Adventure Special, March 1999

In the Church of the Moment, that swaggering and sacred place just beyond the steep couloirs of Whistler, the congregation knows no fear. Save for that silent penitent in the corner, who knows it well, honors it wisely, and then beats the living devil out of it.

By Daniel Coyle

Three-thirty on a Monday afternoon in Whistler, British Columbia. The snow is falling, the lifts are shutting down for the day, and within the lacquered-oak confines of the Keg at the Mountain, the boys are starting to gather. There's Tommy Charron, Richie Schley, Peter the Swede, and adventure-filmmaker Christian B‰gin ù a fair cross section of Whistler's top backcountry skiers and snowboarders. And sitting in the corner, rolling a cigarette, there's Eric Pehota.

Tommy says, "Spanky's was going off. Flat as slate, perfect pow."

Richie says, "Falsies. Falsies was total cream."

The Swede says, "The snowpack's snapping into shape. It's good up top, but a few death cookies down low."

The rest of the boys hoist their pints of Kokanee ù yes, death cookies. As if on cue, four fetching snowboard betties ù two brunettes, a redhead, and a blonde ù materialize at the next table and start issuing signal plumes of Marlboro smoke. From a backpack they extract a freshly developed sleeve of photographs, including some snapshots taken last night after they got home from the bars and slipped on their pajamas and got a little crazy and ... well, they make such a commotion over these photos that they just have to pass them over. The boys, however, barely take notice. Even as they leaf through images of fleshly temptation, even as the delectable betties perch expectantly a few feet away, the boys end up ignoring them because the boys are doing something more important.

The boys are telling stories, stories of their day on the mountain, things they've done and things they might do. They speak in the cartoon argot of the sport, telling of ripping fresh pow (powder), scooping the freshies (fresh tracks), scoring schwag (gear) and gack (cash), and hucking and chucking big air. They tell stories in order to establish a hierarchy. Not that they'd ever admit there is a hierarchy ù in fact, not admitting there's a hierarchy is the hierarchy's most essential rule ù but there it is nonetheless, the primal tableau: five strong men sitting around a table seeing who's strongest, a spirited convocation of what one local writer has dubbed the Church of the Moment. Richie and Christian are punching each other in the arm, and Tommy says how he got fired from his waiter job but doesn't care because this week's forecast looks totally sick, and Christian says how he's psyched his new ski film is doing so well, and the Swede says he's thinking about a big expedition to the Tantalus, and everybody agrees that would be righteous. Then Tommy gets up to use the facilities and asks the betties if it would be all right if he borrowed the photos for, oh, about 10 minutes, and everybody's laughing, basking in the glow of the day and the beer and the flow of words, the hucking and chucking, the freshies and the pow, the stories that pile up like snowflakes.

And Eric Pehota? He sits in the corner, observing the proceedings and doing absolutely nothing. To be more precise, he's working on his Kokanee and rolling another cigarette, and he's sitting the way he usually sits: perfectly still, his head slightly down, his eyes quick and watchful. When someone in the group courts his opinion, Pehota makes his signature move, an artful maneuver that he repeats to perfection a dozen times in an hour, a hundred times a day. He gives an easy smile and a matter-of-fact shrug ù "You probably already know this," the gesture says ù and utters a few words in his tobacco-y Canuck voice, something concise and agreeable, like, "The snowpack's shaping up just like it did three years ago," or "Yeah, that was one hell of a day," or something else designed to steer the conversation back on track. Which is to say away from him.

