BY: Sue Kernaghan PHOTOGRAPHY: Paul Morrison
In British Columbia, nothing sets hearts racing like that first dusting of powder, with its promise of fresh tracks and glistening runs.
That’s because Canada’s westernmost province doesn’t just have mountains — it is mountains. With 10 cloud-skimming, snow-capped ranges and 13 top-notch ski resorts, hitting the slopes is more than a sport here. It’s a way of life.
At Whistler Blackcomb, that was true as far back as 1966, when a gaggle of Vancouver ski bums pointed their VW vans toward a remote Coast Mountain called Whistler. The road was rough in those days but the skiing — and the parties — made it all worthwhile.
Fifty winters, one Olympic Winter Games and countless powdery turns later, Whistler Blackcomb is now among the biggest and best-loved ski resorts on the continent. Boasting more than 200 runs on two mountains and a village famous for its après scene, Whistler celebrates its 50th anniversary this winter with some great deals, plenty of parties and a fresh set of awards, including being named among the best ski resorts in North America — again.
You can’t beat that, but Whistler, being Whistler, always does. New this year are some once-in-a-lifetime encounters with Whistler’s wild side — think backcountry hot springs by helicopter, overnighting in a snow hotel or exploring untouched ice caves. Head-Line Mountain Holidays has the coordinates.
Back in the village, touch base with Whistler’s cultural side at the Audain Art Museum. Canada’s newest public, not-for-profit museum, featuring works by renowned BC artists Emily Carr and E.J. Hughes, plus a world-leading collection of Northwest Coast First Nations masks, is set to open in early 2016.
Two mountains? Try three. At Sun Peaks Resort, in British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan region, three mountain faces form Canada’s second largest ski area — in all 135 runs across 1,728 hectares (4,270 acres). Add a Tyrolean-style ski-in, ski-out village and 2,000 hours of sunshine each year and you’ve got the recipe for fresh tracks and bluebird days.
And Sun Peaks keeps growing — this year alone sees the addition of two new advanced trails, complementing the 200 hectares (500 acres) of in-bounds backcountry that was unveiled last season. There’s a lot of terrain here but the folks at Sun Peaks are happy to show you around. A wealth of ski camps and clinics include backcountry tours led by local experts, an expanded Ski Sisters program designed specifically for women and new classes just for teens.
It’s a theme across the province this season: more inbound steeps and deeps as backcountry areas open to skiers and boarders, and more insider tips from local experts.
At Big White Ski Resort, for example, the Ski with an Olympian program offers private lessons with resident sports star freestyler Kelsey Serwa. The Kelowna-born Serwa started skiing as a toddler and went on to win silver at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Not every kid makes it to the podium but, like Serwa, a lot of British Columbians grow up on skis. The upshot? If you have tots in tow, the resorts here get it. Some, like Big White, really roll out the magic carpet with everything from an adventure ski trail to kid-sized snowmobile tracks.
All four Thompson Okanagan ski resorts are known for their family-friendly style, ski-in, ski-out villages, plentiful champagne powder and buckets of fun, both on and off-piste.
At SilverStar Mountain Resort, for example, Canada’s first all-inclusive lift ticket, called the My1Pass, lets you downhill and cross-country ski, snowboard, tube, skate, snowshoe and fat bike for one price.
Fat Bike? Yes. Cycling meets skiing as you ride through the snow on bikes with oversized tires. It’s all included, as is access to SilverStar’s 55-kilometre (34-mile) Nordic trail system. It links to the neighbouring Sovereign Lake ski area to form, at 105 kilometres (60 miles), one of the longest cross-country ski networks in the world.
Something else you can count on at most BC resorts: uncrowded slopes. Although if you really want to dip under the radar, head to Apex Mountain Resort near Penticton. Despite its deep powder (six metres in an average year) and its role as a national ski training centre, this ski-in, ski-out resort remains a hidden gem.
