B.C. Is the Best: an American Confession

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.There's simply so much to love about all the different ski resorts in British Columbia.

Story by Tim Neville:

On the first of five road-trips to British Columbia, my buddy Tyson is about to eat it. We’re standing on an airy ridge looking down a snowy rib that drops vertically for about a body length before relaxing into a wide-open run-out choked with untracked snow. This is Craigellache, one of a dozen quality double black–diamonds off a ridge at Kicking Horse Resort called CPR. Behind us stands the Eagle Eye restaurant. It’s an overcast Tuesday in March. We are alone.

B.C. is home to some of the densest pockets of snow you can find. Brandon Hartwig Photo.

“I’ve never seen anything like this!” Tyson gushes, gawking at the chorus of peaks rising around us. He’s strapped into a snowboard and has his goggles cocked up on his helmet. He takes his camera out and pans. “Three-hundred-sixty-degrees of massive mounds of powder!”

You could pretty much stand on any ridge in British Columbia come winter and be just as stoked as Tyson. The province is huge—365,000 square miles, three and a half Colorados—but wilder and ragged with more than 40 ski areas to disperse the crowds. These are some of the more snow-prone pockets on Earth, thanks to cold air currents that collide with storms buzz-sawing out of the Pacific and unload enough snow to bury a building if it all fell at once. Headlines here in the States routinely try to capture the crazy: “Biggest snowfall accumulations on the planet will be in B.C. this weekend.” Canadian media just seem to shrug: “It’s a lot of snow.”

Wintery abundance is what a trip like this is all about, and if you’re a skier, sooner or later you’ll end up venturing north, too. The options are just too diverse, the superlatives too super to mount much of a resistance. Cat skiing? World class. Heliskiing? Even the Swiss come here for that. Thigh-burning groomers? Knee-deep in the trees? Family fun at family resorts? B.C., B.C., and, yes, B.C.

With so many choices, trips to Canada have always felt like a value, even back in those bad old days of the recession, when the American dollar was weak. Where else could you find that level of accessible, frontier-style mountain wilderness brushing against a deeply authentic, friendly culture that prides itself on an easy get’er doneness? What’s even better is how far my paychecks stretch in Canada these days. A dollar gets you about 25 percent more than it did just five years ago. More turns. Longer stays. More beer.

Kicking Horse is definitely a playground with something for everyone.

Over the years this huge gift of the North is where I’ve come to succumb to gravity and bounce through the most reliable pow this side of Siberia. I’ve road-tripped to Big White and Sun Peaks. I’ve lapped the Olympic downhill course at Whistler. Revelstoke was as far as I cared to go when Alaska had been my goal. It was all too good to pass up, each place a destination on its own. Somewhere along the way I became addicted to exploring new places on a pair of planks and bonding with folks who love that, too.

That’s how Tyson and I came to be standing on this dramatic ridge high over Kicking Horse. He lowers his googles, hands me the camera, and drops, but something’s amiss. He takes three, floaty turns before his board crabs into the powder. He somersaults, harmlessly, then slides another 30 feet to come to a rest, laughing with glee in what amounts to a huge, unmade feather bed.

“Did you get that on video?” he hoots, but before I can answer he’s up and gone, a happy man in a cold cloud of smoke.

Looking back now, that first trip with Tyson really set the tone for all the others. We kept it simple. We went someplace new. We focused on the snow.

The American Rockies were having a rough winter that year, so I put out a call to friends whose mental health seemed directly tied to the amount of good skiing they could—or could not—squeeze in. “Who wants to check out B.C.?” the subject line read. Tyson did. He dropped everything and drove north to meet me in Spokane. Even for him, a landscaper in New Mexico, British Columbia was closer than he thought.

Our plan had been to explore parts of the famed Powder Highway that runs in a 630-mile circular route through the Kootenay Rockies. More than 70 feet of snow falls every winter in this region, which stretches from the American border north to Golden. Along the way you’ll find no fewer than 20 backcountry lodges, dozens of heli- and cat-skiing operators, and eight alpine resorts. We zeroed in on Kicking Horse at the top of the loop, looking to ride the resort’s abundance of chutes (more than 85 of them in-bounds, the most in North America) and a whopping 4,100 vertical feet. It didn’t hurt that roughly two days of every week are powder days here.

Just one of the many powder stashes tucked away on Snake Ridge. Toby Barrett Photo.

