CRUISING B.C. INTERIOR’S POWDER HIGHWAY ON A LUXURY BUS, ON THE HUNT
FOR PERFECT POWDER, TAKES ADVENTURE SKIING TO A WHOLE NEW LEVEL
BY: Robert Stewart PHOTOGRAPHY: Caroline Van T’ Hoff
“The vibe seems good, with Neil Young’s music adding a soundtrack to further increase the cinematic aura of the journey.”
“We’re going to search for the best snow out there and if that means changing our route, we will”. The words were reminiscent of Captain James T. Kirk; serious, but with a pirate like swagger and hint of a grin that assured you this wasn’t going to be any ordinary ski trip. Scott Belton, a mountain guide with characteristics of Qui-Gon Jinn and the late Shane McConkey.
This was the Storm Chaser trip – an organized, ski-guide led, multi-day trek focused around adventure skiing activities like guided backcountry ski touring, heli skiing, cat skiing – with a fully loaded food, drink and entertainment ‘big rig’ to transport you around the British Columbia’s Powder Highway. Brushing up against, and occasionally embracing towns like Golden, Revelstoke and Fernie, the six-day journey would lead us through this Kootenay paradise.
On a cold March morning, as the sound of a helicopter grew louder down the Columbia River valley before my first ever days skiing in Canada, thoughts turned to the anticipation any skier over 40 years of age would feel – this is going to be amazing, but should I really be getting into that tiny flying piece of metal? Later, as we flew meters away from the jagged rocks of the Dog Tooth range near Kicking Horse Resort, dropping into Scott’s own high mountain, back-country winter basecamp, I transcended my fears entirely. I hadn’t even stepped into my skis yet, but if this was what storm chasing was all about then I knew I’d come to the right place.
WHAT … NO BEER?
I knew the mountains of B.C. were famed for their deep, dry, powder snow and despite being late March, things were looking good. I’m embedded with a group of skiers including two freeride professionals from Whistler, three photographers, a ski patroller from Kicking Horse Resort and a couple of other ski journalists. Abilities were mixed but mostly on the upper end of decent. Still, the idea of the Storm Chaser trip is to make great snow accessible to recreational skiers in search of some adventure. Richard Barker, a Brit who set up Kicking Horse Powder Tours – the company that operates the Storm Chaser concept with Scott’s Adrenalin Descents – eloquently stated his slant on the situation. “You don’t have to be a rock-star skier to handle this trip – just be confident in powder and have a glint in your eye.”
But being a storm chaser means reacting fast to the changing environment and occasionally going off plan. So far, so good – the heli had dropped us off in a wilderness region full of glades, cut downs and chutes. It’s also home to Scott’s winter wilderness camp that consists of two large Artic-style tents heated with wood burning stoves.
Food had been transported up to the camp and there are beds for 10 people. The plan was to spend one night here to maximise the powder before moving on.
We dropped off some supplies and dove into our very own enchanted forest, following Scott through the tightly-packed spruce until it opened up to a vast cut down area, un-touched and waiting for its chance to provide; waiting for us, for me … I could feel the turns before I even made them.
And then suddenly freedom, that floating sensation only deep powder snow can deliver.Weightlessness, the ability to soar, hanging in the air like a flying yogi who transcends the physical and experiences something the conscious mind simply can’t comprehend. Sounds like a fluffy load of nonsense? It isn’t, this is what skiing powder snow really feels like to me anyway. Payback time for this out of body experience is a skin-up back to the camp. It takes an hour or so to reach camp, where a warm drink and packed lunch are waiting; 10 minutes, eat, drink and then descend once more into the forest of dreams, ready for another round.
“Weightlessness … hanging in the air like a flying yogi who transcends the physical and experiences something the conscious mind simply can’t comprehend.”
Apparently someone forgot the alcohol – it should have been brought up a few days before by snowmobile. How can you camp for a night in the mountains without beer and wine … disaster? But apparently this is Canada and the heli is called in to deliver. Beer and wine now available, thrown into the snow just over 100 meters from the camp spot. The world’s most expensive bar, courtesy of a kind pilot who must simply understand the situation. Sleeping high up in these sub-zero conditions might sound like a hazardous nightmare, but nestled inside a snug, warm tent complete with galley-style kitchen is ‘glamping’ at its best – complete with your exclusive dawn sunrise normally reserved for the local Grizzly’s.
FISHING LIKE KINGS
We could have stayed here for days but news on the airwaves is that it’s dumping further west, but we stay local a little longer and ski Kicking Horse Resort. It’s steeper than most European resorts I know and is relentless and unforgiving in some parts. Huge, long gaps cut Amazonian scaled highways through the thick forest, mostly left alone by the groomer machines. Then spines leave both sides to drop away into a seemingly endless abyss. Once caught, there’s no going back and while falling is always an option, the results would provide a satisfactory victory for the fiendish power that persuaded you in.
