Riders on the Storm

**this story is in unfinished form.

Late Monday, February 11th 2019, my phone rang. 

A familiar voice on the other end of the line. No ”hellos” or  “how ya doings,” just four simple words:

“you watching this storm?” 

“I am.”  

The Great Lakes are a cauldron brewing winter storms

A storm was building south west of the great lakes. Winds were gusting upwards of 80 km/hr and picking up momentum and humidity. The storm was gorging itself on lakes Huron, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario. The storm of the year was headed straight for the Laurentian’s.

Lake effect snow brewing in The Greats: photo courtesy of NOAA

Did you know that the Great Lakes don’t fully freeze over? Even in the dead of the -30 degree winter 50% of the lakes are open water.

Great Lakes Guide has this to share: “since the early 1970s, the Great Lakes have a long-term average of 55% ice coverage with certain areas reliably freezing over. In that time, the lakes have surpassed 80% ice coverage a mere five times.” Lakes Michigan and Ontario haven’t frozen over since scientists began recording in the early 1900s (Great Lakes Guide, “Do the Great Lakes Freeze Over?”).   

What this means for east coast skiers is that The Greats are a cauldron for amping up winter storms: it’s called lake effect snow. Large frozen unobstructed flat areas augmented with equally large areas of open water are the perfect blend for brewing up bruisers.

The voice on the other end of that call I had just received was my mountain brother Robbie Whelan – the Dubs. If there is one person I can rely on for a mountain mission it’s the Dubs. He’s a fellow, hip hop head (90s), father, uphiller, and is also staring down the barrel of 40 years of age.

Much to my chagrin, I had been turning a blind eye to “the storm of the winter” and now my back on a good friend.

Doubts and excuses started flooding my mind: I don’t have the money for it, the weatherman is always wrong, we don’t have anywhere to stay, it’s almost Valentine’s Day, it’s not fair to leave my partner with my 1 year old daughter, driving my truck that far is environmentally irresponsible, this is selfish, so–on–and–so–on. 

I was having difficulty summoning the reasons I should go, which is pretty uncharacteristic behaviour for a guy who spent the passed 2 years ski bumming. I used to live for storms like this one.

Yes, some of these “reasons” could be construed as legitimate, but what was my sitting on my couch watching the storm of the year blow over going to accomplish? Underneath my consternation, was a deep ache to lean into the uncertainty and chase the storm.

I’m a skier. I’m living in South Western Ontario. Apart from the three days a week when I visit the climbing gym, my existence is largely a horizontal one. This trip could really feed my soul’s hunger for some vertical.

I hung up the phone. Reaching deep into my gear closet I unearthed my 60 litre Blackhole bag, my Refugitive shell, and my sticks: 112 DPS Wailers. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and anticipation: it’s on!

Mountain mathematics

I’ve got a 48 hour window . . . enter the mind of a ski bum.

16 hours of travel + 12 hours for sleep + 16 hours for skiing = 44 hours

I’m left with approx. 4 hours for incidentals i.e. eating, aprés bevies, setting up camp, and other recreational activities (all legal…finally). Something tells me I won’t be showering or changing my clothes this time around. Less weight to tote, less carbon emissions right?

The wheels are turning

The following morning (Tuesday) I was slow to rise. My heel dragging had put me behind schedule. I woke to massive 50 foot conifers nearly doubling over on themselves outside the window of my warm snug bedroom (6:30 a.m.).

I didn’t have time to stop for coffee. Minutes matter when you are trying to ride the front of an enormous winter storm. Besides, I’m not sure I could have endured the senior contingent digging for exact change in their miniature carpet bagesque change purses. Nor could I withstand the painstaking process in which they stubbornly succumb to the inevitable realization that, yes they will have an Earl Grey with a splash of milk . . . again.

I had been feeling a curmudgeonly burl starting to fester inside of me. I felt a deep disquietude for my circumstances. I was full of anger that I projected on the people around me. What kind of a partner, father, or friend could I be, if I let this burl grow? I needed a salve. I needed to drink deeply from the cauldron brimming over with lake effect snow. I needed to ski.

Instead of a warm cup of coffee and a cruller, a nice dose of Dare iz a Darkside at 8 am would have to do. That record is just banger after banger. Luckily that CD just happened to be living in the deck of my Tacoma at the time: an evil omen or portent of good things to come? Time is the Revelator.

Utility trucks were lined up in a field just outside of town. Their yellow beacons were ablaze. They were armed with telephone poles and bucket lifts lying-in-wait for the carnage to begin.

