In backcountry skiing, there is an adage "The harder it is going up, the better it is going down." The same thought applies to resort skiing in the Kootenay Rockies. The logistics of getting there aren't the easiest, but for those willing to undertake the trip, the downhill will make up for it. To maximize a week of skiing, we started in Salt Lake City, flew to Kelowna, drove to Revelstoke, crossed over Roger's Pass to spend a few days at Kicking Horse, had a gorgeous half-day drive to Fernie where we skied our brains out, then dropped the car off in Calgary where we caught a flight back home to Utah.
Revelstoke - Size Matters
The town of Revelstoke is named after Lord Revelstoke who saved the Canadian Pacific Railroad from bankruptcy in 1885. But, from a skier's perspective, the name takes on a new meaning - first you revel in the amazing mountains, and then you are stoked at the incredible quality of the skiing. The reveling has worn off on the locals who simply refer to the resort as "The Stoke." Historically, Revelstoke was the western staging area for the track-laying assault up and over Roger's Pass, the steepest section on the Trans Canadian railway. Today is has all the amenities a skier could want - hotels, bars, restaurants, heli & cat skiing operations and scenery galore.
In the realm of ski resorts, one number trumps everything else; skiable vertical drop. Riding lifts is all well and good, but the longer the run, the greater the fun. At 4,375', Revelstoke Mountain Resort has the third largest vertical of any resort in North America... and it is just getting started. Beginning operations in 2007/08, Revelstoke has a billion dollar future expansion plan, which among other things, will bump its vertical up to an untouchable 6,000+ feet. And, while size does matter, Revelstoke backs it up with quality, fall-line skiing. Unlike some European areas with larger vertical drops, Revelstoke is all turns, all the time, with no cow pastures or surface lifts to interrupt the flow of gravity.
One of the best examples of this vertical allure is a peak-to-valley groomed run named "Snow Rodeo." There are plenty of other runs at Revelstoke which are steeper, but Snow Rodeo is like an epic novel compared to a short story-it is a perfectly groomed magic carpet ride through twists, turns, endless roll-overs, trees and thigh-smoking drops. Revelstoke holds its own on steeps and powder and although Snow Rodeo is nothing extreme, it is a unique skiing experience you can't find anywhere else in North America, and perhaps the world. To further the leg-burning anticipation, the future lifts will not only extend Snow Rodeo's vertical drop, but add parallel run variations to it as well.
In its current state, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is tall, narrow and uncrowded. A beyond high-speed gondola blasts skiers up to roughly the mid-mountain level where a high speed quad takes over and carries them to the top. The bulk of the skiing takes place in the upper zone of the mountain, with the chairlift forming the central dividing line between the rowdy North Bowl and mellower tree skiing in the South Bowl.
Like many top-notch Canadian resorts, Revelstoke has a heli skiing operation (Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing) and offers cat skiing in the resort's peripheral terrain (see video of Revelstoke cat skiing). Still, with all of the fantastic amenities, one of the coolest things about skiing Revelstoke right now is the chance to experience it while it is new and fresh. A classic example of this happened when we returned to the base lodge after a great day of cat skiing to find the West Coast Powder Hounds were setting up a 48 person "shot ski" which consisted of a dozen skis bolted together tip-to-tail with plastic beer cup hot glued to the topsheets. Under the direction of Shot Master Slinky, the ski was raised in a perfect line, the signal was given and 48 shots of beer were drunk (or spilled) before the ski was raised over the chuggers heads and carried through the building in a victory lap, only to be repeated again (see the actual event). Like most of Revelstoke, it was the essence of skiing authenticity that you just have to be there to appreciate.
Kicking Horse Mountain Resort - Double Black Diamond dilemma
If you put a mirror at the top of Roger's Pass, Kicking Horse Resort located just outside of the town of Golden would be the reflected image of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Revelstoke and Kicking Horse are like the Tale of Two Cities, each one having many similarities, yet also their differences. Heading into Golden from the west, a billboard illustrates the proximity between the two resorts - one side has an ad for Revelstoke, and the other side has an ad for Kicking Horse.
Kicking Horse grew out of a small ski resort which was run by the town of Golden and has since been developed into one of the most radical ski resorts in North America. In fact, it has so much steep skiing that there is an effort to soften the image of the resort to help attract families and novice skiers as well. Having a live Grizzly bear named "Boo" enclosed in the middle of the resort just adds to the wild west allure.
The resort weighs in with 4,133' of vertical, 60% of which is advanced or expert terrain, including an unpredicted 70 inbound chutes. The chutes are a result of the ski area's unique geometry, which includes three easily accessed ridgelines with skiable lines off of both sides. For a steep skiing, couloir connoisseur (like me), it is a dream come true. As an added bonus, Kicking Horse faces due north, which means that the powder stays softer, longer and skiers can find freshies days after a storm (see video of a Kicking Horse powder run).