Not that Pehota (pronounced pay-O-ta) lacks for stories. He could talk about the 40 major first ski descents (or maybe it's 50, or 60 ù he doesn't bother to keep exact count) or the half-dozen close calls with avalanches, including two last winter that left him digging out corpses. Or the time when, after helping his partners make a nasty 20-foot rappel into the you-fall-you-die steeps of Mount Currie's Pencil Couloir, Pehota yelled at them to look out, planted his poles, and just leapt. Or the time he went hand over hand along a chairlift cable to rescue that little girl who had slipped off and was hanging by her brother's leg. Or the stories about the things he hasn't done ù like ski that unnamed 55-degree couloir south of Pemberton, the one he's obsessed with, the one he's hiked to each of the last six winters only to turn around when the conditions proved dicier than he liked. Or any of the stories that have accumulated in such stealthy magnificence that the boys, who dun one another with nicknames like Puddles and Sweet Cheeks and Ragu, refer to Pehota only half-kiddingly as The Legend. But the thing about Pehota, the thing that sets him apart, is that he doesn't tell stories. Not to the boys at the bar, not to the ski media, not to anyone. When I spoke to his brother, Dave, who's a farmer in Grand Forks, British Columbia, I asked what he thought of Eric's adventures. Dave paused. "I don't know," he said. "He's never told me about them."

The other thing about Pehota that you learn right away is where he's from: namely Mackenzie, B.C., a logging town of 6,000 and wellspring of that bacon-eating, plaid-shirted, hardass avatar of Canadian manhood known as the Mackenzie redneck ù a term employed to define Pehota by everyone I spoke with, including Pehota himself. Amid the neon-swathed glitterati of Whistler, the Mackenzie redneck tends to stand out ù particularly one with a hatchmarked Eastwood squint and a penchant for showing up spattered in cement, sawdust, engine grease, or, as happened last fall, the blood of a sheep he'd just finished butchering. When he walks into the bar, eyes follow him. People may not know who he is, but they sense his authenticity; they know he's somebody. And they're right. He's the cinematic figure in western mythology, the lean-muscled, laconic hero from the backcountry who comes strolling down Main Street while the townsfolk point and whisper. Pehota's even got a long white scar on his left cheek, the result of a childhood encounter with ù what else? ù a horse's hoof.

"A lot of people are intimidated by Eric," says his friend David Hughes. "It comes from the look in his eyes, this real cold, hard look. Not that he's mean ù it's just that he's intense, very intense, and most people can't tell the difference."

It's a fine line. During our first evening together, after some beers and encouragement, he was telling about the time he fought a logger from Revelstoke and had just reached the part about pitching the man out the barroom door when he hesitated, as if suddenly realizing where he was.

"Truth is, I'm not much of a fighter," he said, slowly unwrapping his fingers from my neck. He shrugged harmlessly. "Don't fight much at all, really."

When I ask Pehota to describe his profession, he has a hard time finding the words. He tests various possibilities, dismissing "extreme skier" as inaccurately dangerous-sounding. He tries "all-mountain skier," then the current industry alternative of "freeskier," and finally throws up his hands and reaches, as he often does, for a clich‰ ù this one a quote from his friend Steve Smaridge. "It's the ultimate paradox," he says. "The closer you get to death, the more alive you feel."

Paradox abounds, because the fact is, his closest compatriots are mostly dead, not only Stevie but so many of the ski d'extreme pioneers of the 80s ù Patrick Vallen‡ant and Jean-Marc Boivin and Bernard Gouvy and most recently Pehota's best friend and longtime skiing partner, Trevor Petersen, all neatly erased by rock climbing, parapenting, and skiing accidents. Or they've lost their soul, like the sport's acknowledged founder, Sylvain Saudan, who called for his lawyers after Whistler-Blackcomb had the gall to name two runs in his honor without providing proper remuneration. The remainder of Pehota's peers have steered themselves into the stability of heli-ski guiding, lodge-owning, or ski-industry promotion, as in the case of famously mohawked Glen Plake, who attends conventions dressed as the Energizer bunny. They've been followed by a wave of canny, peroxided kids who want the same thing, only faster ù kids who've already bought into the packaged rebellion of the International Free Skiing Association and its various extreme contests, kids who view skiing as a career path. At 34, Pehota is one of the last of a breed, an extreme skier still true to the movement's founding creed: to climb mountains and ski steep faces for the love of doing it. He does not enter contests or attend trade shows; he has no agent, little money, and no plans for a life after skiing. He possesses a redneck's deep-seated distrust of whiz-bang modernity. Pehota cooperates with the corporate machine as much as he has to, getting photographed enough to keep his small handful of sponsors sending him equipment, teaching the occasional backcountry ski clinic. But the rest of the time, he's living a life he's carefully designed and guarded, a life that, because it depends on no one outside of his family, allows him to do what he wants to do. As ski filmmaker James Angrove says, "Everybody pretends to be a mountain man, but Pehota actually is one."

