At the beginning of February, I decided to do something that’s been on my list for a while: Take a long-weekend ski trip from Denver up to British Columbia. In terms of ski hills, the Province is headlined by Whistler, a mountain that attracts hoards of international visitors and has seen its fair share of tourism development over the years. I was looking for something a little different, and I found it a few hours west of Calgary, in the very southeast part of the Province along the borders of the States and Alberta. Tucked away in this forgotten area is a string of seven ski hills that together make up the Powder Highway, an area headlined by an abundance of heli-operators and backcountry ski huts.
I didn’t have the funds to go for heli nor the time to disappear into the backcountry, but I did ski the region’s two most iconic mountains, Revelstoke and Kicking Horse.
Ski bums will no doubt recognize Revelstoke from a myriad of videos, but as it turns out, though the mountain might often be seen, it is rarely visited. Traffic and lift lines were nonexistent, and despite not having a storm in more than a week, there were plenty of powder turns to go around. But the best discovery I made had to do with the rules, or better yet, the lack thereof. Unlike in Colorado, where ducking ropes will get your pass pulled, it is totally cool at Revelstoke, opening up extra hike-to terrain to the skier’s left of the Jalapeno run, served by cat-tracks that bring you back in-bounds at the bottom of the bowl. Formerly used as a cat-skiing area, the sidecountry terrain features a gently-sloped, wide-open bowl at the top that leads into a tall pine forest. On my visit, the trees were fully caked with snow, and as the clouds moved through, the lighting constantly changed. It was hell on the goggles but lovely on the eyes.
What was so impressive is that you could have a big-mountain experience without going too crazy – unloading on heli or investing 2-3 days in a backcountry trek. As a town, it seems Revelstoke knows nothing of tourism. By comparison, even Colorado’s most down-to-earth ski towns, like Steamboat or Salida (Monarch), start to feel a little crowded and overdone.
Kicking Horse Mountain rises high above the town of Golden. With a population under 4,000, it reminded me a bit of Creede outside of Wolf Creek in terms of its sleepy vibe. At first, after being literally the only patron at Whitetooth Mountain Bistro one night, I joked that I would write a story entitled “A Guide to Dining Solo in Golden.” The next morning, when I was the only person at the Big Bend Cafe, I thought that maybe it wasn’t so much of a joke after all. That jig was up twenty minutes later, when a group of four locals came in as I finished my second cup of coffee and prepared to hit the slopes.
From the photo, you can see that Kicking Horse is perhaps the region’s king of sidecountry. Think of it as an upside-down mountain, where one lift at the bottom funnels up to terrain that fans out horizontally across several peaks. The two main peaks are T1 and T2, each with a bit of in-bounds, hike-to bowl terrain. At the far skiers right of the mountain, just past T2, I found fields of well-spaced trees on the other side of the boundary in an area locally referred to as “Hookers and Blow.” With a name like that, I don’t see how you couldn’t be curious. Just make sure you bring or rent your avy gear. Avalanches are common in the surrounding areas of Kicking Horse, and as you’ll see on the map, some have been permanently closed as a result. For pow-fanatics like myself, this is a good thing, not a bad thing.
If you can spot a long weekend in March, or perhaps pre-plan for next season, there are daily direct flights from Denver to Calgary on United (2-hour flight). Rent a four-wheel drive vehicle (split cost between your buddies), and take the scenic drive west along the Trans-Canada Highway, through Banff and Glacier National Parks to Kicking Horse and Revelstoke. Just take your time and watch your speed – cops, speed traps, and cameras are everywhere, and the speed limits are painfully slow. Otherwise, it’s a relatively easy and pleasant journey – one you and your buds won’t soon forget.