Backcountry Beat: Finding bliss – and guitars – at Canada’s Baldface Lodge

Photographs by Aaron Blatt

Waze won’t help you get to British Columbia’s Baldface Lodge any faster. You park your car alongside the fence of the Nelson, British Columbia, airstrip, right next to the harbor. If you’re lucky, your schedule will fall on a day when the helicopter transfers are running. If you’re not, as I was on a Thursday last April, you’ll stack your stuff on a dock on Kootenay Lake, take a 15-minute boat ride across the lake to another dock, put your stuff in a waiting ATV, ride that to the snowline and then switch over to a snowmobile. From there, you’re a bumpy (and cold) hour and change to the lodge.

In short, it’s a haul. Yet everyone who makes this trek—hundreds of people a year—does so with a smile on their face. They all come for the same reason: To experience snowboarding or skiing on endless runs of fresh, untouched powder snow via Baldface’s fleet of snowcats. At a typical ski resort, finding an untracked run with a couple feet of soft snow is about as rare as scoring a ’30s Martin at a thrift store—here, it’s the norm.

You’d be excused if you thought skiing was the only amenity way up here, nearly 7,000 feet up a ridge in the Kootenay mountain range and 25 kilometers as the crow flies from the paved roads of Nelson. But this is a far cry from a typical backcountry lodge: There’s plumbing, nice bedrooms, fast Wi-Fi, a massage therapist on standby, amazing food and a bar. And, most surprisingly, everywhere you turn, there are guitars. New Martins, D’Angelicos and Fenders line the walls and the lobby, in-tune and waiting to be played. Amps are plugged in and on standby. Wiped out from the snowmobile trek, I grabbed the first guitar I saw on the wall, a Baldface-badged custom Martin D-15, and retreated back to my room, thinking Is this a mirage?

It’s not, but it is the brainchild of snowboarder Jeff Pensiero, a guy who loves playing music nearly as much as he loves playing in snow. “I play guitar, I play bass, I play mandolin, I play banjo, I even screw around on the melodica,” he tells me when I ask about all the gear. “I can finger-peck away at a piano like nobody’s business. My real passion is stand-up bass.”

It was his college sweetheart (now wife) who lured him to the small town of Nelson. There, after years of brainstorming, business plans, surveying and dreaming, Baldface started to take shape. “My travels led me to a heli-skiing lodge and I was one of the only snowboarders there. They just treated us like jerks the whole time,” he recalls. “I left thinking, ‘Screw that place. There are all these snowboarders in California that I know who are all going to be in their 30s or 40s in another 10 years and they’re not going to want to go hang out with some ski guy who is always yelling at them.”

“We kind of pecked away at it for a few years,” he says of Baldface’s early years in the late ’90s. “I didn’t have anything to lose. I was only 27. I poured my life into it.” Finally, in 1999, the British Columbia government finally granted the tenure for Baldface Lodge to be built. Some music connections came not long after.

“I’m not a classically trained businessman. I’m more of a think-as-you-go kind of guy,” Pensiero tells me at the bar, laughing. “I was taking mortgages out on my house, trying to figure out how to do it. All of a sudden, they gave us the land tenure and we were like, ‘Holy shit, we need to figure this out.’ A colleague found a rusty old snowcat named Bromley up in the mud towards St. John. That’s what happens to old snowcats before they die. They put them into these muddy bogs and they do this terrible work. We brought one back from up there. We bought it for $45,000, and we had to do everything to it. We didn’t have $45,000, but my friend hooked me up with the Foo Fighters’ [bass player] Nate Mendel.” Dave Grohl ended up chipping in, too.

Pro snowboarder Danny Davis and Baldface owner Jeff Pensiero.

To this day, Mendel still returns once or twice a season to ride. (Grohl never actually made it to visit his investment, but has since been paid back.) Baldface is now quite a bit bigger and has a fleet of new snowcats: They own around 40 acres of land and operate on the 32,000 acres surrounding it. “It’s pretty big,” Pensiero admits. “You get about 5,000 acres at a pretty big ski area.”

Just as the lodge has grown organically year after year, so has the guitar collection. “I’ve always had a couple guitars up there. One of my favorite parts about the lodge throughout the year is getting up early. A lot of people are doing their morning stretching, whatever people do. But there’s a little group of us that have always sat in the corner and played Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’ in the morning. Just taking turns on the solos.” A sports agent representing several snowboarders who also play guitar hooked Pensiero up with Amani Duncan when she was working at Martin Guitars. “I talked with her a few times and told her how much we enjoyed the guitar and how passionate I am for it. It was like hearing God himself when she said, ‘I will give you some Martin guitars.’ She was so cool about it.”

Eventually, a rep at Fender heard about Baldface’s burgeoning music scene. “He sent out some amps and a P-bass,” Pensiero recalls. “Then this guy from D’Angelico Guitars heard about what we were doing. He’s got a really interesting business model and he produces a lot of guitars. We get to try these models and configurations.

“Sometimes you just walk upstairs and there’s some lawyer or insurance guy with a goofy sweater on or something,” he adds. “He tunes in to this crazy alternative tuning and I’m like ‘no way.’ I’m constantly amazed at how many people are really good players and how they love the chance to play with each other. You hit your 40s and you got your 20 songs, and if you’re going to camp out, you break out a couple. When you’re actually in a place where there is no social pressure and you’re just able to try stuff out, it’s a really great vibe.”

And though skiing and snowboarding will always be Baldface’s main draw, Pensiero loves the musician melting pot he created. He’s not done, either. He has ambitious plans to one day build out a dedicated jam space and, perhaps, even an onsite recording studio. In the meantime, the guitar collection slowly grows each season.

On one of my last evenings at Baldface, I caught pro snowboarder Austen Sweetin churning out instrumentals on a Telecaster. Here was one of the best snowboarders in the world, not even 30 years old, and he could play. After a great day of riding and sharing laughs in the back of a snowcat, it was the perfect send-off. “We try to jam as much as we can in the evenings,” Pensiero tells me from the bar. “It’s a really nice alternative to just getting hammered or watching sports, or whatever people do. And it creates a shared experience, which is what I think is so critical to Baldface. To sit around a room and jam with people and pass the songs around, it’s like magic. That’s what we’re working on—creating a musical paradise.”