Powder Chasers | A Tale of Empty Roads & Fresh Tracks in British Columbia
To get the best snow swap staying in a ski resort for the freedom of the open road
Words by Alf Alderson
I’m driving from the small British Columbia ski hill of Red Mountain to the even smaller Whitewater in what my mate James likes to refer to as our ‘bungalow on wheels’ – a huge 26 foot motorhome. Since it’s been snowing all night at higher elevations we turn on the radio to find out how the roads are.
“Now for the BC traffic news. Beware of wild animals and falling rocks." And that’s it, for an area almost four times the size of the UK…
We’re enjoying what has to be the ultimate road trip for any skier or snowboarder. Fly into Vancouver, pick up a Canadream RV and spend the best part of the next two weeks meandering from our first stop in Sun Peaks to Red Mountain, Whitewater, Revelstoke and finally Kicking Horse before rolling to a halt almost 2,000 kms later in Calgary.
“Now for the BC traffic news. Beware of wild animals and falling rocks…"
The idea of a road trip around BC’s finest was suggested to me three years ago by my mate Jim Greene of Red Mountain. “Most of BC’s ski hills have parking space set aside for RVs, and the main roads are fine in winter if you have winter tyres and chains. You should give it a go," he said.
The idea appealed, your own comfortable mobile home, allowing you to visit whichever ski hill you fancy and move on as and when the whim, or the pow, dictates.
So earlier this month, along with fellow hack James Cove, I picked up a ginormous RV that was bigger and better than some ski apartments I’ve rented and headed east into the heart of British Columbia.
First stop was Sun Peaks, Canada’s second biggest ski hill. We stocked up with essential supplies at Walmart and drove out of Vancouver in the pouring rain, which eventually turned to sleet and heavy snow as we drove up Highway 5 towards Kamloops.
No matter, as James pointed out: “If it gets really bad we can just pull over and sit it out, the fridge is full of beer after all".
Fortunately, we didn’t need to, arriving in Sun Peaks in the dark, and settling in for a comfortable night’s kip.
Next morning, with breakfast wolfed down, we emerged from the RV ready to take on ‘Gil’s’, a 500-acre area of steeps, gladed terrain and wide bowls that opened at the start of this season.
Just one problem, we couldn’t see it. The weather was socked in. This was good in that snow was falling heavily, but bad in that the exploration of unknown slopes was pretty much out of the question. However, by the following morning the sun had burst forth, and it was here that our RV first proved its worth.
Our plan to head south to Red Mountain was put on hold since we figured we had enough time to do a couple of laps of Gil’s before setting off on the 600km drive to Red. However, despite being first in the lift line, as James and I sat on the Sunburst Express chair heading up to Gil’s the cloud rolled in again.
But the lower slopes remained clear, so whilst we never got to explore Gil’s we were still able to blast down Sun Peaks’ perfectly groomed pistes for a couple of hours, enjoying butter smooth snow and steep, fast skiing on almost empty slopes.
"We were seeing winter at its most intense right now, as we sped past people ice fishing on Monte Lake. Come summer they'd be wakeboarding over the same spot…"
Come lunchtime we were heading for the Okanagan Valley, BC’s fruitbowl. The Okanagan’s summer climate is idea for growing fruit, although we were seeing winter at its most intense right now as we sped past people ice fishing on Monte Lake. Come summer, they’ll be wakeboarding over the same spot.
Things took a turn for the worse later in the afternoon as, driving up the twisty Highway 3 from Osoyoos, we encountered a Land Rover lying on its side by the side of the road, and a visibly shaken young couple standing beside it. “The back end fishtailed coming around a corner and we flipped," said the guy when we stopped to offer help.
Fortunately, neither he nor his girlfriend were injured, and assistance was on the way, but when it was my turn to drive later in the day (James and I were doing three-hour stints at a time) in blizzard conditions the accident acted as a reminder to take it easy.
Next day, Valentine’s Day, the powder gods kissed us both with over a foot of fresh; and since we’d parked overnight in the parking lot next to Red Mountain’s base lodge we were in the perfect position to be first in line.
"Since we'd parked overnight next to Red Mountain's base lodge we were in the perfect position to be first in line…"
For me, skiing Red’s legendary trees and steeps was easy. That’s not because of any innate talent on my part, mind, it’s because I simply followed old friend and former Red Mountain ski patroller Roly Worsfold around the hill since he knows the place like the back of his hand.
Roly guided us around fantastic terrain that Red has been sneakily expanding over the last few years. Though it has only five lifts skiers can access phenomenal riding through glades as tight or open, as steep or gentle as they like, while at the same time scarcely seeing anyone else. We were there on a holiday weekend that locals were calling ‘the busiest ever’ yet once off the main Motherlode chair the crowds literally disappeared into thin air.
That night the RV proved its adaptability once again as we parked close to Roly’s house where we enjoyed a few beers before enjoying the sleep of the knackered, rising at dawn to drive to Whitewater, just over an hour away.
