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Breathing in Kootenay Cold Smoke

Annual powder festival at Whitewater Ski Resort makes the perfect Road Trip
free heel fest The ROAM Randonnee Rally is just one of the many events featured at the Coldsmoke Powder Festival in Nelson, B.C. Photo by Vince Shuley

When you hear the words "road trip" the pop culture image comes to mind of a busload of drunken, obnoxious college kids crossing state lines being chased by the authorities. Though this scenario is certainly not unheard of in Whistler, in a mountain town the road trip usually has a more focused goal — to explore mountains in distant places.

Skiing road trips refine the search even further, the aim being to ski your chosen resort in the most desirable of conditions – fresh powder. So where to drive a vehicle rammed with bodies and ski equipment on a late February weekend?

Nelson, B.C. checks all the boxes —the snow is light, dry and plentiful, it is far enough from Whistler to gain a few cramps from the 10-hour drive, and the surrounding mountains of the Selkirk Range are enough to make any Coast Mountain skier quiver in their boots.

And the best time to visit in the winter? This weekend.

The annual Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Festival is back for its sixth year, and the forecast looks like Ullr is going to deliver. The idea for Coldsmoke was originally hatched by John Irvine (marketing director for outerwear brand Arc'teryx) and telemark guru Nils Larsen. Their goal was to bring the biggest names in backcountry skiing to Whitewater for three days of educational clinics, equipment demos, films, slide shows and, of course, some partying thrown in for good measure. This year's names include Whistler skiing legend Eric Pehota (a regular attendee to the festival) and super human touring machine Greg Hill (the guy who climbed and skied two million feet in a year) as well as numerous other accomplished guides and steep skiers. Clinics will be available for everything from telemark turns on green runs to free skiing with local pros.

"The clinics really have been the main focus of the festival from the start," said Anne Pigeon, general manager of marketing at Whitewater.

"It's really about people wanting to take that skill up to the next level, but don't really want to go through a snow school per say, it's a totally different kind of lesson. There (are) big names and people are excited to ski with them."

Those excited folks are travelling to Nelson not just from B.C. but also from the entire Pacific Northwest, with many cars in the Whitewater parking lot over the festival sporting plates from Washington, Montana and Idaho. The influx of American visitors over the years was boosted by sponsorship from Washington-based outdoor retailer Mountain Gear, but the sponsorship support has now returned to local businesses, in turn motivating more Nelson locals to head up to Whitewater during the busiest weekend of the season.

The local focus will also be more evident this year at the Capitol Theatre in Nelson with "A Toast to the Kootenays." The opening night has featured international backcountry films in the past, but this year it will be showcasing the very best video, imagery and multimedia presentations to emerge from the Kootenay region over the last 10 years.

"There's the clinics and (competition) events that take place at Whitewater and there's the social side of the event," said Peter Moynes, publisher and photo editor of Kootenay Mountain Culture (KMC) magazine.

"That is where KMC comes in."

Both Moynes and KMC publishing partner Mitchell Scott are in charge of providing festival goers with a uniquely Kootenay experience at the social events and Scott will once again be the MC of the Saturday night Buff-EH dinner and Hootenanny After Party. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the magazine, which will be celebrated on the Saturday as an après event at the Whitewater lodge, complete with fire dancers outside and live music inside.

But Coldsmoke also has a competitive streak, featuring the Randonnee Rally (a ski touring race), the Powder Keg Slopestyle (a mini free ski competition), the Poker Run (a ski touring card game with the best hand winning) and the Backcountry Olympics. The last event involves teams employing all skills of backcountry travel including a beacon search, toboggan construction (from equipment on hand) and then crossing the finish line to be the first team to build a fire, cook an egg and eat it. Competitors that win the most consistent points over all events will be crowned the King and Queen of Coldsmoke.

Crazy competitions, rewarding ski clinics and unique entertainment all in an intimate mountain setting topped with coldsmoke powder? Only in the Kootenays.