Jackson Hole – a masterclass in terrain

I left Big Sky on a nice clear and a cloudy but calm sky, but it wouldn’t last. The winds picked up and did their best to push me around, which doesn’t take much with a vehicle with such big, flat sides. Some 3/4 of the way to Jackson I followed the GPS off the main highway onto a secondary road that ran though desolate farm area, and the storm was causing drifting bad enough that this little traveled road all but disappeared a few times, leaving me to follow the telephone poles that lined the road. Then I got to Teton pass, which crosses the mountain range I would be skiing the next day, and between the storm and 10% grades it wasn’t a pretty sight. But I made it with a minimum of sliding, so all was good.

When I did arrive however, I checked saw lifts closed to high winds, and a forecast for even stronger winds tomorrow. As much as I hated to screw up my schedule, I chose to take a day off, and wait for the slightly calmer Thursday.This at least gave me time that night to go to the town of Jackson, some 10 miles away, to do laundry and have a good hot tub and shower at the rec center. The next morning I stopped in at a local RV dealer to see about getting my furnace fan balanced. Sounds like a whole new motor is the only answer. Not the cheapest solution, and one that wasn’t in stock anyway. My chores done, I made my way back towards the ski resort. Stopping at the farther $5 parking lot, I was informed there was no overnight parking (contrary to what I had read) so found a spot just off the highway to get some work done for a few hours. That didn’t last, as it turned out to be a private road (wasn’t particularly clear). I can actually appreciate the owner’s annoyance as I’ve experienced my share of people barging onto the property back home, usually because they wanted to go see the lake, and sometimes going so far as to walking onto a neighbour’s deck and staring in the windows. So I moved on to a mostly empty parking lot at a closed business down the street, until everyone was off the hill, at which point I moved back to one of the other resort parking lots to spend an undisturbed night. This may all sound trivial but it has become a big part of the experience. Finding a place to stop, especially overnight, is frequently a major task each day.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is a sizable but compact cluster of hotels and associated services at the base of the lifts. It is swankier than I expected, having always got the impression that this place was a bit more plain jane, a hard core resort for those that just wanted to ski gnarly terrain. While it does retain some old west, cowboy style as others have written, it is clearly not on a cowboy budget, indicated in part by the $95 lift ticket. This didn’t stop people from coming though as it was plenty busy this morning. People were lined up deep on the gondola and tram, the two quickest routes to the top section of the hill, itching to get at the powder that was dropped last night, and there was quite alot of it. Jackson has actually been having a great season for snow, decidedly better than the bordering states. I wasn’t about to spend my time standing in line, and didn’t have much time before tours started, so took a run off the zero lineup north end of the mountain, and was rewarded with an absolutely blissful near untouched powder run (starting at the most clever communications station I’ve ever seen, with green painted antennas mounted to a tree… virtually impossible to see until you really look for it).

I got back down just in time to catch a tour with Dick and a couple elderly but strong skiing guests, one of which had a oxygen feed in place, presumably to operate at the elevation reaching over 10,000 feet. I think a “you go girl!” is in order. Despite the relatively long and efficient tour that covered the mountain fairly well, I found myself feeling that I had just scratched the surface of the 2500 acres here. Partly this is due to it being another case of multiple valleys and bowls that break up the terrain, but mostly because so much of the terrain is skiable. This mainly comes down to their not being all that many thickly treed areas. There are trees here certainly, only the peak is alpine terrain, but they tend to be pretty heavily gladded, naturally I presume. End result is the by far the biggest 2500 acres I’ve seen. I certainly had my work cut out for me as I explored the more advanced terrain in the afternoon.

After lunch (which included a sticker on my window notifying me of no overnight parking… this really was the hardest place I’ve come across when it comes to finding a place to park) I made my way back up the gondola, which wasn’t lined up anymore, unlike the tram to the peak which was still pretty heavily backed up. After talking to a few people on the lifts I discovered part of the reason (besides locals wanting to get to all the powder this storm dumped) was because president’s week, as opposed to weekend, was still in full swing for visitors from the east coast, where schools are out for the whole week. We’ve always been extremely busy for the entire President’s week back home in Whistler, so had been surprised to find Big Sky so quiet on Monday. Perhaps the recent top magazine rankings Jackson has received have made it the destination of choice for more travelers.

I started to make my way around the hill, trying to be efficient in my routes as I knew I had alot to cover in a few hours. The lift layout doesn’t always make this easy unfortunately. While the layout is generally OK, they are not very efficient when it comes to trying to cover the hill in a hurry, as opposed to just skiing one area. Less efficient is the amount of hike in terrain, which was looking VERY attractive with the largely untouched 18″ of snow from the last couple days, but it became apparent quickly that I would not have time to do any hiking today. In fact I would soon realize that I needed another couple hours to do this mountain  to my satisfaction.

There’s no shortage of great expert terrain without hiking or the tram, which was still busy. This is certainly what I had heard about Jackson Hole and I was quite happy to see it proved true, especially with a load of new snow. Although after yesterday’s winds it was heavily windblown in places, and as it also got quite warm the day before it was extremely heavy, in fact downright spring snow, on the bottom section, rather a shame as the massive southern bottom half of the mountain held alot of fairly open terrain which would have offered a ton of fresh lines.  But there were enough faces in good condition that I certainly wasn’t complaining. I finally made it onto the tram just before it closed, the very last tram in fact, and found the storm still blowing hard at the top. I got a few nice turns in the wind blown field coming off the peak, a good thing sometimes as it erases tracks of those before you, and made a run all the way back to the bottom via the deep spring Hobacks on the south end of the property.

While I would have loved to stay another day to explore the place better and do a couple hikes, I knew I couldn’t afford to take more time, and I couldn’t park here another night anyway. The weather having cleared up pretty nicely as the mountain closed (this just seems to be the standard weather pattern on all big mountains) I decided to make a run over the pass and to Idaho Falls, where I had read there is a sani station and free park to camp. Pulling out I had to chuckle at quite a coincidence: parked a few spots down from me was the same RV that I was parked next to at Baker, a big corporate bus from Trew Gear. What are the chances? I drove away trying to actually calculate the odds (I’m an engineer, I can’t help it), found the weather just to the south where the pass was had not cleared up, but made it over without incident and arrived at the park in Idaho Falls as the dark took firm hold of the sky.

Top of Jackson Hole (Rendezvous Mountain peak), just above the tram's top station. Click to view 360° panorama.

Looking down the tram line from the top of the Thunder Quad chair. Click to view panorama.

Looking at Bernie's Bowl and the top of the Sublette chair, with the peak looming above, and the huge Rendezvous Bowl coming off our left of the peak.

Looking at Cheyenne/Bernie Bowls (unclear where one ends and the other begins) and the top of the Sublette chair, with the peak looming above, and the huge Rendezvous Bowl coming off our left of the peak.

Big Sky – a surprise two day visit

I made sure to leave my nice little spot relatively early since I knew I should have about 6 hours to go to get to Big Sky. It was a fairly easy drive, traffic free until the home stretch. Light snow for through some parts but nothing serious, that is until I started south on the 191, at which point it started coming down hard and fast (well, as hard and fast as snow can be anyway). Some cars slowed down to a crawl and traffic on the small 2 lane highway became a factor. When I finally arrived at Big Sky, a few miles west of the town of Big Sky, it as just arting to get dark, but not so dark that I couldn’t read the big sign that said “Free skier parking. No overnight parking permitted”. This despite me having been told by guest services that overnight RV parking was perfectly fine in the free lot. I call up guest services again and get the same answer, along with a transfer to security to find out which lot I am supposed to use. None, as it turns out. Guest services had the wrong info. Big Sky is not starting off on a good foot. Thankfully security did say I could stay anyway, much to my relief, as I didn’t want to drive back down to the village and search for a spot.

Seems “no overnight” isn’t very strictly enforced here, as seems to be common elsewhere too, as I did have two neighbours that night. I was actually a bit surprised as this is a fancy resort… real fancy. I had heard the name Big Sky before but never heard more than that, and upon seeing it I was quite surprised that this place isn’t more renown. Not only because of the ski area itself (more about that soon) but because of the ultra high end real estate everywhere. This place makes Whistler look budget. Remember the real estate contrast in Whitefish? The contrast here was only between nice and over the top nice. Massive houses frequently sat on several acres of land, many pretty high on the hills, not just in the valley. And it wasn’t just the houses. There are a few “real estate” lifts, private chairlifts with no other reason but to get owners of non-ski-in/ski-out houses to experience the ski-in/ski-out luxury. Plus everything here was spotless and beautiful, like artisan pedestrian bridges over creeks everywhere, and beautiful log cabins for lift huts and on-hill bathrooms. I guess for $98 a day (for a dual mountain pass) you expect some nice details. Big Sky certainly shows it is a proper destination glass resort.