We arrived the night before as a light snow fell, and we crashed down in Golden, population 3,700, near the confluence of the Kicking Horse and Columbia Rivers. The next day, standing before the Golden Eagle Express Gondola, Tyson and I are giddy looking at the trail map. Four ridges and high alpine bowls mark the upper reaches of the area while more than 120 runs race back to the base. We could traverse lookers’ left to hit the chutes off Terminator Peak or Terminator 2, two high points along the ridge. Lookers’ right, the ridge cocks skyward to Blue Heaven and Ozone, two peaks above 8,000 feet. Between them lies the steep and spectacular Feuz Bowl. Twelve minutes later, we exit the gondola at 7,700 feet. CPR ridge. Time to give’er.

Tyson’s wipeout and recovery happen fast. I drop in and have better luck. The snow feels like bubbly under my boards as it hisses and sprays around my knees. In the distance, others have taken an easier way down on a green run called It’s a Ten, a meandering gem that weaves across the mountain for a full 10 kilometers, or more than six miles. About two-thirds of the runs at Kicking Horse are advanced or harder, but clearly beginners have it good here, too.

The run off CPR is so fun we do it all over again. This time we skirt skiers’ left along the upper reaches of It’s a Ten to imprint bouncy squiggles on the lower portions of Crystal Bowl. The Stairway to Heaven chair whisks us up Redemption Ridge, where soon I’m peering into the depths of a chute called Outlaw.

“You want to go first?” Tyson asks, smirking.

He doesn’t have to ask me twice. I tap my ski poles together, bend my knees and drop.

This time it’s my turn to frolic in the feather bed.

Summer seemed to last forever, but when winter finally rolled around I got down to business. Finding a road-trip buddy was just as easy this time. As soon as I mentioned I’d be headed back to B.C. again, my buddy Chris, a ski addict from Seattle, signed on for the ride.

Our plan this time was to check out two places neither of us had ever visited—Big White and Sun Peaks. Since we wanted to try to hit both within the confines of a week, we booked flights into Kelowna, a city of about 120,000 people in the Okanagan Valley with a thriving wine and craft-beer scene, and rented a car. Big White came first.

The third largest resort in B.C., Big White's terrain is endless. Blake Jorgenson Photo.

Snowflakes flutter off the windshield of the RAV4 as we drive east out of town along the winding, woodsy Kelowna-Rock Creek Highway for about an hour. Soon the resort fans out before us like a small city, with board-and-batten shops, stone paver walkways, a clock tower, colorful homes, and a gondola drifting overhead. There’s the Grizzly Lodge, the Stonebridge Lodge, the White Crystal Inn, and the Inn at Big White—our home, complete with an outdoor hot tub and Irish pub, for the next few days.

“I think we timed this right,” Chris says the next day as we shuffle over to the runs. Even through his buff I can see he’s grinning. It’s early January and the snow from yesterday has tapered off to reveal blue skies, a crisp 23 degrees and about six inches of fresh—a smidgeon of the 25 feet of snow the resort averages each year. “C’mon, buddy! Let’s go!”

We ride the Snow Ghost Express and immediately it becomes clear just how big Big White really is. The village boasts the country’s largest number of ski-in, ski-out beds, and resort has 15 lifts serving nearly 3,000 acres and 65 miles of marked runs. Glades? Try 1,500 acres of those alone, each with enticing names like Paradise, Never Never, and Powder, where a new $3.9 million lift will open for the 2018 season. Put it all together and you have Canada’s second-highest lift capacity and a top-tier destination that stands easily on its own. People live here year-round.

Chris and I spend our days blasting down blues like Roller Coaster and Perfection, and working our way over to an Alpine T-bar that reminds me of being in the Alps. We find countless fresh lines over in the Sun Rype Bowl and hoot like hobbits racing through the well-spaced trees in the Enchanted Forest. We test our mettle on double-blacks and work up an appetite that’s tempted by the Tomahawk, a 50-ounce steak at Kettle Valley Steakhouse. Even up at the very tippy top of the resort, a 7,600-foot-high perch in the Monashees, we find families skiing on green runs that drop from every single chair, meaning the entire resort is pretty much open to anyone. We celebrate each evening with flaming coffee cocktails served down the barrel of 1900s shotgun and taking in the live music at the Moose.

Big White is also western Canada's largest night skiing area. Geoff Holman Photo.

When it comes time to leave, I can barely remember where we parked. We haven’t touched the car at all—and now I never want to on a ski trip again.

