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Peaks of Perfection: This Season's Ski Guide

These off-the-beaten-trail Canadian ski resorts will have you finding your higher powder.

Ski 2014-2015

Red Mountain Resort

British Columbia

Red Mountain ResortSkiers on the Paradise Chair.

The face of B.C.'s Red Mountain Resort has gotten a lift, with more skiable terrain than Jackson Hole - not to mention the hot tubs.

It's Saturday morning at British Columbia's Red Mountain Resort, and I've spent the past hour packing in runs at a furious pace, certain that hordes of skiers will swoop down any minute. Yet I keep ripping down impeccably groomed corduroy that sees so few skis, it never really tracks out. I take time for actual conversations with the "lifties" – Where are you from? What brought you to the West Kootenays? – as empty chair after empty chair slides by, waiting for someone to hop on. And within three hours, I've even met the mayor: Wake Williams, mayor of Squaw Creek. Granted, he's the only resident of Squaw Creek, which is just a section of the resort's long and twisty Rino's Run. His circa 1947 hand-built cabin, nestled in a strand of fir trees, is the gnarliest mayor's chambers I've ever seen – no water, no electricity, but mere metres from amazing skiing. I'm sure he'd agree that it's beautifully unnerving to have a mountain to yourself.

Red Mountain ResortLeft: In Rossland, old skis are put to good use. Right: Rino DeBiasio has been a patroller at Red for 58 years.

It doesn't take long to understand why people from here say Red is different. Located three kilometres from the former gold-mining town of Rossland, the resort is made up of three lift-serviced mountains: Red, Granite and, since last winter, Grey. It's home to the trails that birthed the Olympic gold medals of locals Nancy Greene and Kerrin Lee-Gartner, which, along with the dozens of national ski team members who have also emerged from here, attests to the simple fact that this is a place where skiing is everything. Cruising down Rossland's Columbia Avenue, I roll past a life-size bronze homage to Olaus Jeldness, a crazy Scandinavian miner and pioneer of competitive skiing who, 117 years ago, hiked to the top of Red Mountain with a few pals, strapped on an early version of skis and raced into town. Soon the citizens were hooked.

They built the first ski jump in the Canadian West. By 1947, they had scraped together enough money to erect a new invention called a "chairlift" that reached the starting point of Jeldness' racecourse.

Red Mountain ResortRed’s ski-patrol hut

But Red is hardly an exercise in nostalgia. I'm staying in a swank slopeside pad, complete with flat-screen TV, stainless-steel appliances and a private hot tub with views of the mountains. But while it looks like it belongs in Vail, it's priced more like a Motel 6. There's a new day lodge and a slew of restaurants that seem out of place in a town with a population of 3,500 whose nearest big city, Spokane, is two and a half hours and a border crossing away. These upgrades are thanks to San Diego businessman Howard Katkov, who loved the resort so much that he bought it in 2004. And while amenities are swell, it's what Katkov, evidently some sort of benevolent agoraphobe, has done with the mountain that has earned him the love of the locals.

Red Mountain ResortLeft: The Rossland Miners Union Hall still shows films and plays and puts on dances. Right: Red Mountain racers – and future Olympians? – Madison Eggert and Patrick Cometta.

I arrive at the lifts early the next morning, bracing myself for the inevitable flocks that skiers come to expect on a sunny Sunday. There are no more than two dozen people queued up for the first lift of the day; after that initial "crowd," I never see another lineup, and I can't help but think this is what a private ski hill must feel like. Following the advice of Mayor Williams, I start dropping into an endless number of chutes off the Motherlode chair that come in steep and steeper, including a pair of death wishes called Needles and Cambodia. Extreme terrain has been Red's calling card for decades, but the Grey Mountain expansion opened up an entire face of intermediate skiing. It nearly doubled the resort's skiable terrain, making it bigger than Jackson Hole. Now you get long runs with spectacular views of the Monashee mountain range, without the knee knocking occasioned by skiing on double-black runs with names like Head Over Feet and I Drop the Line. Even the lift tickets here cost up to 33 percent less than at that famous B.C. mountain whose name starts with a "W." Just when I think it can't get any better, I chat with a guy on the Silverlode chair who tells me that for $10 a run, the resort will take people inbound cat-skiing. I've had coffees at other hills that cost more than that.

I retire to Rafters, the designated après-ski spot that's literally up in the rafters of the main lodge. For the first time all day, I come across a crowd.

