Bode Merrill
Bode Merrill

Jeff Pensiero

I think there are some hard times ahead and some tough, hard things we gotta do. But, will it die? Will the snowboard industry cease to exist? No way.

Before Jeff Pensiero was an innovator, an icon, a voice and a visionary, he was a snowboarder true and true, and as he sits across from me in a perfectly lit room near the entrance of his proverbial castle, I can hear that in his voice and see it in his body language. The excitement when he talks. The animation that accompanies his statements. He’s fidgety, fast, restless and it seems as if he can’t wait to get to the end of the sentence that he’s speaking because something else just formulated in his head. An idea. An opinion. A statement. But he gets it all out, no matter how fidgety he gets or how fast he talks, it all comes out, one way or the other.

For the first time in my life, Jeff invited me into his world: a snow-capped utopia that he calls Baldface. A place where snowboarders have always been welcomed with and enveloped by open arms. A place where friends can focus on simply snowboarding. In this case, said friends were the likes of Jamie Lynn, Wes Makepeace, Billy Anderson, David Benedek and Tex Devenport, just to name a few. Basically a random assortment of people that Jeff has always wanted to lap with, and ultimately, that was Jeff’s master plan with Baldface. The “if you build it, they will come” ideology that most see as mad yet few see as genius, a powder field of dreams, if you will. And he succeeded. It took a hell of a lot of blood, sweat and mental anguish in order to achieve that, but Jeff did, with the help of his friends. And he’s not done yet. Not even close. And maybe that’s what sums up Jeff Pensiero as a person better than any qualifying paragraph ever can. He never stops. He’s constantly seeking to progress. And he will succeed.

Over the course of two hours, Jeff and I sat in that perfectly lit room near the entrance of his proverbial castle and simply talked. On the record, of course, but neither of us seemed to care. At least I didn’t. Because when Jeff was talking, he wasn’t the founder and owner of Baldface. He wasn’t the guy who knew Craig Kelly or Travis Rice. He wasn’t the co-architect of Ultranatural. He was simply a snowboarder telling me stories. And that is something I’ll never forget.

Bode Merrill

Billy Anderson

David Benedek

Baldface Lodge

Pierre Wikberg

Where are you from?

I am from Cleveland, Ohio.

What motivated you to move to Nelson, British Columbia, and start a cat operation?

I fell in love with a girl in college and she ended up moving to Nelson. I went on a heliboarding trip and didn’t have the greatest experience, so on my way back down I drove over to Nelson to check it out and say hello to her. The stars aligned and I fell in love with the girl again and had to figure out a way to get to Nelson to be with the love of my life.

Talk about your introduction to Craig Kelly.

Here is the Craig Kelly story in a nutshell: so, I’m in Nelson and I’m trying to think about what opportunities might exist, whether it be snowcats or helicopters or touring or who know what. I was 26 or 27. One day I was walking down Baker Street and the most insane van you have ever seen in your life—a four-wheel drive Ford, white, pop-up top, big tires on it, jacked up—pulls up with Washington plates on it and I am checking out this van like, “Man that’s a nice van.” The door opens up and Craig Kelly walks out and I couldn’t believe it. And he comes right up to me on the sidewalk and says, “Hey, is there a music store in this town?” I just so happen to be standing right in front of the music store that was on Baker Street and I pointed over my shoulder and I was just like, “You just parked right in front of the music store in Nelson.” And into the music store he goes. The next time I met him was probably a year or so later and I had been kind of working on a backcountry snowboarding adventure. I befriended John Buffery, who is a great guy and a great guide. He had worked at CMH Canadian Mountain Heli and taught a lot of avalanche courses. He was a snowboarder and we had become friends and done some exploratory missions in some places. He had taken on a bit of a role as a mentor in my process and one day he invited me over for tea at his house to look at some maps and we would usually play chess and talk and whatever. I walked into his house and as I came around the corner to see his whole kitchen table, Craig was sitting on the other side of the chessboard in Buff’s kitchen. I remember backing up out of the kitchen and I look at Buff with I’m sure a look of disbelief on my face, and Buff is like, “Come on in. I want you to meet Craig. We’re good friends. He and I have run all over the mountains up here and I thought he would be a good guy for us to sit with and talk about what you have been working on.” I had a great two-hour conversation with the two of them that validated what I was thinking and it culminated in a relationship starting up.