Pehota twists the points on another cigarette and looks up to see 29-year-old Richie Schley. Schley is wearing a gray knit cap pulled low over his brow and nursing a stein of cranberry juice with an orange slice. Schley is one of the hottest skiers in the game, sponsored by Salomon and Smith and Valid and PowerBar, and spends more than half his time away from Whistler on photo shoots. Pehota notices the drink, and Richie follows his eyes.

A flicker crosses Richie's impenetrable slacker gaze. "Yeah," he says, all nonchalance. "I gotta go lift after."

Pehota's brow creases. Lift? The lifts are closed.

"No," Richie says, flexing his arm. "You know. Lift weights."

Pehota looks bemused. To him, the notion of a skier engaging in formal exercise verges on the unfathomable. A few years ago when Pehota broke a couple of ribs on a 50-foot leap into a mogul field, he came up with a line he used when people asked if it hurt.

"Only thing is," Pehota would deadpan, "I can't do my sit-ups."

Now Richie, emblem of the next generation, is pumping iron? The moment cries out for a comment, a little tease, at least an acknowledgment of the gap between veteran and whippersnapper. But Pehota doesn't do that. Instead, he leans back, pulls a long draw of smoke into his lungs, and wrinkles his face into a smile ù a surprisingly gentle smile, one that embodies the core reason Pehota is king of the mountain: He's got nothing to prove.

First there are chickens. Thirteen of them, nice plump Rhode Island Reds, along with one exceedingly satisfied rooster, in a neat little coop on Pehota's two-acre property in the quiet rural town of Pemberton, 22 miles north of Whistler. They're good layers, too ù every Friday Eric's wife, Parveen, takes a few dozen eggs to Whistler and sells them to friends. Beyond the coop lies a garden of beans, peas, potatoes, garlic, onions, tomatoes, carrots, and sweet corn that grows tall enough for Logan, four, and Dalton, two, to get lost in. To the east lies the Lillooet River, to the south the newly built barn, and to the north the Lumbermate Mark III sawmill where Pehota transforms the trees he fells into massive posts and beams. He makes his own timber-pegs, of course, and with the pegs and the timbers he's built the barn, a shed for the sawmill, and the basement beneath the trailer where the Pehota family lives.

Ah, yes, the trailer: that mustard-colored, 12-by-60-foot 1972 corrugated-steel job he bought for a song and has remade into a sort of backwoods castle. "I'm pretty good with my hands" is how Pehota explains the fact that he did the cement work himself. As well as the framing. And the finish carpentry. And a fair bit of the wiring and plumbing. For heat, he hand-splits cottonwood and fir, running five cords a winter into their living room stove. The Pehota estate is rounded out by a diesel truck, a 1951 Cessna airplane, a snow machine, two kayaks, two mountain bikes, and a shiny green-and-yellow riding lawn mower. When I point out the irony of the world's best all-around skier trundling along at two miles per hour on a John Deere, Pehota doesn't laugh. He doesn't get the joke, because the lawn mower ù along with the trailer, the garden, the woodstove, and the chickens ù are part of his system, as much a part of his life's essentials as his skis or poles.

"My goal is to be totally self-supporting," Pehota says. "Why should anybody depend on someone else for something they can do themselves?"

These days, not everybody understands that goal, particularly some of the suburban-raised, cyberliterate, Church of the Moment boys who come out to visit. Though they stand in awe of Pehota's seemingly depthless redneck savvy, though they're dazzled to experience the cultural antithesis of their own frat-house, laundry-bomb milieu, they can't help but assume that the whole thing was a big score, some kind of megaschwag. And that kind of talk ù well, it ticks Pehota off.

