Words: T. Bird
Our location was the definition of isolation. And it was starting to get weird. It was night four, and Oakley Team Manager Chris Hotell awoke to a rather odd scenario: Hushed snickering, what seemed to be a video camera, and a shadowy silhouette standing in the blackness of his room. His bunkmate, (a Mr. Danny Kass), had a simple objective: Sneak into the room, press record, and shart in his face. A “shart” is, for those of you unfamiliar with said slang, a shitting of the pants caused by a mixture of anal relaxation and the placing of deliberate pressure on the sphincter, whether intended or not. An intermingling of feces and fart, hence the name.
Sneak into the room, press record, and shart in his face.
Luckily for Chris, Danny’s intentional attempt was unsuccessful, but served as a reminder that we had to keep our guard up at all times while staying in a lodge off Hurley Pass, British Columbia. Cabin fever had set in. Our only outlet was 15,000 acres of endless terrain all to ourselves, two snowcats, a handful of sleds, and a heli on-call. One would assume that this was enough to keep us preoccupied during the daylight hours, and they would be correct in doing so. But come nightfall, boredom-induced boozing seemed to conclude with misbehavior of different varieties, and in turn, I slept lightly, because, well, I didn’t want my face to get shit on.
We were approximately forty-five kilometers outside of Pemberton, British Columbia, with the ominous Southern Chilcotins leering down upon us. One morning, Torstein Horgmo, Danny Kass, and Eero Ettala were in a heli briefing while the pilot––a middle aged hefty chum donning a faded ball cap and a silent assurance––sipped his coffee in the front seat, fiddling with buttons, levers, and switches until the machine kicked over and whirred to life. Stepping inside, Kass, Eero, and Torstein were all smiles. This wasn’t their first time in a heli, but it was their first time in a heli together, and furthermore, their first time on a feature trip with one another. I’m certain that there were times in their careers when the three were making chit-chat while awaiting their turn to drop into an anonymous slope course, or maybe at an autograph signing in some forgotten mountain town fulfilling their fans’ requests by personalizing posters, but this seemed different. Three of the world’s most acclaimed snowboarders––a two-time Olympic medalist, a Finnish powerhouse who redefined the essence of the modern-day video pro, and a newly-appointed Norwegian supershred quickly on his way to becoming the most prolific jumper to cross the Atlantic since Jussi and Andreas––pile into the chopper as it disappears behind the rotor wash and heads for the hills.
When legendary filmer Mike McIntyre (aka Mack Dawg) announced that he wouldn’t be making a movie in ’08/’09, Eero––who in previous winters had filmed some of his greatest parts with Dawger––found himself at somewhat of a crossroads. Not quite sure what his next move would be, Oakley stepped in and helped conceive a reality TV show (titled Tracking Eero) in which Ettala would travel the world with riders of his choosing and edit together an entire series of his winter’s exploits. From the Nissan X-Trail in Tokyo to Russian rail missions to our current coordinates, Eero had been going non-stop since opening day, yet he didn’t falter. As soon as he met up with Danny and Torstein, it was time to go to work—and unlike most of you reading this, these lucky fellows’ offices are more cornices and pillows than cubicles and PCs.
Our days were spent scoping, building, and filming while our nights consisted of board games, truth-or-dare style drinking bets, and your run-of-the-mill stir-crazy ramblings. On one particular evening, an unfortunate bet forced me to eat my entire dinner and dessert underneath the table, while Torstein enjoyed a heaping plate of lasagna with peanut butter smeared above his upper lip. Eero donned a helmet (à la Speed Racer) and mittens during his meal, and Hotell had to place his dessert plate on the toilet seat and eat it in the bathroom. Coincidentally, the dessert that evening was brownies, and uncoincidentally, someone left a napalm-like bowel movement directly before Chris’s after-supper treat. It’s amazing what you’ll agree to do when you’ve got nothing to lose (except a dash of dignity) and more importantly, nothing to do.