These signs would deter most people from embarking on a 700km roadie, but not a skier. My plan was to ride the crest of this Maverick all the way to Quebec. Then let it crash down all around me; pinning me in for a couple days of powdery delight. 

The sound of the genuine in yourself

My body was firmly resolved and hurdling down the front side of the storm, but my mind was still somewhat resistant.

The 401 corridor I was travelling along is known for being one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in the world: half a million cars travel this stretch of road everyday. Coupled with that, ghosts from the previous evening’s doubts were feeding on my apprehension. I was still wrestling with whether my motivations for this trip were selfish or if the discomfort was a product of stepping outside my comfort zone to fulfill my soul’s needs.

In moments like this one I find myself seeking a sign to direct me. A spiritual blaze in my path to direct my next steps. Some kind of validation outside of myself. But how to summon it?  

Permit me a moment of soul searching here. 

I’ve always believed that there is some essential self, the original Lucas, buried inside me. He’s somewhere under 30 odd years of crap. I just need to unearth him. In moments like this one, call it a crossroads, an apex, a turning point, a transition, hanging it all out there etc. it feels like things are coming to a head.

Existential questions flood my mind at times like this: what will happen if I deny the call of my soul? Will it continue to call, or will it fade? And if it fades will I be changed irreversibly?

I found this great quote in a book about ski bumming that I feel captures my inner turmoil well:

“There is something in everyone of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It’s the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls” (Howard Thurman).  

A silver lining

So here I find myself, windshield wipers coursing back and forth, snow and wind buffeting my truck, beats from Rockafella spilling from my speakers, I’m questioning whether this is the sound of the genuine in myself or if I’m diving headlong through a snowstorm toward certain doom. Then a silver pickup buzzes me on the inside lane with a decal reading,

work for it.”

Nothing good comes easy, this much is true. Finding your groove in this life is often an uncomfortable endeavour. I’ve learned, through excruciating experience that compromises can make for a more comfortable existence, but not a very rewarding one. If you can bare the chronic grating of your soul against your conscience reminding you of your commitment to the path of least resistance then by all means compromise.

Jeff Tweedy (singer/songwriter of Wilco) shared some great advice from Dolly Parton in his memoir: “Find out who you are and then be that on purpose” (p.264 Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)).” It’s not always easy to be yourself, or even know who you that is. But I believe it is something we are all trying to resolve.

I read the decal as a trail blaze sent to keep me on track. Or at least on the 401. Who’s surface wasn’t visible, but it was down there . . . somewhere. Thank you Nokian for keeping my tires glued to the icy road and Dolly Parton for the wise words!

Some welcome company

Four hours down the road, hurried along by a consistent 60 km/h hour tailwind, I had started to outrun the storm. In the clearing is where my mountain brother was lying-in-wait for me. Out front of a Tim Horton’s just off the 401 highway was the Dubs. His company was a welcome addition to the journey, as was the blood then returning to my white knuckles.

Up until this point I had been headed directly east. I was trying to outpace the storm: no stopping for food, no stretching of legs, just a quick fuel stop. Soon we would be headed North for some 250 kms.  My route from South Western Ontario to Tremblant is basically an enormous 90 degree right angle. A 500km push east along the x axis, then another 250km north along the y axis. It would only be a matter of time before the south westerly front I’d just outrun would catch us broadside. 

The High Road

I had left my home at 8 am that morning in whiteout. By 5:00 pm I rolled into P1 at the base of Mont Tremblant in clear conditions with my mountain bro in tow. A wash of relief and excitement paradoxically rushed through my chest and legs as I turned the engine off. 

I had arrived

Robbie Dubs was kind enough to pack some “herbals for the verbals” (Labcabincalifornia 1994). There we sat, rolling a joint on the latest copy of Backcountry Magazine–aptly titled “The High Road”–as the first mighty blast of the storm blew through the parking lot knocking a large orange and black traffic pylon off its sturdy 24” base. The gust

PSA: there was absolutely no driving under the influence.

The storm had caught up to us. In fact we arrived nearly in tandem. Queue the Doors, “Riders on the Storm.

*No seriously, bring up Spotify and put this song. I’ll wait . . .

We stepped out of the truck. Much needed blood returned to our extremities. We took shelter in the wind shadow of the Tacoma. The zippers of our down jackets were tucked firmly into their zipper hoods. Our eyes peeled to the mountain. Just under the whistling wind, the muted flick of a lighter and crack of a can could be heard. We inhaled the deep fresh cold storm air laced with THC. Our offering to the great Trembling Mountain.  