"If there's one thing I'm tired of," he says, "it's people coming out here and saying, 'Oh, you got such a great life, such a great job, a plane, a nice piece of land.'" He slams a fist into his hand. "Hey buddy, I earned this. I worked for every bit of it ù every fucking bit of it, OK?"

Pehota has two basic expressions: amiable and dead serious. When he's dead serious, his facial muscles tighten, his eyes narrow, and words come with difficulty. When he's amiable, his face relaxes and his eyes open up, enabling quick bursts of conversation. As we walk around, I ask Pehota about his life: his motivations, his attitude toward risk. I ask about his wife, a Vancouver-born snowboarder of Punjabi descent, and his kids, and his own childhood. And he answers ù shrugging and giving his matter-of-fact smile, disposing of the questions as cleanly as if he were hammering pegs. Childhood was good. Parents strict, and he needed it. Ski-raced locally for a while, didn't like it, headed backcountry. Not real big on risks ù try to be careful. Parveen? Worked with her at the bar, liked her a lot, and, well, you know how it goes.

Looking for insights, I try his friends.

"Eric doesn't let anyone in his head," says Mike Jensen. "He's not what you would call a communicator."

"What motivates him? He likes drinking beer and rolling cigarettes, and he's damn good at both," says Hughes.

"Here's the deal with Eric," says Peter the Swede. "He works hard; he's got a good wife, a good job, a good life doing what he likes to do. It's simple, no?"

Perhaps it is. Pehota and I make our way back toward the trailer. The garden hose hangs coiled on its hook, the firewood is immaculately stacked and tarped, the skis rest in their rack of two-by-fours, the kids' boots stand in soldierly pairs. He shows me his workbench and his woodworking tools ù drawknives, wood chisels, cold chisels, block planes, all arranged neatly in drawers and on pegboard, a place for everything and everything in its place. It reminds me of my grandfather's basement, so I tell him, attempting to turn the conversation toward family, toward memories, toward the deeper questions of why we are the way we are. But Pehota doesn't take the bait. As we stand down there, looking through tools in comfortable silence, it occurs to me that Pehota's not going to answer these questions for the same reason that my grandfather wouldn't be able to answer them: because life is busy enough without such foolishness.

"That's right, everything's raised up," Pehota says when I ask about his shelving. "When the river rises, I'm ready."

Pehota's grandfather was a logger, his father was a logger, and Eric would have been a logger except that Mackenzie had this hill called Little Mac, maybe 400 vertical feet, that he could walk up and ski down. By the time he was eight years old, Eric could do front and back flips. Dyslexia made high school difficult and college unthinkable, so on graduation day he loaded his car and drove to Apex Ski Resort, got a job as a liftie, and met a ponytailed, beret-wearing firebrand named Trevor Petersen. While Pehota had never traveled as far as Vancouver until he was in his late teens, Petersen was interested in emulating the extreme skiers of Europe. Petersen, who spent several months in Chamonix in the 80s, educated Pehota in the ways of French-style ski-mountaineering, which stood in stark contrast to the big-air, big attitude approach of Glen Plake, Scot Schmidt, Mike Hattrup, and other members of the burgeoning American extreme-skiing scene. In 1984 Pehota and Petersen relocated to Whistler and started to make a name for themselves. Pehota skied the northwest summit of Mount Waddington in 1987 and notched the second winter ascent and first ski descent of the north face of Dalton Dome in 1988; he made the second ascent and first descent of the north face of Mount Fitzsimmons with Petersen in 1989. In 1991, Pehota won the first extreme-skiing contest, defeating favorites Dean Cummings and Doug Coombs. Pehota hadn't planned on entering ù and hasn't entered a contest since ù but he was broke and needed the prize money to go on an expedition to Mount Rainier's Liberty Ridge. On the last run he worked his way out on a narrow rib no one had dared ski, flew 40 feet over a rock pile, and collected his check. Word started to get out.

"Petersen and Pehota were a perfect partnership," says ski photographer Paul Morrison. "Trevor was the charismatic one, while Eric was the quiet buddy. They didn't do show-off, lift-oriented stuff ù it was the real deal."

