Writer Aaron Teasdale also wrote our World’s Best Ski Towns 2012 story.
When winter fails to deliver the goods in the American Rockies, there’s always one thing powder-starved skiers can do: head north. From the reliably thick snowpack of interior British Columbia to the pristine slopes just over the Continental Divide in Alberta, the mountain ranges of the Canadian West drape across the continent like bejeweled necklaces, their wild peaks rising like white crystals and attracting treasure-seeking skiers from around the world.
This is where heli-skiing was born, where you will find some of North America’s only ski lifts inside national parks, and where new resorts tout the continent’s biggest vertical drops. More than one well-traveled skier has claimed this region offers the planet’s best skiing. So one day in mid-March, with my unsatiated craving for big mountains and deep snow too strong to resist, I loaded up the Subaru with skis, backpacks, and cameras and headed for British Columbia to see for myself. Just to make it official-sounding, I decided to give it a name. The Great Canadian Ski Road Trip of 2012 had begun.
First up was two days of heli-skiing with Canadian Mountain Holidays, the company that invented the sport in 1965. An hour north of the town of Revelstoke, tucked in a fold of the Monashee Range, sits their Gothic Lodge, a converted mining camp cum posh ski lodge that would be my base for three nights. Storms had slathered the mountains in powder but deep instabilities meant safe terrain options were limited. When a skier died in an avalanche just outside Revelstoke Mountain Resort the day I arrived, it only confirmed the wisdom of the CMH guides who eschewed the big, open lines Canadian heli-skiing is famous for and led our group into safe trees and low-angle cutblocks. Fortunately, the thigh-deep snow was so good no one minded.
Originally, I’d worried starting the trip with heli-skiing would be like starting dinner with dessert. Would it ruin me for ski areas? But it didn’t work out that way. While the heli-access powder was exquisite, I longed for the kind of advanced terrain that in an unstable season could only be accessed safely on the controlled slopes of a resort. It was time for Revelstoke.
A former mining town wedged in a remote valley between the Selkirk and Monashee mountains, Revelstoke has long been renowned for its snow-choked winters (over 80 feet fell here in the winter 1971-72, establishing the Canadian record for most snow in a single season), but it wasn’t until 2007 that Revelstoke Mountain Resort opened to take advantage of the bounty. Featuring 5,620 vertical feet of terrain, it quickly snagged the title of biggest vertical drop in North America from Whistler. Most expert skiers spend their time on the top couple thousand feet, where there’s an abundance of steep pitches.
The young woman biking to the mountain in full ski kit, boots included, was the first sign that this was no ordinary ski area. Riding one gondola, then a second, and finally a chairlift, up, up, and still up the mountain to reach its wind-strafed high point was the second. My friend and ace ski model Ben Ferencz had flown in and joined me now, and our day followed the classic progression of “first day at a great new ski area” moments.
First came the euphoria: This terrain is amazing! The snow is great! Let’s explore!
Then the exploration led to a few wrong turns and the, “Crap, we’re missing the best stuff!” moment, an inevitable step in learning a mountain. Fortunately, we spent the afternoon booting into some of its best terrain, which culminated in a hike up to the resort’s in-bounds high point and, just when we thought we really had Revelstoke figured out, a revelatory “Whoah, this is a whole new area!” moment. This is also the point where we met up with Olivier Meilleur of the Revelstoke ski patrol, who was closing down the North Bowl and agreed to show us the best lines. After a short traverse and cornice drop, he pointed us to the far side of the sprawling alpine bowl and 1,000 feet of trackless, waist-deep snow and the kind of weightless turns that live forever in your dreams.
As Ben and I glided merrily along a cat track afterward through misty, old-growth forest, trees disappearing into a cloak of fog, I realized our day was ending, which led to our “Wish we had another day here!” moment.
We were some of the only skiers left on the mountain now, and when we reached the bottom of the Ripper Chair there stood Olivier, our black-bearded Quebecker patrolman, waiting for us and joking with the liftie while toking on a hand-rolled cigarette. He asked me to send some of my shots to the Revelstoke ski patrol. I said I would, and then Ben and I rode up the lift, alone on the mountainside, fresh snow falling on our smiles, laughing at our good fortune for the day.