But I wasn’t interested in details, I just wanted good skiing, and Ullr seemed finally to be smiling on my as I woke to a few inches of fresh on top of several inches from the day before. That, as well as largely clear skies. Beautiful. I’m not the only one who thought so though. In fact, quite possibly the most people Big Ski has ever seen thought the same, aided in no small part as this was also the Presidents Day long weekend, which along with Christmas generally takes the crown as the busiest weekend of the year in North American ski resorts. I have thus far tried to avoid weekends for just this reason, but my backed up schedule means I cannot afford that luxury anymore. So today I would have to deal with big lines. Bummer. But wait… for the busiest day of the year (at the end of the day I heard it may have been a record for them) the lines… weren’t that bad. Maybe 5 minutes on their primary chair, and another 5 on the triple that takes you to the tram to get to the peak (a decided impressive Swiss Alps looking peak). From locals I hear repeatedly that these lines are all but unheard of, that even weekends usually mean you wait all of a couple chairs. Then I hear a statistic that explains it all: 5500 acres, 29,000 lift capacity, and (here’s the kicker) a maximum of 5500 skiers per day, the low numbers largely attributed to a lack of any nearby major population center. All of a sudden the $98 ticket (if you go dual mountain, $84 for Big Sky only) seems like pretty good value. Basically it is a larger version of the Kicking Horse formula. I’m starting to like this place alot as I hate HATE lines. But some moderate lines on two (of 20 NOT including surface lifts) chairs I can handle. Well, with one exception: the tram to the top didn’t get below an hour lineup all day.  Considering how much terrain I need to cover in a day I cannot spend that kind of time in line, but then the tram accesses alot of the terrain… and some of it clearly the type I love best. This would be a problem.

Since I had an hour before orientation tours started (despite starting out a half hour late, partly due to a bit of a lineup to buy tickets) I went for a couple runs starting on the smaller part of the hill, Andesite and Flat Iron mountains. The day started off good with a long run of several inches of fresh through a big field, sun shining brightly. A beautiful daylodge sat on top of Andesite, a privately owned but empty due to bankruptcy restaurant I was later told. I also got my first glimpse of the aforementioned mountain top residences lining the ski area boundary here.

At 10:45 I met my host Barbara, and had yet another private tour. Barbara proved very knowledgeable and did a great job filling me in on Big Sky, including things like how the additional ski hill next door was in fact a private club. And we’re not talking about your typical private local hill with a single lift, this place looked to be close to 2000 acres I would guess, and had some pretty nice looking terrain. All those massive houses lining the resorts boundary? All belonged to that same West Yellowstone Club. The 1% sure do live nicely (if wastefully). It became pretty clear to me that if you happen to have a near unlimited budget, Big Sky is certainly a candidate for the best place to spend that budget. Between the beautiful real estate offerings, a private hill when things are crowded and massive Big Sky next door… you would be hard pressed to find a better place to pick up a ski “cabin”.

There is surprisingly little on-hill dining options here, especially with the restaurant on Andesite closed. The two tiny (and I do mean tiny) options do not seem to be well used, which is a shame as they are both very charismatic. Touring around the hill I saw a pretty distinct separation of terrain difficulty, much as I noticed at Whitefish. Two areas are home to almost all the green runs, and the top of the hill (accessed via the tram) is exclusively black. A good mix of blue and black across the rest of the hill means good/expert mixed families can still ski together quite comfortably though. One negative that became apparent during the tour was that Big Sky has alot to learn about crowd control. More accurately, they need to learn to apply what they do know, as they did it perfectly well at the base on their two main access chairs. A few other chairs did however get busy this day, being a near record day, and the lineup was just a big pile, as I’m told is the standard in Europe. Mind you, this is a very rare occurrence, as I was told by several people that other than a few days around Christmas and President’s Day weekend, lines of any sort are unheard of. This particular incarnation of President’s Day Sunday however was a doozy what with the fantastic dump of snow after a so-so season (across the continent, not specifically here). In fact, I would not get to the top of the mountain at all today, with the line never dropping past an hour long.  A major disappointment.

My tour over, I set out to explore the parts of the hill that we didn’t get to, such as the Southern side of Long Mountain, the primary peak. It is impossible to give someone a tour of this whole mountain in a couple hours, it is just so big. and has quite a number of facets to boot. A couple of those facets, coming off the northern ridge of the bowl formed by Long Mountain’s peak, takes a good 15 minute hike, or more if you want to get further along the ridge, as it is a long one. It is at times a nasty hike too, with a narrow bootpack and a long, rocky way down into the Moonlight Basin side. While it afforded an excellent run down, I don’t think I would do it again without crampons, or at least a more appropriate pair of boots (mine are rather low profile and as a result don’t get good lateral grip). On the very much plus side, there is plenty of double black terrain here, primarily coming off the peak, so hiking isn’t necessary. There is plenty terrain/snow to go around without hiking, especially if you don’t come on one of the busiest days of the year.

My day came to an end way too early, with me never having taken the tram even once, and thus missed out on alot of terrain. And I hadn’t gotten into Moonlight Basin at all. which is actually a separate ski area, much like Whistler & Blackcomb here once separate. No doubt the two will have to merge one day [edit: in 2013 they did]. It only makes sense, especially given they share the same mountain (both built on the slopes of Lone Mountain). Plus it was snowing pretty good again, promising yet more fresh powder tomorrow. After a session of typical (for me) agonizing, I decided this place deserved a second day. If I had properly realized that Big Sky/Moonlight was actually the biggest ski area in the US ahead of time, I would likely have planned this to begin with. I crossed my fingers for good conditions the next day, and especially for less people to keep the tram line in check.

Next morning did indeed welcome more fresh snow, and thankfully much less people. After my first run I ran into my parking lot neighbour and nearby Bozeman resident Phillip, who explained this was the result of far flung weekenders having to drive home to be back at work Tuesday. Big Sky being pretty far from any population centers, it wasn’t an evening drive home for most. I was actually very fortunate to run into Phillip as he agreed to show me around the rest of the day. Being a better skier than I and a seasoned local, he made for an excellent tour guide, partly for his knowledge of the parts of the mountain my Mountain Host guide couldn’t show me (hosts seem to be universally restricted from advanced terrain… hire a private guide at $625 a day if you want to get to the good stuff), and partly because skiing with someone better than yourself is a great way to push yourself a little harder, and the confidence of knowing I wouldn’t unexpectedly go over a cliff definitely allows me to ski a bit more aggressively.

We started off on the tram, which was virtually line-free today, heading south through one of the alpine bowls, and into some excellent tree skiing in the Dakota lift area. Most of the mountain has fairly tight trees, similar to Whistler, but a few man-gladed areas, plus a selection of naturally skiable trees like Dakota made for some excellent runs, especially with plenty of fresh lines left through them, a testament to the good acres per skier ratio. After a quick lunch it was time to head over to the Moonlight Basin side, starting off with the highlight of my visit here, the North Summit Snowfields and Deep Water Bowl, coming right off the peak. This is one of two controlled access areas, where you need to sign up for your spot as they only let a limited number of people in per hour (VERY limited). The other is Big Couloir off the summit and right back to the tram, but that run requires avalanche equipment, and is even more limited, to 2 people every 15 minutes.

Skiing down the snowfields was fantastic. Though the visibility was less than great, and the western aspect was a bit windpacked, staying north was heavenly, with deep, very lightly tracked powder. It offers a pretty long vertical ride too, and follows that up with absolutely glorious untouched powder through some more fantastically spaced tree skiing. Certainly the highlight run of my trip so far (Kicking Horse would have been in the running except for my recently done-in tailbone). My guide took me for an efficient route through the rest of Moonlight, though we skipped the other main bowl as it was in pretty bad need of more snow, despite all the fresh powder and being north facing. Nevertheless, but the end of the day I felt I had finally got a handle on the resort, in part thanks to my guide Phillip. After my first run that morning, what with the iffy visibility and wind packed snow, I had questioned my decision to stay another day, but I ended up very glad I did so.

Now my impression of Big Sky/Moonlight Basin is of course coloured by the good conditions they offered up to me, but with an average 400+ inches of snow (about the same as Whistler), two thirds the terrain of WhistlerBlackcomb with a fantastic selection of expert terrain and alpine bowls and chutes, nearly half the lift capacity, similar pricing, but less than 1/3 the peak daily visitors, and lighter interior snow, Whistler definitely has a fight on its hands to maintain superiority. Whistler can only fire back with easier access, a much bigger village (important for many, not at all to me personally, at least as a visitor), and perhaps most importantly more high speed lifts. This fight is close enough that I will have to reserve decision until I can get a fresh look at my home mountain at the end of my trip. Although I will say on each resort’s busiest day (including probably any weekend), Big Sky winds hands down for much smaller lift lines. On a typical slow weekday though, the fight is a close one to me.

The snow was coming down again, and tomorrow would be yet another excellent day. I wished I had time to stay another day, but I had already taken more than my budgeted time, and besides my next stop, 186 miles south, is one I am looking forward to very much, given how much I’ve heard of the place from Whistlerites over the years: Jackson Hole.

In the big lot at the main base on the morning of Day 1. Click to view 360° panorama.