Another stunning feature of Kicking Horse is what is called "the slackcountry." A play on the term "backcountry," slackcountry skiing uses the chair lifts to boost you up to the mountain to get a jumpstart on a day of touring in the surrounding peaks. This is not officially part of the Kicking Horse resort and requires avalanche awareness skills, but it provides instant access to otherwise hard to reach areas.
Starting life as the "Whitetooth Ski Area," in the Dogtooth Range of the Purcell Mountains, Kicking Horse began development on its own in 1999. The main lift is a high-speed gondola which goes from the base village nearly to the top in one shot. The gondola provides easy access to other lifts, as well as getting people up to the highest eatery in Canada, the Eagle's Eye Restaurant at 7,700'. As a popular place for wedding receptions and special gatherings, the chef's at the Eagle's Eye have created a menu which rivals the views and make it hard to leave the comforts of the wood burning fireplace and head back out to the slopes.
One feature that makes this transition easier is that Terminator Ridge is beautifully framed in the east window and beckons to you while you are eating. The ridge is gained with a short hike and offers some of the steepest, longest runs at Kicking Horse, including the aptly named Truth and Dare couloirs.
Kicking Horse is located about ten minutes away from downtown Golden and has a self sufficient mountain village. Part of the beauty of Golden is that it is a crossroad to both Roger's Pass and the road over to Banff, making visits to both areas logistically feasible.
Fernie - Feeding Frenzy
Revelstoke has the most vertical and Kicking Horse has the most steeps, but Fernie manages to have something less tangibly measured - the most fun. After three days of skiing there, I couldn't remember having as much fun at any resort in the last fifteen years, and that was without any fresh snow.
The Fernie fun factor comes from its unique layout and orientation. The mountain is defined by "The Old Side" which was the original resort and has some of the best all around skiing, and "The New Side" which has steeper, tighter shots that appeal to a more technical skier. Being a newcomer to the area, I had no preference and enjoyed it all. Like Kicking Horse, Fernie has a series of ridges which can be skied on either side, as well as along the ridgelines. The magic of these ridges is enhanced by them running east to west, which means the skiable slopes face north and south, which are often the most desirable aspects to ski. South facing slopes get sun and set up quicker, while north facing slopes hold the powder. East and west facing are usually somewhere in between, which can often mean the dreaded breakable crust. Fernie's layout allows skiers to easily move around the mountain and tick off endless shots, especially if you have an insider's local knowledge.
When we met up with Robin Siggers, the Mountain Operations Manager for Fernie Alpine Resort and a 25 year veteran of the area, we had no idea that we were in for a local tour du force like no other. Each run was better than the last and Robin had an effortless way of gliding all around the mountain which made it seem vast, yet easily accessible at the same time. It was only at the end of the day when we took a run on our own that we realized the true value of local knowledge - our run was good, but not nearly as great the secret stashes that Robin seemed to find by turning into the trees at just the right time.
Fernie has every type of terrain imaginable including steeps, cruisers, bump runs, trees, gullies and open bowls. The resort is situated on the edge of the Canadian Rockies and has a unique weather pattern which favors its peaks over others which are only a few kilometers away. The shape of the mountain also acts as a catcher's mitt for storms, with a rugged ridgeline which traps the snow and then protects all but the highest points from the prevailing winds.
Of the three resorts we skied, Fernie was the oldest and most established. It is "built out" for the most part and has a mountain village at its base for ski-in/ski-out access, but the historical town of Fernie is only a short five minute drive away. Fernie was (and still is) a coal mining town, which helps diversify the economy and makes many of the bars and restaurants affordable.
Before we even arrived in Fernie and throughout our first day of skiing, people told us to be sure and not miss out on going to the Griz Bar, which is located right at the base of the ski hill. Now, having been there, I can see why. The bar itself is nothing fancy, but it has a local following which creates one of the best après ski experiences in North America where impromptu table dances, instant friends and legendary parties are the norm rather than the exception. The local sacrificial drink to the snow gods is called a "Mogul Smoker" and consists of coffee, Kahlua, rum and hot chocolate topped with whipped cream.
The Road Back Home
Calgary has the closest major airport to Fernie, complete with US Customs (don't forget your passport) and direct flights to many US cities. It is a mellow half-day drive, which means you can get in a morning of skiing before heading out.
It is tough to go wrong with a trip to Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Fernie, or a combination of any or all of them. Each area has its own unique flavor and there is something for everyone at all of them. Like the deepest snow, the hardest part is just getting there, but once you do, the rewards will be well worth it.