White Powder and Red Rock

Brian Head Travel Blog

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I was sitting around my buddy Erik Wilhelm’s house, pondering on the lack of storm activity that had plagued  Tahoe for the past month, when the Weather Channel scrolled more stats across the screen at me about weather elsewhere.  Not that lack of snow was bothering those pros who were off in Alaska or BC or wherever had been deemed the Shangri-La of the moment.  No, they couldn’t give a damn about those of left at home.  Of course, I was just bitter because the closest I had been was a phone call from pro snowboarder Adam Hostetter asking if I wanted to join a Teton Gravity Research crew in Alaska at the last minute.  Problem was, I wasn’t home when he called.  When I called him back, a stranger picked up the phone and said he’d just found this cell phone lying around in San Francisco airport.

  You see, Adam, you have to take the phone with you…

                My head jerked up, though, when the Weather Channel announced 16” of fresh snow in Brian Head, Utah.  Now most Wasatch locals don’t even know where Brian Head is, even though it’s in their own state.  I had had an interest in the place for awhile, so I knew something about it.  Rumor had it that there was a cheap snowcat operation there, and some great out-of-bounds terrain.  The Brian Head web site " Internet savvy powder hound that I am " told me that the storm had dumped a total of 28” on the resort.

  To my snow-starved self, that was a dump of Biblical proportions.  When Wilhelm got home from work, I laid the road trip idea on him.  He took to it like a wild trout to a mayfly hatch.  His girlfriend even offered to contribute her Subaru wagon to the cause since neither of us had cars likely to make it to the Nevada border, much less Utah.  Swell girl, Jen.

                A day of phone calls got me hooked up at the resort end.  They’d love to see a crew come out there and shoot, they say.  I tell them I expect two hundred pounds of M&M’s to be waiting in our room, and if there are any brown ones we’re driving straight back to Tahoe.

  Nailing down other riders proved to be a bigger challenge.  Everyone was already shooting, or being interviewed, or doing something more important than riding deep powder at a place that sounded like something from a Monty Python film.  When Erik finally found someone to go with us, the guy turned out to be a filmer.  Suited Erik fine, but not what I was looking for, since I figured the local talent at this place wasn’t exactly going to light it up.  (Well, except for herb....)  Beggars can’t be choosers, though.  I talked to the film guy, Jason Brown, and it turned out he’d been one of New Zealand’s top pros only a few years before.  Since settling in Tahoe, he had put that aside in favor of going behind the lens, though he was only 23.

                So off we went, rallying across The Loneliest Road in America for hundreds of miles through Nevada.

  Highway 50 is a strange road to drive.  Stranger still, when you’re stuck in a car listening to DJ mixes of drums and bass and other house music permutations while your cohabitants discuss people like Tricky, Moby, and the rest of the Seven Dwarfs.  Just when you’re jonesing for some Leatherface or Government Issue to keep you awake, you get stuck with the only two snowboarders in the world who don’t like punk rock.  There was one period we seemed to enter the Twilight Zone, driving through total blackness ad infinitum while “oonchie” music beat repetitively against my brain.  There are no signs of life on Hwy 50 for up to a hundred miles at a time.  Bad combination.

                Jason is a DJ himself, who goes by DJ MIA.

  The name stands  for “Maz in Action”, from his nickname Maz, because he drives a Mazda (pronounced by him like a sheep goes “baaaa”).  Kiwis aren’t real complicated.  Sometimes I even wonder if they’re not a bit simple.  The monotony-breaking entertainment was the steady mad dash of rabbits across the road all the way to the Utah border.  More visions from Monty Python films went through my head.  Oh yeah, when we were walking into a convenience store in the town of Ely, some kid in the parking lot said to Jason “skate or die, dude”.  Couldn’t tell if he was dissing us for being snowboarders, or giving us props ‘cause we looked cool.

                We rolled into Brian Head about one in the morning, walked into the condo that was awaiting us, and thought that we had been styled pretty damn well.

  And that was before we discovered that each of us had a private bedroom in the place.  Unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy it for long, since we had to meet snowboard coordinator Frank Osborn first thing in the morning.  With about five hours of sleep behind us, we trudged bleary-eyed toward the lifts and resort headquarters, which luckily was only about a hundred yards away.  Frank spotted me before I did him, reasoning that my unmistakably deep voice from the phone could only be associated with this 6’7” guy with camera gear.  They’re not slouches at Brian Head.  I was relieved to see that Frank was a guy just like us, and not my preconception of a “snowboard coordinator”.  I had envisioned some overly earnest 35 year old guy who was still riding hard boots.  Frank introduced the rest of our crew for the day:  Tommy Viele, a quiet lanky guy in a Darth Vader helmet, Jody Jones, the park manager, and Timmy, a 16 year old Filipino who liked “killing white people” when he wasn’t working as Frank’s right-hand man.

                We warmed up on some groomed runs "and though I rarely enthuse about corduroy, it was some of the finest I’ve come across" and then hit some powder stashes in the trees.  At noon we were booked for our first cat ride to Brian Head Peak, and we were itching to get up there.  The peak looms four hundred feet above the top of the lifts, which while it isn’t that much, looks pretty impressive when it’s all cliff terrain.  The head of ski patrol joined us, and we piled on the snowcat for the ride up.  The snowcat was another surprise, a bad-ass black Ford pickup with tracks mounted on the axles.  Each operator during our stay seemed bent on setting a new record to the top, which made for some exciting rides.