Red Mountain ResortRed Mountain, as seen from the resort’s Granite Mountain.

A didgeridoo player named Shane Philip is about to start his set and the audience is buzzing. I strike up a conversation with a man whose leathery face and serious beard scream, "I ski more than I work." He agrees that if you live to ski, this place is the embodiment of a powdery Shangri-La. "But it's changing, man," he tells me over a pint of Faceplant from the nearby Nelson Brewing Company. While there's no doubt that Red is on the radar, I don't think a Four Seasons will be cropping up anytime soon. Given its location, Red is destined to be a pilgrimage; no matter how you get here, you invariably fly over or drive past several other hills that are more than adequate. To make it to Red, you have to believe that some things are worth the perseverance.

On my final morning, I ride to the top of Red and take a few moments to look down on Rossland, like Olaus Jeldness would have done all those years ago. Ironically, the town is much smaller now than it was then, when it boasted 42 saloons and 17 law firms. But these days, it's infinitely richer; just enough of the saloons have stuck it out and the lawyers may have a new excuse to come back. And those who live to ski? They aren't going anywhere.


Rossland, British Columbia

Travel essentials

01 A sticker on your board from the RossVegas Boardshop will help you blend in with the locals, who buy their Burton Decks and Smith goggles here. (rossvegasboardshop.com)

02 Rent a snowcat for a day from Red Mountain Resort. At $800 for up to 12 people, including lift tickets, it's the best deal in all of skidom. (redresort.com)

03 The Flying Steamshovel is the last of the saloons that used to animate Rossland in its mining heyday, though we're pretty sure it didn't serve arancini di riso back then. (theflyingsteamshovel.com)

04 The après-ski spot Rafters gets amazing bands like Islands and the Thermals, who have no business playing in a town this small. (redresort.com/rafters)

05 For coffee made with beans roasted by local legend Oso Negro, head to Alpine Grind, where you're as likely to chat with a construction foreman or a high school principal as with a professional snowboarder. (250‑362-2280)

Red Mountain Resort

Where to stay

The one- to five-bedroom condos at Slalom Creek are kitted out with full modern kitchens, gas fireplaces and private hot tubs. They're also the on-hill digs that are closest to the lift. If you crave a switch from downhill action, an ice rink and cross-country and snowshoe trails are a walk away.
redreservations.com


Ski 2014-2015

Marble Mountain

Newfoundland

Marble MountainEd English, one of the many local skiers at Marble, descends toward the Humber Valley.

For a screeching good ski vacation, head to the other coast. The highest vertical in Atlantic Canada and loads of local character: Newfoundland's Marble Mountain carves out a niche.

My cheeks are stinging as I push my skis over the edge of Crooked Feeder, just off Marble Mountain Resort's high-speed quad. Icy snow has been pounding this part of western Newfoundland all morning. It's so thick I've yet to catch a glimpse of the Humber River some 500 metres below, but I'm told it meanders northwest toward Corner Brook, a few minutes' drive down a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway that can only be described as Newfoundlandian. Arriving from Deer Lake on that road the night before, in near total darkness, I became hopelessly, embarrassingly lost. Signs, lights, logical lane configurations – who needs them, really, when so few "come-from-aways" drive here?

Marble MountainLeft: A Corner Brook chalet. Right: Scott Ledrew grew up skiing at Marble.

CFAs are nowhere to be found at Marble – not on the 230 acres of skiable terrain, not in the cathedral-ceilinged Knotty Pine Lounge, not in the lobby of the Marble Inn Resort. Marble does draw a fair few "townies" from St. John's; one woman I share a lift with thinks nothing of driving seven hours across the province, with two rambunctious boys in the back seat, for the weekend. The ski-patrol team, ski-shop technicians and ticket sellers I bump into are all locals, or at least Newfoundland-and-Labradorians. When I stop to chat with the lift operators in brown canvas coveralls, I realize they're not painfully cool Aussie or Toronto board bums, but middle-aged guys raising kids just down the road, guys who've worked here since they were kids themselves. Everyone around here skis (and hikes and climbs and snowmobiles).

