Marmot Basin at Jasper – a wrong impression corrected

After taking my time getting out of the Lake Louise campground (it is hard to say goodbye to shore power) and thankfully taking care of my tanks as the plow finally cleared the facilities, I started on what I knew was likely to be one of the most memorable legs of my journey: the Icefields Parkway. I drove this road before, heading south, on my motorcycle back in 2006 and the memory has stuck with me pretty hard. It is an incredibly beautiful drive, and I suspected it would be just as, if not more, spectacular in winter. Of course, there were alot more people on the road in ’06, being summer. The highway was near deserted this time, due in part to the road condition being rated poor, with travel not recommended. But the forecast was decent and I had little choice, so I got rolling.

I understood pretty quickly why the rating of “poor”. The road was fully covered in snow or solid ice for the most part. Thankfully the RV handles such surfaces very well, thanks no doubt to sheer weight (it isn’t like I have some highly rated proper snow & ice tires). It also helps alot that the road is very easy to drive. What few curves the road has are usually slight and virtually always well banked. There isn’t much in the way of speed grades either. This is definitely a well laid out and engineered road. It was also well plowed, though I’m sure that wasn’t the case a couple days earlier when I originally planned to do this drive. it was still snowing lightly in some places, but visibility was good, and the winds had died down alot, so I made good time.

It is a good thing the highway was as deserted as it was, since the views mean I didn’t pay nearly as much attention to my driving as I should. The Rockies are world famous for good reason. There isn’t much point in describing it all since it is beyond any words I can craft, and even all the photos below don’t even come close to doing it justice. Besides, I eventually realized that as much as I yearned to share this incredible vista with people, you have to see it for yourself, so instead I encourage anyone who hasn’t been here to do the drive. You can do it in the summer like sane people if you want, it is beautiful then too.

The lack of cars on the highway wasn’t the only thing that made this place deserted. It is very much middle of no-where, and being midweek meant no weekend hikers were at the trailheads (yes, people actually drive into remote places like this in the dead of winter just to spend a day snowshoeing), and virtually all the many Parks Canada facilities and parks are closed for the winter, barring the odd plowed parking lot and pit toilet. Even Icefield Center and The Crossing, the only two significant human outposts were closed for the season. I had my moments where I wondered what the hell I was doing out there.

Despite making pretty decent time and only a short stop to make a sandwitch at the Weeping Wall (how many people can say they’ve done that in winter?) where a TV crew from Planeta Extremo (Brazil) were filming ice climbers, the trip took a while. It is some 230km after all. I found a nice little parking lot at a trailhead just 2km from the ski area turn off (south of the Jasper townsite) a bit before dusk set in. What a perfect place. No-one around to bug with my generator, reasonably flat (very important in an RV that doesn’t have built in levelers), a short, almost flat drive back onto the highway if it snowed overnight, and with the road being so lightly traveled, I knew road noise overnight would be all but nonexistent. And of course, the all important cell signal. Most of the highway has no service. I made use of the newly returned cell signal by making a work call while hiking thru the woods to the pretty little (frozen of course) creek and clearing that is the first of many destinations on this trail system. It was certainly one of those moments where I realized how great the pros of my career are.

The morning didn’t quite bring the beautiful weather that had been forecast for the last couple days, but the clouds were high leaving decent visibility so I wasn’t complaining. The drive up to the ski is not insignificant at 13km, but was well plowed and for the most part relatively tame. There was no shortage of space in the parking lots (which you can’t stay in overnight, boo) which are all conveniently situated to be ski-in/ski-out. No big hike to the hill needed.

After a couple quick warm up runs and even a short hike to get some glorious fresh trails down a small bowl, I got what turned out to be another private tour by the mountain host on duty that day. I was told they don’t get many people looking for tours midweek. And that’s where my misconception of Jasper began to unravel. I had always thought Jasper was a big ski town, and as such there would be plenty of interational destination tourists skiing midweek. But Jasper is a rail and general tourist town that happens to have a really nice regional ski hill nearby. People come to Jasper to see Jasper, not to ski. My guide, Ruth, even explicitly said that locals all think of Marmot as a local ski area, nothing more. Still, all the new quad chairs, mostly high speed, and the rather generous 1675 acres and 3000ft of vertical suggest more than a local hill.

All the great terrain also flies in the “modest local ski hill” self image. There are plenty of alpine bowls, some fantastic glades, and plenty of wide open runs for those who like a wide cruiser. Not to mention all the additional alpine available if you are willing to hike a bit. I managed the hike to Cornice, much to my tailbone’s chagrin given how steep the bootpack got, and enjoyed virtually clean lines way down into the bottom of the main basin. Though that really wasn’t necessary this day, as there was tons of nice powder almost everywhere, and while it did get progressively more cut up as the day wore, it wasn’t so busy that things every got unpleasant.

Service seemed a bit inconsistent. Some staff were pleasant and polite, while others seemed like they didn’t really want to be there. Maybe it was just Hump Day doldrums.

The place feels bigger than its acreage, but that will mostly be because alot of what you see isn’t accessible, mostly due to avalanche danger. I found it a fairly easy place to get the hang of, what with most if the ski area being visible from the top of the Eagle Ridge chair. I had more or less managed to ski all areas to my satisfaction by 3 oclock, but had to go back for a few duplicate runs because the snow this day was just so nice. Given the elevation and location, and the fact that my guide mentioned it simply never gets rain above the base, I imagine that isn’t particularly unusual.

Oh, did I mention the views? While not quite as in your face as at Lake Louise, you are still in the Rockies and thus are surrounded by natural beauty while you ski. Be it the view down to the town of Jasper, or the rocky mountain peaks on all sides, you can spend plenty of time just standing and looking around when you get off the upper chairs especially.

While my day of skiing was done, I couldn’t pass up a visit to Jasper just 15km north. It was much like what I remember from passing through a couple times in summer. Very charismatic, with a great job done of keeping the place feeling like old times. Even the big name chain stores all applied the style of “shop in little old town”. I was particularly enamoured by the row of very original looking houses maintained along one street across from the rec center. How I love the idea of living in such an old house. On the other side of a different coin is something else I thought was very cool: a large laundromat that featured wifi and coin op showers. Though I suspect it was targeted at backpackers, for anyone traveling like me it is quite the slice of heaven taking care of 3 things at once. However I had already made a stop at the rec center to shower up and take a nice soak in the hottub.

The town itself not being RV friendly, I grabbed some groceries from the sparse selection at one of the two rather small grocery stores and made my way back to the same parking lot for the night, stopping once to take care of a fuse that decided I didn’t need headlights at night on a dark highway. Come tomorrow I would need no headlights to enjoy the spectacular winter Rockies views heading south.

The Parkway doesn't exactly ease you into the views. This is right near the beginning.

The road doesn't look in bad shape, until you realize the clear-looking strips are at least an inch thick of sheer ice.

Stopped for lunch at the Weeping Wall, roughly half way.

Walking along a little trail right by where I am parked for the night and providing tech support on the phone at the same time. Sometimes my job is really awesome.

The payoff for my short hike, a raised boardwalk across a meandering (frozen of course) creek in a surprisingly tranquil little valley, relative to the severe landscape surrounding it.

A near perfect spot for a night of boondocking. No-one for at least10km to disturb, just off an all but deserted freeway, flat, and no concert of getting snowed in overnight. All of 12km to Marmot's base area tomorrow morning.

Looking north with the small town of Jasper visible left of center.

The Caribou chair, not rent useless thanks to the new high speed chair that parallels it, and one of the glacier buses used for tourists in the summer.

