A skier’s circuit: The so-called ‘Powder Highway’ through the Canadian Rockies

|     John Briley     |

THE Billy Goat is gone. He was here, red coat vibrant against a canvas of white, when I turned to take in our surroundings: saber-toothed peaks cuffed by forests of conifers, a serpent of fog riding a distant river and, beyond, parcels of a town that looks toyishly small from way up here.

Now I’m alone atop the Terminator 2 Peak at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, one of many worthy pit stops along British Columbia’s powder highway, a 642-mile loop of road in the Canadian Rockies that affords access to a dizzying variety of skiing: more than seven million acres of huge mountains, small towns and immense spaces between, across which are scattered eight alpine resorts, 39 backcountry huts and lodges, 20 heli-ski companies, 15 cat ski operators and 16 Nordic clubs and centres. The region straddles the Mountain and Pacific time zones and includes some of the most vaunted subranges in skiing lore – the Columbias, Monashees, Purcells and Selkirks.

I’m here with the Billy Goat – he also goes by Bill – on a midwinter quest for feathery powder, light crowds and friendly locals. So far, so good: Since arriving in this region three days ago, the snow has come in bountiful waves and we’ve found the lift lines empty and the vibes warm on and off the slopes.

I stomp my skis, adjust my goggles and point myself in the only direction Bill could have gone: down. A few turns deliver me out of the ridgetop wind and onto a wide-open face cushioned by eight inches of recent snow, through which I see Bill arcing far below. I catch him at the bottom of the face, but nowhere near the bottom of the mountain. That lies another few thousand vertical feet downhill, beyond a precipitous chute, a section of trees, a leg-noodling sea of moguls and – finally – a groomed, green-dot runout.

Kicking Horse is aptly named, leaping from its base to several pointy eared peaks and high saddles, and strafed with bucking ridges, chutes, and steep glades. The intermediate and beginner terrain is confined mostly to the lower third of the mountain. A gondola and three chairlifts access much of the 4,133 vertical feet and 2,800 acres of its terrain inbounds, but to get to some of the best stuff one must hike.

The mineral-rich waters of Radium Hot Springs, in Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, are fed by rain that filters more than a mile underground before being geothermally heated and forced back up as steam
Skiers catch a view of surrounding peaks from the top of Kicking Horse Mountain resort outside Golden, British Columbia
Christian Gangsted-Rasmussen navigates a gentle glade during a day of heli skiing in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia
Revelstoke is renowned for its abundance of tree skiing and 5,620-foot vertical drop, the most of any North American ski resort

Terminator 2 is the longest of those forays, a 20-minute, skis-off trudge that includes a section where we kick-step into a sharp incline while gripping a cable affixed to the rock. Once securely back at the base, we clomp into the Double Black cafe, a bistro emceed by vivacious Quebecois staff who are shouting orders over a pulsing reggae soundtrack and slinging coffee drinks, soup bowls, salads and sandwiches to powder-caked customers.

The cafe anchors a small alpine village that also includes a 110-suite condo-hotel and a soupcon of restaurants and shops. We find more action in the town of Golden, nine miles downhill at the confluence of the Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers. After a drink, which is abuzz with millennials in trucker hats and fashionable plaid, we sink into dinner at Eleven22, a Canadian/Asian/euro fusion restaurant in a converted turn-of-the-century home adorned with local art.

Other relics of Golden’s railway-and-timber roots are tucked around town, but today the dominant vibe is outdoor recreation, a transformation that began in the 1950s when a Canadian Pacific Railway executive, noting that his Swiss timber framers had a remarkable affinity for the mountains, started recruiting guides from Switzerland to take tourists into the wild.

Many descendants of those guides stayed in Golden, which might explain some of the superhero lines we see people skiing at the resort (although those could also be competitors in the Freeride World Tour, which overlapped with our visit).

We had started our adventure at Panorama Mountain Resort, arriving at night after a drive from Calgary that took us through Banff and Kootenay national parks. We found our condo, walked across a road through steadily falling snow to the Cabin Smokehouse. The place was empty at 8.30pm on a Monday night, a testament to Panorama’s status as a weekend getaway for Calgarians.

The resort, which sits in a forested, peak-ringed valley 12 miles west of the town of Invermere, was founded in 1962 with a rope tow and a warming hut. A subsidiary of the megacorp Intrawest bought Panorama in 1993 and, over the ensuing 20 years, added lodges, townhouses, restaurants, high-speed lifts and terrain before selling to a group of local investors in 2010.

That group plans to further Panorama’s growth, but for purists the resort is already prime time: 4,265 feet of vertical drop, 2,975 acres of skiable terrain and a vast mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs.

At 8am, we wend past outdoor pools, hot tubs and an ice rink to Lusti’s Cappuccino Bar, which doubles as a ski rental and repair shop. I hand over my Kastles for a binding adjustment, grab a latte and watch locals come and go as they would at a small-town post office, chatting and lingering well after their needs are met.

As we ride up the Mile 1 high-speed quad – the first of three chairs required to reach the summit – our liftmate points out a blur in a skinsuit ripping down a groomer, one of the Canadian national team members based in Panorama for its racing programme, which includes training and competition up to the World Cup level.

On the next chair we meet two Germans who are on a month-long powder highway circuit. I ask why they didn’t just ski the Alps.

“Cheaper to come here!” one says and laughs as snowflakes congregate on his stubble. “And all these trees.” He sweeps his arm across our view. “Yes, this is very good.” (That exchange rate favours Americans as well, with the US dollar worth about CAD1.30.)