Then it started to snow. That snow wouldn’t stop falling for another 48 hours.

Silhouetted against the massive snow banks, aglow from the amber parking lot lights, two hooded figures strolled out of the lot and into the ambient glow of the village shrouded in the mountain’s shadow. My anger dissolved. My burden lightened. The condensation from The Great Lakes landed weightless on my shoulders in crystalline form.

First chair…almost.

Twenty-nine centimetres fell overnight. At 7 am the next morning (Wednesday) it was still coming down. We had found our way into a friend’s cabin. Crashed inside sleeping bags, so as to not soil the newly laundered sheets. We were out of his, and his family’s, hair at first light. But not before turning the truck slideways in the driveway. I had hung the Taco up on the 4 foot snow banks that straddled the tunnel that was passing for a “driveway.” We pulled out our avy shovels and dug out the truck using the companion rescue method: one chops the other clears trading-off every few minutes. Half an hour later the snare finally released us to ride the unicorn of East Coast skiing: a powder day.  

Image courtesy of Montana State University

We headed straight for one of the steepest parts of the mountain. A run called “Vertige,” which roughly translates to “fear of heights” or “vertigo.” The run is found on the south west face of the mountain and most people avoid it. Vertige is permanently roped due to the precipitous drop. It is one of the steepest inbounds runs in the East and usually glazed with ice.

The south west aspect of the mountain had been staring into the face of the storm all night. Vertige is roughly 30 – 40 feet wide and has two steep pitches that run roughly 100 meters each, eventually running out into open 30 degree terrain.  

The traverse across the top of the mountain was knee deep. This gave us little hesitation about ducking the rope and dropping the 40 ̊ slope. What would normally be a hellishly narrow field of monster ice-moguls, had been transformed into powder turns at the perfect angle. I can almost hear the hiss of the snow crystals against my Walier’s bases right now.

We had to give Vertige an encoré; although, we did pay for our minor “rope ducking” misconduct. The runout was sheer blue ice. The blistering 80km/h south westerly winds from the night before had likely pushed the snow off the lower angled section of the mountain. Thankfully the steepest section of the mountain above hung onto its treasure trove of fresh.

Finding blue ice on a powder day elicited the joke: “still ice.” Only the Laurentian’s could find a way to be icy on a powder day.

“Bro-lentine’s” Day

Our second night, Valentine’s Day, would be spent under durable 40-denier polyester ripstop with an ether-type polyurethane waterproof coating. We were winter camping. 

This isn’t the first V-day the Dubs and I have spent on the mountain together. “Bro-lentine’s,” as we have come to call it, has become something of an unintentional tradition. We stumbled upon one of the greatest winter secrets of East Coast skiing.

Globally, the winter season has become less stable. We aren’t experiencing the consistant snow falls and predictable subzero temperatures that defined the winters of our Canadian childhoods. But there is one cyclical winter phenomena that remains: The Brolenteine’s nuke-fest.

For 48 hours every February 13-14th, we measure snow by the foot rather than the centimetres.

You never forget your first love

The Laurentian’s mountains date to the beginning of the Cambrian period, which makes them over 540 million years old. These are some of the oldest mountains on planet earth if not the oldest. This is why I suspect Ullr spends so mightily and consistently every February 14th over the Laurentian range.

Ullr is simply unwilling to relinquish the reigns to the yo-yoing whims of climate change come February 14th. Such is the fierceness of his love for the oldest mountain chain in the world, that even in the face of global climate shifts, Ullr spends mightily from his frozen stores every Valentine’s Day. You never forget your first love.

Over the 13th -14th of February of 2019 over two feet of fresh was dumped on us. The highest snowfall of the season. 

The Brolentine’s the year before I was in Stowe. Stowe is part of the Adirondack Mountain chain another recipient of the cauldron of lake effect snow and close relative, in proximity and age, to the Laurentian’s. I was chasing, what became a famous, 100 year storm. 3 feet fell over a 48 hour period. It was almost impossible to track Mansfield out it was nuking so hard.

We first noticed this cyclical phenomena in 2017, the year the Brolintine’s tradition began. Dubs and I rented a cabin together in Le Sauvage, a hamlet southeast of the Mont Tremblant. Le Sauvage roughly translates to “the wild” or “the savage.”

The Dubs and I chased our first storm together that year. We were rewarded with 2 feet of fresh and an annual tradition. We spent 13 hours in our ski boots during our first Bro-lentines. The final turns of the day were under headlamp in the backcountry directly behind our cabin. And thus “Bro-lintines” was born.