From the top of the new Paradise chair looking roughly west over the ski area boundary. On the far size of the ridge on the right is the Jasper gondola, open in summer only for sightseers.

A couple minutes hike past the top of the Eagle Ridge chair. Click for larger view.

Continuing the hike a ways, including a tailbone-wretching steep bootpack to the top of Cornice, looking into yet another valley heading southwest.

From the top of Charlie's Bowl looking east. Eagle Ridge, where a couple other photos come from is to the right of center, and the base area is to the left of center (not visible below the near horizon). Unfortunately most of the fantastic looking bowl to the right is permanently closed due to high avalanche danger.

Lake Louise – OMG the views!

But Lake Louise ain’t no one trick pony. This place has more to offer than some of the most spectacular views anywhere. For example a massive amount of terrain, and some very stereotypical (in a good way) Canadian style.

Having completed my brief but lovely tour of the Lake Louise township and the famous lake itself, I made the very short drive across the large valley to the base of the ski area in the morning. You are greeted with the oh so iconic log lodge, which acts almost as a gateway to the ski area, as the two main access lifts sit just on the other side. Mountain Hosts (or as Lake Louise calls them Ski Friends) were all over the place, so I quickly got the 411 on where and when to meet for a tour. Thankfully I also quickly and painlessly unloaded my extra ticket this time.

A quick look at the map almost left me overwhelmed. This place is huge. And it isn’t just big (4100 acres), it is very multifaceted. It almost feels like 3 resorts. You have the front face on the south west, then the massive bowl(s) on the north east side, and a cozy feeling (not so many massive views) valley on the south east end of the resort.

The history here feels pretty big too. Some of that is just the style which Louise works to maintain, be it the main lodge I already mentioned or the retro Temple lodge in the bottom of the Larch valley (this is where the ski area began, but the current lodge is not the original one). Then there are what may be unintentional pieces of history, such as the Olympic chair which is still on the map but hasn’t turned in some 10 years, and the remnants of an old T-bar which has quite clearly been abandoned for well over 10 years.

After a couple easy warm up runs that confirmed a slightly (but only slightly) less sensitive tailbone, I went on the orientation tour along with a group from the Bear Valley Ski Club (California, south of Tahoe, and a ski area I had really wanted to visit on this trip as I have been through there in the summer and found it absolutely charming, but time simply isn’t going to allow it). As a Mountain Host back home, groups like this are by far my favourite. Everyone is comfortable around each other, in good spirits and not shy. On the flip side you have groups made up of singles and couples where no-one asks a question or shares an opinion for shyness, and I end up not knowing if people are having a good time or bored or annoyed at my tour style.  This however was a great group and I was quite happy to have been along for the ride with them. The three guides we have with us were all good lads too. Given the clouds and flat light at the top of the hill, it was good to have a guide to start the day off with. Only problem is the ski area is just so big that a two hour tour isn’t quite enough time to see everything. What a wonderful problem to have.

After lunch I struck out on my own to cover the rest of the hill, culminating in a fantastic run through a ton of great powder (not exactly uncut like in Kicking Horse but plenty of fluff to keep me very happy) down Boomerang Bowl. Considering it had been (I was told) super busy the day before, and it hadn’t snowed a ton that night, I was impressed by how much snow remained. Partly the result of the wind blowing snow off the front face (as evidenced by several parts which are decidedly icy or windpacked) and depositing it kindly in the bowls on the backside. No wonder they call them collectively as Powder Bowls.

Of course, the great selection of terrain and good snow almost paled in comparison to the views. OMG the views. Everywhere you turn is a spectacular Rocky Mountain vista. It seems like they must have chosen the ski hill because it is the only one which isn’t unskiable. Everything around is as severe a landscape as you can imagine. Huge peaks with half their vertical comprised of cliffs surround you. And of course the world famous Chateau Lake Louise is visible across the valley. Assuming you can see anything that is. Thankfully this day the weather mostly cooperated. Not just the clouds but the temperature. Lake Louise is somewhat known for some mighty cold weather, and one of my guides confirmed they usually do average a couple weeks a year of -30C or so. As always, your experience at Lake Louise is tied to how Mother Nature is feeling while you visit.

I’m surprised that I don’t hear comparisons of Lake Louise to Whistler more often. They are both iconic Canadian ski resorts… possibly THE icons. Given the very international guests I ran into and heard here the resort is definitely very well known outside of Canada (both the lake itself and the ski area). Louise has some pretty special things that Whistler simply can’t claim, namely the Canadian styling and the views. But I have to remind myself that, Whistler’s style is also very nice, just not quite is old fashioned. And Whistler’s views are pretty spectacular too, just not so severe. Ultimately both resorts are fantastic and definitely on a similar level… just different.

No overnight parking at the ski area, so I drove back to town, to an evening of doing laundry at the Lake Louise Inn (the only place in town with coin washers I’m told) before treating myself to a night of power and a hot shower at the Lake Louise Campground, which operates 30 of their 189 trailer sites all winter. Just be warned, you may be shoveling your way into a campsite if a recent dump has meant they are behind in keeping the place fully plowed. You may also be the only person there.

Lake Louise

The view that greeted me on my first run of the morning.

Lake Louise base area

The base area at Lake Louise, with the iconic loghouse daylodge.

Lake Louise, top of Paradise

Looking south east along Eagle Ridge from the top of Paradise chair (I think).

At the Top of the World platter lift looking east into the backside...

Lake Louise Top of the World

...and looking south down the front side.

Lake Louise Paradise bowl

Looking up at Paradise bowl, which gave me and the rest of the tour group a fabulous run through fairly fresh and reasonably deep powder.

From the Ptarmigan chair looking north of the Larch area.

Another view towards Larch, this time from the bottom of the backside, on the run back to the Paradise chair.

The current incarnation of the Temple lodge, at the bottom of the Larch and Ptarmigan chairs. The original lodge was built in 1936 and was the ski area base, although a lift wasn't actually installed until 1954.

Looking back towards the exit of Louise's backside from the Rock Garden, a debris field of rather large rocks left over from a rock slide, presumably a long time ago. It somehow feels very playful.

Still in the Rock Garden, this time looking northeast (or maybe just east). You really can't look anywhere at Louise without finding a spectacular view. Unfortunately these photos really don't convey just how grandiose the views are.

Perhaps the most famous view other than the iconic Chateau, looking at the Lake Louise townsite from the front side of the ski area, with the three typical Rockies mountains in the background, Lake Louise proper nestled between the two on the right.

A beautiful campground with excellent facilities (except the sani station was half closed) and a killer view to boot, right next to the town.

Lake Louise Boomerang Bowl

Near the top of Boomerang Bowl at the end of the day, looking east-ish down the resort's backside. Click photo for larger version.

Chateau Lake Louise – the coincidental tourist

I would stay another night in Kicking Horse, as you can’t turn down a free parking spot, power, and 5 bars of cell signal. Not to mention an office view across the valley and the town of Golden. When I did get rolling, I discovered the road from Golden to the Icefields Parkway is quite spectacular. Yet another stretch of Highway 1 that spends much of its time quite precariously hugging cliff sides. It does less meandering of valley bottoms now that they finished a new section including a rather spectacular bridge that I’ve driven by a few years ago while under construction. There certainly were not alot of people driving this road and enjoying the views. I suppose most people have more sense than driving in such remote areas in the dead of winter. Eh, their loss.

