I stood above gnarly rock chutes and wide open faces only to be told, ‘We normally go down there, but not this year.’ I felt cheated and vowed to go back. So last season, after a trip to France where I’d spent the weekend on fake snow, I was sitting at my computer in the UK reading an email from Fernie telling me of snow falling at a depth of 30cm an hour – and I realised that the time had come to hit the Powder Highway again.
It’s a nine-hour direct fl ight with Air Canada to Calgary from Heathrow, and with so many great resorts to choose from it’s a shame to visit only one, so my friend Mark and I planned a two-week road trip. A four-hour drive through Banff national park saw us arrive at Golden, a real frontier railroad town. Only a short drive over a single-track wooden bridge (apparently when they built the road they forgot to price for a bridge) is the resort of Kicking Horse. We booked into the slopeside Glacier Lodge and sank a few beers in Peaks Grill before hitting the sack at 6.00am UK time.
The jet lag was a bit weird, but waking at 8am local time the next morning I’d had 12 hours sleep and felt fresh and ready for some boarding. We met fellow Brit Andy Walton, the coordinator of the Big Mountain Centre (which offers slope-based avalanche courses) an hour late as no one had told us the clocks had changed that night, two weeks earlier than in the UK.
Kicking Horse is a series of four bowls, Super Bowl being their latest terrain expansion. Each bowl has a traversable, if sometimes knife-edge, ridge from which you can drop down various width chutes to the open powder below. We started on CPR ridge and dropped into a chute called Lower Heli Pad; after a few tight turns I was gliding over deep B.C. powder. As the morning wore on, the chute entrances got tighter and harder to access as Andy started to enjoy himself and test us. At lunch in the Eagle’s Eye Restaurant, I suggested a bottle of wine, and Andy said, ‘Best not, as I’d like to step it up a little this afternoon.’ True to his word, the afternoon was a step up and I found myself on a strip of powder between a rock band and a cliff, having dropped off Redemption Ridge.
The slopes of Kicking Horse were practically empty, as were all the other resorts we were to visit, but small groups of very good skiers and boarders could be seen from time to time cutting lines through the steep narrow terrain. After an evening at the Kicking Horse Grill and a few beers in downtown Golden, our second day saw more of the same and ended with a 20-minute walk up Terminator Peak. A short traverse led us to the chutes of Truth, Dare and Consequence - we took Truth, as I didn’t much like the sound of the other two.
A two-hour drive along Trans Canada Highway 1, over the avalanche-prone Rogers Pass, led us to Revelstoke, the new kid of the Powder Highway. Revelstoke town has a sleepy feel while the mountain resort is glitzy. It consists of two high-end large condo units, with a third on the way called Nelson Lodge, the very fl ash Rockford Wok-Bar-Grill, a hire shop and the Revelstoke Outdoor Center (ROC). All are built next to a new gondola, which gives North America’s highest liftserviced vertical of 1,713 metres.
There’s not a lot more here, but the thing is with a mountain like theirs you really don’t need anything else. We had signed up to the four-day Ultimate ROC Pack, which lived up to its name.
Day one was a heli/cat prep day which was informative and a great way to be shown the resort’s best powder stashes. Day two was in the cat: Revelstoke is unique in the fact that it runs its own cat-skiing operation adjacent to its inbound terrain, and after gaining altitude in the morning sun with the lift system, the full group of 12 made our way to the resort boundary and the awaiting cat. Rob, our slightly crazed looking guide, gave us an informative talk on terrain safety and the use of the supplied avalanche beacons.
We climbed aboard the very comfortable cat and drove into the three bowls that make up Revelstoke’s exclusive cat terrain. The powder fi elds were just great and led into well-spaced trees that could be taken at speed. As the day went on the vibe in the cat was just brilliant, everyone smiling and chatting, knowing they were involved in a really special day. Not once did I feel that the journey back up was too slow, and with a strong group we managed to enjoy eight runs. At the end of the day, as I boarded back inbound to Rockfords for a beer, I wondered how day three could better the fun I’d had.
The following morning I awoke to a bluebird day, not a cloud nor a breath of wind. We climbed out of our Selkirk Tangiers helicopter above a long pristine powder fi eld on Albert’s Mountain, and our guide, Andre – who looked like he’d stepped out of the 1980s, wearing a red all-in-one suit and a slightly too-small red helmet, on a pair of old Volant skis with Salomon 747 equipe bindings – said, ‘It’s only the second day this season that we’ve had such perfect conditions. We’re in for a good one!’ He hadn’t lied: the day saw us land on the highest peaks gaining access to almost endless powder. We had six drops enabling us access to over 6,000 metres of vert. We fi nished the day on Scabbie Abbie but she was anything but. The 1,400 metres of steep-banked champagne powder was trashed by our group, who just couldn’t stop whooping with joy.
