While many Inland Northwesterners look east, south and west for their ski and snowboard satisfactions, they might want to consider heading north. The land of Bob and Doug McKenzie, hockey, and Pamela Anderson's hometown also happens to offer some of the planet's greatest powder. For those not in the geographic know, the landmass directly north of Spokane undulates with four mountain ranges revered for great snow, huge vertical and all sorts of slopes. British Columbia's Monashees, Selkirks, Purcells and Rockies offer more than a dozen resorts -- and more heli and cat skiing operations than any other part of the world. Then, of course, there's the northern peso. With a Canadian dollar worth roughly 25 cents less than a U.S. greenback, your money goes a lot farther. So back up the wreck, point 'er toward B.C. and put the pedal to the metal -- the Great White North is offering turns for the better.
Fernie -- Quintessential winter adventure drips from the precipitous atmosphere that cloaks Fernie, British Columbia. With an average snowfall of nearly nine meters per season -- three times more than some of Western Canada's other reputable resorts -- if Old Man Winter is punching the Fernie clock as per usual, you'll leave town with decadently warped memories.
Fernie lies in southeastern B.C.'s Lizard Range. Bigger than Jackson Hole, Wyo., its boundaries embrace a bounty of 102 runs. And if media accolades are any indication of greatness, Fernie's a star. One of the fastest growing resorts on the continent -- it's almost doubled in size since 1997 -- the mountain was voted the planet's most improved ski resort out of 700 resorts rated by The Good Skiing and Snowboard Guide, the world's most-read English language ski guide. Skiing magazine ranked it ninth amongst the continent's best resorts.
While official stats show that most of the mountain is beginner-or-intermediate (about 70 percent), the other third is world-class advanced terrain, with a bottomless buffet of black and double black diamonds spread throughout five big bowls, steeply slanted cedar and spruce forests, chutes, meadows and drops.
The resort has a fleet of 10 lifts, including four quads. The White Pass lift's top station teeters 2,800 vertical feet above the village. For backcountry tourers, there seems to be a million miles of great out-of-bounds shredding to be had -- but mind the avalanche closures. A few years ago, a Fernie liftie was buried when he ended up on a run within the hill's boundaries. He was found -- alive -- by an avalanche dog.
There are a couple of chinks in Fernie's armor: rain and a potentially killer case of developmentitis. Sweet snow can sour in almost no time. "Shout louder," is the motto, "turn the rain to powder."
The bed count at the base is 2,600. Plans call for 7,000 by 2007, and the building and bulldozer onslaught has had locals leery for more than a few seasons. Rolling Stone and USA Today have already heaped glaring publicity, and the place appears to be a migratory haunt for all sorts of foreign ski-bum types. Blemishes aside, there's no denying the hard truth -- if the snow's deep and the crowds are reasonable, Fernie rules.
(800) 258-7669, www.skifernie.com
Red Mountain, Whitewater -- A veritable Ginger-versus-Mary Anne combination -- one being as lusty as the other is pure -- Rossland's Red Mountain and Nelson's Whitewater are difficult to consider on their own, especially given the fact the two are basically an hour apart. If you're going to shred one, you might as well shred the other.
Red's terrain is sick. Whitewater's snowfall is sicker. Red's two mountains tout six-star tree skiing. The signs say it all: "This area not patrolled. Ski at own risk." Nearly half the hill is rated expert-only. Lots of double blacks, cliffs and abandoned mine shafts. There's intermediate stuff and beginner bits, too, for the family -- but truth be told, Red is great for people who don't insist on awesome amenities and high speed quads, but do demand great skiing. The mountain, located just outside Rossland, B.C., is big, with 1,200 acres of in-bounds terrain. That means lots of good snow left in lots of not-so-secret places at least a few days after a storm. And they get a lot of storms.
As Powder magazine writer Mitchell Scott surmised: "Red gets hammered with the light and dry. If you've ever been a Rossland local (of which there are a transient many -- Red's on every dirtbag's to-do list from New Mexico to New Zealand), you'll know what we're talking about." What's more, there's lots of great touring at Red on Mount Roberts, Grey, Record Ridge, Kirkup. Head there if you can't find what you need in bounds on the resort's two mountains, one being Red, the bigger being Granite. Ski either one and you'll know why the resort has nurtured more Canadian Ski Team members than any other mountain in the nation.
