By Darren Davidsnon. Photos By Mark Gallup
Located in the southwest corner of British Columbia, the Kootenay region of Interior B.C. includes three major mountain ranges offering up arguably the most concentrated collection of winter resorts, snowcat/helicopter operations, and crowdless backcountry riding anywhere in the world. The biggest resort, Fernie, sits near the eastern edge of the Rockies. Four hours west over the Purcell Mountains and into the Selkirks are two B.C resorts that, up until only a few years ago, were under most of the winter world’s radar—Red Mountain near the town of Rossland and Whitewater just outside of Nelson.
More than anything, this region’s mountains hang their toques (that’s “hats” to all you Yankees) on the divine, dry snowpack that’s abundant almost anytime between mid-December and mid-April. While marketed to near-death, this claim is nonetheless supported by the legions of superstar names (including Craig Kelly and Terje Haakonsen) that have been drawn to this out-of-the-way dispatch over the past few decades to ride, film, or just simply live.
Who knows … after a road trip to this neck of the Great White North, you might well be next.
WHERE TO RIDE
Although Fernie has been on the map for a while, until recently both Red Mountain and Whitewater were legendary like the Sasquatch—people had heard wild ’n’ woolly creatures like them existed, but few had ever laid eyes on them. All that’s changed. These days, Fernie, Whitewater, and Red Mountain are all well known for their abundant, backcountry-style in-bounds terrain (as well as their equally awesome out-of-bounds), and, of course, their authentic small-town Canadian character (that’s code for ultra laid-back and somewhere between redneck and hippie).
Fernie-For Families And Freaks
Cut from the same mold as burly resorts like Jackson Hole and Snowbird, Fernie is a big mountain—a couple of mountains strung together in fact—looming large over a booming little coal-mining-turned-four-season tourist town. With 2,500 on-hill beds, 111 runs, ten lifts (four of them quads), and five famous bowls, there’s loads of room for every brand of snowboarding holiday.
While the mountain’s map might suggest the majority of the hill is intermediate/beginner, the truth is that Fernie’s got a mother lode of steep and deep lines. The “old side” of the mountain—dubbed thus by longtime locals who loved the original pre-growth hill—is on rider’s left and tends to get loaded a bit deeper with snow. Here’s a tip: If it’s not closed for avalanche control, hop the Facelift Handle Tow (better known as “The Meat Hook”) to save time on the big traverse across Cedar Bowl to stashes like Snake Ridge on Fernie’s easternmost boundary.
However, it’s the “new side”—mainly accessed from the White Pass Quad’s 6,316-foot-elevation top station—where you’ll get to the goods. Runs like Shakey’s Acres and Anaconda Glades are prime locations for big turns or big trees. Chutes and airs are abundant up high, with wide groomers, long fall lines, and a park lower down.
Best For: Great bowls, big groomers.
Web site: skifernie.com
There’s nothing like rounding out a day full of pow fields with an afternoon party wave in Fernie, B.C. PHOTO: Henry Georgi
Whitewater—Tough, Fluff, And No Frills
Compared to Fernie, Nelson’s Whitewater is on the other side of the shredding spectrum. Unless you’re planning to survival-camp it in the car, there’re no on-hill accommodation, along with only three antiquated lifts (two doubles and a beginner tow), and not a heap of vertical (1,300 feet to be exact). Sound a little slow? Not so.
Whitewater is an anomaly. Cradled in a massive bowl marked by the 8,000-foot Ymir Peak (pronounced “why-mer”), this seemingly undersized resort carries huge cred for its rowdy in-bounds terrain and superhero snowfall. When other Kootenay resorts get a trace of rain, Whitewater often gets thumped with a dump. The Summit and Silver King chairs access opposing sides of what amounts to a giant terrain park saturated with sweet shots through great glades, loads of off-camber lines, cliff bands, and mini-meadows.
Although a number of Whitewater’s steep pitches are corduroyed nightly by a winch-cat, the truth is, this isn’t the place for beginners, timid intermediates, or those looking to bag easy lap after lap. The park is petite, and there’s a ton of sweaty traversing to fresh turns. If, however, you’re into a little work à la hiking, splitboard touring, or advanced snowshoeing, you’ve found your faceshots. Whitewater’s lift-accessed backcountry is unbeatable, whether you’re into convenient twenty-minute walks or all-day tours. Warning: it’s absolutely advanced backcountry terrain, requiring beacon, probe, shovel, and brains over balls.
