During a film shoot with MSP Films, Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson and co. enjoy the finer details of remote ski lodge living
Hoji is knocking over sh#t towers in the outhouses. He certainly isn’t doing it for fun; it’s just part of his inborn compulsion to keep all the elements of a mechanism running efficiently. One moment he’s skinning up from the water hole slinging two buckets from a yoke, another he’s fiddling with the propane heater, then he’s carrying in firewood and shortly thereafter shoveling the roof. And when daylight fades, he toils late into the evening on someone else’s skins, boots, bindings or whatever other contraption needs repair. Of course, that’s all standard Eric “Hoji” Hjorleifson stuff. But on this two week trip, aside from throttling down burly lines for Matchstick Productions’ cameras, for $75/day he’s assumed the job as the hut’s official custodian. So, prior to popping down pillows of dreamy powder he’s busy toppling poo. Which he’d probably be doing anyway, whether you paid him to or not.
A few days ago, a helicopter dropped us off in the shadow of Cupola Mountain at Golden Alpine Holidays’ (GAH) Meadow Lodge, and from here we’re ski touring and seeking our fill of deep turns while shooting for Matchstick’s new film, Drop Everything. GAH is essentially Hoji’s domain. Over the past decade, he’s put in roughly 220 days between GAH’s four lodges, all situated at treeline in neighboring drainages of the Esplanade Range, just north of Golden, British Columbia and the aptly named Powder Highway. He spent a couple of weeks one summer lugging, chipping and placing rocks to create an impressive fireplace at Sentry Lodge, and one of Sentry’s outhouses even bears his name. In the early season, he runs an annual “pillow and powder” skiing camp here, and when camp lets out he remains to stack film clips. This is Hoji’s home away from home and it’s no surprise, then, that his performances in this arena are routinely spectacular; no one skis this technical terrain with more confidence, proficiency or speed.
Of course, Eric Hjorleifson will cringe reading such praise, because he’s the quintessential team player who will do anything to turn attention to something other than himself. Besides, his cohorts on this pillow-slaying adventure are a veritable A-Team. Mark Abma’s the kind of grizzled vet who could disappear in the woods for a couple of days and you wouldn’t really worry about him. When he finally emerged and you asked him how it went, with a nod and a smile he’d simply say, “It was pretty sweet, man.” Chris Rubens and Hoji are birds of a feather; Rubens is not only a monster in proverbial pillowland, but he’s also the fuel that makes an engine operate. I.e. He gets things done. Markus Eder just wants to play. While the others fetch water and deal with miscellaneous morning distractions, the Italian is skinned up and clicked in, ready to go, wondering what is taking everyone so long. Interior BC doesn’t offer a great deal of daylight in early January, and Markus doesn’t want to waste it. And finally, Tanner Rainville would join our crew for the second week. He’d already had a taste of GAH’s Sentry Lodge the year prior, and his smooth, playful style was perfectly suited to Sentry’s terrain. But Meadow is a slightly different beast.
“Playful isn’t quite the word I would use [to describe Meadow Lodge],” says Rubens. “Maybe that’s the irony of the name ‘Meadow.’” Below the lodge, ridges fall away in a scrambled and intense fashion, with pillows stacked upon pillows that are pleasing to the eye, yet hard on the brain. Regular questions that flow through Rubens’ mind regarding the skiing here include, “Is that doable? Can I gap to that? Would I splat on that tier? Can I dump speed there? Will I have any markers to know where the hell I am?”
Now, a lot of Meadow’s ridiculous pillow lines—including a steroid-infused zone we dubbed Super Marioworld—are skiable in an old-school billygoating sense. But by today’s standards, the object isn’t to just get down a line. It’s to do it fast and in style, with an emphasis on fast. As Hoji puts it, “I think any time your skis are across the fall line it’s a sign of weakness.”
That doesn’t mean that thoughts of those pow-filled lines don’t keep Hoji awake at night. Pillow skiing is something of an art, a sect of skiing all its own; expertise in other aspects of skiing doesn’t automatically translate here. It’s such a complex assortment of flats and steeps, and so much of it is absolutely blind. Even the best skiers can approach pillow lines thinking they’re badass, only to have their bodies and egos viciously spanked. Talent notwithstanding, success and conditions are also inextricably linked. If the snow isn’t deep enough the pillows get too fast, sending the skier skipping over or clearing areas where he or she wanted or needed to maintain contact with the snow, shed speed and/or change direction. But if the snow is too deep, skiers tend to “whiteroom” themselves, plunging downhill with nothing but crossed fingers. Add in the sketchiness of massive pillows collapsing under their feet or worse, releasing just behind them and chasing them downhill, and you have a slew of elements that make skiing serious pillows, well, serious.