When I got to the junction of Highway 1 and the Icefields Parkway, I realized that the trip was a fair bit longer than I thought I had read on the GPS (it must have quoted distance as the crow flies). I went to find the first place I could to stop and consult the internet for road conditions, and the first place turned out to be the town of Lake Louise, which was awash in weekend tourists due to it being the final day of the annual Ice Magic Festival. I found a place to park and soon found thanks to the trusty internet that the highway north was not in great shape at all. I thought better of continuing (it was already past 3) and decided to ski Lake Louise tomorrow instead. One of the many traffic coordinators told me overnight parking was available in the town so seemed like a sensible plan to call the day’s traveling done.

It seemed like a bad idea to waste such a combination of events, so I one of the free shuttles to the lake itself where the festival was being held. The festival centered around an ice sculpture competition. The previous weekend several teams had put their skills to blocks of ice and come up with some truly impressive (and sizable, not exactly the salmon or swan you see at buffets) works of art. The selection wasn’t massive, perhaps a dozen pieces, plus a rather large ice castle facade in the middle of a large ice rink of the lake. I couldn’t help but think how much my one ice skating niece would love this. I found myself wondering how this small display could attract quite so many people… the place was packed, even at this late hour when all of the scheduled activities were done, travelers from Calgary would be wanting to get home, being a Sunday and all. Though the range of languages I heard and the number of people that seemed to be staying at the Chateau, I realized there were alot of destination tourists here too, interesting given how few tourists I had seen in the resorts so far, with the possible mild exception of Sun Peaks. Then I also realized why the big attraction: this winter wonderland, with the big hotel on the shores of the big frozen lake, surrounded by big mountains and a glacier in the distance… this isn’t exactly normal to most people. I’m lucky enough to live on a frozen lake with mountains in the background that I look at every day, but to many this is once in a lifetime spectacular. A reminder to count my blessings.

My unexpected touristy activities done for the day, I picked up fuel (oh how I love cheap Alberta gas… and gas stations on opposite sides of the street with a $0.11 per liter difference in price), found myself a tiny parking lot servicing one of the cross country trail system entry points, and called it a night. Good thing I don’t mind trains because the tracks around here (right across the street in this case) sure are busy.

Panorama taken from the edge of the lake by the Chateau Lake Louise, with the festival activities to the left of center. Click to view larger version.

Does it get any more Canadian than this?

The ice castle in the middle of a large skating area on the frozen lake, the iconic Chateau Lake Louise in the background.

The winning ice sculpture. The photo doesn't convey just how perfectly finished it is.

Horse drawn sleigh rides were available for those that wanted to explore the trails without having to walk (they were a bit pricey though).

Lake up your skates on the benches around the fire pit right on the edge of the lake. Cubbies for your street shoes are there too, just like any respectable rink-side locker room (this one just happens to be outdoors).

Back in the townsite, this ice slide struck me as genius.

Another panorama taken from some ways out in the lake. The surface looked to get a bit soft in places, so I wasn't about to venture out more. Click photo for a larger version.

Kicking Horse – A missed opportunity

A trifecta of missed opportunities actually: excellent terrain, fantastic conditions, and a guide ready to show me anywhere, and all I can do is putt along like a novice thanks to this damn bruised tailbone. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I went to the local hospital to have my tailbone checked. Fortunately it didn’t appear to be broken, despite the rather sharp pain that would occur even when just walking. Darn good thing.  A broken tailbone was quoted as taking 6 weeks to heal. That would have been well over half my remaining trip time. As it was, I was told 2 weeks, which was tolerable but still rather bad timing. I finished my drive through the sometimes cute town of Revelstoke and made my way east towards Golden. A bit short of town I found a perfect spot off the sides of the track and hunkered down for a few nights to give the tailbone a chance to rest.

It was a short final drive to Golden, the town sitting on the valley floor below the Kicking Horse base. It seems to be a fairly typical growing small town: a historic and fairly charming old core, and somewhat sprawling new development. After a stop for groceries and a badly needed load of garbage and recycling, I sought out a shower and found it at a most unexpected, but ultimately sensible, place. Turns out (some?) Husky Travel Centers, which is to say a generously accessorized gas station, includes showers intended for truckers. I was about to balk at the $7 price tag (more than I paid for a complete aquatic center pass in Kamloops after all), but I needed that shower and I’m beginning to learn that the time spent finding the other option virtually never pays off. Just as well, because $7 buys you more that a tiny, clearly amateur built stall like most coin showers; you actually get your own complete bathroom with a rather generously sized shower room. Nice, but man, things I thought I would never be writing about.

Feeling much more human again, I took the short road on the far side of town up to Kicking Horse. The place looks like everything was built this year. The daylodge, the guest lodges, virtually all the houses, and of course the lifts, all look brand new. Turned out they are damn near new, since the resort recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. The modern incarnation of the resort at least. There is one chair (which by fortune of the main gondola having mechanical issues was running today) which is clearly older, and I’m told is the original chair from before the little local ski hill became a resort. I commend the people who decided to start the transformation. It was a well placed effort.

Of course I would not be staying at the fancy new lodge, so I went about finding out which lot to park in. Kicking Horse is one of those relatively rare resorts that actually advertises their option to camp in their lots right on their website; just register at the daylodge. However the daylodge was closed and those employees who remained did not seem to know much. Eventually I found the lady who identified herself as the security representative (with the cutest French accent I have every heard), who didn’t know, but referred me to another young man who was also leaving. He told me confidently where to park, and I did as I was told. He was wrong. 10pm I got the knock on my door telling me the correct place was one lot over, next to the hellipad. I would have been a touch annoyed but he also informed me that free shore power awaited me there. Wow. Seriously, free overnight parking and a place to plug in? Nice. I sat my PJ’ed butt in the driver’s seat and gingerly (owing to nothing having been put away) one lot over.

The next morning found high clouds and few people, but just enough to keep the place from feeling dead. I signed up for the orientation tour (first time I’ve had to sign up ahead of time) and took a couple runs down a nicely groomed green… very gingerly. The verdict: I would be able to ski, but only slowly and smoothly, and I had much learning to do as to which exact movements I had to avoid.

At 10 I met my host, and here is where the first missed opportunity presents itself: the tour guide is a ski instructor (not ALSO a ski instructor, but on duty) and as such is allowed to take me anywhere. Every other host program I’ve partaken of, including our own at Whistler, is pretty strictly limited to greens and blues, and the occasional groomed black. It would be (another) private tour also, as apparently tours are not that popular at Kicking Horse, especially not during the week when there are so few guests here to begin with. Given the amount and variety of terrain available here, I find that a shame.

It took about an hour for Simon to show me the ropes. It would have taken alot longer had I been up to some heavier terrain but a short cut through some fine cut up powder told me I would not be partaking much of that today. And here came 1.5 more of those opportunities. The terrain here is fabulous. There is plenty of nice green and blue terrain sure, but the amount of challenging terrain is just fantastic. Lots of glades, some very steep upper treeline, some tightly spaced (but not too tight) midway down the generous vertical drop. But more to my liking, a TON of couloirs, bowls, and lines through cliff bands. Some of it requires a bit of hiking, but nothing too taxing. The other 0.5 opportunity was the snow. It was fantastic, and there was lots of it. Although the big dump was more than 24 hours before, between the amount of terrain here and the low visitor count (during the week at least) it actually lasts quite a while. Why just .5? Because I hadn’t seen anything yet.

After the tour I decided to try my hand again at the beautiful snow (steep and deep is ultimately my favourite kind of skiing after all) and entered Bowl Over, which we had not hit during the tour. I wasn’t getting through with any style, but I was getting through a bit of powder at least. Maybe I would figure out how to do this yet.