After a couple of laps through powder-laden glades beneath the Summit chair, we hike up a short pitch to the 7,759-foot summit of Taynton Bowl, a domain of expert-rated steeps, faces, chutes, glades and very few skiers. The closest I come to exchanging pleasantries with anyone besides Bill is when I inadvertently spook two white-tailed ptarmigans from their snowy roost.

Returning to the top, we follow the aroma of grilling meat into the Summit Hut, a homey little log cabin with million-dollar views where storm-whipped skiers are swapping stories over bratwurst, chilli and coffee. Sharing our table is a guy cut from the Canadian Rockies – weather-cured face, wisps of brown hair, quiet confidence – who volunteers why he bought property at Panorama. “This mountain’s huge, it’s never crowded and I can get here in three-and-a-half hours” from Calgary, he says. “And if the snow’s no good I can go out with RK.”

That’s RK HeliSki, which is based a mile from Panorama’s village and named for Roger Keith Madson, who founded it in 1970 in nearby Radium Hot Springs using a small plane that could land on glaciers. Madson went on to partner with, and then split from, Canadian Mountain Holidays, which built its brand on bringing people into large communal lodges for week-long trips; Madson preferred to focus on day guests, but RK also offers multiday packages.

Bill and I have signed up to heli-ski with RK the next day, although I’m slightly dubious: In my experience, such single-day outings burn precious skiing time getting everyone organised in the morning and don’t allow the guides to properly group skiers by ability – an important factor on multiday trips.

But I’ll give these guys a chance. After a buffet breakfast in RK’s lodge and a safety briefing, we pile into a gleaming blue Bell 205 chopper and follow a creek drainage up toward the jagged, chalk-white peaks of the Purcell Mountains.

Our group includes a brother-sister teen duo and their dad from the Netherlands, a snowboarding miner from Colorado and a journalist from Britain. Minutes later, we disembark at 8,000 feet, click into our gear and follow our guide into a dream: stands of old-growth spruce and fir, spaced ideally for open-throttle skiing, rise from a long, sustained pitch. My doubts vapourise with each explosion of powder beneath my skis.

We spend the day hopscotching through Christmas-tree glades, glaciated bowls and shadowy forests, and while some of the runs aren’t as steep or long as our first, all feature pillows and blankets of deep, untracked snow, views of severe, imposing peaks and no other signs of civilisation.

En route to Golden after a pale ale at the lodge, we veer off plan and go to Radium Hot Springs, a complex hewed into a rocky canyon in Kootenay National Park about 10 miles north of Invermere. Outside the visitor centre, steam rises from a 25-metre lap pool, a giant soaking pool (kept at 98 to 104 degrees) and a small hot tub – all fed by an odourless, mineral-rich spring beneath the park. As I float on my back staring up at auburn cliffs and a darkening cerulean sky, a couple tries to sell us on a hike-in hot spring nearby. But with a shower, dry clothes and the car steps away, I don’t even hear them.

For our last stop on the powder highway, we head 90 miles west of Golden, through another pounding snowstorm, to Revelstoke. We scan the mountain-town facades of restaurants, inns, watering holes and gear shops while looking for our hotel before realising it is four miles away, at the base of the resort.

But – priorities – a glowing shop beckons, so we park and head to meet Josh McLafferty, a bear of a man with a twinkling smile.

“Back in Vancouver, a couple of boys asked me to weld them a still,” McLafferty says when Bill asks how he landed here. “They didn’t have any money so they paid me in molasses. I told my wife, ‘We should make our own beverage’. And it turned out awesome!”

The couple decamped to Revelstoke, McLafferty says, for the lifestyle: “Everyone here is outdoorsy, and the skiing is world class.”

Indeed: 5,620 vertical feet – the most of any North American ski resort – cast across more than 3,100 mostly forested, advanced-rated acres. Somehow, this plenitude is well served by only three lifts – a gondola that brings skiers more than halfway up the mountain and two chairs, the Ripper and the Stoke, that access the top.

Like Panorama, Revelstoke is primed for more development but, frankly, there’s a lot of charm to the current setup. With scant on-mountain dining, locals trustingly leave day packs with lunches and other supplies in the snow next to the Ripper and Stoke chairs while they crowd into three warming huts to rest and refuel. The dearth of lifts means it takes only a little traversing to find solitude and powder, even on the busiest days.

And Revelstoke does draw a crowd, mostly of guys eager to challenge the burly mountain. In an outdoor hot tub at the amenity-rich Sutton Place hotel, we meet a doctor, firefighter and crew from New York working their way through a 12 pack of Coors Light. The sleek bar inside, bustling beneath the glow of televised sports, appears to be hosting a bourbon-fueled guy-trip convention.

Dawn reveals a foot of new snow and a thickening storm that will eventually drop a total of 20 inches. We spend two days abolishing powder, at times finding ourselves utterly lost in one dense stand of conifers or another before emerging onto a cat track that leads back to a lift. One short hike delivers us to Three Bears, a sublime pitch of trees and mini cliffs where Bill and I stop twice to howl and high-five over our good fortune.

We peel ourselves off the mountain at 4pm on Super Bowl Sunday for the drive back to Calgary. Three hours later, eking over a mountain pass with hazards blinking feebly against the endless snowstorm, I look over to see the Billy Goat gone again, asleep in the passenger seat and lost in a powder dream. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post