A season in the white room: Steamboat’s Will Carlton left his job to pursue his passion and spent two months guiding skiers in an epic Japanese powder winter
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Will Carlton paused, but the wheels in his mind kept spinning, grinding away at nine weeks of memories.
It wasn’t a tough question or even an exact one.
He spent nine weeks helping skiers in Japan as a guide for Hokkaido Powder Guides, nine weeks learning the culture and exploring the mountains.
It wasn’t unlike Steamboat Springs, his home for 21 years, he said. The slopes were gentle compared to, for instance, the Alps — the snow light and fluffy, missing only a trademarked moniker.
Unlike Steamboat, or unlike at least this winter in Steamboat, it snowed. It snowed almost every day, so much it broke through local records and left homeowners in the region, otherwise, in Carlton’s experience aggressively friendly, standings shovel-in-hand in front of their houses bickering with each other about where to store all the snow.
There wasn’t anywhere left to stack snow.
There was an excitement every morning, Carlton said, the thrill in a skier’s gut that makes 5 a.m. wake-up calls almost unnecessary. Everyone’s ready to get up and get after it, knowing what awaits.
In a season of so many good days, there had to have been one, though, right? The best day? Or maybe there was a best stretch, a series of storms that pile up a foot one day, 18 inches the next, 6 inches the day after that and another foot the following day?
Carlton’s gears spun.
He spent more than two months in Japan then another few weeks in Switzerland guiding skiers, a part of a bold but difficult life change that many of Steamboat’s most hardcore adventurers can only envy.
Finally, he decided.
A best day? Na, when it dumps every day and your life is skiing that powder, there’s not really a “best” day.
The decision to chase a dream of being a ski guide wasn’t one Carlton made overnight, and it wasn’t one he made easily.
He came to Steamboat Springs in 1997 and has spent the last 12 years as a chef at Young Tracks Preschool.
“I had a lot of friends there,” he said. “I know half the town from working there. I know their kids and everything. It’s a place that was comfortable for me.”
Something uncomfortable was gnawing, however, and he made an uncomfortable decision to quit after he started to pursue ski guide certification through the American Mountain Guide Association.
It’s a long process that he began a year ago, taking the prerequisite training that included the likes of a wildness first responder course and avalanche classes. He tackled rock climbing and medical classes, as well.
“The whole thing is like a graduate program,” he said.
He could have slowly ticked off classes for a decade, but, at 43 years old, he jumped into the fast lane with his trip to Japan, essentially a ski guiding apprenticeship. Even he was surprised to get the call he’d been hired.
It meant leaving his job, leaving his wife, Kate, and his home, and his son Bridger, 13 years old, a seventh grader in Steamboat and often Will’s sidekick for ski mountaineering ventures deep into the Colorado mountains.
“That was the hardest part,” Carlton said. “He’s been super inspired by it. He was seeing me be unhappy in my old job. Not that I didn’t like my job, but it was just super repetitive, and sometimes, it would get really frustrating. So if anything, it’s kind of a lesson for him. It’s not always easy, but if you want to do something, you can.
“Or maybe I’m just justifying being away from him. It’s definitely the hardest part.”
Once winter hit, Carlton completed an avalanche class in Jackson, Wyoming, then spent a little time training in Alta, Utah, before leaving for Japan.
Hokkaido, Carlton’s destination, is a powderhounds dream — the northernmost of the Japanese islands and one tucked right in the weather that flows off the frozen Siberian plains.
Sapporo, the largest city on the island and site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, is bustling but much of the rest of the island is rural.
“People think Japan’s this really crowded place, really modern, but in Hokkaido, it’s not like that at all,” Carlton said. “You’re driving really tight mountain roads without any other traffic.”
There are 16 ski resorts tucked into the rolling mountains, but he wasn’t there to ski resorts. Instead, he and the team he’d joined was loaded with about 10 other guides, and they helped clients to backcountry experiences all around the region.
Few of those skiers were actually Japanese, and Carlton got an international sampling. The group guided skiers from at least 20 nations, including Australia, Italy, the U.S., Canada, Switzerland, Germany, France, Poland, Spain and New Zealand.
Some skiers were fast, prepared for the experience. Others didn’t know the first thing about skiing powder.
“It went from one extreme to the other. I had days working as the tail guide I’d be helping skiers who couldn’t ski powder, one on one,” he said. “Then another day we had a group of German ski instructors and about 50 centimeters (20 inches) of new snow and they were amazing skiers and those guys were running us into the ground.”
It made for long, full days of work
“You wake up in the morning, maybe about 6, and you’re doing weather and avalanche observations and picking up clients, driving up to an hour and a half to different places we were skiing,” he said. “You’re managing safety elements, breaking trail.”
Other days were spent exploring the mountains to prepare for clients, looking for those powder stashes and going deep into the backcountry on snowmobiles to scout runs.
There was always fresh snow.
“I skied more powder than I’ve skied in 10 seasons,” he said. “In Steamboat, we can get snow like that but a few times a year. Those days are pretty normal over there, especially if you’re willing to hike.”
As good as it gets
The Hokkaido season is sweet, but it’s short by many standards, largely limited to January and February.
The end of that season wasn’t the end for Carlton, however.
He returned to the United States and spent a week in Montana, skiing out of a yurt north of Yellowstone National Park in the Beartooth Mountains where yet again it was dumping.
He then left to spend two weeks in Europe, helping guide in the Alps in Switzerland, France and Italy.
“Everywhere I went, they were having record seasons it seemed like,” he said.
He’s in a rush, he said, to get the certification done, and he’ll continue to work toward it this summer.
“If I’d stayed at my old job, I’d have been taking a few classes and only been going at it half-heartedly. It would have taken a prohibitively long time. By the time I’d have finished and gotten opportunities, there probably wouldn’t have been many opportunities left. I’d have been 60 years old trying to do this thing every day,” he said.
Now, he hopes to finish up in the next several years and to continue guiding with other companies along the way.
When he’s done, he hopes to build a client list and guide around the world, soaking in the ski culture wherever he can find it, traditional places he’s been and others he hopes to discover.
And as for Japan, he’ll be back. He’s planning to return to guide next winter.
Maybe he again won’t have a best day.
“It snows almost every day,” he said. “By the end of the season, we were digging for our lives. The back of our guide house had like 20 feet of snow on it. All the neighbors were yelling at each other about snow removal, and they were worried about the houses imploding. This place gets a lot of snow, but all the locals were saying they’d never seen anything like it. There were only a couple days the entire winter I couldn’t call it powder skiing.”
How do you pick a best day from that?
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