I wanted more but we were storm chasing and our sumptuous bus awaited. This was our travelling home for the week: Decked out with a kitchen, dining area, lounge, TV and sofas to lounge on – perfect after a day’s storm chasing. We passed through the town of Revelstoke and stayed the night, departing at dawn with a hot breakfast on the bus and a drive deep into the Monashee’s; classic B.C. heli ski country. The friendly Kingfisher Heliskiing operation, located off the main highway in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, has an office resembling an old western saloon.
It’s all about tree skiing here, they are perfectly placed with gaping glades that open up to offer a little extra freedom, before you’re forced back into a denser forest. You’re at their mercy and must turn at their will. Although we all follow Scott, you don’t see much of the group on descent. We’re told to ‘buddy up’ and ski in pairs, which makes sense as although it’s relatively safe, a small avalanche could trigger and push you into a tree well. The snow is slightly on the heavy side, especially lower down, but it’s steep and the snow deep, which seems to provide a perfect balance with the snow keeping your speed in check. As you glide through these spruce forests you need to have trust. You can’t see beyond the next few trees. Somehow it doesn’t matter and I guess it’s more of the same, and it was. Bucket’s full of un-tracked tree skiing that’s exclusively for us – one drop-in, then it’s done and we move onto the next area. It’s endless here and we mix some heli drops with a bit of skinning to balance both the eco and wallet excesses that are easily blown in this most natural of wilderness environments.
We spend the night in the Sparkling Hill Resort above Lake Okanagan – a cathedral of opulence and design that’s perched above the most prodigious glacial body of water. The contrast between natures design and manufactured work is extreme. Both are impressive, powerful and almost ethereal, but it feels like you’re in the luxury hotel version of a space cruiser that’s parked itself on an alien planet designed by a marketing guru for the Canadian Tourist Board. The Spa certainly felt out of this world too, with a powerful healing element, only enhanced by the ubiquitous crystal installations that form the main feature of the hotel.
We move on in the Storm Chaser bus that became like our refuge; a shelter that delivers us to our next port, complete with a fully stocked fridge, TV, Wi-Fi and the passing vista of B.C. that just keeps on giving. The Storm Chaser crew get to know each other and the vibe seems good, with Neil Young’s music adding a soundtrack to further increase the cinematic aura of the journey.
The night is spent at the locally renowned Hume Hotel in the lakeside town of Nelson, first opened in 1898 but recently renovated to bring the rooms up to a first class, modern standard. Mikes Place Pub downstairs is probably the best in town and it makes a good base for the resort of Whitewater. The next day we enter Valhalla.
DUCK AND DIVE
It’s just down the road from Nelson, not in Asgard as described in Norse mythology. Neither is it somewhere we’ll end up after dying in battle, but much better, a snowy playground of epic proportions served by the Valhalla Cat Skiing operation.
There’s plenty of trees again, but they’re more open, with steep chutes slicing through the upper rocks, fanning out into huge paddocks and glades down below. It’s my first proper cat ski experience – it’s not yet caught on in Europe on a big scale – and discover it provides the ultimate snowsports transport. Inside, there’s a large selection of sandwiches, snacks and liquid refreshment to snack on every time you get a lift back up. This makes for the descent and ascent an experience to look forward to.
Valhalla has a unique atmosphere – it’s isolated; access to the base involves an hour’s drive up a snow-covered dirt track even before you jump in a Cat. The gnarly old trees resemble something out of a western movie and the clouds streak across the sky, giving the impression you’re watching some kind of time-lapsed image. There’s a huge amount of terrain and because the vertical isn’t that big, it suits the Cat operation perfectly. There appears to be no easy way down though, it’s not for the fainthearted. The Storm Chaser bus drives to Fernie. It’s late at night and we check into The Slopeside Inn as snow falls before our final day chasing storms.
We were greeted with snow for our single day in this area I’d heard so much about, and it was all pilling up nicely for us – having skied all over Europe for over 30 years, what I particularly enjoyed here was the easy access tree skiing that surrounds you at every turn. We duck and dive into the forest, hitting ridges, powder filled moguls and un-tracked paddocks that must have been put there by higher entity that knew skiers would one day utilize them for their enjoyment.
There were no cat’s, no helicopters and no ski touring sessions (well, just one at the end of the day because it wouldn’t be a Storm Chaser trip without one hike), but we didn’t need them. It was a fitting way to end a week of skiing in B.C.’s ‘Powder Highway’.
WHEN TO GO
February 7, 2015 – 7 nights
March 7, 2015 – 7 nights
The Storm Chaser trip is operated by Kicking Horse Powder Tours in association with Adrenalin Descents. The Storm Chaser trip price includes: Airport pickup from Calgary, all transportation on the Storm Chaser bus, bed & breakfast accommodation for 7 nights, lunch, refreshments and snacks on the bus, mountain guiding, ski passes, one day cat skiing and multiple heli drops. Other dates are available for private group bookings throughout the season. Price per person from $6,000 CAD.