O n W i n t e r At F i r s t L a k e
When late autumn snowstorms graze The Ridge, it’s a sign winter’s keen edge is probing the heights of Hollyburn Mountain. As frost-bitten skies foretell of bleaker days ahead, a permanent base settles around the 2500-foot level (800 m). By then, locals know it’s open season on the slopes. In the late 1950s, skiers of that era, seeking a convenient hill on which to hone their technique, spent weekends at First Lake gliding down a gentle grade called “Popfly”. Whether enthusiasts endured twenty minutes clinging to a spartan chair on the creaky Hollyburn Aerial Tramway, stepped from lodgings nestled around First Lake, or skied in along a network of trails connecting nearby cabin sites, their destination was Hollyburn’s ski camp, first opened beside First Lake in 1926. Ardent skiers intent on being first in line milled around the base, waiting for the sound of a diesel engine’s drone that signalled Popfly’s rope-tow was about to take up slack. Once grabbed, everybody became an integral part of the loop. In doing so, this wavering train of jostling humanity imposed upon that escalating rope a devious sway all its own. Rather than haul skiers briskly up-slope in an uneventful manner as intended, this particular rope-tow had an alarming habit of disrupting an otherwise orderly procession. As for grip, it was either a firm tug-line for knowing wearers of tight leather gloves or a long-gone line for luckless wearers of loose-fitting mittens.
Since consequences attached to the push and pull of people sliding on well-worn skis along icy tracks while clutching a slithering rope, some folks never made it to the top. Given differing degrees of dexterity, someone was bound to lose their balance thanks to this contrivance’s proclivity to unleash pandemonium. Whenever that happened, things went awry in a wickedly predictable way. If certain parties missed their chance to step aside in time, skis parted, arms flailed, poles flew and epithets were uttered midst a fray of wild gestures as writhing bodies tumbled in a heap. If at any time the rope became taut, skiers short in stature were hoisted skywards with startling effect. None of this went unnoticed by folks outside the lodge. Casual observers, who witnessed these pile-ups of people in distress, justified their hideous laughter by suggesting such moments brought strangers closer together. Truth is, a working rope-tow could be counted on to get you up, but sooner or later, it would surely let you down.
Untoward incidents aside, Popfly’s lift-line was indisputably elegant in its simplicity: being a basically sound, down-to-earth means of conveyance. Next to Hollyburn Lodge, secured to a tall spar, hung two free-wheeling ‘rims’, (pulleys) one high up and one low down by the butt around which endlessly wound a hawser-like manila rope snaking in a long, lazy loop, its lower half towing skiers uphill. On this line’s upper end was housed a diesel engine located in a shed where said rope spooled around a winching device; thence free-wheeled over another rim mounted high over head on a second spar, before sagging back downhill to the base well above skiers on the hill. Though a crudely-rigged contraption roughly based on pioneer logging’s ‘donkey-engine driven, high-line principle’, the system worked like a damn. Hour after hour, turn by turn, folks stamped about on rimy snow while edging their way towards a sinuous rope prior to sliding along well-worn groves for yet another trip uphill.
Among the bustling crowd, sunstruck youngsters who’d never skied before waited their turn while fidgeting uneasily as they wondered just what they’d let themselves in for. There was never a happier, rosy-cheeked bunch than those whey-faced striplings all bundled up against the cold in snug ski togs. Smiling wanly, each youngster lurched and heaved, struggling to keep their grip while ascending an icy slide-path; trepidatiously hanging on all the way to the top of Popfly’s hill. Then out onto the slope they slid, a throttle-hold on poles, scarves flying, weaving down-slope, careening in and out of control: a chittering, skittering mob of young tyros, all squiffy-haired under woolen toques knit by their mothers.
In no time at all, Popfly’s deserted slope became an indelible scene of elegant style and antic confusion: a chaotic ballet of snow-plowing, stem-turning, sitz-marking skiers swerving and swooping back and forth, all aiming themselves at Hollyburn Lodge. Among this array of side-hill sliders, the vigour of nimble youth was on vociferous display. Here could be witnessed the frantic follies and recklessness of teenage boys for whom there was never too much fun to be had. A clamourous convocation of thrill-seeking yahoos set on a collision course with any skier who happened to be in their way, they dismissed with a puckish grin and contemptuous wave what passed for decorum on the hill. Every comic, cranking turn executed by those ‘get-out-of-the-way’ teens provided a non-stop diversion and no end of amusement for old pros who knew the ropes, for there was a time when they too made sport of others. By day’s end, this unruly bunch of youths, well-soaked from falling, took their shivering selves into the lodge to dry off and grab a seat to feed on fresh burgers at the snack bar.
Despite Popfly’s modest incline, it turned out to be a rollicking, frolicking haven of fun: beloved by regulars who whiled away their day injecting frosty air with breathless jubilation. Here is where many skiers first felt that fortifying thrill of achieving an eventful feat of physical prowess; be it just a basic sense of balance or heightened mastery over a slippery edge. On Popfly, disparate individuals temporarily became a clan of recreationists revelling in the zeal of a 1950s West Coast winter lifestyle.
Some folks thought learning how to ski at First Lake was a do-it-yourself affair. Conversely, wiser heads knew ski lessons were about interaction, and not a solitary pursuit as thought by the aforementioned simple souls. The fact is, overcoming adversity inherent to skiing and skiers had more to do with scrutinizing the actions of others than one’s perceived ability for self-control while manoeuvring over slippery slopes. Savvy individuals acquired invaluable insights about skiing’s underlying principles by keeping close tabs on or innocently hobnobbing with advanced skiers. Being attuned to subtle sleights of mind and manner enabled them to hone techniques useful when encountering unexpected ups and downs. On the other hand, less perceptive souls, inconversant with the concept of skiing as metaphor, were easily distracted. True, once atop Popfly, anyone could glide to a halt, plant their poles, look down and try to ascertain what drove that meandering mob of humanity overrunning the hill. However, this viewpoint had severe limitations for less astute actors unknowingly caught up in skiing’s hoary drama. Numb to both the cold and prophetic insights from either nipping too much ‘hair of the dog’, or gawking at girls, they simply accepted skiing at face value. This latter bunch are the ones who in the years ahead found themselves unexpectedly plummeting down yet another of life’s ‘steep, narrow, ungroomed runs’ with no idea how they got there, or why. If only they’d taken more time heeding the hints on Popfly.
Outside Hollyburn Lodge, winded chain-smokers huddled for a breather, watched incoming skiers slide to a halt nearby. Being habitual onlookers was part of the deal, since ‘coffee time’ was never over. They’d stand around chewing the fat and retelling lame jokes while sucking on tailor-mades or weedy roll-yer-owns. When a few clean-cut, energetic youngsters took to the slopes, intending to prove themselves swaggering Lotharios, old-timers knew what was going on. Bent on outbraving other lads with newly-acquired expertise, they sped off to tempt Cupid’s bow. One by one, these giddy-headed youths became hurtling show-offs, rocketing downhill past impressionable girls in that sportive rite of racking up in an explosive spray of marly snow as if that had been their intention all along.
Then, there were those more experienced skiers who set themselves on a different course. Under a mid-day’s hazy glare, champions of winter’s noble sport ventured northwards to commune with snowbound sentries on Hollyburn’s storm-strafed heights. At the mountain’s crest, masters of the hickory boards resolved to marshal their skill and physical stamina. Ascending untouched snowy slopes midst citadels of silence, every mind focussed on those first few seconds when each skier would once again feel that rush of clear, cold mountain air against their face while skimming over a sinuous trail of uphill tracks. From the summit, with bindings cinched and ski-tips aimed back towards their starting point, schussboomers momentarily halted, spellbound by a pristine world where they alone held sway. Then, with anticipation welling up inside, they plunged headlong over a precipitous promontory into deep, sparkling dunes of freshly fallen snow where every turn was boldly carved with deft determination.
Downward dashed these Nordic knights, weaving through labyrinths of stunted trees subdued by frigid winds, each pair of skis seeking symmetry of motion. With poles flexing rhythmically, nimble bodies vaulted onward over nubbled humps, past timbered bournes, bending low on pristine, sun-bathed straight-a-ways, racing through sombre bowls of bedded snow, slanting by just close enough to brush the cringing limbs of bended evergreens. Over the Pacific Mountain Highway, Wells Gray and Christiana they raced, carving rhumb lines over undulating swells and swales as they sped in carefree sprints back to the ski lodge at First Lake.
After Popfly’s diesel duly throttled out, ritualistic fusillades of snowballs flew between shouting young men and women; their feigned antagonism being just a prelude to what a flirtatious few hoped would later lead to romantic entanglements in the glowing confines of cozy log cabins. Meanwhile, with the onset of dusk, tarrying was brief as daytime crowds departed. ‘Neath twilight’s pall, an unwinding of the day saw city folks heading towards Vancouver’s distant glow, trudging wraith-like through glowering shadows or gliding on their skis through dwindling light to places further down the mountain. In the interim, local folks bound for secluded cabin sites merged into a snowy nighttime’s spectral light: following faint trails through the forest, retreating to rough-hewn snuggeries hidden deep within Hollyburn’s sheltering woods.
