In the late 1980s and early '90s, Eric Pehota, 48, along with his partner, the late Trevor Petersen, pushed open the gates of big-mountain skiing in North America. They picked off first ski descents up and down British Columbia’s Coast Range—Mt. Fitzsimmons, Dalton Dome, Mt. Currie, Mt. Tantalus, Mt. Waddington, to name just a few—and then pushed into Alaska, where Pehota laid first tracks down Meteorite and the southwest face of Pontoon Peak. Petersen died in an avalanche in 1996, but Pehota went on to claim over 40 first descents. With their pioneering first descents and ski mountaineering, both men notched their place in skiing history’s books.
Born in the logging town of Mackenzie, British Columbia, Pehota first clicked into skis at the young age of three. He grew up skiing the hills around his home and at nearby Azu Ski Village—now Powder King—with his three siblings. He slapped on his first pair of skins at age 10, and began exploring the backcountry—small things at first, like the water tower run near his home. In the early '80s, he met Petersen at Apex Alpine and a year later they found themselves in Whistler during the 1983-84 season, where they began their siege on Canada’s peaks.
These days, Pehota lives in Pemberton, B.C., with his wife and two sons, Logan and Dalton, named after peaks Pehota claimed, and both accomplished skiers. Eric skis 80 days a year, hunts elk and deer to stock up his freezers for the winter, and races rally cars. In the summer, he owns and operates Whistler Jetboating, which takes clients up B.C.’s Green River in a custom whitewater jetboat running Grade III and IV whitewater. When it’s not snowing, he’s playing hockey and drinking beer, waiting for it to snow. And when it does snow, you’ll often find him ripping around Whistler with his sons.
Logan, 17, has taken on his father’s pioneering spirit and is making his own mark on skiing, pushing the limits of what’s possible in the sport by bringing park tricks into the backcountry. Logan won the 2012 Wrangle the Chute competition at Kicking Horse and placed sixth in last season’s Red Bull Cold Rush in Silverton, Colorado. He was also featured in this year’s Matchstick Productions’ Superheroes of Stoke and has his eye on a spot on the Canadian Freestyle team for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
From their home in Pemberton, after a night spent skinning a deer, the Pehotas discuss skiing first descents, the importance of being calculated, and how to stay alive in a sport full of risk.
So it seems like you guys live off the land. What’s that about?
I don’t know if it’s to be self-sustained, but more to have the satisfaction of knowing what you’re eating, and growing your own food. The whole process is pretty rewarding in itself. You spend a ton of time in the woods. You become aware of your surroundings. You’re seeing other wildlife—bears, cougars, and other animals and birds—and your senses are opened up. It’s also a good excuse to go for a hike and get in shape for skiing.
How did you start skiing?
For Christmas one year, my parents bought a bunch of skis and they were under the couch. We got up and looked under the tree and there were no presents. Then we found the skis. We had no lifts in those days, so we started hiking around. My earliest memory of skiing is that my boots were way too big. And instead of my binding releasing and coming off, the whole boot came off my foot, which was attached to the ski and slid down the mountain.
How did you first get into ski mountaineering?
I got my first little taste of it when I was young, probably around 10. I grew up in northern B.C. near a place that was then called Azu Ski Village. Back then, most of your skiers were of European descent. It was still fairly new to North America. We had some Austrian friends there and they had skins and touring bindings way back in the day, in the early ‘70s. It was a pair of Marker bindings and skins. You didn’t have glue on your skins then. You had straps, so you strapped them to your skis. And the bindings only had about three inches of lift, so ascending slopes was very tough. But for getting around alpine bowls and what not, it was pretty good.
And then I moved away as I grew older and I met my good friend Trevor Petersen working at a ski hill in the British Columbian Okanagan called Apex Alpine. He had a real passion for the mountains and getting out and skiing things that were off-piste that other people didn’t ski.
A year later we ended up in Whistler, and I kind of went to the racing side of things. That was new to me. I grew up in an area without any racing, or any programs. It was just a small resort, groomed by God, no snow cat or anything like that. I didn’t ride a chairlift until I was 16 years old.
