Between Whistler, on Canada's western seaboard, and Banff, in its forested interior, there are a few thousand square kilometres of white skiable wilderness. Here and there, commercial helicopters ply the skies, disgorging international groups on once-in-a-lifetime missions to feed expensive powder habits. Guests spend a week in isolated lodges, eating at communal tables and doing what they're told – and necessarily so. Heli-skiing is risky enough to justify a raft of regulations, so if you're allergic to red tape, it may not be for you.
The good news is that you can cruise the Powder Highway through similar terrain with equally exciting results. The huge loop of far-flung resorts circling the Kootenay Rockies are characterised by lifts with no lines serving open powder fields and tight precipitous trees to suit every aspiration. There are groomers (groomed runs), too, but most are here for steep, deep, untouched and untraversed snow. Revelstoke and Kicking Horse form the northern boundary; Red Mountain, Whitewater and Fernie the southern one. Best of all, anyone with a driving licence and a spirit of adventure is welcome to join the party.
My road less travelled began in Revelstoke, the only place that offers lift, helicopter and snowcat access in one ownership. Named after an English lord who saved the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in 1886, the sprawling settlement was a trucker’s pit stop on the arduous Calgary-Vancouver highway. As it still is, but in 2005, bulldozers created a top-quality mountain with modern lifts out of a modest hill town, and a purpose-built destination complex out of a humble base station.
The developers hoped for crowds that never came, perhaps because the midwinter view is usually obscured by cloud or blanketed in falling snow. “Does the sun come out?” I ask cautiously. After a long pause, my informant replies: “Can’t say I remember the last time I saw it.” So there it is, the ingredient that puts “Revy”, as it’s known to its increasing army of hard-core fans, up there with Chamonix at the cutting edge of challenge.
The centre of operations is Sutton Place, a luxury condo hotel at the base of the lifts, with 220 units ranging from studios to four-bedroom apartments. With the Rockford restaurant for that thoroughly North American (fairly) fine-dining experience, Wino for après-ski and La Baguette for snacks, most tastes are conveniently catered for.
A little way up the hill, a handful of mansions for rent compete for the most panoramic views of Mount Begbie on the other side of the Columbia River valley. The massively timbered Bighorn Lodge claims many of the bragging rites, with eight double rooms, an iPad by every bedside, a cinema, gym, indoor pool, pool table, star chef and crustless cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea. Its British owners, Michael and Chris Kirkland, run it in fully catered, uber-Alpine-chalet mode, but promote it as the ultimate rich-lads’ heli-paradise, perfect for eight expert skiers sharing one chopper in two groups of four. The big beast collects guests from the Bighorn helipad shortly after dawn and returns them at dusk. Those with the energy to burn can explore redneck nightlife after dinner. “You’re the worst pool player I ever saw, and I seen plenty.” The lady’s opinion was unsolicited, but the Last Drop cafe is no place to take offence.
For a gentler introduction to the British Columbian wilderness, stop at Kicking Horse, on the Calgary side of the Rogers Pass. The terrain rivals Revelstoke’s, but the weather is sunnier, the trees more inviting and the bowls more open. Except on powder days, when locals abandon their day jobs in neighbouring Golden to plunder the hill, the handful of foreign visitors have exclusive use of rolling slopes at the top of the lift system. Test your technique in “super”, “open”, “crystal” and “feuz” bowls (large, tree-free basin areas) – and don’t miss out on “whitewall”, well worth the short boot pack from the top of the Stairway to Heaven chairlift.
Kicking Horse’s only street – a scattering of guest lodges, a handful of modest condos, an excellent sushi restaurant – offers conviviality rather than sophistication. That’s to be found at the aptly named Eagle’s Eye at the top of the gondola. During the day, anyone can cruise the 10km green run back to base after a civilised lunch. The gondola and restaurant stay open for dinner, but the top pick is the guest apartment, where couples with a romantic agenda or first trackers can enjoy a high-altitude overnight, complete with breakfast and dinner cooked by a personal chef and served by a butler.
The 300km drive south to Red Mountain is a daring probe into isolation. The road runs along linked lakes in the broad valley between the Monashee and the Selkirk Mountains; be sure to fill up and stock up before starting, because passing traffic is rare, and settlements are few and often closed in winter.
Trundling into Red Mountain five hours later inspires a sense of triumph that segues into satisfaction when you check into Slalom Creek. Strip off for a wallow in your private balcony hot tub, a refuge and a viewing point for the base area that has transformed one of Canada’s most iconic resorts.
Until recently, Red Mountain was a comfortless backcountry cult, with one bleak base station, and no ski-in/ski-out accommodation, a handful of ancient chairlifts and 10,000 trees so closely spaced that only human eels could hope to pass unscathed. Check out legends such as Roots, the Slides, Pale Face and the Orchards on Granite Mountain; Cliff, Hole-in-the-Wall and War Eagle Trees on Red. Take them on if you dare, but chillaxing is fine if you don’t: there’s plenty for everyone, and not all of us were born on skis.
Modernisation has brought Grey Mountain, accessed by a contemporary quad chair, into the equation, its flatteringly groomed pistes the ideal antidote to super-tough. At the top, the innovative Kirkup Cat Skiing, introduced for the 2015/16 season, opens up the backside to enterprising intermediates in search of a mellow powder learning curve among generously spaced trees. No need to book in for the whole day: weather permitting, the service runs from 10am to 2pm, with customers paying 10 Canadian dollars (Dh37) per run.
Nowadays, the base is dominated by the multipurpose Day Lodge, the upper floor occupied by the massive Rafters Lounge offering diverse après from the time the lifts close until the last guest leaves. The menu is relentlessly American burgers and bits, but Gabriella’s, relocated from Fernie when Red reinvented itself, adds a touch of Italian home cooking.
The alternative is to stay down the mountain in Rossland, a cheerful former mining town within a few miles of the American frontier. Easy access means a free shuttle from the slopes. Try Idgie’s for fine dining, Aka Dake for authentic sushi and The Flying Steamshovel for nightlife, including music and pool.
Whitewater, a short drive to the east, is a more isolated form of Red in pre-development mode, a 40-year-old outpost with a reliable 12-metre snowpack, three venerable chairlifts serving groomers in the forest and another few thousand evergreens providing glade skiing of the highest calibre. Foreigners prepared to follow a dream as remote as this are rare, but that’s their loss: you’ll feel you’ve made friends for life by the time you’ve had a locavore lunch in the Fresh Tracks Cafe, an eatery that punches way above its weight in Rocky pit-stop lists, followed by après nibbles in Coal Oil Johnny’s.
With no resort lodging, it’s soon time to move on to Nelson, an old-world Kootenay River port with elegant streets, traditional hotels and gourmet options. American draft dodgers moved here to escape the Vietnam War; vestiges of that easy-come, easy-go lifestyle remain in the cafes, galleries and boutiques that line the streets. The Hume Hotel & Spa is top of the local range: for non-residents, tea by the fire in the Library Lounge and the weekly jazz nights are equally popular.
These high spots on the Powder Highway are only the tip of the iceberg. Diversions from the main trail take in the Big White, Australian-owned and family-friendly Fernie Alpine Resort; an adrenaline zone off the road to Calgary; Panorama, known for its heli-skiing; and Kimberley, which revels in a sense of mild debauchery. Pay your money – rather less than you would across the American border, with the dirham currently going a long way – and take your pick. The one certainty is that you won’t want to go home.
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