At the top of Andesite Mountain, looking west at the fancy Pinnacle restaurant and Big Sky's impressive main peak.

At the top of Andesite Mountain, looking west at the fancy Pinnacle restaurant and Big Sky’s impressive main peak.

A short walk from the above photo is the proper peak, with a complete view of Big Sky's main mountain. Click to view 360° panorama.

Even their utility sheds are fancy here. Note the insane zip line in the background crossing the valley.

Even their utility sheds are fancy here.
Note the insane zip line in the background crossing the valley.

Typical Big Sky slopeside house

The slopeside houses here, and there are alot of them, put to shame anything I’ve seen before. Most are on estates measuring a few acres to boot. Big Sky is where I first learned the expression “a 10-10-2-2”, meaning a $10 million, 10,000 square foot house that is used by 2 people 2 times a year. Pretty telling. Though for Whistler you don’t get as much for your money so it is 10-5-2-2.

Half way down the south slopes, having come off the big peak and through Dakota Bowl. Click to view panorama.

Near the bottom of the big bowl on the insane eastern face of Long Mountain's peak. The bottom tram station is just visible behind a roll. Click to view 360° panorama.

Looking into Stillwater Bowl near the top of Moonlight Basin. I'm about to make a rather harrowing hike along the top of this bowl to access the other side of the ridge. In better years this bowl is skiable.

Looking into Stillwater Bowl near the top of Moonlight Basin. I’m about to make a rather harrowing hike along the top of this bowl to access the other side of the ridge. In better years this bowl is skiable.

Right next to Big Ski is the Yellowstone Club, a decidedly high end private ski resort.

Right next to Big Ski is the Yellowstone Club, a decidedly high end private ski resort.

Whitefish – almost a big player

The drive from Schweitzer, Idaho to Whitefish, Montana was indeed a good haul. Some 200 miles or so. It took me longer than expected, as they all do, but it was another frequently picturesque drive so no complaints here. I arrived in Kalispell, some 30 miles south of the mountain and big enough to get all the big box stores, as it was just starting to get dark. I took advantage of the city’s size to make a stop at Costco, then hunkered down for the night in the parking lot of a machine shop (deep into the rural area so wasn’t so it was actually a nice enough place to stop), hoping they would be able to address my out of balance furnace fan in the morning. When light broke it turned out they couldn’t, so I made the final run up to the mountain to get there in time for opening. It is worth noting that the town of Whitefish, several miles south of the resort, is definitely one of the cutest towns I’ve seen on this trip, and I’ve seen some quaint looking tourist towns. They’ve done a phenomenal job of keeping an old timey look, even though it is bigger than most “old” towns, and there is clearly money being found as the place was near pristine, with a fair bit of newer construction around.

I arrived to find a very similar mountain village layout to Schweitzer; a bowl with housing and condos lining much of it. In very general terms the overall layout of the mountain was the same too, but with an extra bowl off the left backside and nearly as constant and open a front face. The devil is in the details they say, and that holds true in geography as well, as Whitefish had alot of valleys and facets, making for a very different experience.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. SInce the orientation tours start till 10:30 I took a warmup run through the easier left flank (skier’s right) of the hill, then took the high speed quad that takes you right to the top, for a run down the left back bowl, Hellroaring Basin. I’ve learned that if I’m going to do any runs before tours, it is best to make them black terrain since mountain hosts are not allowed to do anything but blues and sometimes the odd easy black, and with so little time to explore a mountain this big (3000 acres) I can’t afford to double up. That plus, miracle of miracles, there was fresh snow overnight, a good 15cm/6″ I’d say, so I wanted to get some of it in lest it get skied out. Boy was it nice to feel fresh snow again, event if I did frequently get to harder spots peaking through.

Tour time arrived and I went out with our guide and a couple from Seattle, who got hear via a hefty 9 hour drive. I discovered from them that while I had never heard of Whitefish before (previously called Big Mountain) it is fairly well known in the Seattle area and quite a few people make the drive out for the odd weekend. As a result of weekenders coming out for an early start to the President’s Day long weekend (other than Christmas break generally the busiest weekend of the year for ski resorts) and presumably a good turnout of locals excited about new snow, there were actually quite a few people out here for a Friday, but certainly not enough that I ever had to wait in a real line. Just enough to keep the place feeling animated. One fairly quick but efficient tour later I had a handle on the layout of the place, a good thing since the clouds were coming down and quickly starting to obscure the upper mountain.

While the tour did give a general grasp on the layout of the place, as I mentioned before Whitefish has alot going on geographically. Like other hills with alot of facets it makes it harder to find your way around but usually makes the place feel bigger since every time you turn you seem to be in a whole differnt ski area, and Whitefish is an exceptionally good example of this. To the point that I actually wished I had a couple more hours to explore the place, as I didn’t feel I fully did it justice. There were a few faces and valleys I hadn’t got through at all.

Terrain selection at Whitefish is very good. A decent selection of double blacks and nice singles complement a good helping of blues and greens. There is actually a bit of a separation of terrain here, with two areas that are clearly for beginners, a good swath of primarily blue, and then plenty of black on the upper mountain and in the bowls, with a ribbon or 2 of blue running through each. I don’t know if the idea of terrain separation is a good one or not. On the one hand people who are still fairly new to the sport or otherwise timid are often happy to know they are not going to accidentally end up on a harder run than they wanted. On the other hand people frequently say they like to be able to ski together (ie. share a chair up) but run near parallel runs where some can take it easy and some can give ‘er. Ultimately I think Whitefish’s organization does well here, since the greens are almost fully separated, which are generally the timid ones, and there is a mix of blue and black for the seasoned ski family to enjoy.

Whitefish seems to get into almost-alpine. There are a couple faces that are naturally sparse on trees to give a somewhat alpine feel, but at 6800’ the tree line does go right to the peak. The trees are good in a few areas, and on this day the snow in the trees was excellent, deep and soft with no hint of the hardpack underneath. However the majority of the trees are a too tight for my liking, closer to the natural density we get in Whistler. One area of trees in the back bowl I couldn’t get to as, again just like Schweitzer, a short T-bar on the far end of a ridge was closed. I didn’t have the time to hike it here though.

One thing that really sunk in at this stop was beards seem to be in style (on men only, thankfully). I don’t know if it is a trend exclusive to the skiing crowd, but it seems about half the male staff I’ve come across on this trip are bearded, and alot of local/hardcore skiers share the look. Perhaps as a result I’ve got alot of “cool beard man” in response to my decidedly full facial coiffure, a look which is practical on cold days but not long for this world, as it is to b e lopped off any day now, along with the hair, as the goal of a $2000 fundraiser for a cancer charity.

To close out the too-short day, I ran out to the lower base lodge, which is distinct from the village where I started out the day. While both base areas have plenty of parking and basic facilities, it seems the base lodge is setup more for the day skier whereas the village is more of the destination visitor stop, with more restaurant and pub services. While it appears that the base lodge is probably the original base, the lodge itself looks brand new, whereas the village has some rustic (in a good way) elements.

A short lift took me back up to the village where I was parked. Although Whitefish has free overnight RV parking, the allure of the warmer valley called out to my battery eating furnace, and I made my way back down the hill, passing some decidedly upscale looking properties on the way, most of them on generous patches of land. Space does indeed seem to be a standard in Montana. But as winter scenery always provides a sharp contrast of dark trees to white snow, amidst all the high end properties were a number of tiny residences that looked like they should have been condemned years ago, some packed fairly close together, others also on big patches of land. I drove past the same pattern for quite a while, ending up well south of Kalispell on the edge of cell reception in ranch and forestry land where no-one would hear my generator. It was quite dark by the time I found a near perfect spot just off the quiet highway but tucked away behind trees for some privacy. Besides the question of cold, I was also anxious to make a bit of time this afternoon as tomorrow I had my longest drive yet: another 300 miles (from my stopping point) to Big Sky, my first in a string of major resorts that will take me almost all the way through to the end of the trip (with only Oregon offering up some more regional class stops). Things are about to get interesting in a whole ‘nother way.

Whitefish is definitely poised to be a big player, with a big mountain offering very good terrain, a great average snowfall, a basic selection of destination visitor accommodation and services, and the very attractive tourist town of Whitefish below, which also happens to be on a passenger rail line, providing an opportunity for a fantastic all around tourist experience. Does it snap at Whistler’s heals? Not quite. While certainly a recommended option for the destination visitor, it doesn’t quite offer the terrain selection Whistler does, mostly due to the missing alpine experience, and if you’re looking for a big swanky village, this is not your place. But it does offer an experience decidedly different to Whistler which may be just the thing for you if you like a more quaint, old school ski area without the small terrain and old lifts.

Whitefish village and town

Looking down from between chair 1 and 2 at the mountain village in the foreground and the town of Whitefish in the background, left of the lake.

On Ed's Run (I think) with the core of the tourist village right in view this time. Click to view.

The lower base area, with the very new looking but not very creatively named Base Lodge.