After a hot lunch (courtesy of the outlet) I went up for more, and found things starting to click. A couple runs later I finally figured out how I could get through some deeper and steeper snow without uttering some kinda of mild expletive every turn. This was starting to be fun, and not a complete waste of a great thing. Having explored most of the hill I took a turn on the last chair, which runs up Redemption Ridge. Viewing the map at the top of the chair I realized there were only two parts of the resort I hadn’t seen yet: Super Bowl, which required a substantial hike I knew was not going to happen, and Feuz Bowl which was a relatively short hike over the top of the ridge I stood on. I chose the spirit of adventure, gritted my teeth (climbing tends to hurt pretty good) and headed for the Stairway to Heaven (a metal staircase that starts the climb over the top).

The climb was longer than I thought, and the wind had picked up pretty good. My balance faltered under the wind and iffy footing a couple times, leading to more tailbone driven expletives, and then I got to the peak, with what appeared to be a blind cornice that fell away to nothing. Being clueless as to how far I would fall to my death, a followed a couple who seemed to know where they were going. They continued past the peak and along the top of the huge bowl a ways, until the fearless leader cleared the edge of a cornice to find a reasonable entrance. An entrance to what appeared to be a massive bowl of at least 2ft of new powder, completely untouched. And it was so. Oh it was gloriously so. The snow was just the right weight for me. Not champagne but certainly not the heavy crap I had experienced for most of the trip. And there was SO much of it. And it was deliciously steep. All just how I like it. Between having figured out the non-painful way to turn and the perfect and unmolested consistency of the snow I thoroughly enjoyed turning my way down the bowl, but simultaneously felt bad that I was slicing up this heaven for someone who may be able to enjoy it more than I. That, and I felt sick that I wasn’t able to make the most of it. I do not exaggerate when I say this could have been the best run of my life if I were in better shape. But, c’est la vie.

I wouldn’t be able to make it back up in time again, so I satisfied myself with one last run top to bottom, exploring the outer edges of the lower half of the mountain, and tried to spread the word of the Glory of Whitewall (the name of the upper entrance to the bowl) to those quicker young bucks I shared the gondola ride up with. They must just have opened it as everyone mentioned they thought it was closed. Seems the luck I found in Big White is still following me. I hope it chooses to join me for the rest of the trip.

It is hard to give an accurate verdict on a resort when you have experienced a particularly fantastic or horrible day, and I definitely had the former here. But considering how few guests Kicking Horse gets on a typical day, and how many acres of terrain they have, and the typical interior snowfall they get, this probably isn’t that extraordinary a day. The very fact that I found so much grand snow left over a day after a dump speaks volumes. One day the skiing public may discover this place, come in droves and ruin it the low skier per acre gift, but that may take a while since it takes some effort to get here and tourists don’t seem to be very willing to put effort into traveling to a destination. And there isn’t all that much of a population nearby to flock here on a good day. Golden is pretty out there, and the more hyped Revelstoke isn’t far. All I can say is I will be back on day. There is alot of terrain here that I want to hit full swing, and it is close enough to home that I could drive out in a (rather long) day when conditions are just right. Is it better than Whistler then? In some ways definitely. But it is hard to get to, and for those who want more than just skiing (ie. some nightlife) when they go to the mountains, I think Kicking Horse will fall short. But for my money, it is a top notch option.

Kicking Horse

The ski hill, with the main guest lodges and day lodge to the right. All the good stuff is in the four valleys between the peaks seen in the center.

The ski hill base in the near background (hard to see) and the town of Golden lining the valley in the distance. Sorry, not a great picture.

All of two tracks through a couple hundred acres of 2ft deep virgin powder.

Kicking Horse has a ton of gnarly terrain like you see here.

The restaurant at the top of the gondola, said to be the highest eating place (not counting bars) in Canada. The perfectly calm weather at the based belied the stormy winds that were tormenting the exposed top.

Not a bad place to spend a couple nights, and just across the street from the lifts to boot.

Revelstoke – the hype

I had planned on skiing Revelstoke on Monday, keeping with my usual avoidance of weekends. But when I looked at the weather and say they had been dumped on the day before and the weather was looking decent for Sunday, I decided to choose powder over crowds and went for Sunday. I arrived Saturday afternoon, after crawling through a horribly plowed town and road up to the ski area, to find several RVs already parked on the edge of the lot. With almost the whole continent having a horrible season online recommendations were frequently sending people to Whistler and Revelstoke, so this wasn’t too surprising, especially with the massive hype Revelstoke has received for the last few years.

I awoke to nice high clouds and even a fair bit of blue sky showing, though the blue was somewhat short lived. No orientation tours here (a bit of a surprise) so I joined the overwhelmingly young crowd up the hill. As I soon heard, the reason for the large and rather energetic crowd was this was the biggest dump they have had all year. All the talk about going to Revelstoke because they’re having a good year clearly was more assumption based on previous years’ stats than current reality. While this dump certainly made for decent coverage, there were places where it was clear they were still suffering a show shortage relative to other years. I was also told that the day before was their busiest on record, with everyone rushing out to catch the dump of new snow. I found myself debating whether I would  have preferred  to be here yesterday to catch more fresh pow but have to deal with even more crowds.

After a couple warm up runs, I was at the highest lift serviced point (which doesn’t take long to get to despite the massive vertical, as a series of two… well, 2.5 really since you have to get off the lower gondola and get on the top section… high speed lifts get you there) and decided to follow the line of people taking a fairly tame hike to the North Bowl, which certainly looked to be the most interesting terrain according to the map. Good timing, as they had opened it just a little while ago (didn’t open Saturday) and I got myself a fresh line through some good deep powder. Finally! It was certainly a highlight run for the trip thus far, marred only by the rather long, tight, bumpy runout back to The Ripper chair, then a cat track back to The Stoke chair (and back to the hike). Quite a long circuit, and no doubt something that will be addressed with future planned lifts. I know the masterplan for this resort has always been very aggressive and impressive, they just happened to get rolling at a bad time economically.

A run through the south side alpine fields, which didn’t have many tracks through it at all, revealed heavy snow and thin coverage still. It didn’t take long before I felt I had covered the hill pretty well, a surprise given the 3100 acres of terrain. Alot of that comes down to the massive amount of trees, most of them listed as glades. I for one found alot of those glades to be a bit too tight for me, which nullified their suitability as skiable acres to me, but others who are more capable at tree skiing no doubt would fully disagree. As I finished my last couple runs I couldn’t help but think this place is very reminiscent of Whistler. Part of this was due to the style of facilities. The lifts, the signage were all but identical to those back home. Then one chairmate mentioned the fall line was similar to Blackcomb, and I realized she was quite correct. Alot of the similarities may come down to to the place being initially put together in part by Bones, the former mountain manager at Whistler.

The day over, I picked my way through the barely skiable coverage on the bottom piece of the mountain. I was stoked to have had a couple great powder runs through the North Bowl, but left feeling that the place has been overhyped a bit. A great place no doubt, but the hype has resulted in too much competition for space on the slopes, with every hard core skier running here. In my mind at least, something of a victim of its own success, much as Whistler is on busy days. In fairness, this may have been an unusually busy day given the conditions vs the season thus far. Also, my experience (at all the resorts I’m visiting) is of course coloured by the day I happen to visit, but much of what makes a ski area great is what percentage of the season is likely to be good days. Revelstoke is known for getting alot of snow, which means a good chance when you come here, you’ll get your powder day in. That is worth alot when you have to book a ski vacation ahead of time rather than choosing your time and destination last second, a luxury not many have.