The regulars fly past me as I pick my way down Crooked Feeder. I haven't skied in a while, and my legs are soon telling me this is not a resort for beginners or the unfit: 16 of its 39 trails are rated black or double black diamond, and 17 are blue. One of only five greens, Upalong wends across the mountain's east face. It used to be known as the Struggle and, b'ye, does it live up to that name, with interminable flat stretches that have me pushing with my poles through heavy pine forests hiding fat white ptarmigan, moose and caribou. The mountain is so scenic, I'd be gasping for breath even if it weren't for all the snow (Marble gets around five metres each season, and Corner Brook is one of the nation's snowiest cities). As soon as I finish one run, I'm on my way back to the summit. There are no lineups – my longest wait at the high-speed Governor's Express is 35 seconds; at the pokey Newfie Bullet, it's zero. Not that I'm complaining. But it means that by the time I break for lunch, I've already packed in more than 5,200 vertical metres of skiing.

Marble MountainLeft to right: The top of Marble is the perfect spot for surveying the rolling Western Newfoundland landscape; even if you’re not a rider, you can easily get on a snowboard at this hill.

My quads are screaming when I meet up with Ed English, my guide for the afternoon. Lanky and sunburned, he's been skiing here since he was two (he owns a house near the base of Marble and a cabin you can just see from the peak). "Hundreds of years ago," he tells me as we speed up toward the now gloriously sunny summit, "these hills were logged for pine trees to be used as masts on British naval ships." In 1925 came the pulp and paper mill that still spews smoke over Corner Brook; with it came 3,500 workers, some of them from Norway and Sweden, who taught the locals ski jumping when they weren't hacking down trees. By the time English came along, the province had protected the entire Humber Valley from logging, and the Corner Brook Ski Club had built a rope tow to take skiers to the top. When it wanted to create a new run, the entire community would turn out, saws in hand, to clear the trail. "I still have the small blade my mom bought me at Canadian Tire," says English.

It's been a while since English strapped on a pair of downhills – he's a backcountry fanatic – but here at Marble it's Old Sam Day, featuring a race sponsored by a Newfoundland rum brand that has been blending and bottling dark Demerara hooch since 1797, and he wouldn't dream of staying away. When he was a boy, skiers would slug back a few shots, then fling themselves through the starting gate on Cruiser, one of the resort's original runs. English assures me the race is a slightly less drunken affair these days, which is a relief, since he's signed us both up.

First, though, I need to work off the poutine I devoured at the Cookhouse cafeteria. English gives a joyous shout of "Yahoo!" and pushes over the edge of Knute Chute with a racer's grace. We work our way across the mountain – down the narrow switchbacks of Corkscrew (his favourite), the off-piste Tuckamore Tangle (mine) and the steep Blow Me Down, nicknamed OMJ, for Oh My Jesus (best name ever).

Marble MountainLeft: Queen of the Hill: Betty Lou LeDrew reminisces about skiing in the Humber Valley. Right: Out of Marble’s 39 cut runs, 16 are rated black or double black diamond, and 17 are blue.

Soon enough, I'm standing in line at the top of Cruiser, English greeting each goggled skier by name. As I check in with the Old Sam marshal, English effortlessly cuts around poles to finish the racecourse in 22 seconds and change. I'm next. I slide into the gate, and the marshal tells me to "go whenever you're ready, m'dear." I push off, all my thoughts focused on not wiping out, especially since there's a crowd of competitors leaning on their poles at the bottom of the course, cheering me on. Red, blue, red, blue – I'm racing! I'm upright! When I cross the finish line, English gives me a slap on the shoulder and points up at the clock: I've made it down in 30.69 seconds.

Back at the Knotty Pine Lounge, I find a room full of raucous skiers warming their bellies with shots of Old Sam. When the MC hands out the prizes (bottles of rum, of course), English takes second in his age category. I place sixth – out of six – in mine. No matter. I join the queue at the bar for a whipped-cream-topped mug of Chocolate Sam: cheap ski-lodge hot chocolate with a hearty pour of hooch, an Old Sam Day tradition. Outside, it's already past dusk, but a few brave skiers are still bombing down the mountain under the lights. Soon, the snow starts up again, promising a fresh dump for tomorrow. OMJ, my quads, my calves, my shins are aching. The rum helps.