A small taste of these days is captured in videos, RAP Films's little-seen The White Room, Cosmic Winter, and Tales from the Snow Zone. Filtering out the throbbing sound track and the relentlessly cute narration that is the nemesis of the ski-movie genre, you're left with a series of stunning images. Pehota and Petersen perform any number of superhuman feats ù hucking huge air into thick groves of trees, snaking through granite mazes, blasting down couloirs as the snow avalanches around them like sea foam ù but in every case the eye is drawn to Pehota, to the way his body becomes a rhythmic extension of the terrain. "I try to flow," is how he puts it, and it's accurate enough. Skiing the steeps or working his way through the stem-christying weekend crowd at Whistler, Pehota moves downslope like water.

"Virtually every skier has some weakness," says Morrison. "You can't see it with the naked eye, but it shows when you look frame by frame through a camera. Pehota is different because he doesn't have a weakness. He looks good at every point during a turn."

"Eric's like a cat," says former World Cup downhiller Rob Boyd. "He's ungodly smooth, he picks wise lines, and he's got this way of staying on his feet no matter what's happening around him."

"Skiing steeps like Pehota it isn't about a thrill ride," says Johnny Chilton, a top extreme skier and Pehota's sometime expedition partner. "It's about control, staying connected to the snow by using your skis like you'd use an ice ax. Eric stays connected to the snow better than anybody on the planet."

Pehota and Petersen never broke into the big time, not like the Americans did. This didn't always sit well with Petersen, but it was fine with Pehota. Besides, by the mid-90s, things were settling into a new and mellower phase. Petersen and Pehota each got married. Pehota was thinking of buying his land; Petersen had his young son, Kye, skiing like a dervish. The plan was in place ù they'd keep adventuring together, start bringing the kids along; it would be simple. Then, in February 1996, Petersen died in an avalanche.

"Everything went crazy," remembers Chilton. "All of us were crying, freaking out, getting drunk together. But Eric kind of withdrew. The rest of us had to let our feelings out, but whatever he was thinking, he kept it inside."

In the Church of the Moment, there was no greater saint than Petersen. His happiness, his energy, his ability to communicate the wonder of the mountains, all were held up as proof of his worthiness. His equipment was given away as keepsakes; his ashes were scattered in his favorite spots; his ice ax was mounted on Blackcomb Peak. The circumstances of his death were mined for poetry. Petersen had been skiing alone in a remote couloir above his beloved Chamonix. He had not suffocated, but had died by the quick mercy of a broken neck. To raise money for Petersen's widow and kids, a relative printed a bumper sticker that remains ubiquitous on Whistler vehicles: TREVOR WOULD DO IT. It's a sentiment that proves unsettling to some locals, including Doug Sack, a local sports columnist. "Trevor would do it? Well, Trevor did it, and Trevor's dead, and he left two kids who are going to grow up without a dad," he says. "Pehota would impress me a hell of a lot more if he dialed back the John Wayne act and lived long enough to bullshit his grandchildren."

After Petersen's death, Pehota drifted from the group, eased off skiing for a year to spend time with his family, including his newborn son, whom he named Dalton Trevor. Eventually he returned, though his friends sensed that something had changed. As Jensen puts it, "When Trevor died, he lost something. He'd never talk about it, but you can see it in his face."

One afternoon, when we were talking about Petersen, I asked Pehota what he thought of Sack's sentiment.

"Hey, it's a numbers game," Pehota said quickly. "You never know when yours is going to come up."

But, I asked him, isn't it the point to control those numbers? Wasn't that the goal of all his organization, his discipline, his carefully built system of life?

Pehota thought awhile, his eyes narrowing while he looked for the words. Then he again reached for the quote from Steve Smaridge.

"The closer you get to death," he said quietly, "the more alive you feel."

Then he said it again, repeating the mantra as if he were trying to convince himself of something he couldn't entirely believe.

Do you have the bumper sticker on your truck? I asked.

"No," Pehota said. "I used to. But now I don't."

