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On top of the world at Nelson’s Baldface Lodge

Baldface Lodge has established itself as one of North America’s best catski lodges, but it took hard work get to the point where media outlets like GQ magazine rave about what makes the operation so appealing to winter lovers. - Ryan Flett photo
Baldface Lodge has established itself as one of North America’s best catski lodges, but it took hard work get to the point where media outlets like GQ magazine rave about what makes the operation so appealing to winter lovers.
— image credit: Ryan Flett photo

From hosting the planet’s best snowboarders later this week to the pages of GQ magazine, Baldface Lodge is on top of the winter world. But the roots of the catski operation just north of Nelson are far more humble.

“We’ve had our hard years, and I think we’ve definitely paid our dues,” says Jeff Pensiero, the man who came to the Kootenays from Lake Tahoe, California in the late-1990s armed with a vision.

“Now it just feels like it is what I’ve always wanted it to be. Now we can concentrate on giving the staff what they need to do their jobs and I think the customers can feel that… there is a real awesome vibe up here right now. But it’s taken 12 hard years to get it where it’s at.”

HERE AND NOW

This week, 16 of the top snowboarders on earth will be in Nelson for the Red Bull Ultra Natural.

Lead by snowboarding superstar Travis Rice, the athletes will display their jaw-dropping talents on a custom-built course on a sliver of the massive 32,000-acre Baldface terrain. Last January, the Red Bull showcase was the first event of its kind. Like that competition, in March the action that takes place later this month will be shown to a North American audience in millions of homes on NBC television.

The Ultra Natural will again translate into more international fame for Baldface, but it doesn’t stop there.

In this month’s GQ (Gentleman’s Quarterly), Baldface gets a mention in the magazine’s “GQ Skis” special section that covers everything winter from the best fashion to the best gear to the best places to shred. Baldface makes the grade with the piece headlined: “Because in British Columbia lies skiing’s answer to the bachelor party.”

“Sure, the snow and terrain are incredible and the food is excellent,” writes journalist Josh Dean. “but it’s also laid-back and built first and foremost on the idea that every, at pretty much every level, should be having fun.”

Baldface also received international ink from Outside magazine in its January “Best catskiing destinations in North America” feature.

With GQ’s paid circulation of 963,507 and Outside’s of 686,633, that’s a pretty hefty dose of press.

“It’s always nice to be in the international media,” says Pensiero. “It brings a lot of attention to the business and to the Nelson area.”

HARDLY OPEN ARMS

When Pensiero and his former partner Jim Fraps arrived to the Nelson area to explore the idea of a luxury resort in the mountains just north of town, there was no parade down Baker Street. Many business people scoffed at the idea as a pipe dream, many isolationists were worried about the big city takeover of the area’s prized backcountry terrain.

“I remember walking out of grocery stores and having people tee up and give me a piece of their mind,” Pensiero says of those early days.

But Pensiero was committed to an idea he knew would make the area’s outdoor scene more vibrant.

“I always believed there was a place for a snowboarding-type lodge this close to Nelson,” he says. “When we came here I couldn’t believe Nelson had no operation like this nearby. You look around and Golden has places, Fernie has places, Whistler has places… there was no backcountry ski lodge around Nelson.”

Using his connections, Pensiero attacked his vision with vigour. Two of the earliest investors in his plan were Dave Grohl and Nate Mendel from the Foo Fighters.

“I told them there is this whole market for cat and heli-skiing market for snowboarders,” Pensiero says of his first meeting with the rockers backstage at one of their concerts in Sacramento, California. “Lots of the operations were catering to skiers and treated the snowboarders like kooks… I told them people are missing out because snowboarders are what’s coming up in the industry. I had the conviction to tell them that and they helped out.”

Twelve years ago, Baldface Lodge launched its first season.

NOT A SMOOTH RIDE

There were times when Pensiero thought the naysayers might win.

Ten years ago, snowboarding legend and Baldface guide Craig Kelly died in an avalanche that also claimed the lives of six others. It was a tragedy that shook the entire snowboard industry.

Not long after, the lodge was hit by the Norwalk virus that put a halt to the operation in the middle of the season and almost financially ruined Baldface.

Two years ago the very thing that makes Baldface incredible played a cruel trick when the snowload on the main lodge caused it to collapse. It cost Baldface $4.5 million to build a new facility.

But the bumps seem to be behind Baldface now. With a staff of 72 on the direct payroll (including kitchen staff, housekeeping, outside operations, guides, tailgunners, a snow safety team, cat operators, mechanics, massage therapists, office staff, bartenders), Pensiero says the multi-million operation is finally at a point where he feels confident about the future.

“It’s a job… but if you love what you do, then you never really have to go to work,” he says. “I have to deal with bankers and lawyers and accountants and insurance companies and WCB… it’s a real job. But if I get to snowboarding and mountain biking and spend time with my family… I can’t think of doing anything else.”

COMMODITY THAT FALLS FROM THE HEAVENS

Though many take our bounty of Kootenay snow for granted, the Kootenays is a world-class destination for those a little more powder starved.

Baldface Lodge is proof that people from around the world are willing to pay top dollar for a premium winter experience. With three and four day trips to Baldface costing between $2,094 and $4,347, the price might surprise some locals.

“It’s a bit on the premium side, but you have to think that you are not skiing a track,” says Jeff Pensiero. “This is really, really fresh powder, which in the ski world is the commodity. People want to pay for fresh powder.”

From the rich and famous to the truly committed who scrape together every penny, Baldface is a much-coveted vacation for outdoor lovers. This year there are only a couple spots that have not been filled by people willing to pay big bucks for a memorable experience.

“If you go to a regular ski area you might spend a lot of money and might not get good snow,” says Pensiero. “You might be skiing groomers and dealing with big crowds. It’s a really controlled situation up here and even when the snow is bad, it’s good.”

The packages include transportation to the lodge, all food, plush accommodation and of course incredible turns.

“We hit the same market of people who would stay in moderate to high-end places at Whistler and Sun Valley,” says Pensiero.

PROOF OF ARRIVAL

In March, Baldface hosted industry kingpin Jake Burton and his family. The founder of Burton Snowboards had been trying to make it out to the Kootenays for a few years, but in 2012 he finally touched down.

“It was awesome,” Pensiero says of the visit. “It would be like if I was a guitar player and Jimi Hendrix came out to play the blues with me. It was just as good as it gets.”

And here is what Burton left thinking about Baldface.

“I spent a reflective week at Baldface Lodge shredding with [wife] Donna and the kids,” Burton says. “In a place built on snowboarding and one that resonates with Craig [Kelly]’s positive memory, I got lost in the moment of riding with the ones who’ve been by my side through it all. Any pow turn is a good one, but slashing through the trees with your family is about as good as it gets. It reminded me not just of what we’ve all created, but why it really matters. And that riding answers everything.”

For Jeff Pensiero and the crew at Baldface Lodge, it’s mission accomplished.

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