Corner Brook, Newfoundland
Travel essentials

01 Harness up at Marble Zip Tours to zigzag down nine zip lines – the longest is more than 600 metres – over an 85-metre-high gorge with ice-locked waterfall. (marbleziptours.com)

02 Spend a few kid-free hours on the slopes courtesy of the child-care professionals at the Marble Mountain Children's Centre. They'll keep your tykes aged two and up busy – and even teach them to ski. (709-637-7619)

03 Pick up thrummed wool mitts, a sou'wester or an ugly stick (a traditional instrument fashioned from a broom handle, bottle caps and cans) at the Newfoundland Emporium, where 80-year-old Dave LeDrew putters among model ships, fusty books and handmade tchotchkes with Flossie, his gentle Newfoundland dog. (709-634-9376)

04 Sit down at the cozy bar at Sorrento for a pint of Quidi Vidi craft beer and handmade pasta or pizza. (709-639-3466)

Marble Mountain

Where to stay

The saltwater pool and steam bath at Marble Inn Resort will unknot your muscles after a day on the slopes. For dinner, head to Madison's at Marble Inn, where the charcuterie platter features moose brought down by co-owner Joe Dicks and transformed into sausage and salami by chef Nathan Hornidge, who also whips up lobster rolls and corn-flour-crusted cod.
marbleinn.com


Ski 2014-2015

Shames Mountain

British Columbia

Shames MountainStanding atop Shames Mountain, a skier considers his backcountry options, which, in the words of one local, are “limited only by your imagination.”

Lift-serviced backcountry skiing and more than 10 metres of fluffy snow every winter? British Columbia's co-op-run Shames Mountain has nothing to be ashamed of.

Dean Wagner taps his ski poles together before pushing through a pillow of boot-top powder. He disappears over a steep, spiny ridge that plunges down Shames Mountain. Mark Skimson drops in behind him, his long, tightly curled hair barely contained by a tuque with a puffy pompom. I follow the local skiers, gathering speed quickly into turns that send arcs of white into the air. We spread out and meander through conifers for several minutes before regrouping, breathless, on a rare patch of level terrain to chug some water and share an energy bar.

"Not bad," says Wagner with a grin. He's referring to the 20 centimetres of fresh powder, which would be considered an abundance anywhere else but here. Shames, tucked into the rugged country of Northern British Columbia, 35 kilometres west of the rough-hewn natural-resource town of Terrace, routinely gets more snow than any other lift-serviced resort in the world, with an annual snow base that tops 10 metres. That's enough to bury a three-storey chalet. But the real draw at Shames is the bountiful lift-accessed backcountry skiing.

Shames MountainFor après-ski, head to Galloway’s Mountain Bar at the Shames day lodge.

Rather than taking the easy way up, we slap our climbing skins on the skis and start back up the golf-ball-shaped feature known as the Dome. Puffing uphill for an hour, we occasionally cross the fresh tracks of a wolverine, then crest the ridge before traversing our way to the summit. Music from the Shames day lodge drifts toward the clouds as I unfold my trail map. Nothing pretentious here: Shames' three lifts are simply called Handle Tow, Red T-Bar and Blue Chair; together they service 28 of the 35 runs carved from the forested southeast flanks of the mountain. It occurs to me that Shames is the anti-thesis of the modern ski resort. It's to Mont-Tremblant what the rusting VW Beetle is to a Mercedes-Benz – a little rough around the edges, staggering from one chairlift repair to another, but rich with nostalgia for a time when ski hills were simply about skiing rather than premium real estate.

While we pack up our skins, Wagner points out the chiselled peaks rising from a nearby valley rife with avalanche chutes. It's a fierce-looking chunk of topography known colloquially as the Valley of Certain Doom. Not long ago, Shames Mountain itself appeared destined for doom. In 2011, the local investors who had kept the mom-and-pop ski hill running for two decades wanted out; if a buyer couldn't be found, the ski area would close before that autumn's first snowfall. Panic swept over avid skiers, including my two new pals. "But people rallied, and now there's a really strong community behind Shames," says Wagner, who in his spare time handcrafts Divide brand skis made with Sitka spruce cores. Shames supporters formed My Mountain Co-op, and by late spring 2012, volunteers had sold enough memberships to secure financing and take ownership that December. Today it's the only community-service, co-op-owned-and-operated ski hill in Canada.

Shames MountainLeft: Local skier Dean Wagner with his Divide skis, handmade by his company in Prince Rupert.Right: When Billy McRae isn’t manning Shames’ T-Bar, you’re likely to find him on the slopes.

