In the Field
Alexandra van Zyl
The run we have just completed was a two-minute burn down 500 meters of perfectly-gladed forest, punctuated by pillows and mushrooms, to launch off into the cold smoke powder that makes British Columbia’s Interior region famous. As we skin up for another lap, Marty Schaffer, the owner, operator and lead guide at the Blanket Glacier Chalet, asked the group if we saw anything during our run that might inform their analysis of the avalanche conditions. It is a distinctly communal approach markedly different from other guided experiences where the guide leads, and the client follows. When quizzed on his communicative approach, he explains, “It’s how I would want my experience if I were a guest. If I were being guided on a whitewater rafting trip or something, I would like to know what is going on … and learn.”
The 36-year-old Marty Schaffer is a unique character and guide. In the summer, he is a fledgling mountain bike influencer, hosting the Yeti Cycles podcast, “Talk Yeti To Me,” and sharing his stoke for two wheels and life on social media. But it is during the winter that Marty has had the most influence, first as a guide and backcountry mentor, and second through the growth of a ski guiding business based on education and respectful mountain travel.
In 2012 Marty founded the guide company CAPOW, whose mantra isn’t “Steep and Deep” or some other gnarly connotation but rather “Make good choices.”
“I wanted to build a guiding company where the guides are mentors or friends with whom you want to go ski touring.”
CAPOW offers avalanche courses and “camps,” as Marty likes to call them, one of which is marketed as “How To Hook Up With Friends”— a mountaineering course that teaches rope skills and glacier travel, and “Pillow Talk”— where campers get to go focus on learning how to ski pillows while being mentored by the likes of professional skiers such as Chris Rubens or Eric Hjorleifson. It is unconventional and refreshing.
Another thing that sets Marty and CAPOW apart is his commitment to engaging with youth through initiatives like the CAPOW Fund, which gives scholarships for avalanche education, and a camp for youth titled “How To Be A Young Person That Older People Respect.”
“As a youth, I was hungry for mentorship. I remember being 16 and told to follow my intuition, but I remember feeling that I didn’t have enough experience to have a gut instinct. I even had a father who was a guide, but I still felt I lacked enough exposure.”
This healthy dose of reserve came despite growing up, literally, in the backcountry at the Blanket Glacier Chalet which was owned and operated by their parents, Al and Marion. Situated in the Monashee Mountains southwest of Revelstoke and accessible only by helicopter, the quaint A-frame structure has resisted the weight of an average of 18 meters of snow for the last 36 years. On the wall is a photo of Al out front of the chalet wearing a tuxedo and top hat with his arm around Marion, who was pregnant with Marty.
Gradually, watching his father take skiers into the backcountry inspired Marty to follow in his footsteps. At 20, he was one of the youngest avalanche professionals in Canada, and by 23, he had gained the necessary experience and confidence to become a fully certified ski guide with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides. And while he has worked as a heli-ski guide for Canadian Mountain Holidays, Marty has always been drawn to creating more educational experiences.
“Out of the avalanche triangle, the terrain is the one piece you can control. But much of the teaching in avalanche courses are around snow and weather.”
So Marty set about updating how avalanche courses are delivered. A CAPOW avalanche course still covers all the fundamentals of weather, snow, and how to dig a pit and conduct a rescue, as stipulated by the Canadian Avalanche Association. The difference is Marty puts a big emphasis on getting people out into mountain terrain where they can gain experience and ask questions.
In 2016 the operation of the chalet began to transition from his parents to Marty, and he started hosting many of CAPOW’s camps there. “The Blanket is a perfect arena where we can control the terrain.”
This is true. Out the door lies slopes of all aspects — perfect for the study of snow science. Within sight of the chalet are numerous “mini golf” pillow zones for kids and adults alike to try skiing like the pros without the considerable exposure and objective hazard. All the skiing is accessed on foot, so there is ample time to observe and consider the terrain.
We are doing this as we climb back up for another lap of thigh-deep powder. At the top, Marty rips his skins, and with the group ready, he proclaims, “Make good choices!” as he pushes off into the fall line, launches off a pillow, and disappears in a cloud of Kootenay cold smoke.