Next up was Kicking Horse, the other new and massive ski area in this snowy pocket of British Columbia. Opening in 2000, Kicking Horse is a rising star in the expert skiing world thanks to its 4,133-feet of big mountain terrain (fourth biggest vertical in North America), 85 in-bounds chutes, and an array of alpine bowls that reward anyone willing to put in an honest bootpack. It’s the kind of terrain that, when pointed out from the gondola, makes skiers from the Midwest cry out, “skiing that shouldn’t even be legal!”
First thing Ben and I did was pick the brains of a pair of French Canadians on the Stairway to Heaven quad chair about the area’s best terrain. Judging by their wide skis, well-scarred boots, and high-end goggles, they had the look of skiers we could trust.
As we unloaded from the chair, Ben noticed them go wide-eyed. The closure rope had just been removed from the metal steps leading up to the rim of the legendary Feuz Bowl, which had been closed and accumulating prodigious amounts of snow over the previous 36 hours. They spoke no words, but immediately kicked off their skis, threw them on their shoulders, and marched to the stairway. Ben nudged me and said, “Quick, follow those guys.”
We managed 4th and 5th position in the rapidly developing dash for the steep, high bowl of protected powder. At the top we walked along a corniced ridge where a growing line of skiers pushed up and hurriedly clicked into their bindings. Everyone moved with urgency, but this being Canada, they were also unfailingly polite and allowed us a moment to drop in first. The snow in the gaping powder field engulfed us, flowing around our legs and waists like silk. We paused near the bottom, where whooping, laughing skiers streamed down around us, everyone radiating the euphoria of the sated powder hound.
After another 4,000-foot gondola ride back up from the resort base, we took the advice the Quebeckers had given us and headed for Super Bowl, the farthest flung bowl on the mountain. It took an undulating cat-track traverse to reach it, but a little extra effort goes a long way on a mountain like Kicking Horse, where powder stashes can last for days in the area’s most remote reaches.
A delightfully cheerful woman ski patroller in the patrol shack at the bowl’s head showed us a photo-map of the surrounding terrain. A line called Funnel, which dropped chute-like along a vaulting cliff wall, looked the most aesthetic. Plus, the ski patrol girl said the bootpack to reach it was beautiful and that we would probably end up taking pictures of lots of cool rocks and lichen.
She did not lie — the bootpack route was thrilling, with open-aired dropoffs and a rope to assist on the steepest section. After, uh, taking some pictures of the lichen, we headed for Funnel and some of the best turns of trip — navel deep and untracked through a wide, rock-lined chute. It’s the kind of big, wild terrain you find in only a select few North American resorts. At the bottom there was no question what we wanted to do next. We headed right back up for another traverse and bootpack in Super Bowl.
Amid the lively apres scene in the Peaks Grill at day’s end, we sunk into black-hole-like leather chairs. While watching ski movies on the televisions above the bar and savoring a pitcher of Okanagan Spring Pale Ale, we noticed that everyone around us was gorging on heaping plates of gravy-slathered french fries piled high with a mysterious, lumpy substance. The waitress told us it was a Canadian dish called poutine, consisting of French fries, cheese curds, and beef gravy. Ben and I looked at each other. I was thinking “they should just change the name of that to ‘Heart Attack on a plate,’” but Ben said, “We have to get that!”
A short while later as we drank more ale and cast sideways glances at our remaining artery blocker, er, Poutine, I had a realization.
“Dude, did we only do three runs today?” I said.
“Four,” Ben said.
This is the nature of Kicking Horse. With its monster top-to-bottom runs and bootpack-access terrain, each run felt like it’s own alpine adventure, and each delivered life-changing powder turns. Four runs may not be a lot, but on that day it was more than enough. Kind of like the poutine.
Revelstoke: La Baguette in downtown has first-rate breakfast burritos for eating on the way to the mountain. Head to Paramjit’s Kitchen, a local’s Indian restaurant for excellent chai and chicken curry.
Kicking Horse/Golden: The town of Golden isn’t much of a looker, but the restaurant Eleven 22 features sophisticated cuisine in a hiply refurbished historic house. Home Lodge, five miles outside of Golden, offers secluded luxury, big breakfasts, and an outdoor hot tub.
Part two, where our heroes head to Banff to Fernie, is coming soon…