  Walking out the ridge once we summited, we were in love.  Chute after chute after cliff dropped away beneath us, almost all of them untracked.

                “We’re the only ones who ride this,” explained Tommy.  “The kind of people who come here to ski think it’s too burly, and not many of the people who work here are interested.”

                Jason wasted no time in selecting a steep chute line and charged high up the left bank, only to slash back into the choke at the last second.

  The head of ski patrol looked perturbed.

                “Does he realize there’s a 60 foot cliff the other side of where he was?”  We assured him Jason did.  The patroller sighed.  “Well, I could have come up here and NOT seen that and my day would have been just fine.”

                Jody laid over a huge toe side fan on the crusty upper bowl, and stomped a nice air without slowing down.  Tommy worked his way into a cliff called Homewrecker, a scary funnel takeoff with a big pre-ollie and a windlip to clear below.

  It was worthy of its name.  Tommy came up a touch short, landing on the edge of the windlip.  He was wincing in pain as he rode away, and fell at our feet clutching at his back.  Not the responsible behavior of a family man, though his wife’s baby still was five weeks away, so I suppose he figured there was no reason to slow up yet.  Tommy ran the SUP (Southern Utah Pride) snowboard shop in the village, and had just returned to Brian Head after years in the Wasatches.  Both he and Jody were impressive riders, and I later found that Tommy was far from the no-name local ripper I’d thought.  His portfolio was stocked with years of magazine shots and ads from Snowbird and Brighton, he was well traveled, and he thrived on big terrain.

                Erik, never to be outdone by anyone if he can help it, sized up a big cliff.

  He got a helpful scouting report from us down below  “stay to your right” “whatever you do don’t go right” “the middle is the only chance” “you’ll hit rock in the middle”  and finally just sailed 40’+ over everything.  No one was more impressed than the ski patrol guy.  “That was big,” he said over the radio, somewhat in awe, adding for the benefit of other patrollers, “did anyone else see that?”  In fact, you’d think half of Brian Head saw it, from the buzz that started going around the mountain about this maniac going huge off the peak.  We checked out another secret stash of powder and rocks down below, got another cat ride in, and called it a day.  Our patrol guide on the second run was a cute snowboard patroller, and I’d noticed so far that every single female patroller the resort had was kind of a babe.  Definitely a bonus. 

                This factor weighed strongly in favor of us attending the weekly patrol party that night at Club Edge, a venerable old bar that had been in existence as long as the resort.  Much to our dismay, all the talent stayed away and the bar was mostly filled with a 30’s-ish crowd of ski patrollers when we arrived.  We slowly made a few new friends, and after a couple of pitchers were soon getting to know the whole crew.  One or another of us would constantly be fielding the question “are you the guy that went 40 (50, 60…) feet off the peak today?”

 Erik played it cool like it was something everyone did every day at Squaw Valley and it was really no big deal, but I could tell he was eating up the attention.    Everything was copacetic until we heard a flurry of commotion and turned to see a gal pummeling fists into an old fellow and driving him out the swinging doors backwards.  Seemed the crusty old patroller, Ed, had drunkenly insulted a female patroller and paid for it.  Ed was the same guy who said to a patroller who was showing us unbelievable backcountry shots of Cedar Breaks “ah, you ain’t ski-ed shit!”  When weak promises of late-arriving girls failed to materialize, Erik and I bailed while Jason stayed with that pathetic desperation only a Kiwi can muster.  A couple of girls played a “which one of us isn’t going to take you home” game before both left him standing.  He kept drinking until they shut off the lights and kicked him out the door.  Sad.

The next day was full of more of the same snow and terrain, though it was setting up a bit heavier and monster airs were not the call.  We discovered there was yet another hot snowboard patroller we hadn’t met, and Jason glommed onto her like a remora onto a shark.  As with the others, though, she had a boyfriend and he was denied.  Frank took us out that night for Mexican food, and showed us around his tiny hometown of Parowan at the base of the valley.  He lapsed into this amazing mellifluous tour guide voice without being the least self-conscious about it, and gave us a flawless history of everything we passed.  “And there are the handrails of the high school, which I used to skate during lunch break…”  The Mexican place was run by classic southern Utah white folk, who seemed incapable of getting any order completely right.  The food was good, though, and Timmy didn’t kill anyone.  Erik was a bit cynical about small town life, and went around humming to the tune of Heroin, “Par-o-wan, it’ll be the death of me”.

The morning of our departure saw us in the Mountain View Café having breakfast, where the cook turned out to be one of our pals from the ski patrol night.  We were trading stories of the events that night, and Jason was excited that he’d gotten the fight aftermath on video.  The cook nodded toward the table next to us as Jason was babbling away, and there was Melissa, queen of the Fight Club herself.  One thing you learn quick about Brian Head, is that it’s too damn small to talk about someone without them hearing.  Melissa appeared sheepish about the event, which was going to be a source of patrol gossip for the next few weeks.  Soon we were gone, though, with all of the strange little dramas that run through the Head of Brian behind us, and nothing but rabbits ahead.  Hell of a place, though.

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photo by: RJ82