Revelstoke has been touted as the next big thing ever since the current resort opened a few years ago, and the stats (especially at buildout) certainly back that up. But IMO it isn’t there yet. Of course being hard to get to will keep it off the mainstream but that is a good thing for those willing to go the extra mile for the good stuff. In time, it has the potential to knock Whistler off the top spot for those that are all about the skiing and not so concerned about a busy village and all the nightlife it offers. Let me be clear about one thing though: it may sound like I’m coming down on Revy a bit, and that is not my intent. I had a fantastic day here, but had come in with such unrealistic expectations, having bought into the hype, that it just couldn’t meet the vision. But hey, expecting to meet a Victoria’s Secret model avec digital touch-ups and getting the real Victoria’s Secret model instead (minor imperfections and all) ain’t exactly a bad deal.

My batteries all but dead, a load of laundry needing attention, and me with a badly needed shower landed me in a RV park just past the east end of town. It was actually all but closed  in the winter except for 2 spots, neither of which were occupied, but that was fine with me. I settled into the very picturesque spot among the trees and set about hooking myself up and dumping my full tanks. Unfortunately I set about it a bit too hurriedly and forgot the patch of ice I had previously noticed just in front of the RV. One slip later I was writhing on the ground wondering if I had just broken my tailbone and waging a losing battle against unconsciousness. It took me a good few minutes before I was able to work my way back into the camper, with images of someone finding me frozen leaning against the camper motivating me through moments of spinning clarity. This was NOT what I needed. An hour laying on my front and I could think and gingerly walk but sitting was not an option. The decidedly friendly camp operator came by with my laundry an hour after the power came back on (it had been down since I arrived). The shower would have to wait till tomorrow, when hopefully I would shake off the fall and return to my planned schedule.

Seems like half the people here today were making the hike into North Bowl. Revelstoke definitely had a hard core crowd this day.

Fresh lines and a view to boot. Consider me a happy man.

The gondola, which is the only way to get up and one of only 3 lifts here, but they are all new high speed models. There may only be a few lifts, but the view to the river valley seems infinite.

The view from the top of The Stoke chair. Although the sun is making its presence known, you can clearly see the storm that brought this dump of powder is still blowing at the top.

The north bowl, untouched in the morning, just waiting for me (and an army of other powder hounds) to arrive.

A beautiful spot to start the day...

...and a beautiful spot to end it. As the camp operator drove around the snow covered and empty except for me site, he towed his little girl behind on her sled. It was as if Rockwell had painted a Winter Wonderland theme.

Sun Peaks – yet another serious BC destination resort

Staying down in the Valley in Vernon didn’t help with the cold much… over the next couple days it got to -20C at night. With those temperatures my batteries wouldn’t last a day, so I booked into an RV park, a clearly budget affair with alot of home-made amenities, but perfectly serviceable, pretty cute with a creek running through it (ducks included, despite the cold), and $20 a night. It was supposed to be $40 I believe, but the proprietor was a happy drunk, and decided I needed a discount. I wasn’t about to argue. He was drunk on day two when I went to renew, expecting full pop. Granted, at this point I was feeling decidedly under the weather so I would have paid whatever it took to not worry about power.

On my last day in Vernon, starting to feel a bit less sick, I found a local house inspector with a thermal imaging camera and had a few shots taken to determine where the cold was leaking out. The shots were extremely informative, but unfortunately the only apparent smoking gun was a badly insulated floor. No particularly easy way to fix that myself. That, and the structural beams, but there was definitely nothing to be done there short of buying a different RV.

The weather warmed up quite a bit and I got to feeling like I could ski, so I pulled up my roots and headed for Sun Peaks, the second resort I had been to before. Mind you, that was in fall and I didn’t ski and never even made it to the village so it was all still new to me. Now I can’t tell what had been done since I was last there but the place definitely looks like alot of work went into it. It has a rather Old European feeling ski-through village, albeit fancy euro. I was quite impressed by the display, even if such amenities don’t actually matter to me since I never eat out or go for a beer in the evening. I was surprised by the number of people here. Despite the so-so conditions and it being a weekend, the village was lively with skiers. Perhaps Sun Peaks has done a good job of marketing themselves into a proper tourist destination,

I joined a group of people and a couple particularly fun hosts for a quick tour of Sun Peak’s rather impressive 3700 acres of terrain. Now unfortunately we wouldn’t be touring the top of the hill as thick clouds were claiming the peak, and all the near-alpine terrain for itself. In fact I wouldn’t get to the top of the hill all day. I tried a single run down through an upper bowl and pretty nice fresh snow but just found myself picking away at the slope, not being about to make anything out past my ski tip. Rather a shame as most of the good terrain looked to be up top. As intermediate terrain goes, there are plenty of options here, with nice long runs cycling right back to the chair. Cycling from the original ski area to the recent expansion on the far side  of the valley isn’t so easy, as it takes a rather long traverse to get around (and crossing the street on the swing back). Those individuals with less fear of injury than I may be looking for terrain parks: they’re in good hands here. There are no shortage of park features here.

A cute little tradition I’ve seen at every resort so far is a live Christmas tree, which is to say a tree out on the slopes alongside a lift line with a few Christmas balls hung. Sun Peaks, or perhaps its visitors, have decided to take it a step further here by making it a Christmas Tree Alley. There must have been at least half a dozen trees of varying sizes lining the lift all decorated up for the season.

The clouds lifted a bit in the afternoon, allowing me some quite pleasant runs through the trees and a decent amount of fresh snow. It was a near ideal winter scene with the trees laden with snow. However while the middle mountain became reasonably clear, the top continued to elude me. Quite a shame, but since Sun Peaks isn’t all that far from me, I can always come back and finish the job next year over a couple days.

Sun Peaks would seem poised to eat some of Whistler’s visitors. It isn’t hard to get to, the village is similarly tourist oriented, they have almost half the terrain of WhistlerBlackcomb, and clearly they have done a decent job of making themselves into a tourism destination with the volume of people that were hear, midweek and all. But while Sun Peaks does many things right, they ARE harder to get to than Whistler (long drive or a connecting flight), it didn’t feel like 3700 acres even with the parts I didn’t get to considered (though that could change upon a clearer visit), and they get alot less snow. Good for those that prefer sunny skies over powder I suppose, but not my thing.

The mountain closed, and while Sun Peaks has a nice lot where you can stay the night, I moseyed on back to Kamloops to their big fancy aquatic center for a hot tub and a shower. A few laps in the pool reminded me that even if I think I’m in decent shape from all that skiing, swimming makes skiing look like a sport for geriatrics. Another stop at Costco for some supplies and for their parking lot for the night. The next day I would begin a long drive back towards Vernon and past it for a ways to my next stop, one I was pretty excited about given how much I’ve heard about it: Revelstoke.

Sun Peaks' very well done village feels very much like an old European village, except new. (Sorry for the distorted helmet cam photos)

The village seen from the other side, from the main ski area base.

That's a proper winter scene right there.

The visibility has improved slightly here. At least I can see my ski tips and a hint of the tree line. This isn't actually representative of Sun Peaks however, as the stats show (surprise surprise) alot of sun is the norm.

Silver Star – big resort/little resort

After taking leave of Owen, I returned to continue visiting my Kelowna relatives, but good fortune having more of the clan arriving while I was there. While I knew I should be making progress I couldn’t help but take this relatively rare occasion to visit a bit longer. Thus I ended up only heading north to Silver Star on Sunday afternoon. At least I made some progress in further cutting of insulation pieces. A good thing too, as I was about to discover. After little more than an hour’s drive I arrived at Silver Star and some fairly cold temperatures. Although a sign said no RVs allowed (in the resort at all? didn’t seem to make much sense) the place was all but empty and there was another camper already there, as well as several cars which had clearly been there for more than today.