What was the first big mountain you and Trevor skied together?
It’s a mountain around here—the north face of Mt. Fitzsimmons in about 1987. It was the second ascent and first ski descent.
What was the biggest thing you two skied together?
Probably Mt. Logan, after which my son is named. We also were the first guys to pioneer the peaks around Haines, Alaska.
When you were skiing with Trevor, what was your biggest accomplishment?
I guess getting after it in our own backyard and nailing a ton of really cool first ascents back in the day. I’ll be in the bar and hear people say, “Oh yeah, I skied Fissile the other day and we did it in a day and we skied the north face.” And I just get a smile on my face, and say, “Yeah, yeah.” Been there, done that. I’ve been a little bit a part of history and that’s what's neat about doing things first. Nobody else can take that way from you.
What made you and Trevor Petersen such great partners?
I guess our ability to not work during the day, so that gave us a ton of time to ski together. And just our drive to get out there and push the barriers. Trevor had this unbelievable passion for the mountains and that wore off on me. I guess that—how he drove me and we clicked together in the mountains. We spent a ton of time together in tents, made calculated decisions together. We began to, it may sound corny, but we started to go on each other’s gut instinct. That’s what kept us doing it and kept us alive.
So, what do you think led to his death?
I don’t think he made a mistake. Like I said, it’s a calculated sport. And unfortunately, he got caught in a bad place. Yeah, he was skiing alone, but you know what? We skied alone all the time. It’s nothing new. When you’re skiing alone—guess what? You only got to worry about yourself sometimes. When you’re skiing with another person, there’s another person to worry about. So you cut down the odds. It was unfortunate circumstances. He got caught in a small slab avalanche that tumbled him down the chute and broke his neck. He wasn’t fully buried or dismembered. He just took a bad tumble.
How did losing him affect you?
Hugely. I was totally devastated. Totally devastated. It’s hard to find a good partner like him. I never met anyone who had a passion for the mountains like that, who I could go out and spend time with like I could with Trevor. We just clicked. My whole life changed after his death. It was like losing a brother.
You have over 40 first descents. Which are you the most proud of?
The east face of Mt Tantalus. Trevor and I attempted it three or four times and we were never able to reach the top to ski it because of objective hazards, weather, blah blah blah. After Trevor died, I went back with a fiend of mine, Johnny Chilton, and we finally nailed the descent back in 1999 or 2000. It’s never been repeated or climbed since.
What was the inner compulsion driving you to do all of these things?
Well, I’ve always said the closer you come to the edge, the more alive you feel—it’s the ultimate paradox. I also think at that age, ignorance is bliss sometimes. You want to push the envelope. But probably my biggest drive was Trevor. He had this unbelievable approach to the mountains. He woke up every morning with a grin on his face, looking at maps trying to pick out a route and objective.
I tell my wife, I wish I had grown up a hundred years ago because I really enjoy doing things for the first time, things that nobody’s ever done before. That really drives me, excites me. There’s nothing like the feeling of being the first person to do something, ever.
Who did you look up to in the ski world growing up?
Ingemar Stenmark and Marc Girardelli in my teens. Then I met Trevor and he put me on to a guy named Jean Marc Boivin, a French extremist, and he started showing me what these crazy Europeans were doing and I thought, "Well, that’s pretty neat. We got cool mountains and glaciers. Let’s go do that."
Whose skiing impresses you now?
I like the power and fluidity of Kye Petersen, Trevor’s son. The great smooth style of Sean Pettit. His brother Callum. I don’t watch a ton of ski movies, so I just get impressed with the guys I go skiing with. Obviously, my kid impresses me now. Oh, and Eric Hjorleifson; his powerful technical skiing along with his good mountain sense and creativity.
What’s been your biggest contribution to the sport?
Passion. I’m 48 years old, ski 80 days a year, and love it. I haven’t missed a winter since I was three. It’s my life. That’s what I do. I ski powder.