Reg Milne is the man behind Backcountry Snowcats and the owner of the lodge we called home for ten days. Fresh coffee in the morning, three meals a day, and a full staff (including an excellent in-house chef) employed to ensure that our stay was nothing less than luxurious. Living year-round in the woods with his wife Kathy (who is also a cat driver at the lodge), Reg leads a simple life, far from the hustle and bustle of Whistler that they left behind years ago. “I loved the old Whistler. When I first moved there, there were 700 people in the town. Now, it’s like 20,000 people, so it’s totally changed. Transitioning from the resort town to the backcountry was kind of like going back to the old days at Whistler.” Reg is soft-spoken; a keen observer that keeps to himself and soaks in his surroundings, rather than cloud a conversation with needless small talk. He’s exactly what one would expect—tall, handsome, and rugged, and one of the most kind, sincere people you’d ever meet. His wife Kathy is boisterous, hilarious, and brutally honest. Kathy doesn’t put up with shit, calls it like she sees it, and during our stay, on more than one occasion, she made us laugh so hard our stomachs were sore. Their relationship is a contrast of character, and ever since they met years ago while both working in Whistler (Reg worked maintenance and Kathy slung chairs), they’ve shared a fondness of the area that they now call home. “I found the area just by accident. I went back and did some ski touring and fell in love with the place,” says Reg. “And the next thing you know, I bought a snowcat and was up there cat-skiing. It took a bunch of years to get all the paperwork together, but next thing you know, we have a lodge and an operation going.”
Randomly, Reg fell into big-budget Hollywood work. “I was working up on Whistler and one of the local mountain guys came up to check out the weather records. He said to me, ‘We’re looking at shooting a movie up on Whistler/Blackcomb next winter.’ I thought, ‘I just bought this snowcat. I should give him my number,’” recalls Milne. Sure enough, a few months later, Reg got a call asking for help hauling specialeffects equipment around the mountain for the film crew. “Through that meeting by chance, we hit it off and I ended up working for years with him. So I pretty much traveled the world doing special effects for movies, as well as snowcat stuff.” As a stunt rigger and coordinator on films like X-Men: The Last Stand, Cliffhanger, and Alien vs. Predator: The Requiem, Reg still found time to run the cat op up in Hurley Pass in the winter months. Currently, he’s still contracted by stunt coordinators to do rigging, and as he says humbly, “A little bit of acting now and then, too.” From Hollywood to the hills, more or less.
“Professionals in every sense of the word.”
Reg’s experience in Tinseltown and knowledge of big-budget production work paid off. The media types accompanying us on this jaunt were a sight to behold in and of themselves—three cameramen, one para-glider pilot (from which a filmer dangled by a carabineer between his legs), boom mic operators, two photographers, and a lowly writer. It was certainly a production, but the footage and photos are proof that you usually get back what you put in (i.e., it’s awesome). Reg and Kathy’s years of park-building experience at Whistler might possibly have been the most beneficial skillset brought to the table, as we soon learned that cutting blocks and stacking snow to build jumps was obsolete when you had two of the best pushers in the Pemberton area at your disposal and an endless white canvas of rollers to work with. Eero, Danny, and Torstein would scope out a spot, point to where they wanted the wedge, and Reg and Kathy would push massive mounds of snow wherever they requested without question, completely alleviating any building hours and maximizing the efficiency of the feature/filming mission ten-fold. Park jumps with pow landings—it was unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Danny, Torstein, and Eero were precise in their execution; consummate professionals in every sense of the word. There were times when Danny didn’t even wait for the photographers or filmers to pull out their cameras; he was already down at the bottom, waiting for a ride to bring him back up, while a lone track came to a stop right where he was sitting. Unfortunately––for our film and photo dudes, that is––it was just that good out there. Aside from Eero spinning blindly into a small tree and coming away with a hefty bruise, everything went according to plan, and we emerged from the backcountry intact, everyone ready to hastily re-pack their bags and hop on a plane to their next destination.
On the sled ride back to town, I had some time to reflect, attempting to gather some sort of story, an angle of any sort, but I found it to be an almost impossible task. So much happened during our stay, but ironically, it stemmed from having very little to actually do (aside from snowboarding, of course). With so much down time, we were forced to converse, to get to know one another, tell stories, laugh, conduct ourselves in a crude manner at times, and ride our snowboards as much as we possibly could. And we did. From this, I guess the story wrote itself. A story about a handful of people congregating in a remote area of the forest outside of Pemberton, British Columbia. A story about three revolutionary modern-day snowboarders drifting away from the frenzy that is their winter for a few days. A story about a husband and wife, isolated, left alone, and happy as all hell about it. That’s really all there is. And then we all left; on to new adventures. Fortunately for all of us, it’s what we do.
This content was originally published in the December 2009 issue.