Craig was a really introspective and intelligent human and he had a really good understanding of how the world worked.”

For those of us, like myself, that never had the pleasure of meeting Craig, what was he like? How would you encompass Craig as a person, as a snowboarder?

I knew him much later in his life, at the very last bit, and he was really contemplative. He thought before he talked. If you asked him a question, at first there was almost this awkward pause, and he took the time to think about what you asked him before he just answered the question. He was an introspective and intelligent human and he had a really good understanding of how the world worked, but at the same time, he was a good buddy, really fun to hang out with, really encouraging. The guy that’s really good at golf when you suck at golf, but he doesn’t make fun of you for sucking.

What was it like watching him ride?

To me, I think his hands tell the story of how he snowboarded, because he never lost control of his scene. You know when you overturn a heel turn and the snow is a little deeper and you might put the brakes on too much and wave your hands around trying to stay on your feet? I never saw him do that. Through the tightest trees, deepest terrain, whatever. And if you watch film of him he is almost snowboarding with his hands and his hips and his body kind of follows, you know?

Yeah.

Just beautiful. And watching him work with photographers, too, Craig would throw a snowball in the exact spot he was going to land and tell the photographer that was the spot and sure enough, Craig would just hit it perfectly so the snow was spraying in the right spot and the photographer was in the right spot. You would see the photos afterwards and realize that he really understood that part of snowboarding, the business side. And to his credit, we would be out for a whole day and he and Jeff Curtes would bang out all the shots they needed in the first hour and then we got to have fun riding for the rest of the day.

Describe the day Craig passed. Where were you?

I was in town, we had a crew up here at the lodge. Buff was up here, and at that point, our office was in our house and Paula was pregnant with our first kid, so Craig had just been up here for a trip and then he was headed to Revelstoke. He was going to finish training and apprenticing under one of the master guides in our world, Rudy Bedlinger. He’s been doing it a really long time so Craig was going up to train with him before he took one of his advanced avalanche classes, and I was at the office. You know, a lot of the details of the day are just gone but I think it was a phone call that came in. I can’t remember who it was, but they were like, “Did you hear the big news? There’s been an avalanche in Revelstoke—a big one, a bad one.” I hadn’t heard anything. That was maybe at noon or something. Then by like two in the afternoon, I remember I got a call from Savina. She was like, “Do you know anything?” And I was like, “No I don’t really know anything.” And she goes, “I’m pretty sure it was an area north of Revelstoke.” She was listening to news reports and there was a moment where I was like, “Don’t worry about it. If it was there, I guarantee you are not going to hear from him, because he’s working, he’s been training for this, there’s first aid, they’re landing helicopters and it could go on till midnight, so if Craig is there, it’s a really good thing that he’s there because he’s doing what he’s been training to do.”

So that went on for a while and then the phone started ringing more and more and there was kind of a buzz and this is where I don’t really remember all that well. I think an RCMP Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer came by my house and they were like, “Okay, we understand that you worked with Craig Kelly and his wife lives right up the street. There have been multiple fatalities up in that area and we have to talk to Savina about it, and since you are close and you know her really well, do you want to come along?” So Paula and I went with them and as we were walking into Craig and Savina’s house the RCMP were walking out and I don’t really remember anything after that. I probably held it together all right, but then I was on the sidewalk with Paula and I remember falling down. My legs just fell out from underneath me and it just hit me super hard.

Bode Merrill

Ryan Davis

We got plans but I have a few different irons in the fire and I really don’t want to say what it’s going to be because it might take a right turn or a left turn or some weird course to get there, but you know, ultimately, I really love what I do, and I have an amazing team supporting me.”

Bode Merrill
Bode Merrill

Jamie Lynn

Baldface

Ryan Davis

Why do you think that British Columbia has figured out that heliboarding and catboarding lodges are viable businesses and the US hasn’t?

You definitely have the clientele.

Right!

Well, BC is massive. It’s huge! But it’s also like one big state. In the US that same area covers like six or seven states so I think that in itself just presents its own set of problems. We looked into doing it in The States and there were always just these crazy entitlements by anyone from ranchers to telephone companies to waterline maintenance companies to the public on snowmobiles…I mean, there’s a lot of governance on the land, there’s a lot asked of the land down there.