As it turns out, the great British Columbia ski road trip doesn’t really even require a car, what with shuttles that make trips between five ski areas in the province. Oh well. Hindsight behind us, Chris and I load up and roll north.

Sun Peaks sits about a four-hour drive away, but the time passes blissfully fast. We zoom along Wood Lake, Kalamalka Lake, Swan Lake, and Madeline Lake, their shores ruffed with tidy homes and pines. In Kamloops we pick up the meandering North Thompson River before heading east into the mountains. Before long, Sun Peaks splays out before us with angled rooflines and chalets piped with decorative windows that could be on loan from Europe.

Sun Peaks is Canada's second largest ski area and home to diverse terrain spread across three different mountains. Reuben Krabbe Photo.

Chris and I get a condo at the Hearthstone Lodge, which sits in the middle of the resort with a sushi joint and a pizza parlor called Mountain High nearby. We boot up. From there it’s a short skate through the ski-through village (even the elementary school is ski-in/ski-out—the only one of its kind) to the Sunburst Express, where we pause to study the resort map. It’s clear that two days in Canada’s second largest resort—4,270 acres—will be but a tease.

“You guys need help, eh?” I turn to see a man in a black jacket with gray pants and bits of a salt and pepper goatee poking out of his neck warmer. A middle-school age kid slides up next to him.

“What makes you say that?” Chris jokes, fumbling with a trail map in his hands.

Gary introduces himself and we ride the lift together. The slopes scrolling beneath us are cruisey and uncrowded. Gary says he’s been coming to Sun Peaks religiously since the early ’70s, back when the resort was called Tod Mountain, and he remembers what a big deal it was when they installed a new double lift where this quad now spins. He’s the antithesis of the crusty, guarded local, preferring to be open and helpful for no reason other than because he’s Canadian, I guess. We ask him where we should go.

“You missed the storm by a few days but there’s still plenty of fresh out there,” Gary says. He says on dump days you want to beeline it for Gil’s, an open area of patrolled terrain reached by an easy hike near the top. “You’ll still find some fresh back in here,” he says, pointing to some trees in the lower area of Gil’s on our map. He mentions the bowls and the aprons off the Burfield chair and the double-blacks through the woods off the Morrisey Express, an area behind us that looks perfect for families. “And of course you can always try to tuck it down the Headwalls, but I don’t recommend it.” That’s a black run where Sun Peaks holds its annual speed skiing contest—the kind with the rubber suits, aerodynamic helmets and leg fairings—where racers hit 100 mph or more.

At the top we tighten our boots in front of a mid-mountain restaurant that offers sunset fondue dinners with a ski down in the moonlight. We thank Gary and watch him and his son drop down an intermediate run that doubles as a race course named after local legend Nancy Greene, an Olympic gold medalist and Canada’s Female Athlete of the 20th Century.

“Let’s go,” Chris says, and we spend our two days ticking off everything Gary says we should. He’s right about all of it.

A few winters went by before I managed to make it back up to British Columbia. I got married. We moved to Europe and had a kid.

I had been to Revelstoke Mountain Resort before, but not during ski season. But I’d heard of “Revy” long before that. (Talk to any savvy, passionate skier and they’ll mention it at some point, just as sure as the flakes will fall.) Years earlier, I wanted to drive with my friends Misty and Christina from New Mexico to Alaska, but we hit British Columbia and our pace dropped to a crawl. By the time we rolled into Revy, just 180 miles north of where we’d crossed into Canada and about 1,700 miles short of our goal, we ditched Alaska entirely. Even in the shoulder season you just could tell what a giant winter would be. I vowed to return.

Revelstoke is the only resort in the world that offers lift, cat, heli, and backcountry skiing from one village base. Ian Houghton Photo.

Snow swirls around the car when I finally make good on that promise. I roll in this time with a small crew of colleagues and friends. Like last time, the town still feels steeped in a ski culture that goes back at least a century to the construction of the very first ski jump in all of North America. It helps that the resort gets upwards of 40 feet of snow a year—it holds the Canadian record at 80 feet for one year—and attracts the kind of skiers who yearn for numbers. Five-thousand, six-hundred-twenty vertical feet. Three-thousand-plus acres of couloirs, ridges, and bowls. A heliski operation runs right out of the base. And then there’s this: A two-day lift ticket costs half the price of a two-day ticket at Vail.

