
With our freshly-tuned transceiver skills and our recently-ruined ski legs, the reality of the work ahead of us is setting in. Typically, bootpackers get the call in November, but because this early season Mother Nature was dusting, rather than dumping, her snowy bounty, the crop of potential powder punchers is but a fraction of former crews. Short on numbers but with lots of stomping and tromping yet to do, ski patrol has called for reinforcements. Six black coats, most of whom speak Pacific-rim accented English, will take leave of their snow-making duties for a few laps with the boot crew. But because the storm snow is still unsettled—ski patrol having yet to catch up on their control work—we can’t get into the prime zones until the red coats give us the go-ahead. In the meantime, our assignment is to wrap and roll snow fences, something the black coats are all-too accustomed to.
“They’re the hardest working crew on the mountain,” avalanche technician Ryan Titchener tells me on the chairlift.
And the work is sweaty. When we’re not packing down snow mushrooms, filling in holes so the snow groomers can widen the high-traffic areas without fear of high-centering on a boulder, we’re digging up buried slat. High on Highway 16, I am saddled with moving a head-high roll of slat fence 300 metres downslope. The only way I can negotiate the load is to walk backwards down the steepening pitch, resisting gravity’s wont to hurtle the wooden burrito down the fall line, and steamroll me in the process. When I’m finished, I get an approving nod from a black coat.
“Nice work mate,” he says. Clearly, this is yesterday’s powder penance.
Day 3: Peak performance
At 9 a.m. on Sunday it’s minus-20 degrees, but with only four shifts left in our six-day stint, there is a palpable sense of urgency from the ski patrol powers to get some actual boots on the ground. They know that each crust-crunching penetration point helps dissipate the potential energy stored in a large, laden, layer of snow. And as long as that nasty early season melt/freeze crust remains, the bootpackers’ frozen fingers and toes aren’t getting any sympathy.
When the team arrives at the top of the wind-whipped Knob chair, Titchener advises us to layer down for the hike up. At the top, as we fan out, fresh bomb-holes and charred snow indicate avalanche controllers have already been here. The first steps are easy enough, but when we roll over a convex slope, our combined weight causes propagation lines to shoot eight metres across and 10 cm down, and the en-mass settling of snow creates audible whumphs all around us. More than a few bootpackers, including myself, are spooked.
“This feels sketchy,” Abby Morgan says, hesitating.
“It’s just a wind skin,” Titchener assures us from the far right flank. “Keep walking!”
Later, having heeded that command for six hours or so, our hard work is apparent by the mosaic of boot prints covering Suzie’s. By now, ski patrol is satisfied that the zone will accept future storm cycles with much less risk of the poorly-bonded layers beneath letting go.
“The boss is going to be pumped,” Titchener remarks to his fellow red-coat, Jeff Bartlett.
Day 4: Wallowing
“I feel like a kid again.”
It’s day four, and half of the bootpackers have been left behind. For the last hour Gregg Bridgeo, plus Jono O’Connor, Nick Fernie and myself—the snowboarders on the crew—have been playing in the snow. Technically, we’ve been building a trail into Caribou Knoll for the patrol sled, but as we wallow waist-deep, tamp down a track and push each other into the deepest drifts, it does bring on a little nostalgia.
Not so for the rest of the group, unless their childhoods were spent suffering through chest-deep ice pellets and breaking their boots on boulders. For while we knuckle-draggers work on our relatively relaxed side project, the skiers’ assignment is to bounce their way down the hip-high moguls on Kiefer’s Dream before bootpacking some of the deepest snow on the mountain. Caribou Knoll, on the north side of Marmot Basin, is protected from high winds and solar deterioration, but it also has some of the biggest rocks on the resort. When Clayton Anderson’s 210 pounds sink right to ground, he feels his boot lodge into a crevasse between two rocks.
“There goes my buckle,” he groans.
Day 5: Beast of the East
“Walking down three feet of fresh powder is like trying to have sex with a sheet of plexiglass between you and your partner.”
Veteran ski patroller Greg Shore’s apt metaphor of our frustrating task at hand gives the group just what it needs at just the right time: a chuckle. However, not everyone feels that hiking through, instead of surfing on top of, 40 cm of fresh snow in the Eagle’s East area, is akin to being sexually teased. Bridgeo, with his narrow rental skis that keep coming off, might rather walk. Earlier, during our much less labour-intensive assignment of ski cutting suspect slopes, he spent half the time digging his skis—and himself—out from under the snow. Eagle’s East is a double-black diamond mecca of chutes, glades and fat features, a far cry from the moderately-sloped ice he learned to carve in Ontario. We have to hand it to him, however, for taking it all in stride. And he might as well. There’s a lot of them left.
Day 6: Passover
The end is in sight, but we have to finish off what we started. The group is now accustomed to the nasty traverse which allows ski patrollers to exit Eagle’s East without descending to the lower mountain, but with each pass this ribbon of skiable snow is getting thinner, trees and ground are becoming more exposed and small depressions are hollowing out so the trail is something of a luge track, with jumps. Nick Fernie takes a spill. Partly so we don’t risk an injury and partly to knock off as much of Sugar Bowl as possible, we forgo the terrifying traverse to the lift in favour of trudging straight back up the way we came. We’re thrashing through the deep snow like netted fish; when our boots can’t find purchase we slip three steps back, sliding through the powder to the shale beneath. Finally, as the last of the perspiring bootpackers amble their way to the apex, a freak storm swoops in, obscuring the sun and floating large flakes onto our red noses. Julie McBride, our leader for the last two days, looks at her watch.
“Last lap,” she decides. “Nice work everybody.”
And just like that, we’re done.
After dropping off borrowed beacons and shovels at the patrol hut, we’re now rushing to Guest Services, madly filling out our paperwork for that holy grail of bootpacking: a season’s pass. The endless marching, the miles of slat fencing, the buckle-breaking boulders, the whumphing, the digging, the walking-instead-of-riding...it’s all...over. Patroller Nick Pavlov, who joined us for the last day, takes our victory photo.
“Smile,” Pavlov says, as if we need to be told.