Schweitzer – the result of extra effort

I reluctantly left my shore power early on Tuesday as I had a fairly long trip to make to Schweitzer, across the border in Idaho. Yep, I’m finally finished with Canada. Took a fair bit longer than I expected. I drove back over the pass between Salmo and Creston, but in good weather and full daylight this time so I got to enjoy the scenery. Across the border (which almost wasn’t uneventful, when the guards at the tiny crossing took offense at my using the truck lane because I wasn’t sure if I would clear the covered passenger lane… really guys, am I going to make a run for in in an RV vs your patrol cars? Maybe they thought I would pull a Condorman and take off in a hidden supercar).Idaho started off relatively flat, as I envisioned, a trend that started in BC shortly before the border.

Of course Idaho isn’t completely flat, as Schweitzer, just outside of the town of Sandpoint,  proves quite nicely. Not that it is especially tall with a highpoint of 6400′ and a base of 4000, but it certainly does the job with a typical 300″ of snowfall. Getting up the hill takes a bit of a climb from the 2100ft valley floor, up an approximately 10km road with several sections that could use some surface repair. This certainly isn’t the first hill with a less than pristine road running up to it, something that keeps surprising me. But I suppose Whistler has simply spoiled me to the reality of ski area roads. When I got to the top it was getting dark so I couldn’t enjoy the view of Sandpoint below. I found the RV camping area right next to the slopes (albeit with a short hike or slow old chair to get to the main staging level) and set up shop. I had called earlier and was told about the $15 RV parking, which I was happy about thinking it would include power. This turned out to be a bad assumption though, as it buys you nothing but the spot to park (wasn’t quite flat to boot, but not super bad) and some off-kilter portable toilets. To boot, it was $20, not $15. Hardly a great deal after the Red experience the night before. But I wasn’t about to drive back down the hill at this point, so I called it a night.

The morning brought good news with the sky being mostly clear. The first thing this showed me was the wide open front side of Schweitzer. It is essentially a giant bowl with one short arm and one long one. Pretty much everything is visible from any point, which is great for finding your bearings, especially for the more timid visitor who is scared to explore. We get quite a few of these coming for our orientation tours at Whistler (not to say all tour guests are timid), and we’re glad they do, because the alternative is a guest spending their whole week skiing one or 2 chairs and never getting out to see the rest the place has to offer. Back to Schweitzer. There is also a back bowl on the other side of the longer ridge, and it isn’t exactly a small bowl either. It offers most of the expert terrain, and a whole lot of tree skiing. While Schweitzer doesn’t have an alpine, some of the cleared faces on both bowls do feel like it. Skiing down the spine of the longer ridge, a run cleverly called the Great Divide, you can actually see into both bowls, giving you an all but complete view of the entire resort. And it ain’t no small resort at 2900 acres.

That view includes the small base area village and pretty much all the on hill accommodation, which is quite neatly laid out climbing the sides of the large gentle bowl. The village appears largely new, and quite nicely done, kept in good nick. The housing was a mix, with a number of fairly new slopeside developments, and several 80s or maybe even 70s houses and condos/townhouses.

The snow this day was… inconsistent. The grooming was excellent, and I heard this isn’t unusual. They do alot of grooming here too, including several blacks which alot of people seem to like. I never quite understood the attraction though, as groomed blacks tend to get scraped into hardpack in no time at all, and I’m a horrible skier on hardpack. It wasn’t exactly a busy day so the grooming lasted pretty well, though once well used it did turn fairly hard. Although there was a bit of new snow, it didn’t seem to help alot, as the snow underneath had been wind packed and through a thaw/freeze cycle. I managed to find some spots of pretty decent deeper snow on the North Bowls, but it was punctuated by spots of the hard stuff coming through. Too bad, it was almost great. I did however managed to find a few good spots in the trees, and as the fairly warm day went on the snow softened up. Better than the snow conditions I’ve been getting lately in any case. One thing that I never expected to say in my life was “Some of the best snow is in Australia”. This was, not surprisingly to those who come from down under, the result of a run of that name, not the country.

Less tracked snow was available but you had to grab a snowcat to get at it. An interesting service I thought, having cat skiing directly adjacent to the main resort. Undecided if it makes sense from a business perspective. Part of me would think “why would I pay so much for something I’m getting cheaper here?”, but on a real chewed up day when I see lots of potential if the runs were just not tracked out, it would be a quick and easy (and tempting) transition into the higher end service.

Cat skiing would not be my first experience of the day, as I’m not made of silver (gold is reserved for heliskiing of course). But I would have a first in the form of a visitor in the RV at lunch. I always expected there would be more visiting happening between RVs, and this is the first time it happened. It was interesting to hear the approach another RVer took to skiing with mobile accommodation. I was a bit jealous of my neighbour though, as he had a sleeker Class B+ that got 50% better fuel mileage, despite having the identical chassis. Interior was definitely nicer than mine too, with a slideout to boot, which made his interior feel way bigger. I was tempted to offer a trade, since he was working on selling his to get a class C much like what I have… except a BigFoot model which is significantly better, with an increased price tag to match.

I came back from lunch to hit the the back bowl and upon arriving at the bottom of the Stella chair found something rather unique. The base station is inside a building… but one that I’m told was designed by Disney, a claim that wouldn’t surprise me at all as the building was just so excellently build and decorated to look like what I would call a late wild west era machine shop, complete with big period machinery. Every time you load this lift, you feel like you’ve just stepped through a Disneyland ride. This was the second sign of the extra effort Schweitzer puts in, the first one the amount and quality of grooming. Perhaps the biggest sign was the fantastic staff. I’ve come across a couple resorts with standout front line staff already, but Schweitzer takes the cake so far. I don’t remember coming across a single blah liftee or validator. Smiles all around, waves from liftees inside the top huts, and frequently enthusiastic liftees just having a good time playing their tunes, carving snow, and happy to briefly chat as you load. I would credit the good weather for the mood, but Schweitzer has had unusually good weather this year (comes along with the lower than average snowfall) so this wasn’t some special standout day. So whatever you’ve done to keep staff happy Schweitzer, kudos.

Schweitzer did fall short on two items thought. One chair was closed, which wasn’t an issue since it was mildly redundant, but the T-bar at the far end of the back bowl was closed which did limit access to a bit of terrain. I ended up hiking the short t-bar line to cover the area anyway. The second item was no orientation tours on weekdays. This points more towards Schweitzer’s semi-local hill status. That’s a hard argument ot make given that this place is big, well equipped, has lots of destination resort amenities, and a very good reputation, but somehow it remains a relatively unknown place and a couple staff described it as more of a local/regional hill. Still, it was a shame for me as there is always lots of good info to be had from a mountain host.

Near the end of day I took one more run on the old Snow Ghost chair in the back bowl (looks to be the exact same model as 2 of the chairs at Whitewater… except no safety restraint at all, and minimal chair sides… I don’t know how people don’t fall off these things all the time) and the bottom station was playing Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone. As he asked how it feels to be an unknown, homeless, lone rolling stone I couldn’t help but think… not so bad!

It was time for this rolling stone to mozy on as I wasn’t interested in spending another $20 to park here, so I pulled anchor and took the short road down the mountain to Sandpoint, got a bit of gas (cheaper here, but cheaper yet at my next stop in Montana), some groceries (significantly cheaper than back home), and found an RV park to charge the batteries and do a load of laundry. Tomorrow I had a long drive in store to get to Whitefish in Montana.

Morning in the parking lot

The view I woke up to in the lower parking lot, which like red is right beside the slopes (but unfortunately loses out to Red as you have to ski down and take the slow novice chair or hike up hill).

Front face

Schweitzer's front face viewed from the top of the Great Escape chair.

Standing at the top of Lakeside Chutes, Schweitzer's reasonable facsimile of double black terrain. Click to view.

Just down North Ridge from Lakeside, viewing the other half of the Schweitzer's back bowl. Click to view.

Following the North Ridge all the way to its terminus at the top of the Idyle Our T-bar. On the downside, this meant I had to hike up the T-bar line. On the upside, it meant I could climb the top tower and get this great shot, and had an untracked ski back down. Click to view.

Stella bottom station

The bottom station of the Stella lift looks unique and charismatic from the outside, especially paired with the very authentic wild west styled eatery next door.

nside Stella's lift station

But the unique magic is inside, where it is decorated like a theme park ride. This is the first time in over 20 years that getting onto a lift has felt like part of the attraction.

Machine room Patrol shack

Schweitzer's inventiveness continues with an old chair lift's machine room recycled into a mountain top Patrol shack .

Lakeside bowl

On the edge of Colburn Lake, looking up at the Lakeside Chutes.

Back onto the front side of the mountain, near the top of the Great Escape chair. Click to view.

At the top of the Lakeview chair and the south bowl, looking north back towards the Great Escape chair and down the undeveloped west side of the mountain, which Schweitzer uses to offer cat skiing for well heeled guests. Being able to split up a family where half want to go cat skiing and half want to stay on piste, but still meet up for lunch, is a pretty unique offering. Click to view.

