Jeff Pensiero doesn’t look like he could ever be famous. Shit, he doesn’t even look like a guy who would be allowed to hang out with anyone famous. The kinda shortish, baldish, close-to-40 Italian-American grew up eating hoagies and lasagna in one of America’s least attractive cities, Cleveland, Ohio. (“My childhood was an escape plan to get out of Cleveland,” he says.) Son of a salesman, the Black Sabbath– and Black Flag–loving, Republican-hating kid’s story is as unlikely as his partner’s.
Jim Fraps doesn’t look like he’d even pass as a roadie. Also shortish, with callused palms attached to fingers bigger than the street-meat sausages sold in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fraps looks more like that badass gym teacher you remember from high school—the guy with the dirty Steelers baseball cap riding up high on his head, all old-school dad style, who laughed like crazy when you got pegged in the face playing dodgeball.
Paula Pensiero is a different story. A beautiful, sweetheart mother of two beautiful, sweetheart girls, Paula has ski-racer roots. A born-and-bred Canuck, Paula’s the type who takes any bullshit flying her way, gracefully repackages it and then fires it right back double-time. Less eminent than enigmatic, more pleasant than illustrious, she’s the rudder in a ship steered by the two aforementioned dirty-American-city-bred dudes.
Put the three together, however, and you’ll discover a story of paradise found that, though intertwined with the lives of high-profile individuals, has usurped their fame on its own merit.
The Pensieros and the Fraps are the founders and current owner-operators of Baldface Lodge, a decidedly renowned cat-ski operation located high in the Selkirk Mountains above Nelson, BC.
Andy Marhe. Fredriksson photo
Today, a decade after they envisioned the business, the three are riding the tumultuous ocean of the commercial backcountry industry in a ship few others can catch. Baldface has become one of the most exalted names in the North American cat and helicopter snow-riding game.
As a testament to their business’s meteoric rise, the trio was voted as some of Outside magazine’s 2005 “Top 25 All-Star Coolest People.” In the same year, Baldface made GQ’s list of “Top 10 Hippest Hotels” and was featured in a major New York Times article. However it happened, in the nine relatively short years since opening its doors, Baldface and its wildly down-to-earth founders have catapulted to the forefront of the world’s ski and snowboard scene. To anyone who has ridden there, it makes perfect sense, yet in some ways it’s a head-scratching tale.
On a regular midweek afternoon in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in the fall of 1997, Jeff Pensiero ducked into Sierra Nevada Pizza to get drunk with a couple slices of pepperoni. Fraps, who owned the bar at the time, asked in his matter-of-fact way why Pensiero was drinking with all the drywalling scumbags in the middle of the afternoon. He explained that he’d just quit his job as a snowboard rep because he was sick and tired of working his ass off to make other people money. They talked and drank, and then, in a moment that would change both their lives, Fraps showed him the maps.
Henrik Windstedt. Fredriksson photo
At the time, the two were classmates enrolled in Lake Tahoe’s Sierra Nevada College: Fraps was taking hotel resort management, and Pensiero was taking ski business management. Along with his buddy, Fat Tony, Fraps had been working on an idea but needed more manpower to get it off the ground. With a number of years working in the snowboard industry under his belt, the newly unemployed Pensiero seemed to be the perfect fit.
Fraps wanted to start a company called Bigland that would have a high-grade variety of lodge-based outdoor experiences around the world.
“The idea was to have this unique company run by bros, with all these adventures to choose from, but branded under the same name,” explains Pensiero. Bigland would have a yacht charter, a surf camp in Panama, powder skiing in British Columbia, a fly-fishing lodge in Idaho, and mountain bike tours in Moab, Utah.
Fraps, an avid skier, had already started researching the powder-skiing part of the plan. The maps he showed Pensiero that night were of big peaks and deep drainages in the interior ranges of BC. It just so happened that Pensiero’s then-longtime girlfriend, Paula, had recently skedaddled up to Nelson to, as he delicately puts it, “sow her oats.”