I awoke to thick clouds, a good helping of fresh snow, and more coming down. That and -15C which is starting to get a bit cold. The village at the base area belies the cold, with purposefully bright, almost eclectic colours on old west styled buildings giving a bit of a Disney feel. This and some of the details around made me think this would be a particularly good ski vacation destination with smaller children. As with sister resort Big White, this village was ski through, a concept which I thorougly enjoy. Although the mountain is just outside Vernon and so close to Kelowna, both significant population centers, the place had more of a destination resort feel. The substantial 3000 acres certainly speaks to that effect, as does a 50% share of high speed lifts (albeit that is from a small total of 6). Under-served terrain is a good thing in my books mind you, since it means more terrain per chair, meaning in turn the snow doesn’t get cut up so quickly. Although on this cold, midweek day that wasn’t an issue as there was hardly anyone here.

Tours start early here, a system I like since it means I don’t have to waste any time hitting part of the hill twice. I joined a family of four and our guide and set off. Silver Star’s 3000 acres combines with a layout offering several facets to give a feeling of “it just keeps going”. During the tour we covered some semi-open bowls, found some great fresh snow through well gladed trees, and no shortage of good groomers. There is alot of good intermediate terrain here, supplemented with plenty of black and double black primarily in the newer backside of the ski area, thankfully serviced by a high speed chair for once (it seems to be en vogue to service the expert terrain with old fixed grip chairs in so many resorts). Speaking of modern chairs, one feature I saw here for the first time is automated gates to control when the skier loads the chair. Although I have heard a couple lifties say that it helps, I’m not convinced they are really useful. In my time as a lifty, the timing of moving into place to load was not an issue, it was more people not being ready when the time comes, or not loading in the correct place.

The morning tour provided a basic grip on the areas of the mountain but there was clearly so much more to ski after lunch. But not before buying a face mask. Despite my face mostly being toasty warm thanks to a overly mature beard, our very attentive host noticed me starting to get frostbite on my nose at once point. I am quite grateful that he noticed as I had just thought it was warming up since my nose wasn’t hurting anymore. It definitely was not warming up this day. I joined my guide again after lunch, minus the rest of the group who had had enough of the cold for the day, and set out to explore some more. Although he suffered the usual restrictions of only being able to ski greens and blues, my guide was most accommodating. Paralleling my host, I got in some of the black terrain this afternoon, enjoying the fresh snow, but also finding the weekend’s main dump largely skied out, no doubt something that happened the day before as there was hardly anyone out here this day.

Despite my guide’s best attempt I didn’t feel I did Silver Star justice this day. I would definitely have liked a few more runs. I find myself wondering why Silver Star felt quite as large as it did, as the map suggests that alot of those 3000 acres are treed, reducing the realistically skiable terrain. But it does feel big. I can’t quite get a handle on how to take the resort either: as a major destination resort or a regional hill.  Some of the numbers and the destination style village suggest it is a major resort, as does the place’s history, being several years older than most resorts (the first rope tow was installed in ’46 and the first lodge and two more tows were put in place in ’58). Perhaps it was just the cold-induced slow day that was throwing my perception off, or the fact that I expected the place to be rather busy with American tourists, what with nothing much available in the usual high volume destinations of Tahoe, Utah, and Colorado.

The Whistler comparison then… somehow they seem hard to compare. Just a rather different feeling. If you’re looking for extreme terrain, Silver Star doesn’t quite deliver, though there are expert runs here for you. The atmosphere seems more family oriented, and the village a bit more… genuine. Silver Star is certainly a good destination visit, and I can see it being a competitive, even preferable option for some families, but overall Whistler does retain supremacy. Yes, Whistler is safe for another stop.

The cold certainly had me leaving my nice spot here in an effort to gain a few degrees down in Vernon. I couldn’t run my noisy generator here anyway, being near some townhouses, and I would need to given the cold meant my furnace was eating batteries quickly. (I was a bit jealous of the camper I walked by with his super quiet Honda generator purring away outside, though I didn’t hear the purr until I was walking right by it.) Down the hill I went, and spent a while searching for a spot to put down where I could run my badly needed generator. I found something passable and bundled my slightly sick feeling self up for a cold night in Vernon.

The highly styled base area village, described to me by one host as "hurdy gurdy".

Unfortunately the clouds meant no views, and the cold meant I wasn’t too anxious to get my camera out (which requires removing mitts), so that’s it for photos.

Big White – a competitor for the BC ski tourism throne

I left Apex and made a run north, spending the night in another stalled real estate development high up on the Westbank ridge. Being up on an exposed ridge the wind did a good job of smackin’ me up a bit, but nothing like at Crystal a week before. Of course, first I had to spend money I couldn’t really afford getting a new camera at an electronics shop that was open late, as I found my phone’s camera woefully inadequate, and the pocket camera I had had a damaged lens. I also had calculated that I would be needing WAY more storage for all the photos and video I was taking, so an external hard drive was needed. Just my luck that the Thai flooding sent the prices of hard drives through the roof (although the plight of the Thai people is probably a bigger issue than my having to spend an extra $50). The next day I made a stop at an RV dealer to see about some LED bulbs to help get a bit more out of my batteries. Although I’m not a huge fan of LEDs for many household applications, they work real well in an RV compared to the massively inefficient halogen bulbs normally used. I was also hoping for an easy fix for the very noisy, rattle-tastic furnace, but the answer seemed to be a new $450 furnace unit. Tempting, but I was already over budget and under-income, so I’d have to see if I couldn’t improve the rattle myself. Shopping done, I went to visit relatives living in Kelowna for the evening.

First thing next morning, I set off the for hour’s drive to Big White. Under an hour for most people, over an hour for my decidedly lead-free foot on the RV gas pedal. I’ve been to Big White once before, some 15 years earlier so I expected some things to have changed, and the first was the parking lot and lift some 10km before the main village. 20km less driving over somewhat bumpy snow covered roads was most welcome, so I stopped at use this new access point, one of a few new chairs that went up since I last set eyes on the place. The new chair is fast. Easily the fastest chairlift I have ever sat on. Good thing too, as it is a long ride.

I arrived at the top to a beautiful sunny vista. Perfect weather this day, rather cold but uninterrupted blue sky. Cold enough that when I accidentally ended up back at the bottom of the chair instead of on the village side, I didn’t mind too much since it allowed me to stop and switch to the warmer mitts. However it did mean by the time I got to the main village, I had missed the orientation tour, which only happens once a day at Big White. It took me yet another lift to get to the village too, as the place is confusing.  It’s not that the signage is bad, but that there are effectively four bases, plus some of the chairs seem to overlap. It almost seems like there wasn’t a masterplan when it was developed. It is a fairly big ski area too, which combined with a face that has several ridges and valleys, means you can’t simply stand at the top and see everything.