The town of Rossland itself is a blast. Half hockey player, half hippie, the community always seems in winter party mode. There's a handful of new condos on the hill and some cheap accommodation a short walk from the lifts, plus a new restaurant opening this winter. There are reasonable hotel rooms and lots of cold beer and good eats in the city, which is a five-minute ride from Red's base.
Considerably smaller but just as sublime, Whitewater's collection of well-maintained yet antiquated lifts service some truly phat (or is that fat?) goods. The resort hides in the cradle of a behemoth bowl that sucks snowstorms in like a black hole. The resort is a giant terrain park for the gods, with great tree skiing, lots of big hits and some serious steeps. And it's only getting better. This season, the resort is opening up a zone once revered by out-of-bounds lovers. The hill has added 80 acres of advanced tree skiing to its boundary. Runs in the area, called the Diamond Glades, will be tied back to the resort via to access roads leading to the bottom of the Summit Chair and the end of the upper parking lot.
Whitewater's in-bounds riding is second only to its easily accessible big-time backcountry. Be warned -- touring terrain at both mountains is advanced and no-shit dangerous. Out here, closed means closed. If it's character you're looking for in a ski vacation, Nelson is a best-of-both-worlds package. There's no on-hill accommodation at Whitewater, so you've got to travel back to town, but that's only 20 minutes down the road. The city is unbelievably packed with nightlife and metro dining hideaways. The accommodation scene ranges from beer-budget hostels to four-star heritage suites. Ainsworth Hot Springs is an hour up the lake, with a soothing soak well worth the drive. With apr & eacute;s opportunities like this, a trip to Whitewater is as close a guarantee for round-the-clock ripping and rocking as you can get.
www.ski-red.com, (877) 060-7669
www.skiwhitewater.com, (800) 666-9420
Kimberley -- Located on the edge of the enormous Columbia Valley, on the eastern side of the Purcell Mountains, Kimberley Resort is all about your favorite F-words -- fast, financially feasible and family.
Kimberley is a speedster's paradise, with 63 runs, 10 lifts and 2,465 feet of vertical, most of it wide, intermediate and meticulously groomed. Skiing or boarding here is all about user-friendliness. Just open it up, or lay back and enjoy the huge view of the Rockies, 20 miles west. Crowds are unusual here, which makes long laps a given, thanks to a 7,800-foot, high-speed quad, two triples and two doubles. The resort has some serious snowmaking, too, for leaner snow stints.
The nice thing about Kimberley is it doesn't cost big bucks to ski, nor is the city itself particularly pricey. Up until a few years ago, the town was a big mining community. Now it's 100 percent holiday hotspot, except that the blue-collar, down-to-earth character of the place has lingered, thankfully for visitors and their wallets. There's a kitschy downtown strip called The Platzl, with funky shops, little restaurants and a generally packed nightclub. If you want to stay closer to home, there's plenty of reasonable on-hill accommodation with good food and comfy lounging.
The resort has been expanding on a yearly basis since the late '90s, when it was purchased by Canadian resort mogul Charlie Locke (he owns Fernie and Alberta's Lake Louise, too, among others). Locke's influence has been to make the hill a family-friendly giant, which it is.
The hill is as kind and gentle on the pocketbook as it is on the spouse and kids. There's lots of long, easy terrain and excellent facilities and programs for the youngsters. At night, you can ride to the very top of the main mountain and give 'er hell. Kimberley has the biggest night-ski terrain in all of western Canada. Howling along at warp speed under football field-sized lights is a major rush, especially when the run lasts for 15 minutes.
But Kimberley isn't all middle-of-the road. Its backside is usually left ungroomed and mostly black diamond. That means some killer, long fall-line powder skiing, lots of nice manageable glades and legendary bumps. The Easter Run is a half bowl of monster moguls sure to bring out the disco-era hot dogger in everyone (plus it's right under the chair -- so make sure to bring your best neoprene pants and rear-entry boots.)
(250) 427-4881, www.skikimberley.com
Panorama -- If Whistler had a Mini-Me, this would be it. Ninety minutes north of Kimberley, up a short, deep valley from the sizzling summer resort city of Invermere, Panorama has been hidden away from the limelight for most of its near 30 years.
