About 10,000 years ago, three different groups of Native Americans—the Ktunaxa, Sinixt and Okanagan—discovered a place we know today as British Columbia’s Kootenay Mountains. Massive peaks laced with enormous rock faces shot out of the ground and towards the sky. Rivers and streams ran swiftly through valleys big and small. Tall, lush trees towered alongside endless vegetation in rich soil. Wildlife roamed free and supplied a source of spirituality—the spirit of the grizzly bear being particularly profound. The area was found to be incredibly empowering, and therefore an idyllic place to call home for an otherwise nomadic culture.
Fast forward all the way to 1891 and two men—a French-Canadian, Eli Carpenter and an Irishman, Jack Seaton—were drawn by a different power in the Kootenays: silver-lead ore deposits. This duo, alongside other pioneers, developed an intricate and lucrative system of mines that would eventually generate more revenue than the better-known Klondike, California and Caribou Gold Rushes combined. In turn, communities were built complete with homes, hotels, shops, schools, casinos, pubs and brothels. But, like all mining stories, this one came to an abrupt end when resources ran dry; the operation shut down by 1950, as did the towns.
In March 2017, 10,000 years late to the party, I stood atop a sector of the Kootenays called Retallack with a pair of skis on my feet. A man named Marty Lazarski—touting a gray beard, backwards ball cap, white Oakley shades and a camouflage jacket—had just dropped myself and about 10 others off via snowcat. “Have a great run, guys!” he hollered, as if it was even remotely possible for the run not to be great.
This was my first-ever cat-skiing trip. And, so, standing atop these mountains was both scary and gratifying at once. On one hand, I felt incredibly small and humbled by this place and its historical significance; it’s wild and far away from everything, not meant for the faint of heart. But I also felt empowered, just like those who’d been there before me, knowing just how special the land truly is. Retallack was cutting right down to my soul, resulting in a state of mind I’d never learn how to comprehend. So, I placed my poles in the soft snow ahead and pushed. And, before even making a turn, I screamed with joy in a way I hadn’t for a very long time.
Like a kid getting acquainted at sleep-away camp, I became more comfortable with Retallack over the following days. But, instead of playing ball and singing campfire songs and doing other things of that sort, I was learning how to conquer 10,000 acres of pillow fields, gargantuan cliffs and perfectly-spaced trees that are collectively akin to a dream. I was flying off, down and over features I never knew I was capable of pursuing. And, the operation’s nickname, “Retallacka,” made total sense; this is a freerider’s paradise that’s 100-percent synonymous with heavy metal. Balls-to-the-wall skiing unlike anything I’d even remotely experienced before.
My trip comprised just a sliver of Retallack’s history since opening as a heli- and cat-skiing operation in the ’90s. Take a look back and you’ll find a long list of visitors, including pros like Sammy Carlson, Grete Eliassen, Sean Pettit, Tatum Monod, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, CR Johnson and JP Auclair. During my three-day experience alone, I kicked it with the likes of Parker White, Chris Logan, Duncan Adams, Mike King, Kalen Thorien and Rob Heule—all of them just as stoked to be there as I.
Over the years, competitions like Red Bull Cold Rush and Orage Masters have drawn some of these people, while others have chosen to strictly focus on film and photo projects. But everyone comes for the same mind-blowing terrain and snow. As a matter of fact, Retallack is so prized among skiers that Tanner Hall and Seth Morrison are both investors, which speaks volumes. Hall in particular has frequently utilized the operation—filming for myriad projects, including a full film called Retallack: The Movie and most recently the wild “Loop Segment,” seen in Ring the Alarm.
Retallack Lodge, the beautiful, 11,000-square-foot timber-framed structure where I rested my head each night, is arguably as impressive as the skiing it provides access to. Unlike many other operations, you can drive right up to this one without a snowmobile or snowcat. And, once you arrive, amenities include: eleven guest rooms that sleep 24; a cozy living room equipped with a two-story granite fireplace, leather couches and board games; a 42-person dining room where three-course gourmet dinners are served each night; a full bar stocked with endless beverages; an equipment room with boot and glove dryers, as well as tuning gear; a full game room; and a hot tub. All of this is, believe it or not, off the grid—powered via the operation’s very own hydroelectric plant.
Despite its heavy metal reputation, Retallack is also known as a place of poetry much thanks to a cat-driver named Karl Guderyan—AKA Karl the Gnarl. Karl is a perky and kind man who’s gained notoriety over the years for being a hell of a lot of fun to hangout with. And, nearly every night at dinner, he reads a poem to the guests that’s guaranteed to receive a roar of applause. His work is scattered around Retallack Lodge, too; one poem in the main bathroom, for example, reads as follows:
Use your wisdom
Here we’re on
A septic system
Enjoy the powder
Feel the rush
And be aware
Of what you flush!
Karl lives with his family down in Nelson, just over an hour from Retallack. But, while on the job, he stays in his second home, a lovely little trailer just a stone’s throw away from the lodge. Sometimes, he’ll invite folks to hang out with there, which I had the pleasure of doing on the final night of my trip.
As several of us gathered around the trailerside firepit—a cut-in-half oil barrel with metal legs and skis for feet—I looked up to see Karl displaying a mischievous glare in his eyes with a grin to match.
“Let’s grab some booze and spit it into the fire and make fireballs! That’s fun,” he exclaimed—already en route to the trailer to procure the needed fuel. “Somethin’ flammable… mezcal! Some shit like that!”
Within seconds, he came hustling back with an unidentifiable bottle that definitely wasn’t mezcal. But, it was indeed flammable, so we all took big swigs, holding them in our mouths until everyone in the circle was locked and loaded. Karl happily volunteered to count down from 10, empty-mouthed.
At zero, everyone spit at the barrel. A ring of fire bursted into the damp night sky. Everything went into slow motion. The flames melted mid-flight snowflakes before they could reach the ground. Lights from a disco ball on the side of Karl’s trailer waltzed across the tall, lush trees above. “Love Potion No. 9″ by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass played on the scratchy record player—horns blazing towards the stars. And there we were… just a bunch of skiers getting to know one another at a cat driver’s trailer in the middle of the British Columbian woods—drinking Kokanees and spitting fireballs till the wee small hours of the morning.
Everyone broke back into conversation when the flames settled, laughing hard and smiling harder. But I was quiet—just thinking about how on Earth I got there, and how on Earth I’ll find my way back next year.