Have you toned things down since you’ve had kids and a family?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I don’t know if it was the kids and family or if it was a natural progression of aging and maturing and moving on to different things. I’ve always said it’s a super calculated sport and a numbers game. It’s like anything, you push for it in an extreme sport and eventually you’re going to get bit. There comes a time in your life when you back off, move on, and do other things. I still ski 80 days a year. But as I tell my kid when he goes out filming, you don’t have to push it every run. Push it when things are good, the snow’s perfect, the light’s good—that’s when you throw down your angry airs and angry lines. Pick and choose your times. Be calculated.
So what are the lessons you’re trying to teach your boys in the mountains?
Basic things? Don’t become complacent. Treat every slope as an avalanche slope. Always look for safe zones. When you stop, always stop in a safe spot, behind a rock, a tree, never in a terrain trap. What I try to teach them is to drill that into your mind, even if you’re skiing on-mountain or in a controlled area. Do that. Don’t stop below anybody, don’t ski above anybody on a big slope. Cut convex rollers. Make sure your beacon is on and you’ve practiced with your buddies. Be smart out there. It’s always going to be there tomorrow. But if you’re dead, you’re not going to be there tomorrow to ski it. Have the sense to say no when it’s not right.
What do you want for Logan and his career?
Travel. Passion. A chance to see the world. Really enjoying something you love to do. Not doing it for money, doing it because you love it.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in Logan’s skiing over the past year or so?
Just his maturity. Being able to put together everything he’s learned over the years, from his racing background, to his progressive park, to his big-mountain skiing. He’s matured and put that all together. Bringing some park tricks to the big mountain and using his racing technique for his power turns in the snow. It’s neat to see that all come together.
How old were you when your dad first started getting you out into the backcountry?
Probably before I could ski. He’d put me on his back and go skin up to DOA on Blackcomb.
Do you feel like he’s taught you a lot about the backcountry?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I don’t think I’d ski how I do without him.
What else have you learned from him?
Just to be smart. Be calculated.
How do you assess risk?
Like I said, my dad always says to be calculated. Don’t do stupid stuff. I always try to pick out something where I’m not going to get hurt. I see stuff when I’m skiing that other people don’t necessarily see.
How do you push yourself and improve, take risks, and still be calculated?
In the park, you take a risk every time you try something new. This summer, I was learning a bunch of new tricks that I was just terrified to do. Double cork 12s. Now, I’m not scared to do them.
What are your goals right now for you career?
I like filming. I was in the Superheroes of Stoke this year. This season, I’m going to try and do good in competitions and make it onto the national team for the Olympics. I also want to film again with MSP this season.
What was shooting that like?
I’ve always liked filming with my friends. It pushes you to do tricks you wouldn’t necessarily do.
Who did you shoot the MSP segment with?
It was me, Eric Hjorleifson, and Michelle Parker.
What was skiing with Hoji like?
It was crazy. He is really good. He skied some gnarly lines. He has the best segment in the movie and he only filmed for two days. He skis these huge, gnarly lines that have tricks at the end. You think it would be easy, but it’s so much harder when you’re on top of it.
Did you learn anything shooting with him?
He takes lots of photos of his line with his camera, looks at them and studies them before he goes and hits the line.
What were some highlights of your season last year?
Winning a bunch of slope-style competitions and big air competitions. The Cold Rush was pretty fun. I finished this year. A few years ago, I crashed and broke my arm. I got sixth this year.
What do you prefer—park or backcountry?
Depends on the day. If there’s no snow, I’ll go to the park. But I’m definitely not going to be in the park if it snows.
What’s your favorite place to ski?
Whose skiing impresses you?
Dane Tudor. He’s super good at park and at big mountain.
Do your dad’s accomplishments impress you?
Yeah, all of his mountaineering, his ascents, his firsts. I do different things than he does.
It seems as though you’re pushing the sport forward in a different way.
Yes. I’m trying to combine the two—big mountain and park. But Dane Tudor has already done that.
What’s your dream ski career?
Scare myself when I’m young. Do stuff now that will set me up for when I’m older so I can just ski pow when I’m old and don’t have the knees I do now.