Village

Looking down at Schweitzer's small but very nice alpine village, most of which looked pretty new.

Red – rich in history

The drive to Red Mountain, which is on the ouskirts of Rossland, which is virtually one with Trail, was a pretty short one. I arrived well before lunch, having left Salmo early with the thought of maybe skiing Red that day. But I arrived to heavy clouds/fog, and a better forecast for tomorrow. I had wanted the Monday open to do a couple RV things in Trail, but skiing conditions won out, as they should really. The day spent waiting would be a comfortable one at least, as Red has RV spots right at the base area for $10 a night, including power. The best (official) deal I’ve seen so far.

The next morning showed I had made the right decision. A trace of new snow and threatening blue sky with high clouds was a welcome change to the day before. I hurried to meet the hosts as their first tour starts at an unusually early 9am. Given that Red isn’t a particularly large resort, I should be happy that there are orientation tours at all. Red has an interesting option on the orientation tour docket: a ski instructor will be your guide all day long, taking you into whatever kind of terrain you want, for $99. If you are a high end skier with not much time to learn the mountain, this is a pretty good way to go. I would be tempted except I’m already way over budget on this trip, and checking out the mountain host programs on other hills is an interesting side-goal for me.

I was particularly happy with my host however, as it turned out he spent some of his time helping keep the town museum going, and I loves me a bit of local history. Andy had lived in the area most of his life too, which helped. First I got a lesson in how the town (Trail specifically) started, which is a topic I love. For anyone who has ever heard of Trail, they’ll not be surprised to find out it is the result of mining. which continues in grand scale today. Red Mountain itself is heavy in mine history… including physical history, as the small original hill that started the ski area has over 100km of mining tunnels running through it. Red mountain’s colour is the result of iron in the exposed rocks, and prospectors found plenty of gold in there back many years ago. How most of the shafts are collapsed or closed off of course, but I did get to peak into one easily accessible number, which is known for getting stalagmites of ice in the winter (sadly not this day as it was too warm). I was fortunate enough to see this cave, as I ran into a local ski tour guide who offered to take me there.

There is another surviving mine shaft, in the form of a vent shaft. Normally this presents a significant danger as someone could fall in, but an opportunistic local who built a cabin on Red many years ago build an outhouse over it. He won’t have to call the pump truck to clean out his pit anytime soon. This wasn’t the only cabin on the property. There are several old cabins, predating the resort, within the ski area. One even owns the 40 acres of land around the cabin and is the only one not under the cloud of their cabin not being rebuildable in the case of a fire. They cannot reno either, except for the one land owner. Never thought I’d see a privately owned [property within a ski area. The cabins being forcibly original, the feeling of history was very near. And very cool, if you ask me.

Visible history continues with the old double chair going up Red (which my guide actually helped build as part of the fire department that helped lay the tower foundations all those years ago), which has an almost art deco look to the bottom station. One of the 2 triple chairs held some closer history for me, as it came from Whistler some years ago. While the main day lodge is quite new, a cluster of the base area buildings are decidedly original looking. Passing through the town of Rossland on the way up provides yet more historical eye candy with a main street that looks largely unchanged since inception (or at least, since the last fire took it all out).

The history books have special mention of Red as well. I’m told it held the first ever World Cup race in Canada, and of course it is the hometown of Canadian sporting legend Nancy Green and her siblings. With credentials like that, I expected a pretty big race program here, but surprisingly not so. Likely a victim of mountains with more reliable elevations opening in the (extended) region, not alot of nearby population, and the main town, Trail, has an unusually old average demographic. Not alot of kids to train here.

Like most of the resorts I have been to, especially the smaller ones, there is a good helping of history in its people too. Ski resorts seem to attract alot of retirees, albeit exceptionally active and fit ones. On my predominately weekday visits I often find a near majority of retired folks skiing (and often hosting) and socializing. “Oh hi Judy/Bill!” will ring out frequently as you pass someone or see them from the lift. For a sport with such a young image, retired participants seem to make up a pretty significant chunk of skier visits, especially with so many skiing near daily. It is definitely an in spiring thing to see, and I can only hope my kness and hips hold out long enough for me to join their ranks one day (ski the winter, RV the summer… sounds like a good life to me).

Now, the terrain. No significant alpine here as Rossland’s elevation is definitely on the low side. This has, I’m told, made this season in particular difficult for them, but this day they were doing pretty well for snowbase. Like pretty much everyone on this continent this season, they could still use more though, and they definitely were due for a fresh dump as it had been a week or more since anything more than an inch fell. The grooming was very good in most places though, and especially as the day worn on and warmed up plus dropped a couple centimeters, some of the offpiste became enjoyable too. There is plenty of both here with 1700 acres. I didn’t come across any particularly extreme terrain, but there are alot of good trees and cleared steeps so no getting bored here. I didn’t get to quite as much of the back bowl as I would have liked due to conditions and the trade-off to spend more time soaking up history rather than steeps. The trees once again are plentiful and well spaced, though I’m not sure how much of the glading has been shaped by the hand of man on this hill. The terrain layout is interesting. The namesake and original Red Mountain is fairly small, some 1300ft of vertical, and the developed side is predominantly facing the base area. Newer Granite Mountain provides most of the 2900ft of vertical, and it developed on all sides. It is also home to the majority of the original cabins (not that there are many).

As seems to happen so often, it started snowing pretty decently towards the end of the afternoon, with the thick cloud and limited visibility accompanying it, but as soon as I got off the hill, the skies parted and the tail end of the sun came out. I’m not sure what causes this seemingly cynical weather pattern but it is something I see very frequently back home at Whistler too. It really does feel like Mother Nature is hatin’ on ya.

Speaking of Whistler, how do they compare? Again the comparison is not very valid. While Red does have some slopeside accommodation, the facilities are fairly basic, including the lifts. Not that Red is really a local ski area either. They do get their share of destination visitors, and things like the full time Mountain Host program are certainly geared toward tourists. The terrain at Red is well varied other than the lacking alpine, but certainly doesn’t offer quite the selection. However, it does quite well with its 1700 acres. The 360 degree facets of Granite provide plenty of opportunities to see something new and different. Red is certainly worth a visit, especially so if you dig a bit of history with your skiing like I do.

Thanks to Red’s fabulous RV accommodation offer, I stayed put for the night, watching the ski clear right up and the temperature drop. Skiers the next day would look to have a good time in store, adding another day to the history of Red.

Ultimate RV parking

Parked the RV all of 100 ft from the slopes, with power to boot.

The base area at Red, some 60 seconds' stroll from my accommodations. Click to view.

Old facilities

While the main daylodge appears new and is decidedly modern, Red has a strong sense of history with some original looking facilities.

Art Deco lift

The only lift I have ever seen whose designers paid attention to aesthetics. It doesn't come through well in the photo unfortunately, but there was something decidedly Art Deco about it.

Grandfathered cabin

Even older than the lift above (I think) are the handful of cabins scattered around the ski area. All but one are grandfathered in and will ultimately disappear one day.

Mine shaft

Older than even the ski area itself are the mine shafts that riddle Red Mountain. This one is fairly easy to get too, though the ice blocked entrance was tight. Thanks to D.L.'s Powder Tours, without whom I would never have found it, and that would be a shame as I absolutely love old mines.

Of course nothing is older than the mountains themselves. This is the view from the top of Red Mountain. Sadly the weather didn't give me a chance to get the more spectacular shot from the larger Granite Mountain. Click to view.

Canada's first World Cup Downhill course

The historical photo tour concludes where the ancient terrain meets the ski area, with the course for Canada's first World Cup Downhill race in 1968, thanks to the demands of local superstar Nancy Greene. The course is a piece of cake compared to modern courses.

Whitewater – big mountain, little package

The drive to Whitewater was a long one, a bit over 300km from Fernie. I realized that I had been quite spoiled by how near many BC and Alberta resorts are to each other. Of course I couldn’t resist stopping in the Walmart on my way back through Cranbrook, once again going in for 2 things and coming out with 10. I was lucky that the weather held off as my route included a pretty big mountain pass that would have been dicey in anything more than a dusting of snow, especially given the frequent signs of large avalanches that clearly cross this highway. I couldn’t actually stop for the night in Whitewater, despite their allowance of overnight RV parking, as there is no cell service there… or indeed almost everywhere along the corridor south of the resort. I parked on the side of a quiet road in Salmo, the only point south that has cellular coverage, and quickly fell asleep.

I arrived in Whitewater the next morning to a fair amount of activity, this being a Saturday. Almost everyone here seems to be from Nelson, which is just 20km away. It is very much a local hill. Well, at least insofar as the minimal and less than fancy facilities (a single middle aged building housing all services), the 3 fixed grip chairs (2 of which are about the oldest things I have ever seen), and the crowd that comes here. But the terrain belies that local status. There isn’t a ton of it at almost 1200 acres, but they make very good use of that area, and the backcountry access is easy and plentyful.

