Ski in BC: One Step Wilder

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Somewhere in British Columbia, I am skiing down a mountainside blanketed in fresh snow. Bounding is more like it. The slope is steep and long, and the powder is deep and light—a combination many regard as skiing and snowboarding’s holy grail. But as with that other, more legendary grail, I can’t tell you precisely where to find this. Because I don’t exactly know where I am.

Intellectually, of course, I know I’m visiting a place called Valhalla Mountain Lodge, in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. It’s 1997 and my first trip to ski BC (though far from my last). To get here, I flew from Los Angeles to Spokane, Washington, piled into a van with some pro athletes I’m profiling for a magazine feature, and drove about four hours north. Now seven of us, including a wiry mountain guide with a beard halfway to his navel, are the only skiers in a 8,100-hectare (20,000-acre) expanse.

The Selkirk Mountains | Bruno Long

My internal compass, the one calibrated by a lifetime of ski experiences across the American West and in other great ranges of the world, is scrambled by British Columbia’s profusion of big mountains and snow. Which way is north? This is which mountain range? And that peak right over there, equally massive and majestic, belongs to a wholly different range? I’m awed—but on a cellular level I don’t understand where I am.

The entire vista is summits and basins, forests and sky. No roads in the distance, no powerlines, only the wisp of smoke curling from the chimney of our log lodge. And snow itself is the only sound—snow falling, snow parting beneath our skis, snow swirling upward on a gust then dusting back down onto itself with a sigh—punctuated every so often by a hoot from one of the other six skiers or the whispering wings of a passing bird. Is this some sort of ski Narnia? Have I gone through the looking glass?

The first five, 10, or 30 times I skied British Columbia, I felt this same sense of compass confusion mixed with wonderment. The natural landscape has a lot to do with it. British Columbia is chockablock with mountain chains. From border to border, west to east, the Coast Mountains, North Cascades, Monashees, Selkirks, Purcells, and Rockies jostle together shoulder to shoulder and not always in a tidy row, each with its own climate and character yet often separated from the others only by narrow and winding river valleys or modest plateaus.

Tucked into these folds are cool ski towns, more than a dozen destination ski and snowboard resorts, 21 smaller ski areas, backcountry ski touring lodges like Valhalla, and the world’s largest array of helicopter and snowcat ski operations. It’s a bounty that provides the full range of ski and snowboard experiences, from Colorado-style sun-kissed cruising on broad groomed boulevards dusted with feather-light snow to Alps-style glacial basins where intermediates can soar through open expanses while experts finesse the perimeter’s steeps.

 

There are uncrowded skier’s mountains rising alongside historic mining towns where dark-roasted coffee is as elemental to daily life as all-generations recreation in the great outdoors. There are master-planned family resorts, where a car isn’t needed for days—and where ski-in/ski-out actually means gliding from your lodgings to the lifts at the start of the day then gliding back again when the day is done. There are wide-open mountain wilds, with seasoned mountain guides showing the way. Yes, there are mild mountains and combed cruising trails, terrain parks, and half-pipes, but there are also glaciers, cirques, and a lifetime of tree skiing. Most of all, everywhere in British Columbia, there’s snow—always more snow, even when other parts of the ski world are dry.

Whistler Blackcomb | Blake Jorgenson

Nine months after that first ski trip to BC, I get a season’s pass to Whistler Blackcomb, pack an old and ill-advised SUV with my ski gear, my laptop, and a winter’s worth of writing contracts, then drive north from Los Angeles for the season. In Whistler, I find majestic mountains with extraordinary terrain variety, a long ski season with heaps of snow and a cosmopolitan village buzzing with vitality. One season isn’t enough. I come back for a second, and then a third.

Downtown Fernie | Dave Heath

Twenty years have passed since I pulled into Whistler in that lumbering old SUV that stalled on right-hand turns. I am married to a rugged, good-hearted Whistler guy who is my life’s best ski partner. This year, we decide to take a three-week ski road trip around British Columbia to revisit favourite spots and check out a few new ones. Our circle route winds 2,650 kilometres (about 1,650 miles) from our home near Whistler to Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Fernie, RED, Whitewater, Keefer Lake Lodge, SilverStar, and Apex, then home again.

Whitewater Ski Resort | Kari Medig

The journey takes us along lush valley floors flanked by mountains rising more than a vertical mile above. We drive over passes where snowbanks are two storeys tall. We roll alongside big rivers. We slow to a crawl when herds of wild horses or bighorn sheep cross the road.

Then we ski. At one stop, fresh powder billows apart like cold smoke as we riffle through steep trees. At another, we goat along craggy ridgelines then slither through narrow couloirs, rocketing onto the untracked faces below. We carve down immaculately groomed avenues, dance through moguls in dustings of fluff, and let loose into the big, gravity-fueled turns that only wide-open spaces allow.

 

Afterward, we find exceptional tacos, ramen, and pho. Five-pin bowling and hot springs. A steampunk-style speakeasy, bean-to-bar chocolates, and craft breweries galore. We share tables with friendly strangers at rocking après-ski bars, laugh ourselves silly going night tubing, and have a very, very good time.

Somewhere in a fold of the landscape, I am skiing down one magnificent and snow-deluged mountain range while gazing at another. Soaring is more like it, because these are mountains that were made for boarding and skiing. All around me are jaw-drop vistas of countless summits, snow-dappled forests, and alpine heights. I’m not entirely sure which way is north or south, east or west—but I can tell you exactly where to find this, because there’s only one place this could be: On the snow, somewhere in BC.

Header image: Revelstoke Mountain Resort | Andrew Strain

 

Skiing in BC

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Ski For Less

Multi-mountain season pass collectives are the snowsports industry’s biggest trend, offering skiers and snowboarders the freedom to resort hop and follow the snow all around North America (and even the globe) at a fraction of the walk-up ticket window price.

Fernie, Kicking Horse, Kimberley, Revelstoke, SilverStar, Sun Peaks, Whistler Blackcomb, and Whitewater each belong to one or another of these programs, which range from reciprocal agreements offering deep discounts to multi-resort season passes offering unlimited access.

In many cases, consumers reach the break-even mark after as little as four to seven days on snow, bringing every subsequent day at a declining fraction of the normal day ticket price. The loophole: Advance purchase is necessary—and most such passes cut sales off for the year once ski season begins.

For more information, see Epic Pass (includes Whistler Blackcomb, Fernie, Kicking Horse, and Kimberley), Ikon Pass (includes Revelstoke), Mountain Collective (also includes Revelstoke), Powder Alliance (includes SilverStar and Whitewater), Power Pass (includes Panorama with some limitations), and the Sun Peaks reciprocal program.

Separately, the Canadian Ski Council offers discounts on advance-purchase lift ticket bundles that include many ski and snowboard destinations in BC.

British Columbia’s 10 mountain ranges beckon with unparalleled vertical and massive terrain, punctuated by community ski hills and 13 major resorts—including world-famous Whistler Blackcomb.

 

POSTED BY: Susan Reifer Ryan

Susan Reifer Ryan has always led a dual life while working as an editor and writer—half in Los Angeles, and half in the mountains. She began her journalism career in the early 1990s covering sports, culture, and information technology before breaking into national U.S. magazines penning Hollywood celebrity profiles, then shifting to coverage of travel, adventure, skiing, chefs, shelter, and mountain life. These days her writing spans a broad spectrum—but she remains one of North America’s leading authorities on smart ski-related travel around the globe, and is the founding editor of www.skitravelguru.com, a guide to experiencing the best of mountain destinations worldwide.

Whistler Blackcomb | Blake Jorgenson

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