It isn’t all like it appears in the movies—no wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Making magic here while the cameras are rolling is far more complicated than one might expect. Which is why you shack up in a hut with no running water or electricity with a bunch of ripening, stinky friends for two weeks, ultimately hoping for a single day in which the stars align: Skiing talent, weather, snow conditions, the proper F-stop and a bit of luck.
Fortunately, Meadow Lodge is renowned for its reliable snow quality; at the onset of this particular trip the snow may not be record-breaking-deep, but it is of the quality that many skiers might refer to as “best snow ever.” Accordingly, the boys kick things off doing what they do: Rubens, Hoji and Abma charge down treed hallways and fire off pillows with 10-point landings while Markus builds himself a launch pad and throws beautiful corked-out 360s with shifties for added style points. Markus then sneaks into a line, rockets down a few pillows and throws a high-speed flatspin with zero setup time. It’s one of those moments where the stunned film crew breaks into laughter rather than applause. “Sometimes I wonder what Markus is doing,” says Hoji. “But I shouldn’t doubt him. He’s just that good.”
It’s a playful start, yet the bigger lines—the lines we’re really striving for, like those in Super Marioworld—remain at the forefront of our minds. But those lines are not ready for pillaging. Or, maybe they are? In the evening, when he finally finishes a host of chores and washing the dishes, Hoji cracks a beer, kicks back on a bench near the woodstove and loses himself in his iPhone photos of the most intricate terrain for 45 uninterrupted minutes, trying to piece together his glory line. Rubens lies on his back on another bench, doing the same. Abma is doing yoga. And Markus is constructing a goofy yet ornate skier out of Jenga blocks. He wants to glue it all together to give his masterpiece immortality so it can stand on a Meadow shelf for ages, but at some point an errant limb sends it crashing to the ground. “Oh nooo,” he cries with his trademark casual tone. It’s basically the same reaction as when he explodes on a cork 720 attempt gone wrong. “Oh nooo.”
Any such quips allow Hoji’s sardonic wit to engage. “Hey, Markus. Next time you’re being lame, you should take Triactin… Try actin’ like a man!” Or, “When’s the sun come up here?” Hoji’s answer: “In the daytime.” When Rubens laughs about the time he spotted Hoji sleeping on the floor with his eyes wide open, Hoji wryly defends himself with, “No one else gets that tired. No one else realizes their full potential.” It’s endless comedy and endearing, really, but his hallmark cynicism earns him a new nickname: The Crustodian.
For two weeks, in a remote hut devoid of distractions, we embody the skier’s motto that we’ve scribbled mid-daydream in our notebooks or seen etched into hunks of wood hanging from rustic walls: Eat. Sleep. Ski. In an age in which connectivity and multi-tasking is utterly consumptive, the escape from everything—crowds, bills, deadlines, Instagram, Facebook, CNN—is embraced and savored by this crew. It’s wonderfully liberating. Life really can be as simple as eat, sleep, ski. And it’s good living.
Late in the trip, the sun pops and we turn our attention to jump-building and aerial acrobatics in the subalpine. Skinning up above the lodge, someone notes the date and I hear Rubens ask, “Trump’s President now?” The real world seems so distant. But in no time, Markus’ double cork 1080s vanquish any thoughts of our other lives. Rubens dusts off the freestyle cobwebs and surprises us with clean 360s and 720s; Abma gets tricky by deliberately shorting rodeo 720s onto a roll-over and “pretzel” 180-ing off. The Crustodian tries to get in on the act and throws a flatspin 360, but his trajectory is off and he tags a tree mid-air. He somehow stomps the landing and skis out, but realizes he’s busted his boot, immediately labeling the stunt a “catastrophic failure.”
With just a few days remaining before we venture back to our respective homes, it appears Hoji is out. That is, until he recalls gifting a pair of boots to a friend who happens to be guiding at Sentry Lodge. He makes a radio call, and sure enough, the guide is happy to trade out. But Sentry is 10 kilometers and four valleys away, and the route passes through some sketchy avalanche terrain. It’s 2 pm, and the sun sets around 5. Figuring a mad sprint would probably get him there by dark, The Crustodian makes a run for it, solo. The whole GAH complex monitors his progress over the radio, with guides at the other lodges spotting for him as he navigates the more exposed terrain. It’s a grueling, gnarly and slightly dubious mission. But we all recognize this is also Hoji in his quintessence, and I can sense part of him is reveling in it. He is escaping the escape. Hoji reaches Sentry by dusk and declares via radio that he’ll spend the night. We’re relieved. And there’s no question he’ll be back by noon or so the next day. Not only does he have the unfinished business of giving Super Marioworld another study, but who else is going to clean up after us?