But that all changed when it was purchased by Whistler/Blackcomb grand poohbahs Intrawest nine seasons ago. Now the mountain is five-star. (There's a championship 18-hole golf course there, and kayak-in, kayak-out townhouses. Honest.) This year there'll be two new quads, complimenting a fleet of nine lifts, more than 100 runs and what Panorama claims is the most vertical drop in the Canadian Rockies at 4,000 feet. Last winter, in a coup for rippers, the resort opened up a 100-acre advanced zone of glades, hits and steeps called Taynton Bowl. The area had been used by a nearby heli-skiing operation for years. In addition to that, there's a bevy of beasts in a place some marketing genius tagged "The Extreme Dream Zone," which, despite the loser name, has some Grade-A shredding for all the hardcores out there.
For boarders and jib skiers, the ShowZone Terrain Park offers up a regulation halfpipe, quarterpipe, tabletops, spines, rollers, rails and kickers. It's even open at night.
But for the most part, Panorama is great for everyone, regardless of ability. The hill has a lot of long groomers -- some super-steep -- but all usually covered reliably, if not surgically groomed, by the mountain's arsenal of snow cannons. The base is bustling -- but not too bustling. There are plenty of hotel rooms and condos, plus lots of the original resort's cool cabins available through a rental pool. There's a super outdoor hot springs and hotel, limited but tasty dining opportunities, a few bars and world-class Nordic skiing. There's also snowmobiling, and as mentioned, heli-skiing right out of the village -- pricey, but there's unforgettable terrain, and deep, deep snow on the other end of the whirlybird ride. Huge mountains. Huge.
If there's one thing that makes Panorama worth a visit, it's the location. The mountain is tucked into the deeper reaches of the jagged, giant Purcells, making for mind-blowing views in all directions during the day, and quiet, super-starry nights.
(800) 663-2929, www.panoramaresort.com
Big White -- The name says it all. Kelowna's Big White, located high above the Canadian holiday haven of the Okanagan Valley, is big. And white.
The resort, about four and a half hours from Spokane, boasts 112 runs, a bunch of lifts (including four high-speed quads and an eight-passenger gondola) and about 24 feet of snow a year. The mountain is all about ski-in, ski-out. The village has ballooned -- there were a total of nine cranes on the mountain last summer alone -- to 7,000 acres of wall-to-wall hotels, apartments, condos, hostels, bars, restaurants, shopping malls and a convention center. There's room for 11,000 guests. In other words, there's no trouble finding a party, a date or both.
If development overload doesn't spook you, you'll dig the riding. Boarders love the place. In addition to decent freeriding, the resort has a Super Pipe, a boardercross course, a beginner pipe and, as of last year, a terrain park. The hill has hosted the Canadian National Snowboarding Championships twice.
For boarders or skiers, there's mucho variety at Big White -- lots of long, mega-groomed cruisers, well-gladed tree skiing, some great bowls and some off-piste-ish stuff, too, on the Falcon Chair and the Cliff area.
Temperatures can be mild, with an average of 21 F. The only trouble that can cause, in addition to the fact that the mountain sticks out of the Monashee Range like a mammoth speed bump, is occasional white outs. Things can get windy and blinding at the hill from time to time -- but head for the trees, or the pub, and you'll be A-OK. That same weather pattern can also churn up some great storms, and with the ideal average temperatures, the next day's snow is often as light as it comes.
Big White has a substantial amount of terrain for night skiing, and there are miles of cross-country track, sleigh rides, a Mega Snowcoaster mountain tube ride, dog sledding, snowmobiling and snowshoe tours.
If you're looking to dump your last pile of loonies (Canadian $1 coins), you can even hop a helicopter to nearby Silver Star for the afternoon -- the same company owns both hills -- ski there, and chopper home in time for last chair or first beer, whatever.
For the multi-sport visitor, if you visit early in the spring, you can actually ski the morning and golf or mountain bike Kelowna's world-class fairways and singletrack, less than 45 minutes away.
(800) 663-2772, www.bigwhite.com
Darren Davidson is a writer -- and skier -- who lives in Nelson, British Columbia.
Publication date: 11/13/03