Ask any local and they’ll say the trick to skiing Revy well is to watch the freezing level since—with such a huge vertical—sometimes the best snow is down low. That’s not the case today. My watch reads a crisp 20 degrees when my friend Scott, a 40-year-old contractor, and I slide off the Stoke four-pack with no plans for a warm up. Instead, we jump right into the North Bowl and an impossibly steep shot called Mama. My skis hiss and my legs burn as I pop from edge to edge. The angle eases off as it funnels us into the Beauty Glades and Back 40 Glades, where new terrain will open this winter not far from a new warming hut. We hit the South Bowl and rail down runs like Snow Rodeo. The runs seem to go on and on and on. I don’t think I’ve ever had to stop mid-run for a breather. In Revy? No shame in that.

By the end of the day, I’m so worked I forego a run down Pitch Black, an expert run that hoovers up all 5,600-plus of vert in one straight shot, and opt for The Last Spike, a 10-mile top-to-bottom green that leaves me quivering. Scott looks like he might actually be limping. What do you expect at a place where more than 90 percent of the runs are blues and up?

Tomorrow, we’re slated to do some heliskiing if the weather holds—we’ll do the first-tracks program at the resort if not—but for now we are cooked. It’s Canadian bar time and The Village Idiot on MacKenzie Ave. is the place to go.

Revelstoke has 3,121 acres of skiable terrain that features glades, high alpine bowls, and groomers. Ian Houghton Photo.

“How-to-lose-a-chick-in-10-bites garlic pesto chicken club,” Scott reads from the menu when we grab a table. He looks around the room, shrugs, and orders it.

Of all the trips I’ve taken to British Columbia, one stands out in particular for the superlatives. Most, biggest, best. Throw away words, right? Not here. I’m talking about Whistler Blackcomb, the largest area in North America, a place I got to visit with my closest college buddy. That’s fitting since he’s the guy who kicked off the British Columbia love affair to begin with.

Cameron and I had met at Montana State in the ’90s when we were both long-haired headbangers who bonded over books and skiing. He’d grown up north of the 49th parallel and raved about the places he’d skied. “You have to get to Canada,” he told me one day riding the lifts at our local hill. He waved a pole at the scenery around us. “Imagine this but 100 times more. Whistler alone will blow your mind.”

Cam looks pretty much the same when we finally meet again years later, this time actually in Whistler, though he, like me, has lost the shoulder-length ’do. It’s January and the place is buzzing. The Olympics are coming and, though we don’t know it yet, the men’s downhill will be a nail-bitter with less than a tenth of a second between the Swiss gold and Bode’s bronze, the tightest spread in the history of the event.

Whistler Blackcomb is mind-bogglingly big, the bright atomic ball at the center of a skier’s galaxy. It has more than 8,000 acres spread between two gondola-linked mountains, which makes it three times as big as Breckenridge. It’s a vertical mile—5,280 feet—from the top of the runs to the bottom. We have more than 400 runs at our ski tips, a vast Pacific wilderness all around, and world-class services to make the most of everything.

Whistler's infamous red gondola. Whistler Photo.

Cam and I waste no time and ride the Whistler Village Gondola up to about 6,000 feet where the Peak-to-Peak gondola arcs dramatically over Fitzsimmon’s Creek to Blackcomb, which feels so close you could touch it. We save that trip for later and instead race down the Dave Murray Downhill course for what feels like an eternity. We bounce along Headwall, an exposed blue run, and then drop into the black terrain of Whistler Bowl, one of 16 bowls to keep us busy. With legs as gooey as poutine gravy we make our way down Peak to Creek, a seven-mile blue, before grabbing a long wooden table at Dusty’s Bar and Grill to really catch up.

Whistler’s known for its raging nightlife, of course—a place where you can literally dance in your ski boots—and it doesn’t want for luxury, either. But, as with British Columbia in general, there’s a deeply authentic side to this place, too. How many artists live in Whistler? How many professional skiers come out of these mountains? How many parents are practically raising their families in the terrain parks, glades, and bowls? And let’s not forget the people who were here first, the First Nations, whose traditions are very much alive and thriving. A stop at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre here will show you just how much that’s true.

Lingering Alpenglow in Whistler. Whistler Photo.

Cam and I spend our days roaring around one of the greatest mountains either of us will ever ski. Even then—especially then—I know I’ll come back. It’s too big and too steeped in winter to miss and road-trip partners are easy to find when you mention B.C. Don’t believe me? What are you doing this season? I hear there’s a place we should go check out.

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