Small-ish is Beautiful 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - ALPINE ATTACK A Fernie-sized view of Polar Peak.
  • photo by Leslie Anthony
  • ALPINE ATTACK A Fernie-sized view of Polar Peak.

The snow is perfect and the sun out at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, taking the edge off a bitter cold January day. Also taking the edge off are empty pistes — and ridges, chutes, bowls. I spend all morning traversing CPR and Redemption Ridges, dropping line after line into Crystal Bowl, the basin they hem. As the sun moves I follow it to the other side of Redemption and into Feuz Bowl. In the afternoon I hike to the stunning overlook of Terminator Peak before dropping into a virtually empty Super Bowl for a long, challenging run back to the bottom.

Both hill and town hotels are full but skiing here remains wide open and uncrowded — enough that two-week-old untracked snow lingers in some sectors. Even on its busiest day you might find 3,000 souls here, and though parking overflows along the access road, skiers remain mercifully spread out by the sheer range of on-mountain options. I walk directly onto the main gondola, and ski right onto every chair. All day. If there are any choke points they must be on the lower mountain, where I'm unlikely to find them.

I've never been here before and am dutifully impressed. Coming from Whistler, I shake my head at the amount of alpine space I'm afforded and imagine things on a powder day. It's a bona-fide revelation. Although I have no intention of leaving Whistler — which simply can't be dethroned as the biggest and badass-est of North American ski areas —offerings around the rest of our province are worth a look, if not a few turns. Granted, I'm familiar with most but there are some — like Kicking Horse — that for one reason or other I haven't had a chance to ski.

A month later, I embark on another revelatory road trip. First stop Fernie Alpine Resort, a place I once made regular pilgrimage to from Toronto when it was the more compact Fernie Snow Valley and only two of its five bowls were serviced by lifts. Back then we were mostly bent on boot-packing or touring out of the funkified, oft-crowded resort into surrounding terrain. But the addition of three well-placed lifts opened up a ton of new terrain, creating a stew of complex avie-control for patrol and a cornucopia of fun for skiers. The mountain's reputation went from occasionally sad to universally rad. It hasn't snowed in over a week, but again there's snow to be plumbed in a huge range of glades. And I ski right onto every single lift. Currie, Timber and Siberia Bowls, my old touring grounds, become non-stop lapping fun-fests.

A couple days later I find myself at Kimberley Alpine Resort, a place I've passed many times en route to elsewhere but given no thought to stopping into. Nevertheless, friends aver that it's great cruising and super fun on a snow day. It's still sunny, the snow's still good, and so warm-up cruising on Northstar Mountain it is. The resort's name is a bit of a misnomer (there's no true alpine) but the terrain proves more than worthy when I step out to Tamarack Ridge, Vimy Ridge and then Black Forest —with serious steeps, bump runs, fall-line glades and virtually no one to share them with. Once again, I find myself skiing onto every lift; hotels are full but there's so much skiing and so few people it adds up to a charmed experience where you go in to eat lunch not out of frustration, but because you need to.

Things are pretty much the same at Panorama Mountain Resort, but with 1,215 hectares and 1,200 metres of vertical, the abundant humans vacationing here seem — if this is possible — even more scattered about. The lifts are ski-on, of course, and deliver entire 1,000-vert descents of perfect corduroy with no one in sight. The backcountry showcase, Taynton Bowl, is e-m-p-t-y, despite good conditions. More skiing than — dare it be said — I can handle. What is going on out in B.C.'s ski hinterlands?

A few weeks ago, on yet another trip, this one to Red Mountain, I encounter the same — lots of untracked snow, no lift-lines, vast empty areas — like Grey, an entire 405-ha mountain adjacent to the main peak of Granite with maybe only a dozen people skiing it on a Saturday. Here, I discover, no matter what else management intends by way of expansion, it looks to maintain the biggest space-to-skier ratio in the industry, currently hovering at about 0.8 ha per skier on its busiest days. That's inspired.

When it comes to snowfall and overall terrain, of course, none of these areas can hold a candle to Whistler, and yet the skiing was good everywhere, and each delivered what can only be termed a great ski experience. Though in many ways Whistler can't be beat, if I want some elbow room once in a while it would be great to be able to visit our provincial neighbours on a whim — and vice-versa. But how to do it economically when, as ski-town dwellers, we're so invested in our home areas. Could a B.C. ski pass be the answer?

Next week: Pick a Pass, any Pass.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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