However it isn’t a resort, so no mountain hosts to show me around. I can’t imagine there is much demand for such a service anyway. Everyone here is a local with a season pass, or a hard core ski bum who heard this is one of the places to be. As I did. Several times. In the last dozen stops I think I had no less than 4 people tell me I have to visit Whitewater. I hadn’t actually planned to include it initially as it did indeed sound like another little local hill. I’m glad people told me otherwise. I talked to a few people on the (slow) lift rides this day who were well aware of their mountain’s reputation. It has been written up in magazines a number of times, referred to as a hidden jewel for those seeking powder. The message seemed to have been heard as the average level of expertise here was very high, and almost everyone was rocking fat boards.

Ullr (the snow god) didn’t seem to be with me this day though. Despite the claimed 40ft annual snowfall (I’ve seen 45 feet mentioned a couple times too) it hadn’t snowed much for a week, and perhaps an inch overnight. And last time they did have a big dump it all turned rather hard. After a few nicely groomed runs on the two older faces of the ski area, I went over to the Glory Ridge area, just opened for last season and definitely part of the reason for the recent interest in Whitewater, and got a hot tip from the lifty there: try Backside Bowl. He was right. This north facing, heavily treed side of the mountain hadn’t fully hardened up. The snow was actually pretty decent. More to the point though: oh the trees! This place has fanTAStic tree skiing. I don’t think I have ever seen such consistently perfect tree spacing, and naturally so at that. I began to realize just why this place was getting race reviews. Trees are of course a great way of making a relatively small amount of terrain feel much bigger, because you can just keep making up new runs. Thanks to the amount of such perfect trees this place can boast, you end up feeling like you are at a much bigger resort.

Tree skiing isn’t limited to the Backside Bowl area though. There is great tree skiing all over this hill, some with alot more spacing, none that gets real tight. There is some open alpine-esque terrain too, in the form of Catch Basin, but it is quite limited. A bit of hiking will take care of that though, as the large bowl coming off Ymir peak (and right back into the base area) is an easy high off the top of Silver King chair. I can’t say I know what the avalanche control status of that area is though. For me, I could spend a few days playing happily in the trees here though, so I’m not about to complain about the lack of alpine.

As the day went on it dropped another inch of snow, but then got decidedly warm. For me, this worked out great, because more of the mountain was softening up nicely, and I got some good skiing in places other than Backside. I don’t think it will be very pleasant for anyone coming the next day though as it will have hardened up even more. Hopefully the snow keeps coming, as it is wont to do in Whitewater.

I suspect the place is dead on weekdays, but this weekend there were plenty of people there (even waited 3 minutes in line once), and the atmosphere was excellent. I generally don’t expect a particularly upbeat atmosphere at a local hill, but this place had it in spades. Friendly skiers, and some of the friendliest and cheeriest staff I’ve seen. All very low key and real though. There was no commercial feel to this place. That may change one day as they have big expansion plans and new owners who are said to be committed to funding them, but they claim to be aware of the value of the current atmosphere and will work to keep it.

The snow being as decent as it was in the afternoon (although by then a bit too heavy in the trees where it was deeper) I skied right through last chair. By then I felt thoroughly familiar with with hill, which is after all always my goal. Far from being bored though, I would have gladly spent another couple days finding new lines through the trees… well, with better snow conditions. Given the lack of cell service I had to say bye (I really hate wasting an opportunity for such a perfect place to park for the night) and made my way back south towards Salmo, and another less than spectacular spot off the side of a road in a quiet industrial area. Batteries were getting a bit low despite the warm temperatures (which mean my furnace fan has to work alot less) and I was down to 1/4 tank so no more generator usage tonight. Good thing I have another long drive coming up in a couple days to give the batteries a proper charge.

The very local-hill-feeling base area. Click to view.

Whitewater Backcountry

Looking into the backcountry from the top of Powder Keg bowl.

Near the top of Powder Keg Bowl again, looking towards the resort this time. Click to view.

Whitewater Glory Ridge

The view from the Glory Ridge side, with the access road running through the valley below.

Whitewater from the parking lot, showing how the resort wraps around the base. Click to view.

Fernie – lots for everyone

Well, almost everyone. Not sure that there is a ton for non-skiing sightseers, but everyone else has terrain for days. Fernie has some of the most extensive green runs I have seen anywhere, something that is often lacking at other resorts. But there are no shortage of blues, blacks, and doubles too. A good mix of alpine and subalpine delivers the best of both worlds to advanced skiers, with fantastic tree skiing plus a decent helping of chutes and alpine bowls. Unfortunately much of the alpine is serviced by the brand new Peak chair, and there was near zero visibility on the top part of the mountain, so all I got out of the alpine this day was a single vertigo inducing run through the fog.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First I had to get there. I reluctantly left my shore power and WIFI at the RV park access early in the morning to get to a nearby insulation shop, cleverly named “HIgh R Expectations”. Being the slow season for them, I was able to get a next day appointment to have the underside given a coat of spray foam insulation. When I had thermal photos taken of the RV back in Vernon, the floor looked like the likely candidate for the biggest heat loss, so I was hoping this operation would make a big difference, especially given the $450 price tag. I got a little extra value out of the visit as they took their router to run window frame channels in the insulation board that was to block out my bedroom windows. I also took the exquisite luxury of time in a heated shop to throw some insulation behind the tail lights, which were massive heat holes.

After that, it wasn’t a long drive to Fernie along the Crowsnest highway. The ski area itself is just a couple kilometers off the highway. When I arrived at the base the very nicely placed RV park came into view, but unfortunately I wouldn’t be staying there. Fernie offers season long RV parking only, Overnight parking is also not allowed as a rule, which is a bit sucky. However I would seem to have caught parking staff on a good day and was given permission to stay at the back of the farthest lot (bit of a walk) for the night.

I woke up to heavy cloud sticking to the top of the mountain, but the majority of the vertical was perfectly clear. Only a dusting of snow had fallen overnight. Add this to several days of no snow and this was looking to be a groomer-only day. I quickly found a mountain host to ask about tour time and got a bit of a shocker: Fernie hosts don’t do orientation tours anymore. Ski School does them instead, for a fee. Boo. Why ski school departments (not just at this hill certainly) think that free orientation tours are taking business away from them I will never understand. Someone who wants a quick show around the mountain on primarily blue runs and someone who wants a ski pro spending the day touring them around and offering ski improvement at the same time, are not the same person. I did however get some good info from my excellent hosts Dave and Jeff and tagged along for a couple runs while they did their duty of giving directions to people scratching their heads at a map (people really aren’t very good at maps in general, and alpine ski maps tend to be particularly difficult beasts with their three dimensional nature).

Fernie is definitely a case of segregation of areas making the place feel bigger than its 2500 acres. The five bowls/valleys Fernie offers are entirely distinct from each other what with them all being lined up next to each other. The only time you get a chance to glimpse both is when sitting right on one of the ridges, but most of the time each one is its own world. Thankfully, each world is sufficiently large that it has many lines to offer, rather than just feeling like a little nook. Well, with the possible exception of Siberia Bowl, which is fairly limited.

The trees at Fernie are pretty fantastic. Almost everywhere I looked they are spaced just right, and given the volume of such perfectly spaced trees, I can only assume that it is natural, not hand thinning.  It certainly made me wish for a nice fresh dump of snow. Actually, there was plenty of untracked snow in many of the trees, but a thaw/freeze cycle several days earlier had left it not nearly as enjoyable as it looked.

Fernie, like everyone else in eastern BC, hadn’t seen new snow for a few days, but it was weathering it quite well. The groomed runs were in pretty good condition, with scraped hard(ish) pack only realy showing its teeth late in the day in the busier areas. Off-piste varied, but for the most part what remained of the power that fell a week or so ago was just soft enough to be somewhat enjoyable, though not nearly what it could be. Given how long ago the last dump came, I was surprised to see so much lightly tracked snow. A testament to the amount of advanced terrain at Fernie.

The base area does a good job of maintaining some character, with plenty of old school log and wood building. Somehow they strike a nice balance between the big base area necessary for a major resort, but a style that doesn’t come across as big resort commercial. The giant ski poles add a touch of light heartedness too.

Of course not everything about Fernie is big resort spec. For one thing only 2 of their 7 chairs are high speed. Even the brand new Peak chair that went in earlier this winter is fixed grip. I can’t say that was ever an issue however. Being a weekday I never came across any lines and none of the chairs felt particularly slow. Perhaps more important, the chairs are arranged pretty well, such that every chair offers a good ski back down, something which is surprisingly uncommon at most resorts. Some of the chairs appear to overlap a bit judging by the map, but generally they service a different face of a ridge.

So does Whistler have something to worry about with Fernie? Yes and no. Fernie’s excellent mix of terrain for different abilities of skiers certainly trumps what WhistlerBlackcomb has to offer (I’ve always thought we were woefully short on green terrain, especially if you discount the green cat tracks). For a blue or black skier there is plenty of terrain to keep you busy for a week visit. The snow, like all interior hills, tends to be lighter. But that is where the outright advantages end. I’m told the upper hill is frequently in thick clouds, meaning the alpine experience is limited. While the village is charismatic, not everyone is going to prefer this style of village. It certainly doesn’t have the dining and nightlife options that Whistler has. And like most of the resorts in this area, the trip (from Calgary airport) is a big of a haul and prone to difficult road conditions. Suffice it to say though, Fernie is worth a visit.