Do you think the snowboard industry is in peril? Are we in trouble?

My quick answer is no. But I think there are some hard times ahead and some tough, hard things we gotta do. But will it die? Will the snowboard industry cease to exist? No way. Are there some people in it that maybe shouldn’t be in it and are going to get shown the door? Yeah, and I think that’s okay. I think snowboarding has got to figure some shit out. The whole competition side of it, I get the sport-jock part of it and wanting to really push your body as hard as you can when you’re at that age in your life, and that’s super cool. I get it. But we can do so much more with our sport by connecting human beings to the feeling of just letting go and trusting yourself and riding through trees and riding powder. There is so much there that personally I think if we were able to do more Super and Ultranatural-style contests like the Dirksen Derby or the Mount Baker Banked Slalom, we could give them the notoriety that the Olympics gets and put them on an equal playing field. I think it will really help snowboarding a lot because the everyman is not really thinking that his moment of glory in snowboarding is in a halfpipe riding like Danny Davis or Shaun White. There’s a small part of the snowboarding world that really values that. Granted, I’m seeing sixty-year-olds that have been snowboarding for thirty years coming up here and they rip and they love it, and those guys ride new shit every year. They’re not afraid to live that lifestyle and it seems to me that there is a lot more room to improve on that side of it. And I think that’s happening with backcountry right now.

I can’t say enough great things about Travis and how much I valued having him here.

Do you think Ultranatural will ever come back to Baldface?

Umm…

Is that a tough question?

There’s interest in doing it, but there’s a lot of moving pieces. We did it, and the thing about doing it again is that we did the event one year and then we got to make some changes to the course and then we did it a second year and it was rad. But that particular piece of terrain has a lot of man-hours invested in it right now, but it’s steep. It’s really steep.

It is.

Right? No problem. But, if we do it again, I would like to keep that but then maybe add an additional piece of terrain that we could kind of do more with, or change the format into more of a photo contest format or something, so you could actually set up for shots. So yeah, I would totally do that contest again. It was really fun, and it was really good for the staff. It was really good for snowboarding.

The process of building that course seemed gnarly.

It was super gnarly! But those lumberjacks were absolute legends.

Where were they from?

Nelson.

All of them?

Yep.

Do you see a similarity in Travis and Craig?

There’s a little similarity there. Except that Travis is younger than I am and he is very confident and gifted and he’s a smart dude, too. So lighting has struck twice with me with those two guys coming into my life. I can’t say enough great things about Travis and how much I valued having him here.

I want to talk about this trip in particular. Why did you want this group of people up here?

This trip all came about because last year Pierre Wikberg was here filming with Ken Block. I put him in a cat with regular customers, you know, great guys, and I saw Pierre kind of go out of the work mode and into the “I love snowboarding” mode and it was really cool to see because I love Pierre’s work—obviously Robot Food was amazing. In the process I talked to him about David Benedek, who I always thought was one of the top dudes. “In Short” is one of my favorite films of all time. So I said something to Pierre, like, “Do you ever keep in touch with David? I’ve written David for like ten years and kept being like, “Man, I keep getting the opportunity to ride with like Jamie and Terje and Travis and just some day, if you are ever over in North America, I would love to have you out.” Pierre was like, “I am really good with friends with him, I will write him and let him know you are super serious about it.” So he wrote him, we filmed the Ken Block Raptor Trax thing, we talked more about it, and I looked at the schedule this year and I knew we were going to have low numbers during this time. So I told the girls in the office that I was going to try and put something together just for me this year. It’s not a trip. I’m going to comp the whole thing and I just want to invite some fun people out to go snowboarding to get my stoke level as high as it is when I watch a movie like “In Short”.

Bode Merrill

Wes Makepeace

David Benedek

Tex Devenport and Jeff Pensiero

Billy Anderson

What’s the importance of Tex being here?

You want to hear that story?

Yeah.