We shuffle a few steps to the north and peer down a couloir that looks barely a few degrees off vertical. Wary of the avalanche hazard, we opt to ski the more benign North Bowl, etched with tracks from the morning's wave of powder hounds. Wagner and Skimson pop off a small cornice; then I trace a half-dozen GS turns down a lane of untracked snow that leads to a knoll above a final steep face where surface snow slides around me as I carve. I meet up with my powder-skiing cohorts on the flats below, and we take a traversing track back to the inbound terrain.

My stomach grumbles as we link turns in sun-warmed, buttery snow down a blue run called Panhandler. We load the chairlift a few more times to explore another groomed run, chopped into tiny mid-afternoon moguls in the making. In 15 minutes, we slide to a stop outside the day lodge, the 5,000-square-foot epicentre of social life at Shames, and stomp upstairs to Galloway's Mountain Bar. Children cavort on the deck outside, waddling around like miniature astronauts in their puffy winter clothing. Wagner introduces me to Charlotte Rowse; wearing bright pink lipstick that matches her ski pants, she's having lunch with her husband, Denis. The Prince Rupert couple skis 30 days a year on average – not bad for folks in their nineties. Just a few minutes earlier, I had met 29-year-old Billy McRae, a fourth-generation Terrace resident manning the T-bar while metal music blasted from his telephone-booth-size lift shack. With his mohawk coif, diamond ear stud and white muscle T-shirt, McCrae shares neither musical tastes nor fashion sense with Shames' only nonagenarian skiers. What they do share is a love of a ski hill. "It would have been awful if Shames had closed," Charlotte Rowse tells me. "It's the reason a lot of people move here."

Shames MountainLeft: If nonagenarian Charlotte Rowse is any indication, skiing gets better with age. Right: A snowboarder rides under the Blue Chair, one of only three lifts at the co-op-run Shames Mountain.

My Mountain Co-op now boasts more than 1,200 members. Most are individual memberships bought for $299 each, along with a few corporate heavyweights like Rio Tinto Alcan, owner of the massive aluminum smelter in nearby Kitimat, which opted in for $175,000. As Meredith Skimson, the piano-teacher wife of my morning ski-mate Mark, later tells me, the co-op ensures that Shames remains under community control and that any profit is pumped back into the ski hill. "I wanted to make sure that my kids grew up in a skiing family," says Skimson, a mother of three and also My Mountain Co-op's volunteer treasurer.

The co-op's general manager, Christian Théberge, calls me over to join him for a bottle of Quebec-brewed Blanche de Chambly beer. "Shames is so friendly; it's like Cheers around here. When we have a problem, the community steps in," says the Québécois transplant, while his gregarious Bernese mountain dog/Labrador cross lounges at his feet, as at home in the lodge as any Shames regular. Just then, a voice crackles over Théberge's hand-held radio: A truck is stuck in the parking lot. He pries a few volunteers away from their half-finished beers and French fries, and they all head outside to push. It takes a village to run a mountain.


Terrace, British Columbia
Travel essentials

01 Haryana's serves some of the tastiest garlic naan and chicken curry you'll find in small-town (or big-city) Canada. (250-635-2362)

02 The powder piles up at Shames Mountain through the week, so hit the slopes on day one of the Friday-to-Monday schedule. The vast off-piste areas and 35 groomers will please beginners and backcountry riders alike. (mymountaincoop.ca)

03 Don Diego's menu changes nightly depending on available ingredients, but the rosemary-garlic grilled lamb chops with tapenade and tzatziki is a delicious regular feature. (250-635-2307)

04 While Shames offers rentals – full-day skis-boots-and-poles or snowboard-and-boots packages go for $38.40 – head to All Seasons Source for Sports in Terrace to buy skis, boards and clothing. (allseasons.sourceforsports.com)

Shames Mountain

Where to stay

Local ski legend Brad Zeerip, who co-owns Z-Boat Lodge with his wife, Kim O'Black, can let you in on some of Shames' best-kept secrets. The lodge has six rooms with private baths and a games room/lounge that overlooks Sleeping Beauty Mountain and the Skeena River. Breakfast (eggs, fruit salad and pancakes) will get you going.
zboatbc.com

Tags

OUTDOOR TRAVEL     SKI DESTINATIONS     SKIING     SPORTS & WELLNESS    

Comments… or add another

hsimauqs co-op

Friday, November 28th 2014 12:55
billy mcrae is a legend, that guy gives good t. keep it real shames
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