My visit was unfortunately done however, and since Fernie isn’t RV friendly (except for the full season spots, which is great if you are going to be there often) I made a quick stop for groceries and kitty litter (I hear it makes for a great traction agent if you’re stuck… tho so far I haven’t been) in town, and headed back on the highway till I found a cleared area next to the tracks and little else where I could run my generator to my heart’s content. Funny how I love these little out of the way places, even with a loud train rumbling by every so often.

Village

Fernie's mountain village at the ski area base. No, the novelty poles are not just close to the foreground, they are that big.

Village gate

The main entrance to the village, which is quite nicely done with a good sense of authentic character.

Viewing deck

From the viewing deck at the top of the Timer Bowl chair (I think)

Fernie

Fernie panorama

Full panorama taken from Lizard Bowl if I remember correctly. Click to view full size.

Fernie

Backcountry gate

Electronic backcountry access gate. Only opens when it detects that you are wearing an avalanche beacon.

Panorama – racing lives here

The views did not end with the drive through Banff. My route southwest the morning after Sunshine Village took me out of Banff national park and into Kootenay national park. Another incredible day’s drive through the beautiful rockies, and on a bluebird day to boot. I was struck this day just how many of the trailheads were open for business. I passed one parking lot after another, all perfectly plowed and with a number of cars parked in each, presumably semi locals out for a day hike/snowshoe. I realize these parks are going to be major destinations for summer tourists, but the number of winter users was surprising to me. But then, I suppose if I liked near such a beautiful place and had access to these amenities, I would be out here too.

No, wait, I wouldn’t, because I have lived in a beautiful place with lots of winter and summer hikes for years, and have very rarely taken advantage of that lucky fact. That has GOT to change.

I finally left the rockies in grand style by passing Radium Hot Springs. The actual hot springs feels like something right out of the Lord of the Rings to me. Eerie. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to take a dip as the day was wearing on and I still had a ways to go. Only thing I did stop to do in Radium was to pick up a park pass to satisfy the condition on the notice of violation I got this morning. They have people to drive around to all their trail heads and pass out tickets, but nobody to man the info centers or toll booths so you can actually buy a pass (other than the one here in Radium). I had figured that park passes only applied in the summer. Go figure that one out.

Not much later I pulled through the small and seemingly unplanned town of Invermere, the nearest town to Panorama. Climb a few kms roughly west and Panorama comes into view, a small village at the base of big ski hill. And yet, it comes across as a much larger operation than the town size would suggest. They definitely have the bigger resort amenities all taken care of. A gondola connecting additional parking lots and a bunch of outdoor facilities (tennis etc in summer) to the upper village, a fancy central rental accommodations check-in, a substantial set of buildings holding ski hill services at the base of the main lifts, a central recycling and garbage drop off… all the conveniences and facilities I only expect of a bigger place.

But then Panorama isn’t a small place. 2800+ acres and 4000ft vertical  plus regular  visitors coming in all the way from Calgary are good signs of that. Though I had to admit, I’ve seen a number of resorts in the mid 2000 acres range which here decidedly lower key as far as amenities go. As is the history of racing here. Panorama has hosted World Cup events, and has well attended athlete training programs, right up to World Cup level. Walking into the rental & repair center at the base of the lifts I see signed posters wishing World Cup racer Manny (Manuel Osborne) good luck, something I would see several times throughout my day. I also run into a couple girls on a chair that were there for the weekend all the way from Calgary for training… a trip they make every second weekend. I quickly find out this isn’t unusual. The extra 2+ hours to get here rather than Lake Louise certainly says something about the racing program here.

I of course wasn’t here for racing, especially with my tailbone still rather tender. And since they hadn’t had new snow in a few days that only left nice weather to look forward to. Waking up presented nothing but low cloud cover to me however. Thankfully the large vertical at Panorama took care of the problem this day, as the clouds broke about half way up the second chair, and brought me to flue skies and an incredible vista across the valley where Inveremere sits, to the Rockies running both ways as far as the eye could see. To the naked eye at least, it appears to be an almost unnaturally straight line of mountains too.

After a couple warmup runs on some nice but solid grooming, I took up with several other guests for a orientation tour. The host program here is quite popular I’m told, with a rather strong tendency being guests that come for a tour (or 2) every day of their stay. Something we don’t get alot of at WhistlerBlackcomb. Being a weekend, there are several people up for a tour this day, with our tour guides being a rather happy bunch.

Of course, you can’t cover all that much group in a tour group, so I grab my lunch back in the RV and prepare to head out on my own for the afternoon, as usual. But not before picking up my skis which I dropped off before lunch at the tuning shop, with an order for edge sharpening, a wax, and a badly needed base grind and repair. Part of me really wants to just buy new skis instead of spending money getting these ones workable, but I am worried that I would just destroy them on rocks again, here or elsewhere.

And there are plenty of rocks. The groomed terrain is generally all in good shape (other than getting fairly scrapped up to show the hard pack underneath, and I do not ski well on hard pack… even with new edges), but their somewhat hyped Taynton bowl, where much of their double black terrain lives, has its share of rocks to avoid. There is a fair bit of nice snow left mind you, near the top of the slops in particular. Given it has been several days seen a good dump of snow, this is a decent achievement.

In a way Panorama doesn’t feel quite as large as it is. I got the feeling this was because of all the different faces and areas the hill has, as opposed to the open space of Sunshine. And yet the separated areas at Louise made it feel bigger I thought. Not quite sure why that is. Perhaps it is just that all of Panorama is treeland and below, and that keeps areas visually separate. No alpine terrain here.  On the positive side of the segmented mountain, I kept feeling like I was discovering a while new area each section I hit.

I quite enjoyed the one run I had time for through Taynton bowl. This and a few runs right off the “old” side of the peak are where all the double blacks are, but they are almost all varying densities of tree skiing. If you like tree skiing, Panorama definitely has you covered. Taynton adds some slightly more open terrain to the expert level mix, with some semi-open bowls between the trees. Unfortunately there is a decidedly long cat track back to the lifts.

One of the nice things about Panorama has the mix of terrain. It felt like it had a better selection and amount of blues and greens than many of the results I have seen, which gives families of varying abilities something for everyone.

Panorama, with its acreage and vertical, and well stocked village is one of the easier comparisons to Whistler I have come across. In this case I would say Whistler maintains its superiority, partly due to the bigger variation in expert terrain, the existence of alpine terrain (which tends to be my favourite), and because while Panorama has all the trappings of the mega resort, it isn’t one. Something feels slightly at odds about that. However, that is a fairly strong personal preference. Others will no doubt prefer this smaller package (including smaller crowds of course). I certainly ran into my share of people during the day who had come here from overseas for the 3rd or 4rd year in a row, so alot of people quite like the way Panorama works.

Panorama above the clouds

Breaking through the clouds revealed a perfectly sunny upper mountain.

Panorama west

Looking west from the top

Panorama east

Looking east to view the Rockies on the far side of the valley.


An old on-hill cabin that was recently closed after being used as an eating place. Considering how incredibly picturesque it is, I do hope they reopen it.

From the top of Taynton bowl, a recently opened area with a bit of a backcountry feel. Some interesting terrain here, but as is so often the case, you do have to hike a bit and the return run is long.

The rather warm afternoon sun had rearranged the snow into this incredible sea of fine flat ice shards. Although they skied somewhat like slush, they were extremely fine and would fly away with a little blow.

Sunshine Village – space and sprawl

After a few hours of work in the morning, as usual, I began episode 2 of the spectacular Icefields Parkway Scenery movie (pictured in . I just can’t get bored of the show. It wasn’t the sunny weather I had been expecting, but the clouds were high above the peaks, so I was a happy practicer of vision. I was struck by the realization that despite having driven through here twice now, and each trip being so memorable, the place is so huge that there are many sections I had forgot. As I wrote before, everyone needs to drive this road at least once. I was also amused that driving a 6 ton RV without snow tires on a sheer ice covered road at 80+ km/h was now normal to me. Never thought I’d see that day. Despite the speed and leaving what I thought was reasonably early, the trip took a while and I arrived back at Louise as it was getting dark. Not wanting to stay in the same place as last time, I went down the little traveled Bow Valley Parkway until I found a small plowed lot and called it a night.

I woke up to a rather spectacular view with Castle Mountain looming above me, a clear sky, and -10 on the outside thermometer. A short drive took me to the base of Sunshine Village, buried deep in a narrow valley, The iconic Sunshine Village gondola takes you on a rather long ride up to the core of the ski hill and the actual village, going through 2 stations to get there (one providing an unusual hard change in direction). Stepping out at the top revealed a sight I had not seen in a while: the sun. This place was living up to its name this day. The sun was out in force and all the bundling up I had done that morning expecting -15 or colder up top was quickly proving to be the wrong decision, as it was warming up quickly.