Ski bumming and civil disobedience

When the lifts stopped this year, instead of hiking into the backcountry seeking a few more turns, I was cutting trail in the winter twilight in search of a tenable campsite for the night.

Ski bumming requires outside-the-box thinking mingled with a healthy dose of civil disobedience. Just beyond the massive snowbanks that make up the perimeter of Northside lot we found a sweet little nook for our tent (pictured above). This is the beauty of visiting a mountain located inside a National Park: 360 degrees of untracked wilderness surround the mountain. We barely needed to leave the parking lot to improvise a site #leavenotrace #LNT

photo by Rob Whelan

Absolutely blasted from the day we had just put on the books, we fell into our sub-zero mummy bags and a deep winter slumber. When we finally came to, the Nunatak was awash in the vibrant orange glow of a new day. As were our faces. We probably looked like a couple of nordic Oompa Loompas.

Waking up on a powder day is awaking to a world reborn.

Instead of the default chime of an iPhone alarm, we emerged from our bags to the sound of large machinery:

beep . . . beep . . . beep.

The sweet sound of the snow removal crew hard at work. That could only mean one thing, the mountain had been filled in while we slumbered. There was zero chance of hanging the truck up this morning. We were waking up only a few hundred yards from the lifts.

The boughs of the conifers surrounding our site were bending under the weight of their beautiful burden: fresh snow. Crawling out of the tent and into a new day fresh snow slipped off the domed vestibule, ziiippppp! Waking up on a powder day is awakening to a world reborn.

While skinning from our clandestine campsite to the lift, I noticed that it wasn’t only the world around me that was reborn, I felt a deeply satisfying renewal within myself. The burl of disquietude, which had been festering inside, had started too unfurl. My inner demon’s quads were too blasted from resisting the pull of gravity all day yesterday to exercise any influence over me. I was flying. And today I was going to put another hurting on them.

There was a deep satisfaction in the pain,

I’ve had a painful time finding my place in this world. I’ve framed houses, been a missionary, attended University, photographed weddings, I’m working on becoming a writer, but I have never felt as fulfilled and centred as when I’m on skis treading through the mountains under my own steam.

Skiing isn’t a vacation for me. I don’t feel like I’m vacating anything. I feel like I’m arriving: coming home. Amidst deep snow, high mountains, and the deafening roar of snowy silence, in a place insulated from “civilization,” is the one place I never feel like leaving. Inhabiting an environment that requires complete presence of mind, this is where I find peace. This is where I find God. The mountain is my cathedral.

Well after this trip I visited a very old friend of mine, probably my oldest: Robbie Craig. I was sharing some of these thoughts with him. He pointed out to me that the mountains provide adequate enough stimulation to calm my active mind. Some people are simply built for environments like this.

I’d never thought of it in those terms. Robbie is a personal trainer dedicated to human performance and excellence. He’s been a PT for as long as I’ve been a lens slinger. This guy knows exactly what he is talking about. Incidentally, Robbie was my first backcountry partner. He was the first person I dragged into the woods, over frozen streams, post holing through farmers fields in ungodly temps with our Canadian Tire boards under our arms. All in search of any slope with more than 50ft of vertical relief. Not something that comes easily in Harrowsmith, Ontario.

I return home and now the real work begins. I have the clarity and courage of my convictions. My mission is to provide my daughter with a full life in the cathedral of the natural world. It’s what I would have wanted. And don’t we all just want to pass along what was missing from our own lives. To provide our children the best environment to grow. A place to spark their imaginations; a place to mold their bodies; a place to shape their spirits into something unbound by fear. To give our children roots and wings.

The people around me are always the one’s that provide me with the clearest insights into who I am. I feel the deepest fulfillment when I get to share these experiences with them. And when I get to hear their thoughts on what value I bring as a friend.

Maybe it is more about becoming a part of something bigger than yourself. Perhaps the existential quest for individual authenticity is a fools errand, a Myth of Sisyphus type endeavour? It could be that we find ourselves when we loose ourselves to something bigger ourselves? And isn’t that what being on the mountain is all about? Putting ourselves into an environment so large that we loose ourselves to it? To walk into the mountains is to become a part of something bigger than ourselves, we give ourselves over to the landscape to a beauty that far surpasses our own. Travelling in the mountains is metaphor for the peace we all seek: to be a part of something larger than ourselves.

Many thanks to my lovely partner Virginia, who has read this story too many times to mention. To Ullr, for the annual Valentine’s nuke fest. And to Robbie Dubs, for the good vibes, stellar photos, and being such a good bro. Cheers you three!

– Lucas


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