Day four was a touring day back in the Cat area but Rob, our guide, had other ideas. Our small group managed two short tours before I found myself holding onto a rope being pulled behind a sledge (skidoo). Rob was so keen to show us a good time that he insisted I tackle the French Connection which was a 50-degree narrow rock chute with a small cliff at its end: as I dropped in he shouted, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell your mom!’
We’d had six adrenalin-fuelled days, so took our time the following day driving the four hours to Red Mountain Resort. Red, and the associated town of Rossland, have a real laid-back feel to them. Red Mountain Resort is the oldest ski resort in Canada and has developed slowly over time, keeping its original spirit in place. The day lodge at the base has been extended around the original building in a fantastically sympathetic way. For instance, Rafters, the top-fl oor bar, is built among the old roof beams that used to segregate the old bunk rooms, and downstairs they’ve kept the original wooden lockers. Our guide here, Roly – another Brit – skied Red in the 70s and never left. As we toured Granite and Red mountains, both of which offer amazing tree skiing, he explained how a lot of the area’s residents were Americans who had crossed over the border into Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft and, like him, never left. As the day went on we were introduced to many bearded men, long in years, who all seemed to be heading out of bounds to skin up this or that mountain. Following Roly through a small gap in the trees, we came upon a near snow-buried wood cabin, bedecked with Buddhist prayer fl ags.
As Mark took pictures, the door opened and Wake Williams poked his head out: ‘Hey Roly, you want to come in?’ Wake was hard to put an age to; he was a climber and had just come back from Vegas and its desert rocks, and in the winter he lived in the cabin three days a week. The one-room cabin had been built by his grandmother a couple of years before the resort opened in the 40s and his parents had taken their honeymoon in it. The best man had broken trail through the snow, dug out the front door, lit a fi re and then left them to it: Wake was born about nine months later. Looking at Wake was a little unnerving, as if looking at a future self if I’d taken a few other paths in life. We spent that night eating at Idgies in Rossland, then spent a second day riding Granite mountain which allows 360-degree access, as you can descend through the trees anywhere and always end up on a track that takes you back to the base station.
Fernie was our next stop along the highway, and its fi ve alpine bowls offer a range of options for all abilities. The resort’s slopes are set to a backdrop of a huge and impressive rock face, which often holds a large cornice that needs constant management. The trees and chutes of the surrounding slopes are just as awesome, yet the pistes are well bashed allowing beginners and intermediates access to all areas while the more experienced can head for the trees and abundant powder that often graces the area.
Nonstop are based out of Fernie, and offer multiple-week CASI ski and snowboard instructors courses. I joined some guys who had their level two snowboard exam in a few days’ time and while their instructor was loud, brash, had a stupid haircut and was insistent on doing what he called ‘Polish doughnuts’ (boarding at high speed before spinning round in circles on his back while scrunched up in a sort of breakdance move), he was absolutely spot on in his instruction and critique of the future instructors. The town of Fernie can be reached by a shuttle bus, which no one seems to know where it comes from or what time it returns.
It’s a relatively lively place with some cool bars and plenty of places to eat, the best being The Old Elevator. Panorama was our last stop, and has recently been bought by a local businessman who is keen to target the family market. I arrived early evening and there were kids having a great time in the hot pool and on a large ice slide near the Great Hall, while others were taking advantage of the night skiing. Inside the Great Hall a group of kids wearing brightly coloured chefs hats were making pizzas while their parents relaxed nearby over beers.
Panorama has a reputation for not being as extreme as some of the others, but that’s unfair. A short walk from Summit Quad leads you to Tayton Bowl which has some very challenging lines, and the resort is covered in trees to shred through. There’s a mile-long park which will keep all jibbers happy, and mile upon mile of what they call ‘groomers’ for those who love perfectly fl at pistes. If that’s still not enough you can heliski with RK, or go dog sledding or snowmobiling, all from resort. The inbound area is large, but it’s easy for families to do their own thing all morning and meet up for lunch without any problem.
On our drive back to Calgary, through the seemingly endless peaks, I knew there wasn’t going to be another six-year gap before my next trip down the Powder Highway.
POWDER HIGHWAY, CANADA
Air Canada Heathrow to Calgary
Glacier Lodge, Kicking Horse
Nelsen Lodge, Revelstoke
Red Mountain Resort
Cornerstone Lodge, Fernie
Panorama Mountain Village
Revelstoke Mountain Resort Cat skiing and Ultimate ROC Pack
Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing