AS SEEN IN THE NOVEMBER 2011 ISSUE OF FREESKIER.
WORDS BY LIAM DOWNEY. PHOTOS BY CHRIS O'CONNELL.
TANNER RAINVILLE RIDES HIS SNOWMOBILE towards the Wyoming border on an unplowed highway. To his left the bony stalks of scorched trees climb from snowy fields that rise into the mountains. His snowmobile rallies the whoops on the corners, and he looks over his shoulder for a last view of Cooke City, but it has already disappeared into the growing darkness behind. Ten miles later he reaches the trailhead where he parked his truck a week before. Much to his relief, ol’ Sierra is right where he left her, and after loosening the tie-down ratchets with stiff fingers, Tanner loads his sled into the bed and straps it down. He’s on the road again.
It takes a few sleepy-eyed brushes with deer along the road before Tanner decides to call it a night at a Motel 6 in Kalispell, Montana. The next morning he crosses into Canada at 8 a.m. “Taking a ski vacation, hey?” asks the border guard in a tone that is half friendly and half investigative, glancing sideways at the Ski-Doo XP lodged between the truck’s wheel wells like it’s the elephant in the room. But the guard makes no mention of the sleek machine, and he waves Tanner through without much noise.
P: CHRIS O'CONNELL
Tanner is already a few hundred clicks north of the border when his phone rings. “Where you at?” asks photographer Chris O’Connell in his Owen Wilson–like Cali drawl.
“Golden,” is the word from Tanner’s corner, which is followed by a long pause on the other end, and then, “No one told you? There’s been a change of plans, and we’re all meeting in Nelson instead.”
Tanner’s heart sinks momentarily at the thought of six extra hours on the lonely road, but as he begins to weigh OC’s compulsions as a bullshitter against the fact that he hasn’t checked his e-mail in a week, he notices a familiar blue Dodge riding his bumper.
“Almost had me, bud,” Tanner laughs as he flips off OC and Bryan “Ralphie” Ralph through his back window. The pair of photographers has been following him for miles, and all three pull over for lunch at a barbeque joint before driving the half hour up Highway 1 to Great Canadian Heli-Skiing.
AHMET DADALI LETS 'ER FLY. P: CHRIS O'CONNELL
THE LODGE IS TUCKED BEHIND A TALL STAND OF conifers just off the side of the highway—a classic post-and-beam with a two-story hotel next to it. Great Canadian is no broke-down motel outfit with a heli pad. It’s the most legit operation in the Selkirk’s, and Under Armour has parted with a good chunk of capital to host its team shoot here. Not to be outdone, OC has spent a grip of cash accessorizing for the trip, and as they unload their gear, he proudly displays a heli- harness, an ABS (airbag backpack system) and a host of other trinkets of dubious necessity.
The rest of the crew has already arrived. Michael Clarke, young freeskiing legend and Mark Hamill look alike, will be shooting video. Ahmet Dadali, the Turkish brown-skinned sheik (by his own estimation), will provide New York antics and greasy senders on the hill. There’s Justin “J-Bone” Dorey, quiet Canuck transition master, and JP Tomich, who will be playing the lone snowboarder in this drama. Last but never least intoxicated is Scott Hibbert, Under Armour team manager, semiretired stunt man and party liaison. It’s hardly a typical crew for a heli trip, but it promises to be interesting.
JUSTIN DOREY CHASIN' TAIL. P: CHRIS O'CONNELL
The evening is spent in the bar, where the crew catches up over billiards. Later, a Jenga tourney is parlayed into a drinking game. Like any well-planned trip, this one will operate under the fundamental premise that surrounding oneself with good people is the only sure way to have a good time. The middle-aged European group they’re sharing the lodge with has been observing their good time with growing interest. It’s hard to tell if they’re more intrigued by the Jenga or by Ahmet’s oversized clothing.
LIKE MANY WHO HAVE JUST MADE AHMET’S acquaintance, the Euros believe him to be named “Matt.” This recurring error has plagued the young Turk for much of his life, owing mostly to the fact that he continues to introduce himself as “Ah-met” without an “I’m” in front of it. To most people, this sounds like “I’m Matt”, but the mistake is so common that Ahmet has given up correcting those who use his unsought moniker, letting them figure it out on their own. For once he’s pretty polite about it, as the foreigners joke with the crew in broken English, their bellies warm with drink and fluttering at the prospect of going up in the bird in the morning.
Despite high expectations, the first day in the helicopter is a bit of a junk show: a thorough review of survival techniques followed by a lot of aerial exploration that leaves the group antsy to get after it. It’s a team shoot though, so it’s necessary to go through the motions of getting everyone on the same page for maximum safety and productivity, and a few powdery free laps more than make up for a bit of standing around. The day’s minor hang-ups are quickly forgotten when the squad is greeted with a dinner of roast duck back at the lodge and the unexpected company of Candide Thovex and his entourage.
TANNER RAINVILLE SENDS THE PILLOWS. P: CHRIS O'CONNELL
Just being at a heli-op with Candide is like playing at a private golf club while Tiger is out on the course. You might not be in his group, but you can feel the energy coming from that quarter, and you’d better show up ready to play because he’s surely raising the bar for anyone else in the vicinity. The next day, as they fly to their own lines, the Under Armour gang spots a few ridiculous tracks left by the famed Frenchman.
Hibbert, inspired either by the Candide encounter or by some mixture of last night’s drink and this morning’s Canadian courage (often one-in-the-same), starts sending every cliff and rowdy line in sight on the second day. This kind of stoke from a team manager does not go unnoticed by his troops, who respond in kind. They retire to the lodge with Jell-O legs from thousands of vertical feet, recounting the day’s stomps and one or two signature tomahawks from Hibbert’s end.
Lounging in the warm indoors after a day in the heli leaves one with a feeling of contentment without equal. Taking no small comfort in his exceptional surroundings and the company of skiers—young and old, professional and paying—Tanner cannot help but acknowledge that these pleasures of youth and privilege are short-lived. Yet he knows that, regardless of circumstance or age, a skier he will remain.
RAINVILLE. P: CHRIS O'CONNELL
The days that follow are a blur of splurged meals and deep turns. A five-minute heli ride one afternoon sets the crew on top of an open cut—a four-thousand-vertical-foot slide path peppered with a few small pine tops. Tanner drops in second to last, before the tail guide, punching his tails in a straight line as he flies through the powdery khuds, leaving a tall white wake that dusts the others. At the bottom, Tomich spots a micro- tranny below the huge rock that they’ve stopped on top of. A quick step-out leads to the most memorable session of the trip, as Dorey stomps seven after seven into the pinpoint landing.
On the last morning they still have some heli time left, and the chopper blades whirl for a final time. As a snow squall rolls in, the cameras are abandoned in lieu of hot laps, and the crew chokes down a bit more fresh in the trees before the weather gets too nasty. The two centimeters forecasted have become 10, and the chopper skids skim the pointed treetops on the ride in, cutting through the thick soup above the dense woods. “Could such a perfect trip have a tragic ending?” Tanner wonders for a split second. But the fear passes, and they land without incident.
Tanner’s bags are packed, and he throws a couple of them behind his seat after saying goodbye to Dave, their faithful guide, and a few new friends he’s made in the lodge. One last powwow in the parking lot, and Rainville is the first to leave. His tires bark as he turns back onto Highway 1 just as Sizzla’s “Absolute Blessings” comes on, crackling through his speakers as he pushes the pedal to floor with itinerant abandon. “Weeee-you!” he yelps under his breath as the truck reaches speed. And the next leg of his journey has begun.