There's a river just south of Whistler called the Cheakamus. It's a 20-foot-wide band of fast green water banked by cathedral stands of hemlock and fir. On the afternoon Pehota takes me there, it's snowing. We leave Tommy and the Swede and the rest of the boys at the Keg and drive out of Whistler, first swinging into a liquor store.

"Gonna have a drink with Trev and Stevie," Pehota explains.

We climb down to the river's edge and are enveloped in the sound of the water. Pehota shows me the plaques cemented on the rock. There are three ù in memory of Steve Smaridge, Trevor Petersen, and a woman named Kim Wetaski, along with a larger plaque urging us to live our dreams. Pehota looks at the words, walks out onto a boulder that protrudes over the river, stands on the edge, and drinks his beer.

In my few days in Whistler, I've heard a lot about Stevie, crazy, lanky Stevie who was always up for anything, Stevie who never wanted to rope-up on climbs because he knew he wouldn't fall and thought the others might, Stevie who drowned in 1993 on the Upper Elaho River. I've heard about Kim, too ù beautiful Kim, a wonderful athlete and former figure-skating champion who missed an eddy on the Lower Green just above an unrunnable waterfall. But now, Pehota isn't thinking about Stevie or about Kim or even about Trevor. He's thinking about something else ù staring into the water, hunting for words. And then, in a sudden rush, the words come.

"You know, you get out into it," Pehota says, turning toward me. "You get out into it and it's shitty weather, you're freezing and you're out of fuel and food, and the fucking mountain's going to avalanche." He pauses a moment, as if startled by the sound of his own voice, and then resumes. "And it's getting dark so you huddle up, press against each other to stay warm, and make it through the night, because either things are going to get worse and you're going to die, or they're going to get better. The next day, you get up and you start moving, you start walking and you keep going, and all of a sudden ..." His eyes widen. "You're back. You're in the car drinking beers and you're joking around and you're back."

Around us, the rocks and trees are slowly being painted white. Every once in a while, a branch receives one snowflake too many and bends to release its burden. After a long silence, I ask what happened that day in Chamonix, the day Trevor didn't come back.

"Trev had skied that couloir before, eight years ago," Pehota says. "The slide wasn't even two feet deep, but it had a lot of rock and ice. It must've knocked him off his skis. It's just one of those things."

I ask if Pehota would have gone skiing that day, alone, in a couloir he hadn't run in years.

"Hard to know," he says finally. "I chalk it up as something that's out of anybody's control."

After Petersen died, amid his friends' sadness and shock there existed a small but significant element of anger ù anger that Petersen had taken such risks by himself in a place he hadn't skied in so long. Pehota would never go so far as to voice such an opinion, but the question hangs in the air nevertheless. His two best friends ù two happy people, two guys who lived their dreams ù are dead, and he's still here. There are two possibilities: Perhaps Pehota's lucky, and he unquestionably is. Or perhaps there's something in the way he approaches life, something in the redneck virtues of being organized and humble and hardworking, something to that cold gaze and that matter-of-fact smile. Perhaps he is simply in touch with truths that the rest of us can so easily forget: that we live our lives in an indifferent, dangerous place, a place in which a river can flood your basement, a corporation can steal your soul, an insensate chunk of snow can take your best friend. You want to survive? Enthusiasm isn't enough. Happiness isn't enough. You've got to be vigilant, obsessed, even a little dangerous yourself.

Pehota drinks the rest of his beer and shakes the last drops into the river. We talk awhile longer, about his childhood in Mackenzie, and something occurs to him, something important. He leans in close and locks eyes with me, and his face tenses into its dead-serious expression.

"When I was a kid, my mom used to tell me something," he says.

The river's loud, so he leans closer ù he doesn't want me to miss a word. "The world doesn't owe you anything," he says.

Green water rushes toward the ocean, snow piles silently on the fir trees, and Eric Pehota has finally found a story worth telling, so he shouts it.

"That's what she would tell me, all the time. She'd say, 'Eric, the world doesn't owe you anything ù not a single thing!' And she was right."

Contributing editor Daniel Coyle wrote about Helen Chenoweth in the November 1998 issue.

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