Another thing I hadn’t seen, ever, was an actual village this high on a hill. A number of hills have a village right at the base, some have one part way up (specifically Big White) but this place, with its small assortment of lodges on top of the handful of restaurants and shops, was way up there. Mind you, in the days before the gondola, when a bus took you up instead, it wouldn’t have been especially unique, but the experience of taking a long gondola up to a village lying just short of the alpine is pretty neat. This is certainly taking the ski-through village to another level.

What really struck me though was not the village, but the space. The village sits at the bottom of a wide open, mostly alpine valley, and provides a massive feeling of space. The main peak one one side, and two small peaks (if you can call them that) on the other are one big open area, with fairly flat open areas on two sides increasing the sense of space. It is a quite spectacular view, and one that makes the place feel bigger than the (rather substantial at 3358) acreage suggests. That’s not all there is to Sunshine either. On the backside of the main peak is the decidedly double black Delirium Dive ridge, accessible only if you have a buddy, shovel, and avalanche transceiver, and across from that ridge is Goat’s Eye mountain, a more traditional feeling expansion to the ski area but one that also offers some nice bowls leading to the foot  of Delirium. Off the far side of Goat’s eye is another section featuring identical access restrictions. However this area was not open as there was not nearly enough snow.

For that matter, Sunshine was hurting for snow almost everywhere. Enough so that they owe me a new pair of skis after all the rocks I hit that day, especially on the advanced trails. This wasn’t so much due to a lack of snow I was informed, but because they’ve had so much wind this season that it all gets blown away as soon as it falls. There were snow fences set up everywhere combating this, and creating ribbons of snow through otherwise mostly bare rocks. Some of the terrain probably shouldn’t have been open at all, as it was all but impossible to avoid the rocks at times.

Between the village and Goat’s Eye, was a small assortment of additional trails and a couple small lifts and it was this area in particular that left Sunshine feeling disjointed, unplanned. Sort of like suburban sprawl, it seemed like Sunshine started from a small area that hadn’t been set up with expansion in mind, and then grew outwards however it could. It added some confusion to navigating the place, which was otherwise very easy to get acquainted with thanks to it being so open. A couple of the main chairs seem like they weren’t planned very well either, with the Strawberry chair not having any discernible value for example, though perhaps its raison d’etre would become clear if I was working in operations there.

One thing that was definitely unplanned, or just badly planned, was the horrible lift line system. Everywhere I have gone to uses the same system maze system (which isn’t really well named). You start with either 2 or 4 (or sometimes even 8) lanes and just merge pairs down till you have the neck heading for the chair itself. Sunshine mostly has that, except they seem to have forgotten the merging part. They will take four lanes plus one singles lane and a ski school lane, and just dump em all together right in front of the tightest and longest pre-load lanes I have ever seen, which make it very hard to pole your way forward and very easy to hook a ski around a post. And it wasn’t just me thinking a different system is lousy. I saw it causing problems all day. The lift line confusion was constant.

Thankfully it wasn’t exactly weekend crowds, although for a midweek day it was surprisingly busy, something that a couple regulars confirmed for me. The consensus seemed to be that the beautiful weather was drawing some of the Calgary crowd (only 1.5 or so hours away) in for a ski. And it was beautiful, but quickly became obvious that it was a bit _too_ sunny. Liftees (who were generally in pretty good spirits, often moving to the dance music that was played at most lifts) were nearly down to t-shirts, I was sweating even after losing a layer and the mitts at lunch, and the snow was decidedly springy by the end of the day. I don’t know that I would have wanted to ski a day later as everything was probably going to be pretty solid.

On the plus side, it isn’t hard to get out of the busy terrain into some mild backcountry. With the place being as open as it was, and the peaks that surrounded the main skiing area, it was very easy to access some backcountry runs with a mild hike. Gates were even set up to clearly show you where to access the outlying areas. And generally they came right back into the ski area so getting lost is not much of a danger.

By the time the lifts closed I felt I had got a solid feel for the mountain, surprising considering its size, but clearly thanks to the openness that leaves little terrain to hide from view. Since there is no parking in the Sunshine lots, I made my way back out to the highway and backtracked towards Castle Junction, where I would turn off to head to my next destination.  Here I found perhaps the best overnighting spot so far, a quiet little lot at the foot of another national park trailhead well away from even the quiet Bow Valley road, and offering a spectacular view to boot. Looking at the map at the trailhead showed a lovely network of trails and had me thinking I really need to do some hiking in the summer. You could easily spend years exploring the trails in Jasper park alone, nevermind this Banff park and Kootenay park which I would be traveling through tomorrow on the way to Panorama back in BC. I would wax on about how this is the most incredible part of the world, but I know from my limited travels that almost everywhere you go has beautiful sights to offer. Still, this has got to be one of the most spectacular places your eyes can fall upon.

Bow Valley Parkway

Traveling east on the Bow Valley Parkway, looking for a place to stop for the night

Castle Mountain

And I sure found a good one. Nicely plowed spot aside the all but deserted road, with Castle Mountain looming, and a partial view of the valley on the other side.

Hwy 1 to Sunshine

The amazing views don't end with the Icefields Parkway

Approaching Sunshine

A bit of morning mist making things look a touch ethereal, as I'm getting close to the turnoff to Sunshine

Sunshine Village

The village in "Sunshine Village", at the top of the gondola. This is the only real alpine village I have seen, as there is no road to get here whatsoever.

South from Lookout

Looking south from Lookout Mountain, The photo only hints at the feeling of space you get here. It is like a large valley except it's well above the surrounding valleys.

Sunshine Village Lookout Mountain

From the peak of Lookout Mountain, with the controlled access area Delirium Dive dropping off in grand fashion. The view seen in the photo above is behind the people seen hiking up.

Sunshine Village

The Village viewed from the west shoulder of Lookout

Goat's Eye

Looking south from Goat's Eye Mountain, with Delirium Dive in full view. I really wished I had avalanche gear to take a run.

Goat's Eye base

The base of the Goat's Eye area. Decidedly more utilitarian than the village.

Top of Wawa

At the top of the Wawa chair, looking into the inviting but flat backcountry.

Standish

On the backside of the peak (and we're stretching the term "peak" here) of Mt Standish.

South Standish

On the south edge of the Standish area, with Lookout and Goat's Eye to the left of center. Most of the open field to the right of center is out of bounds. Seems like a natural spot for a cross country loop.

Icefields Parkway – the world’s most spectacular road?

The road itself isn’t actually spectacular. In fact it is for the most park a dead easy drive. Well engineered, mostly fairly straight and flat. Only gets a bit steep and twisty once I think. But oh, the views. On my way back from Jasper I got to enjoy the views again, this time under even better weather.  I really can’t say anything more to convey how beautiful the drive is, so I’ll just let the photos do the talking.

Starting the trip north

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

The Weeping Wall. A foreign TV crew was here filming some ice climbers when I pulled up to make lunch.

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

At the Weeping Wall turnout.

Icefields Parkway

Facing south in the same spot as above.

Icefields Parkway

The incredible views don't end yet. Only halfway to Jasper.

Icefields Parkway

Starting the Sunwapta pass, the only particularly mountainous stretch of the road.

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

The road is briefly clear just north of the Columbia Icefield (Icefields Centre) as the wind is so strong nothing can sit and collect.

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Heading back south two days later

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

A bit north of the Weeping Wall, where the valley opens up. Click to view full size and then drag the image to rotate.

Icefields Parkway

Lunch with a view. I kinda wanted to just stay there. Such an incredible spot with the valley opened right up to the right.

Icefields Parkway

Someone discovered why traveling the road in winter is not recommended

Icefields Parkway

The lookout at the north end of the Sunwapta Pass. Click to view full size and then drag the image to rotate.

Icefields Parkway

The Columbia Icefield sitting atop a huge horseshoe cliff face

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

The viewpoint pullout where the above photo was taken. I was surprised to see a Raven come visit given hardly anyone comes here this time of year.

Icefields Parkway

After feeding the little beggar (and a friend who showed up as soon as crumbs were produced), the raven took in the view with me.

Icefields Parkway

Taken from the same spot again, looking south along the highway

Icefields Parkway

Icefield Centre

Icefields Centre, the major tourist stop along the parkway, other than the tourism mecca endpoints of Lake Louise and Jasper. Eerily empty (the Inn is outright closed) this time of year. Click to view full size and then drag the image to rotate.

Icefields Parkway

The foot of the Athabasca Glacier at Icefields Centre. Definitely an iconic image of Canada

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Same guy followed me all the way here or another local beggar?

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

South end of the Sunwapta pass

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

As usual my attempts to leave early enough to arrive in daylight fail, as the sun sets a bit north of Lake Louise

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

Icefields Parkway

I wish my camera did a better job of capturing the colours here. Not that any of the photos here really convey the majesty of the scenes.