Ghostly flakes drifting ever downward contrast the violent sucking of my lungs and double-kick pulse of my heart. Looking back, paradoxical expressions of agony and hope mixed on the faces of my friends. Past them was freshly broken trail—switching back on itself seven, eight, maybe nine times. Beyond that, rocky faces faded in and out of the ensuing storm as snow-filled clouds hammered through the valley. We were on the northern portion of the Jasper to Banff Ice Fields Parkway, trekking up Parker Ridge in mid-November. Our ascent will be worth it. Every November long weekend, two things happen: powder hounds pray to the snow gods for the pineapple express, and 15 friends book out the Beauty Creek Hostel for a weekend of boozing, bonfires and Risk. Oh, and depending on the weather, they may or may not get the best turns of the season. This particular year, the praying paid off.
Distilled, the pineapple express is a yearly storm counted on by early season turn addicts and backcountry buffs. Whenever the jet stream settles into a direct flow across the eastern Pacific, the moisture-laden air gets pushed up by the Rockies, crystallizes, then unleashes a thick duvet of Canadian Champagne. However, because it's the first major snowfall of the year, the snow pack can be unstable. Avi-gear and the knowledge to use it are musts if heading to the backcountry.
The drive to Jasper was dismal. The sun shone, golden leaves fluttered lazily; we cranked the air conditioning. Even in Jasper, potted flowers stood fully bloomed as manicured lawns bristled. Sitting in the brewhouse, we tried to remain optimistic while we waited for Tom, the last of our group to arrive.
After Tom arrived with the keys for the Beauty Creek Hostel, we convoyed the remaining 45 minutes down the Ice Fields Parkway to our dark lodgings. Scoping the bare roadside caused more disappointment. This was all capped off by pulling into an equally bare parking lot. We were now 15 minutes away from Parker's Ridge and the snow was still scarce.
There was no alarm, no reckless construction noise to wake us. All stagnant air from the room had suddenly been replaced with icy vapors as I stepped outside and drew in the first yawn of the morning. My lungs felt free of the night's body-soil, replaced instead with a piney mint, straight from the freezer. This new-found freshness recoiled as I stepped back into the room. Like a frog unaware it's been boiling in ever-increasing hot water, I too was unaware just how bad 10 men in a cabin could really smell.
I opted to leave the door ajar and headed for the kitchen. Some friends were quietly reading, others making oatmeal and cowboy coffee. Little pieces of board games littered the linoleum. Cloudy memories of competitive screams and conquering cheers rushed back into my memory. I think at one point Tom declared he could no longer be friends with us anymore as we wiped him off the Risk board.
Just then, a car pulled up and hurried footsteps gained volume as buddies Tal and Dave jumped down the hill towards the hostel.
"There's so much snow," Tal said. His jubilation seemed to kick everyone's asses out of bed. The kitchen and decks became busy with bustle and anticipation. Gear was packed, lunches were made and beacon batteries were tested before we jumped in the cars and headed out.
It's not as though it snowed overnight, or we had just missed the powder mounds. It's just that 10 minutes down the road, just past the welcome centre for the Athabasca Glacier, the snow sat waiting like a puppy under a Christmas tree.
Our cars were the only ones in the parking lot, save for two young boys being dropped off by their mother.
"That's just irresponsible," said Tom, who knew enough about Parker's to know it's unwise to just roll up and ride. Tom had full snow-pack reports and wouldn't let anyone come who was going to undermine his knowledge of the ridge and put everyone in danger.
As I floundered freely around in my new snowshoes, I was ready to attack the hike. It didn't look so bad from the parking lot. However, not even 10 minutes into the hike the lung sucking began. The boarders were all having a tough time, while the skiers with touring bindings and skins were simply powering up the hill. For some reason, we let the one guy who'd been tree planting all summer set pace. It was murder, but I'd gladly die for those conditions.
I only ascended the ridge once that day, mostly content to take fresh tracks from the halfway point with the other out-of-shape boarders. As we glided through the wilderness, grinning and giddy, I felt a connection to the sport that I never knew existed. Before the lifts, the crowds and the lines, the ticket prices, the sponsorship deals and the competitions, people were riding down snow-covered slopes because it was fun. There wasn't a winner or loser, it wasn't about being better than someone else, there was no fame and glory involved. As all of us rediscovered that day, something greater can be attained than victory or fame.
Laughing together as we tore turns, hiked lines, consumed lunch and trekked out, everyone took away feelings of pure joy, as though this was what life was supposed to be. Until the timing of the snowstorm lines up again as it did that year, it will forever be one of the best winter, skiing, and travel experiences of my life, and I found it just down the road, with friends from just down the street.