Larger forces were at play. Not surprisingly, Pensiero was interested in the Bigland concept—especially the Nelson part. When it came to researching the feasibility of a backcountry ski lodge, they immediately leveraged his love-in-hiatus connection with Paula, who at the time was working at The Express, a Nelson newspaper. Paula went to the government offices to get more maps and sent them back to Lake Tahoe, where Fraps, Fat Tony and Pensiero began building the Bigland business plan.
The oddly concocted group began looking at parcels of land throughout the Purcells, Selkirks and Monashees. Inspired by Pensiero’s desire to reconnect with Paula, they put all their energy into Stage 1 of the Bigland empire, which would end up being Baldface Lodge.
“The research process gave me an excuse to get back in there with Paula,” says Pensiero. “I ended up going to Nelson quite a bit back then.”
They whittled down their selection to three chunks of mountain wilderness above the north shore of Kootenay Lake, BC. Fat Tony was down in the U.S. looking for money. Everything was going according to plan, or so they thought.
“Little did we know that Fat Tony was ripping us off,” says Pensiero. “He ended up being a pretty bad dude.”
But just as one road soured, another turned sweet. Through the process of applying for the land tenure, Pensiero hooked up with John Buffery, a longtime Nelson resident and one of Canada’s most experienced mountain guides. Buffery was interested in the emerging Bigland idea of a cat-ski operation based at a high-elevation lodge, situated in a stunning, easily accessible collection of rolling ridgelines and subalpine peaks near Mount Grohman, a mere five-minute heli ride from Nelson. Buffery saw the opportunity to get involved on the ground level with what would end up being Nelson’s first commercial backcountry operation. The Bigland crew saw Buffery as another crucial link to making their dreams a reality. At the time, Pensiero was working as a handyman in Northern California.
As they threw the idea out to the notoriously guarded Nelson community, the backlash began. Pensiero and Fraps got defeated at a number of public meetings by local residents opposed to the proposed five-star lodge, citing mainly environmental reasons. Having dropped Fat Tony, however, the pair remained stalwart in having the community involved.
In November 1999, after a series of meetings, they finally received tenure to 36,000 acres of terrain in the Baldface and Grohman drainages. More miraculously, Pensiero sealed the deal with Paula and got married. They moved back to Tahoe, where he owned a house, and he used his handyman skills to renovate the property in an attempt to raise the equity needed to start developing the business.
“I was flipping myself into wicked debt to get money for the company,” recalls Pensiero of those early days. “We didn’t have an investor. Things definitely weren’t easy.”
That’s was when the stars finally began to move in concert.
One of Pensiero’s good buddies, Canadian Olympic snowboarder Mark Fawcett, whom Pensiero knew through his days as a rep, gave the business the keys to his big-ass Dodge truck. Tim Ripple, the famous Everest soloist and Nelson resident, also gave Baldface his blessing.
Then, even more out of the blue, in February 1999, Pensiero returned from a day of snowboarding at Tahoe to find a message that would change his life. On his answering machine was the voice of the late, great Craig Kelly: “Hey, Jeff, my buddy John Buffery tells me you got a really cool thing going in Nelson. I’d love to come up with a photographer and [snowboard pro] Tex Davenport, and we can get a heli and maybe go check it out. We’ll be up there in a week.”
“We flew all over the place,” says Pensiero of that definitive trip, which was actually his first time heli-skiing the tenure. “We got a feel for how good the place would be for cat skiing. Buff was excited, Craig was excited, Jim was excited—it really solidified that this might just work.”
But Kelly wasn’t just interested in a photo shoot. With his own love interests in a Nelson girl, Kelly wanted in. All of a sudden, the boys had the best, most talented and respected snowboarder in history on their team, not to mention Buffery, who would end up being Baldface’s lead guide for three years.