Whitewater is tiny, just three lifts and 632m of vertical, but its reputation for producing banging skiers is huge. James and I just about managed to hang on to the coat tails of amiable Aussie ski coach Danny Foster as he guided us down and between the trees of various double-black diamond runs.
Small in size, big in character, in that sense Whitewater is the perfect match for its satellite town Nelson, a modestly-sized skier/biker/hiker/bohemian settlement 22km downhill on the shores of Kootenay Lake. I found it so appealing I started checking out property prices on our overnight stay…
We left Nelson on day five of our trip in the first sunshine we’d seen since picking up the RV, which meant the four-hour drive to Revelstoke along the shores of Slocan and Arrowhead Lakes (and over the latter by ferry) gave us memorable views of classic BC scenery – lakes, forests and the big, untamed mountains of the Valhalla, Kokanee, Monashee and Goat ranges, which lay at the heart of many of the region’s heliski operations.
As we were about to find out…
Yes, day six of our trip was a bit special. We were going up into the hills with Selkirk-Tangiers Heliskiing in Revelstoke.
But dammit all, we woke to the kind of grey, dismal weather that Wales would be proud of. Despite this, guide Steve Lovenuik managed to sniff out some fine powder runs between the lower elevation trees of the Selkirk Mountains. Sure, it was a crying shame we couldn’t access the glaciers and open bowls of the region’s famed high alpine terrain, but even heliski operations can’t order bluebird conditions every day. And we did get to enjoy the adrenaline blast of several heli rides…
Ironically, the next day we had arguably better skiing in the resort of Revelstoke. Snow was falling thick and fast yet again, and along with James’s son Alex, who works as a ski instructor in nearby Sunshine, and local skier Christi Unterberger, originally from Leogang in Austria, we discovered some magical tree skiing on the frontside of the mountain, which has a quad-shredding 1713m of vertical, the biggest in North America.
Sunshine remained as elusive as ever as we eventually left ‘Revy’ for our final stop of the trip, Kicking Horse, driving over the infamous Rogers Pass on the Trans-Canada Highway in near blizzard conditions (but not so bad we needed snow chains, in fact we never used them).
Located at 1330 metres in the Selkirk Mountains, Rogers Pass gets up to 10 metres of snow every winter and is often blocked. It’s renowned for its avalanches and the excellent ski touring in the surrounding terrain (if you can avoid said avalanches).
We hit Kicking Horse with James’s mate Richard Barker of Kicking Horse Powder Tours, who showed us around some of the resort’s legendary steep terrain, but it was on our second day here, and the last full day of the road trip, that we enjoyed our best skiing.
With the sun blazing in a clear blue sky we hooked up with former Swiss ski patroller Max Cretin who now works for the resort. Max took us to various dauntingly steep powder stashes reached from the top of a gondola and a chairlift which give adventurous skiers access to a remarkably wide array of challenging terrain that, even several days after the last dump, still offered plenty of dry, grippy snow to play on. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever skied a hill with so much fantastic skiing accessible from just two lifts.
Unlike all the other resorts we’d been to, where most of the skiing is at or below the tree line, Kicking Horse has a lot of terrain in the tree-free, higher elevation ‘alpine’, giving it a more familiar feel if you’re used to the Alps.
At one point, Max stopped to show us the resort’s bear sanctuary – Kicking Horse is home to a grizzly called Boo who lives in a fenced-in, 20-acre sanctuary on the lower slopes. He was found as an orphaned cub (the poacher who shot his mother was thankfully caught and prosecuted) and now lives here year-round, though we didn’t see him as he was hibernating.
Max then pointed out the surrounding terrain. “When I lived in Switzerland I could name all the mountains surrounding my home. Here many of them don’t even have a name, and you can still be the first person ever to set foot on some summits," he said.
For me this summed up the appeal of our BC road trip. The chance to ski in and travel through magnificent, wild landscapes the likes of which just don’t exist in Europe any more, while at the same time meeting friendly, enthusiastic (and usually very good) skiers at every stop in resorts that rarely have lift queues and usually have great snow.
As I write this I’m sitting in my room in the Hotel Arts in downtown Calgary before flying home to the Alps, having dropped off our RV a few hours ago, and y’know what? I’d happily give up my comfy room to go back on the road again…
HOME ON WHEELS
We travelled in a six-berth RV provided by Canadream. The RV sat atop a 6.8-litre Ford E450 Super Duty with a 53-gallon petrol tank, and did fewer miles to the gallon than we wished to record. So we didn’t. Then again petrol is less than half the price of the UK.
The RV was fully winterised with heater, generator and solar panels and came with two double beds (one over the cab) and the option of making up a third in the living area. We also had a cooker, sink, fridge-freezer, toilet and hot shower, plus stacks of storage space for skis so were totally self-sufficient while on the road.
CanaDream offers a fully winterised RV from $121 per night plus tax.
Air Canada has return flights from Heathrow to Vancouver from £591.05
For more on British Columbia visit Destination British Columbia