The village, which sits part way up the mountain, a feature I haven’t seen elsewhere, has grown alot since I was last at Big White, in size and in level of finish. The fairly plain older buildings have been supplemented with a host of new hotels and shops, styled to look more European. The village felt quite animated, partly the result of the place being somewhat busy despite being a Wednesday. Quite a contrast to Apex a couple days before. It would seem to speak to Big White’s efforts at becoming a destination resort paying off. The new section is all ski through also, like Whistler’s pedestrian village but with snow replacing cobblestones. I really liked this approach and found myself wondering why Whistler doesn’t do the same. I certainly think it strengthens the winter resort/skiing experience. I suppose one reason would be that the valley in Whistler frequently doesn’t get enough snow to do so reliably. In any case, I thought Big White did has done a fabulous job of the new village. But the new amenities don’t end there. A short gondola runs between the village and an activity area farther down which offers an outdoor skating ring, ice climbing tower, mini skidoo track, a tube ride, and the bunny hill for beginner skiers and boarders. That, and RV parking which I’m told by Guest Services (who seem to be hit and miss with this question wherever I go) is $10 per night.

Having missed the tours, I set out to explore on my own. The snow was not fantastic this day, just my luck as Big White is known for light powder. Bug it wasn’t bad either. The groomed runs were in decent shape, and getting into the trees on the Black Forest side of the hill turned up some good snow, plenty deep, and reasonably soft. A touch heavier than I’d like through tight trees though. Off piste other than in the north side trees was frequently heavily wind packed though. I made my way around the hill, getting a basic grip on it all (not a trivial task with a place of this size with several angles), and finding a couple chairs not running this day, despite the decent visitor turnout. But then Lady Luck graced me with her presence. I got to the top of the alpine T-bar, which accesses the peak and the far side of the big back bowl, which is certainly their most extreme terrain, with the intention of hiking to the peak for a panorama. I asked one of the patrollers there if a hike up for a photo was OK, only to be told that they were just opening the area, and with that she removed the fencing. Blue sky and fresh snow from a couple days back that had not been opened till now. Niiiice. I made the hike to the top, perhaps 10 minutes or so, and soaked in the view. Big White is certainly among the tallest peaks in the area, so you get quite the view in all directions of the surrounding peaks. Seems like a good chunk of BC is nonstop mountain ranges. The view having been absorbed, I took my fresh tracks down a decidedly iffy chute (partly due to it being real narrow with a real long way down on one side, and partly because the snow was sliding pretty easily… I could see why it had been closed), and further fresh tracks through the bowl below. Again, the snow was on the heavy side, more so than in the trees, and a bit wind packed in spots, but I was a happy camper. As much as I don’t like hiking for my turns (we invented chairlifts for a reason after all) I had to go back for a second run further down the far ridge. At which point I of course promptly lost a ski in a nice steal section in deep snow. Lucky for me th ski stayed put and didn’t submerge, so a slog back up through the thick snow got me back on track.

At this point my legs were pretty tired and the lifts were closing, so I took the long run back down to Gem lake, and the hour’s drive back to Kelowna. This evening I would park at a friend’s place, who being an RV owner himself even had a flat spot and power ready for me. Owen is one of those friends who you always think you should see more of, being a very comforting soul and genuinely nice (but no nonsense) guy, but the distances seem to preclude that from happening. I’ll have to stop making distance an excuse for seeing people I want to see. That and work. Lousy excuse that.

Big White actually takes a bite at Whistler’s ankles if you ask me. They have plenty of terrain, including a good helping of alpine, have a reputation for good snow and good weather, and have clearly put the money and effort into making this a destination class resort with all the amenities and high level presentation. It seems to be working given the number of tourists I saw and talked to on the lifts here. It is of course significantly smaller than WhistlerBlackcomb, but still good for a few days’ skiing before you would start feeling like you are recycling terrain (assuming good conditions). It isn’t especially hard to get to since the city of Kelowna is nearby, though certainly no-where near the international ease of access that comes from being less than 2 hours from the Vancouver airport. Ultimately Whistler retains its crown but it certainly has a peer in the royal court of the ski resort destination market.

The far ridge of the back bowl and the lake at its bottom.

The type of image that I always seem to see of Big White, snow covered alpine scrub trees looking rather otherworldly. The closed Falcon chair in the background, decidedly encrusted in windblown snow.

Panorama taken from the beak of Big White. You can just make out the lake seen in the first photo in the middle. Click to view full size.

Not many cars in the Gem Lake parking lot.

Apex – a fantastic small resort

After leaving Manning Park, I arrived in Penticton fairly late, and after driving around a while found a decent place to park where my generator wasn’t going to bother anyone but an empty logging yard and horse track. The following morning gave me a few hours to work before a quick stop at the local grocery story and an expensive Canadian tank of gas. The road from here to Apex was thankfully MUCH better than what I had experienced the day before through Manning. The road up to Apex itself is surprisingly backwoods. A somewhat narrow 2 lane deal with what is at times a very narrow valley. I couldn’t help but think this would be a great motorcycling road in the summer.

Despite heading to Apex in the late afternoon I came across hardly any cars heading in the opposite direction. I soon found out why: the place was dead. I parked at the back of the nearly empty lot (overnight parking is allowed here) and proceeded to be amused by the zambonie that drove back and forth a couple times across the lot. Turns out ice has its place here, in the form of an outdoor hockey ice rignt right at the front of the parking lot next to the village, and a unique skating trail through the woods on the other end of the lot. Basically a short, somewhat windy cross country trail but made for skates instead of skis. I thought it was a very neat idea.

In the morning the place was still empty, and that wouldn’t change much. I never saw more than 50 cars in the parking lot all day, and it seemed that a large portion of the people skiing that day knew each other, many of them retired locals. The quiet day meant I got a private tour from one of the two mountain hosts on duty that day, so I was a happy camper.

I was much happier still once we got on the slopes. The grooming was absolutely brilliant. Even my guide mentioned that Mike (the groomer) must have had a great day as it was impeccable. The lack of people meant that it lasted all day too. I was getting freshly groomed lines right through to the end of the day. I can’t remember the last time I had such a good time on groomed runs.

Between the nonexistent crowds and the clearly good sense of community here, I soon had another local join my official host Dale in showing me around and keeping my mighty entertained while on the lift. Between all the local friends meeting up, I got the be the happy recipient of alot of local history, learning that many of the runs here were cut unofficially by locals, then the resort would eventually include them as official runs. I also got to see The Heavens, a little evening meeting area on the back of the hill the locals maintain. If felt very much like a little fort for adults. Too cute. Dale, other than being super nice, was also a mighty quick skier, spurred on no doubt by the ideal grooming this day. The tour over, I stopped for a coffee in a small eatery right at the base of the T bar, where a number of locals were having a regular meet. The sense of community at Apex was definitely very strong.

Apex is not a particularly large hill at 1100 acres. Its one high speed quad serves almost the whole mountain, with a little extra terrain served by an older fixed grip chair. But this seems to work well for Apex, as under-lift-served terrain lasts longer after a dump of snow. Unfortunately I was a day or two too late to enjoy the dump they had recently. Though there was plenty of snow left, it was chopped, hard crud off piste, which ended up keeping me off most of the blacks. But for once I didn’t particularly mind, since the grooming was so nice. That and the blue sky didn’t hurt, which made available to me the excellent views all the way around, Apex (actually Beaconsfield. Apex Mountain is next door) being among the tallest peaks in the area.  There isn’t a big variety of expert terrain, but there is enough to keep your aggressive skier happy few a few days.

There is an impressive selection of specialty terrain too. A full time mogul and aerials course is set up for freestyle training, and it ain’t no Mickey Mouse setup. Clearly a permanent installation with support facilities to match, intended for high level training. The terrain park is also very impressive, especially for a small resort. Alot of style and creative hits filled the park.