The stars didn’t stop there. Through other circumstances, Arlie John Carstens, an associate of Pensiero’s, told Foo Fighters bass player Nate Mendel about the project and how it needed funding. Mendel relayed this to Dave Grohl—the band’s famous frontman and ex-Nirvana drummer—and the two became Baldface’s first investors.
“We used Nate and Dave’s money to buy our first cat,” says Pensiero. “We were rockin’ after that.”
Having sidelined their Bigland concept to focus solely on Baldface, soon Kelly, Buffery, Fraps and the Pensieros were toting local skiers like Moss Patterson up into their tenure. Then, the proverbial hack into the Selkirk bush began. Pensiero and Fraps finagled clients on Nelson’s Baker Street, convincing them to jump on a boat and head into the wilds above town for $225 per day—Cleveland-style hoagies included.
Their business plan then made it onto the desk of Rob Loughan, a dot-com millionaire in Tahoe, who in turn wrote the first “big boy” cheque to get the operation up and running.
“I had to buy out Fat Tony’s shares before we could get Rob’s money. Soon after that, we built the lodge.” says Pensiero.
In 2002, Kelly died tragically in an avalanche elsewhere in the Selkirks.
Undaunted, but with heavy hearts, Baldface forged on. Kelly was a small-percentage owner, and Baldface has since passed on his share to his wife and daughter.
In the six years since the construction of their timber-framed lodge, Baldface has expanded to three cats and has built seven timber-framed chalets. There’s a sauna, a badass Swiss chef, and more than 160 kilometres of cat road accessing some of the best powder in the province. Runs like Cheeky Monkey, Scary Cherry and Moss’ Garden keep riders coming back year after year. Five minutes from the lodge, atop a thin ridgeline, guests step out of the cat and into an endless panorama of mountains whitened by the clutches of winter. Snow-encased spruce stalagmites picket slopes where massive cornices curl over peaks and ridges like frozen waves. Huge bowls and steep-forested valleys spread in every direction. The lines are endless.
But it’s not just the riding that separates Baldface from the rest of the class. Most cat operations in British Columbia are well endowed when it comes to vertical and powder. On any given day at the lodge—located at 2,050 metres and just a five-minute cat ride from Cherry Tops, a 900-metre, super steep, north-facing Selkirk classic—you might find yourself sharing a cat with some of its regular, albeit famous, clientele: legendary surfer Gerry Lopez, skier Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, snowboard legend Victoria Jealouse, or even the Foo Fighters themselves. Davis Love III, the badass pro golfer, is a regular client, as is JG, the preeminent Burton snowboard designer. Palmer West, the independent movie producer responsible for Requiem for a Dream, is in love with the place.
“Our energy has mostly been devoted to that oldâ€¯Field of Dreamsâ€¯cliché: Build it and they will come,” says Paula, who, between raising two small girls, is still heavily involved in the day-to-day happenings at Baldface. “The three of us have, for better or worse, always been completely immersed in the task at hand: nurturing the business, growing the Baldface family and keeping a positive vibe running through it all. Then, when the snow flies and we are able to just sit back and witness the powder magic that unfolds year after year, I’m always surprised—especially when some of these truly inspiring, revolutionary folks come our way. Over the years, these people have, in one way or another, melded into our motley crew, and they continue to be what fuels me to keep working away at this dream.”
The press and accolades also keep coming. Baldface is the first cat operator in the world to develop a summer freeride mountain-bike program modeled after its cat-ski business, an initiative featured on recent covers of both Bike and Mountain Biking magazines. By summer’s end, Baldface had already sold out for the 2007-08 winter in a provincial market grown increasingly competitive by the existence of more than 20 cat-ski operators.
“These people could go anywhere in the world, and they choose to keep coming back here,” says Pensiero of the pop-culture brass that continually rolls through his front door. “They have a good time, every time, like everyone who comes here, famous or not.”
And how couldn’t they, given what the man who blindly risked it all has helped to build?
“We didn’t know what we were doing when I had three mortgages on my house,” he concludes, “but we knew it had to be fun no matter what. And it totally is.”