All right, well, when I started down the path of figuring out what we were going to do, Craig came along, and I was quite enamored when he was interested in what I was trying to do. So I get a phone call from Craig one day. I was down in Tahoe cleaning gutters and fixing docks for rich people, and Craig is like, “Hey Jeff, this is Craig. I got a little budget left over and I was thinking we could meet up at Nelson and we could do some flying, do a little heli time up there. I think it would be really good if we could check out that zone we were looking at, and I will bring my buddy Tex and we’ll go check it out.” I remember freaking out and I actually saved the answering machine message, played it for a bunch of my friends and I was like, “I told you I was friends with Craig! Craig is my friend! He is calling me!” Problem was, he was like, “So how does March 12th to the 15th work?” which was my first wedding anniversary with Paula. Without even thinking, she was like, “Happy Anniversary. You have to go ride with Craig.” So I drove all the way up to Nelson and met up with Craig and Buff and Tex, and you go from this moment of being so stoked to be invited on a trip like that and have this opportunity to being like, “Oh, fuck, I have to get in a helicopter with Tex and Craig and Buff right now, and I kinda have to have my shit together. Am I up for this challenge as a rider?” And we get in this helicopter and first thing, Craig’s like, “Let’s just go to Mt. Groman,” which is the north side of us here, with a gnarly peak, and when I say gnarly, I mean a very intense, committed, north facing line in the Selkirks. So we land and in the back of my mind I was like, “Maybe we are going to do this nice rolling powder field south side,” but Craig had his eyes on the north side. First thing in the morning, no warm ups, no fucking around whatsoever. The four of us get out and the helicopter flies to the bottom. Buff looks at us and he goes, “Okay, well, I’m not going to ride down there. I’m going to go down the ridge over here and then I am going to drop in and go safety from over here.” I immediately started putting my pack on and thinking I am going with Buff down the shoulder, because even on the shoulder you have to do a twenty footer to even get onto this thing. I’m scooting away and Craig looks at me and was like, “Oh, alright, you’re all suited up. This is your day, it’s all yours.” And I look down and it is just a cornice, but the cornice dropped to probably a forty-five, maybe fifty degree headwall and that went into about a forty-foot bulging ice cliff to a chute that runs two thousand feet down. And I looked over and I’m with Tex and Craig, and I’m like, “Craig, I appreciate it, but you go first. Maybe I should watch somebody. I don’t even know how to approach something like this.” Craig looks at me and goes, “There’s no approaching it man, either you’re dropping in or you’re not. It’s on, you’re in. Let’s do this.” I remember putting my goggles on, tightening up my backpack and being like, “If Craig tells me I got this, I got to believe I got this.” I dropped off that cornice, my board was like a 175 Glissade, and it touched the ground for like two seconds, I was going 1,000 miles an hour. I heard the ice underneath me. I think I grabbed mute maybe, and just feeling like “Oh my god, you are in the air for a really long time going really fast,” and then the next thing I remember was hearing the fabric on my coat blowing in the wind and I rode down as scared as I have ever been, right up to the helicopter. I turned around and got to watch Craig ride it and he actually styled it. And he comes down, gives me a big hug and Tex drops in and pretty much straight lines the whole thing and it was the craziest feeling I have ever had in my life. So we got to have a few more runs that day, we had some beers that night. It was a very transformative night for me, and that was the last time I saw Tex. I kept in touch a little bit when he had the Tex Games.

That was the last time you saw Tex until a couple days ago?

Yeah. I kept in touch with him, wrote him when I could, and then for this Vintage Snowboard Trader trip, I was like, “Tex, you are a legend dude, we have to get you up here. You have to see the lodge. I’m freaking out that you haven’t been here and seen what we have actually created since those early days.” Sure enough he was like, “Okay, I’m going to make it.” He was in Bellingham and he caught a ride with Ryan Davis and Jamie Lynn. He had this experience getting across the border last week where they didn’t want to let him in because of past trivial things, and he looked at the guy and said, “Look, I know you can’t let me in but I’m coming up to see a memorial for my friend that passed away. They built a cross up on a ridge for him and it’s not about anything for me except to go up, pay my respects and see what the place is all about.” He said he won the border guard over. The guard looked it up on Google and saw some pictures of the cross and saw that Baldface was the real deal and he let him in on a pass and even gave him the paperwork to continue to come up! Man, I’ll tell you, when I saw Tex come in, it was an emotional moment.

What’s next for Baldface?

We got plans but I have a few different irons in the fire and I really don’t want to say what it’s going to be because it might take a right turn or a left turn or some weird course to get there, but you know, ultimately, I really love what I do, and I have an amazing team supporting me.

You’ve got a really good thing going here.

 

I’m glad you made it out!

Me too, man. Really glad.