The village at the base of the ski hill is small but very cute, and checks all the boxes for a destination resort, just on a small scale. The townhouses and chalets surrounding the village are also adorable. The area as a whole is on the small side, but in such a way that it seems intimate, not insignificant. Perhaps it is just the chill and friendly vibe that made the resort seem so attractive. Few things make a place like happy, friendly locals and staff. Whatever it is, I can see why Ski Canada once awarded it “Canada’s Best Small Destination Resort”.

With credential’s like that, Whistler is bound to lose a few visitors to Apex. But ultimately Apex is a small resort, and doesn’t seem to want to be anything else. I hope that stays true, because they do small resort very well. Of course, Apex can’t compete with the terrain selection Whistler offers, nor with the village amenities (for those who want more than the low key options Apex affords), so Whistler retains its supremacy. But anyone who does a yearly trip to Whistler should definitely skip a year once and give Apex a visit for a few days. Keep it to a week though, as more than that is going to mean you start to recycle the terrain heavily.

The view out my window in the morning.

Fantastic 360 degree views from the top of the mountain. Sorry for the lousy quality, I only later figured out how to take better panoramas. Click on the image for a bigger version.

The boy scout cable next to the "The Heavens" on the backside of the hill. The snow was beautiful here, but unfortunately back on the main side everything was rather crusty.

Manning – a change of plans

So there I was, parked on the side of the road in Enumclaw (the nearest proper town to Crystal) trying to make a rather difficult decision. It started off as deciding which of the three ski areas at Mt Hood to visit, since visiting all three didn’t really make sense. Feedback from the online skiing community at Teton Gravity made it pretty clear that none of the three were in good shape. In fact, none of anyone south of where I was was having a good year. Make that, everyone was having a disastrous year. South of Oregon, Mammoth and Tahoe had effectively no snow. Some man made and a little leftover form snow in November. Worse yet, turned out Utah and Colorado didn’t even had passable snow. The obvious option was to head back north and hit BC and Alberta first, effectively reversing the loop I had planned. I REALLY didn’t want to do this though. It would cost time and gas to backtrack, I would have to deal with switching cell phone providers again, my health insurance would have to be adjusted. But most of all, I was looking forward to visiting my friend Dean in two days. I tried to convince myself I could stop and visit for a week, where I would have time to catch up on work and do all the work the RV needed (like fitting the added insulation correctly, wiring in an inverter, trying to quiet down the generator), but in the end I had to face that this trip was about skiing, and what is the point of visiting resorts that had nothing but a strip of man made snow?

The decision made, I started driving north, ending up stopping fairly late in a semi abandoned development more accurately, it was a very new, massively aggressive development that had roads put in and then clearly had a hard time building and selling on that land). It always strikes me as odd seeing this kind of large scale land development. I can’t put my finger on why, but it just seems… unnatural.

The next morning I found a battery shop and had a rep look at my questionable original battery. Thankfully, this lady had some clue as to what she was doing with her fancy battery diagnostic tool (unlike the first shop) and confirmed the capacity was down to 1/3 of what it should be. Two new batteries it is then. Unfortunately I would not be getting them here as the options they had were decidedly more expensive than the equally speced Costco golf cart batteries. I picked up a small inverter to give myself the option of charging the boot heater batteries and other AC only gadgets without being plugged in or running the generator, and moved on to Costco, where I treated myself to a pair of new batteries, which by all accounts should do considerably better than the 12 volt RV/marine batteries I had, even when new.

The last shopping done, I made the run for the border and my next stop: Manning Park. I really wasn’t sure what to expect of this ski area, as I’ve heard it mentioned many times but never really heard any descriptions of it. But it is a place I have always wanted to visit, and at least I knew it had some snow. I got across the border fine, and prayed for good traffic so I would make it to Richmond in time to pick up a new battery for the laptop.  20 minutes on a charge wasn’t working for me, and I was hoping that offloading some of my power needs to the laptop battery (which could charge while I drove and hopefully see me thru an evening of work) would help with my house battery capacity. I did, as I so often do, miraculously make it with 5 minutes to spare. Now I had to deal with getting my phone switched over to Telus so I could keep working while in Canada (roaming on my AT&T account certainly was not an option). It took a while but I got it done without too much pain, and ended up being significantly cheaper than the US plan, much to my surprise. By now I was tired of shopping (both that day and in general on this trip) and it was getting late, so it was time to head towards Manning, close enough to make the run into the ski area in the morning anyway, and find a spot to park. That spot ended up being a gravel clearing across from a nice highway rest area just before Hope , with a fellow vehicular sleeper next door doing his best to block any light out with sheets covering the windows. With good roads the drive to Manning in the morning should only take about an hour.

In the morning my neighbour was gone, but another one had appeared. I don’t envy someone who has to sleep in a car seat. Not something I’ve ever been able to do. Thankfully I was well rested so I hit the road to push through to Manning by the time it opened. Before long the scenery began to turn wintery, and the road picked up a layer of snow, which got progressively worse. By the time I reached the turn off to the ski area, I was thoroughly pissed at the road crew for doing such a lousy job of plowing. The rough road necessitated a rather slow pace, which now meant I was already a half hour past opening time. But it was about to get MUCH worse. The Manning ski area is some 10km south of the main highway, and not surprisingly it isn’t exactly perfectly plowed. In fact, it was the worst road condition I have seen. Not that it wasn’t nice and compact. The problem was it was solid washboard, which is annoying at the best of times, but in an RV it is murder. I had to spend most of the drive at about 30km/h lest everything fell out  of my cupboards.

I did, eventually, make it, and pulled into a relative small parking area next to a rather basic set of base area facilities. This ain’t no big resort, and this is reflected in the reasonable ticket price, although it is still a ways from the value that Baker provided. The closest place to stay is at the lodge by the highway. Although you can stay in your RV right at the best of the hill, with a decent view even. I would be tempted to spend the night here, except there is no cell service throughout Manning Park.

Manning Park’s on-hill facilities match the minimal base area: two old double chairlifts and a couple surface lifts. Only the two chairs were open this day, despite it being a weekend (only one of the chairs is open midweek). Thankfully the reason for this was all the fresh snow making it hard to get the beginner’s T-bar area open. Skiable acres is listed at 140, even smaller than Seymour, but Manning does very well for such a small area, partly due to the respectable 1400ft of vertical. Now granted the new snow and low skier numbers is likely colouring my opinion here a bit, but I had a thoroughly good time at Manning. The snow was definitely on the heavy side, but tolerably so. Nothing like Stevens or even Crystal had been. And there is plenty of decent advanced terrain, much of it through well spaced trees, but also some small bowls.

I wouldn’t want to live in Manning (not that you can unless you work at the lodge anyway) because I would be bored pretty soon, but for the odd day out skiing if you live in the Fraser Valley, or even for a weekend once a year from farther reaches, Manning is, surprisingly, worth the visit. At least if the snow conditions are good. The lodge by the highway is a pretty nice looking place to stay too, with similarly reasonable pricing.

I closed out the day feeling I had sufficiently explored the little resort, and happy to have a good idea of what Manning really is. I was never sure if it was a small local hill (as it is) or a substantial resort. In any case, I was glad I had stopped here and not at Hemlock, the other option I was considering. Right now though, my only option was to get out of Manning to where I could get cell reception to get some work done. Penticton it is then.

Looking at the top of Orange Chair (which goes up the big clearing in the middle) from Blue Chair. All the interesting terrain is off the right and left of Orange Chair.

And looking back at Blue from near the top of Orange Chair. You'll have to excuse the lousy cell phone photos.

The equipment at Manning does the job, but is definitely old and basic.

The views on the other hand are ageless, and quite satisfying.