Alternatively, head west — far west, to Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island. Besides reigning as one of North America’s premier Nordic centres, Mount Washington welcomes newbies of all ages with its top-rated beginner area, complete with four covered Magic Carpet lifts and endlessly patient instructors.
Moving east, the mountains come thick and fast. In BC’s Kootenay Rockies region, record-breaking verticals, deep powder — and top-notch ski resorts — beckon at every turn of the road.
That travelled pathway, known as the Powder Highway, links eight full-service mountain resorts, each with a wealth of terrain and a friendly ski-town vibe, with more than 10 Nordic ski destinations, nearly two dozen snowcat and heli-ski operators, plus a complement of more than 20 backcountry lodges.
A good base for resort hopping is the centrally located Panorama Mountain Resort; although with 120 runs Panorama dishes up plenty of action on its own.
Steeps and deeps? Helicopter not required. The 1,225 vertical metres (4,019 feet) of double diamond powder in backcountry-style favourite Taynton Bowl can be accessed effortlessly by chairlift. Nordic trails, slope-side hot pools and fat biking are also on the menu at Panorama. Come evening, ride up to Elkhorn cabin for a Swiss-style raclette, followed by a lamp-lit ski down.
For big mountain skiing and chart-topping verticals, head further north.
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, near Golden, has among the longest verticals and deepest snowfalls on the continent. Its claim, as the Champagne Powder Capital of Canada, is well-earned with annual falls averaging 7.50 metres (24 feet). Five lifts, 121 runs, four alpine bowls and 85 chutes offer plenty of ways to enjoy all that snow.
For a memorable overnight, book a stay at the Eagle’s Eye. Best known as Canada’s highest restaurant, this mountaintop aerie boasts two suites, complete with a private chef, butler, ski guide and guaranteed fresh tracks in the morning.
Two hours west, across some of the world’s most stunning mountain passes, is Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Home to North America’s longest vertical — a whopping 1,712 metres (5,620 feet) — Revelstoke is the place for long cruisers; one, dubbed the Last Spike, runs an epic 15 kilometres (9.5 miles). Massive powder and plenty of advance terrain round things out for serious skiers and boarders, and, as a bonus, Revelstoke is also the only resort in the world to offer lift-, backcountry, cat-, heli-skiing and tandem paragliding on skis from one village base.
Already known for its tree skiing, Revelstoke is opening another 20 hectares (50 acres) of glades this winter, along with a new terrain park and more guided backcountry touring programs. You can even star in your own ski movie here. Video cameras around the mountain will record your moves; just download the Paparazzi app, and you can watch the results post-run.
In southeastern BC, a cluster of historic mining towns have morphed into some of the hippest ski resorts around. From family-friendly Kimberley Alpine Resort to historic RED Mountain Resort and local favourite Whitewater Ski Resort, each draws skiers and boarders with glades, chutes and bowls filled with snow so light and airy they call it “cold smoke.”
High on the hipster scale is Fernie Alpine Resort. This funky Victorian mining town is the biggest resort in the Canadian Rockies, with 142 runs, 10 lifts and a whopping 11 metres (37 feet) of annual snowfall.
Fernie and its neighbours may be new on the global ski scene, but they’re rich in skiing lore. RED Mountain Resort, for example, has hosted races since 1896 and continues to train downhillers at its new, state-of-the art Legacy Training Centre. Here, plenty of powder, exceptional fall lines and glorious glades draw adventurists year after year. And that’s not all: everywhere at RED, the locals’ passion for their mountain is evident, right down to the 16 day-use cabins built and bedecked by skiers.
More parties? Whitewater Ski Resort, near the artsy lakeside town of Nelson, marks its 40th anniversary this season and is also set to host the 10th run of the popular Kootenay Coldsmoke Powder Fest. Slated for February 19-21, 2016, the festival is a celebration of all things snow — fitting for a resort that revels in more than 12 metres (40 feet) of the white stuff each season.
Of course, most British Columbians will be celebrating long before February. They’ll be doing the happy dance when those first snowflakes fall.
Winter? Bring it on.