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Pemberton’s Darkhorse is getting his time on the big screen

Joe Lax is the subject of a new documentary at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival
Pembertonian snowboarder and firefighter Joe Lax is the star of a documentary called Darkhorse.

Joe Lax doesn’t particularly enjoy the spotlight. 

Lax describes himself as “pretty low-key” and “somewhat of an introvert.” He’s a very capable snowboarder, but not one to overly publicize his exploits. In fact, many who follow “whiskeytahoe” on Instagram don’t know the man behind the account—or even where his eyebrow-raising GoPro footage was captured. 

Even so, the spotlight has found Lax. The 45-year-old father of two is the central figure in an Arc’teryx-sponsored documentary titled Darkhorse, helmed by Bryan Smith and Cameron Sylvester. 

“I feel like it takes most people a few years to get in with Joe,” remarks carpenter and photographer Brad Slack in the opening seconds of the movie’s trailer. “He doesn’t like crowds, and he’s a man of few words. I don’t know if many people really get to see who the real Joe is.” 

The rest of the trailer juxtaposes breathtaking shots of pristine backcountry with stark images of fire consuming once-pristine forest. Lax is a 20-year veteran of the BC Wildfire Service, and his experiences make him intimately familiar with both sides of nature: its capacity for beauty and violence alike. 

“Seeing nature in its rawest form, you can’t help but be humbled in the presence of that,” Lax said. “I try to approach nature with a huge amount of respect, and I’ve seen a lot of wild things over the years, for sure. Mother Nature’s in charge, and when there’s a perfect storm of drought, atmospheric conditions and weather, anything can happen and it can be real bad.” 

Forest firefighting is Lax’s trade, and one in which he has climbed the ladder to become an operations chief. He knows, as many do, that fire seasons are growing longer, more intense and more dangerous, with blazes impacting communities at a concerning rate. These trends keep the Pembertonian and his crew busier than before, but once summers pass, he always makes time for the mountains.

‘It’s been an obsession’

Lax was born in Lumsden, Sask.: roughly a half hour’s drive north of where Mark McMorris grew up. The two men share a love of snowboarding and weren’t about to let a dearth of mountainous terrain on the Prairies stop them from going after their dreams. That perhaps, is where the similarities between them end. 

McMorris is a three-time Olympic bronze medallist, the most decorated Winter X Games athlete in history and a heavily-sponsored, wildly popular professional. On the other end of the spectrum, Lax doesn’t necessarily use his board as a way to make money. To him, it simply unlocks a sport that comes as naturally as breathing. 

“For me, snowboarding’s been a lifestyle for a long time,” he explained. “It’s been an obsession. It’s given me meaning. I think it really just comes to the feeling of chasing powder through all these years. That’s been my main motivator, for sure.” 

As a teenager, Lax knew he would someday move out West, and resolved to do so sooner rather than later. The Rocky Mountains were his first stop, and he reached Pemberton in the spring of 1998. The valley has more or less been his home since then. 

Lax saw the potential of big mountain and backcountry riding long before many of his peers did. He has spent virtually his entire adult life exploring the unrivalled natural playground that is the Sea to Sky corridor. 

A bigger story

Despite his behind-the-scenes personality, Lax has dealt with Smith and Sylvester before. The first time was in Shaped by Wild, a celebrated feature from 2023 documenting British Columbia’s Coast Mountain Range. The filmmakers picked up something special in Lax’s story and later approached him with a concept that became Darkhorse

“In our previous experience, we built a friendship and trust, and I think their intentions were good,” said Lax. “So, I decided to proceed. First and foremost, I like the idea of going on adventures in the mountains trying to capture some moments, but I think they saw a bigger story and I’m happy with how they told it.” 

These days, Lax loves nothing more than to go snowboarding with his wife and children. His daughters are 12 and seven years of age, old enough to really start chasing powder and catching air. He doesn’t know if he’d still live in Pemberton were his favourite pastime not a cornerstone of his family’s identity. 

Darkhorse will screen at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (WIMFF) from Feb. 23 to March 3. It promises to give the general public a closer look at a man one press release labelled “one of the most accomplished backcountry riders you’ve never heard of.”

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