Sometime after midnight, as a would-be Casanova strode alone along a snowy trail towards his cabin mooning over a comely young thing he’d just been canoodling with, euphoria subsided as it dawned on him that getting past platonic was going to be much tougher than first thought. The evening hadn’t gone nearly as well as planned. Despite vigorous enthusiasm, amorous entreaties and subtle moves to inch out of bounds, each advance was deftly fended off with vague appeals to some other place and time. The night’s events didn’t bode at all well for future encounters.
Elsewhere, folks were settling in. From the 1920s until the modern era of downhill skiing in Cypress Bowl, those without friends to accommodate them, found places to stay around First Lake’s Hollyburn Ski Camp. Whether cabin, clubhouse or dorm, each abode afforded simple comfort in the form of bunks or cots where tired bodies might rest in sleeping bags or underneath heavy woolen blankets, their weight most welcome on cold winter nights. For those ensconced in communal habitations, where lanterns blazed and fires roared, there was to be found rousing woodland wassails, a collegial mood and authentic warmth: unlike late night crowds stumbling out of downtown beer parlours onto side streets slick with rain.
During the 1950s, over-nighters were content to find a ridge-top refuge near at hand, yet far enough away from the seductive hustle of Vancouver’s neon glare to be assured of finding welcome sanctuary. This vestigial group of day-trippers who remained on The Ridge - eager to mix in the close-grained companionship of mountain camaraderie - adjourned to the welcome acquaintance of rustic accommodations. Remaining here enabled them to find relief from jumbled and jarring sounds set to the beat of a city’s syncopation; not the least of which was the 9'oclock gun’s all too familiar resounding boom: a signal that in days of yore meant: “rake up the fire, put out lights, and retire”. Such was hardly the case on Hollyburn. Florid-faced diehards, all but done in from skiing all day, looked ahead to an evening of rest and renewal while drying off sodden duds. Midst the whiff of wool socks and wood-smoke, there was time aplenty for humour and horseplay given the boisterous bent of free-wheeling, week-end celebrants.
As eventide eased to shades of night, booze carefully packed up the mountain was cheerfully broken out. Old vets, college kids and everyday wage slaves raring to cut loose, weren’t about to pass up a chance to whoop it up during a weekend escapade on The Ridge. They may have been confined to cramped conditions, but residing in close-quarters was a small price to pay, despite the off-hand chance of an occasional altercation. With crocks and bottles making the rounds, a bibulous mood of merriment prevailed, fixing the keystone of a leisurely mountain getaway. On the mellow side of evening, a few good-natured wags livened up proceedings with raillery and songs, whereas those who favoured games of chance idled away the hours trading crumpled bills with greasy decks of cards. Among those gathered, it was assumed that everyone would wholeheartedly embrace the liveliness of mountain life with all the harmless mischief that entailed.
For plain-spoken folks, the mood was one of high-spirited inanity, so wits were quick to make gentle sport of artifice or lofty manners. If by chance someone new to Hollyburn dragged their haughty attitude this far up The Ridge, it left as fast as the time it took for nature’s call to make them beat a hasty retreat to the handiest outhouse door. Naturally no one bothered to mention that the TP was kept on a shelf in an old tobacco tin; nor was that the least of their worries. The ritual telling of scary bear stories and the fate of those who lose their way in the woods hardly allayed the fears of those who didn’t know where they were.
In due course, the day’s exertions took their toll. Exhausted by a full measure of free-spirited fun, even the hardiest gave the nod to peaceful sleep. As lights tapered out, those lying awake in the sultry warmth and soothing darkness of rustic surroundings likely fixed their eyes on the undersides of dusty cedar shakes. And in so doing, perhaps those most used to city living who’d never cast themselves as dreamers, nonetheless mused a silent thanks for their good fortune; especially the natural calm and peace of mind they’d found that very night up on Hollyburn Mountain.
Come the fall of night, standing outside Hollyburn Lodge savouring pure mountain air engenders a sense of timelessness. Moreover, if a waxing moon should rise above the forest’s jagged reach, floating higher and higher in its vast cosmic void strewn with twinkling stars, such luminosity surely exists to touch the mind. Enhance this vision with a display of northern lights showering streams of shifting colour down upon the pole; what better case exists for delving inwards on a crisp winter’s night? Whether watching heavenly spectacles or gauzy moonlight casting shadows over snow-banks, an aura of peacefulness descends upon this silent, sylvan realm. Even on less prolific nights, merely halting on a trampled trail under leaden skies aware of vagrant breezes drifting snowflakes over a lifeless lake, is to be struck by the impenetrable depth and power of darkness encountered in the woods.
A. G. M. F. 2014