And one more thing—the food’s killer. The resort has sold over 10,000 copies of a cookbook detailing dozens of recipes from its famous Fresh Tracks Café.
Distance from Nelson: 11 miles
Cost: $55 CAN (one-day adult)
Best for: Advanced boarding and touring
Web site: skiwhitewater.com
Red Mountain—Keeping Up With Your Joneses
You’d have to have been marooned on Gilligan’s Island to not have heard a little something about Red Mountain since its 2003 purchase by a Southern Californian real-estate developer. The towering, 360-degree resort is built on two mountains—Red and the far larger Granite Mountain—and has improved on near perfection for riders who jones for steeps and trees.
With nearly 3,000 feet of vertical and probably the best terrain park in the Kootenays, Red is downright sick—especially on those days when it gets the great snow that Whitewater and Fernie more often receive. Head for the Red Chair or the Motherlode for expert riding on runs like War Eagle or Roots, hit up the Paradise triple for intermediate trees and groomers, or stick to the new Silverlode high-speed quad for beginner riding or warm-ups. The touring on Mt. Roberts and Grey Basin can be sketchy but often stellar. The park here encompasses six acres and includes a 30-foot wallride, lots of rails, boxes, and kickers. There’s a new 700-foot-long boardercross course, too. It’s even lit at night.
The resort’s calendar of events is a testament to the mountain’s terrain and the new owner’s aim to put Red Mountain on the map. Every year, the resort hosts a number of boardercross races, the Red Bull Cold Rush Big Mountain Slopestyle event, and, coming this season, North America’s newest big-mountain boarding competition.
Distance from Rossland: In town
Cost: $59 CAN (one-day adult)
Best for: Trees, steeps, and park
Web site: redresort.com
For three small cities, there’s a surprising amount to do after the lifts close in Fernie, Rossland, and particularly Nelson—considered one of North America’s best little arts communities. You won’t hit more than one town in a day or night, though. Located in the East Kootenay, Fernie is a good four-hour drive from Nelson (and the West Kootenay) over Canada’s highest year-round pass, the Salmo-Creston. If the highway is closed by weather you’ll have to go another hour-and-a-half out of your way and catch the Kootenay Lake Ferry, which is free. And Rossland is another hour east of Nelson.
That’s the thing—getting to the Kootenays is tough. You’ll likely fly into either Calgary, which is 3.5 hours east of Fernie; Spokane, 2.5 hours south of Rossland; or Castlegar between Nelson and Rossland—but Castlegar has been dubbed “Cancel-gar” because of how prone it is to weather delays and cancellations.
Tip: Want to know what’s up? For Rossland and Nelson, pick up a copy of The Weekender, the area’s news and culture rag. In Fernie, it’s The Fernie Fix.
Located inside The Edge Of The World Snowboard Shop, this place has great food, big servings, and its own indoor skateboard ramp.
902 6th Avenue, Fernie. (250) 423-9234
As Kootenay high-culture as it gets. Located in an off-the-beaten path back alley, All Seasons has a famous wine list and a beautiful (but not cheap) menu.
620 Herridge Lane, Nelson. (250) 352-0101
Located in Trail, ten minutes down the hill from Rossland, this family-priced, all-you-can-eat Italian joint is a Kootenay culinary institution.
1475 Cedar Avenue, Trail, Rossland. (250) 364-1816.
Idgie’s Fine Food
Settle into these funky, snug surroundings serving up fine, casual fare. Idgie’s is within waddling distance to all the nightspots.
1999 2nd Avenue, Rossland. (250) 362-0078
One of a number of international cuisine venues in Nelson, this one serves up Indian fare—and it’s good. Fast and friendly, too.
445 Baker Street, Nelson. (250) 352-0077
Those in the world-traveling know say the sushi here is as good as good in Japan.
741 7th Avenue, Fernie. (250) 430-0090
A hub of Nelson counterculture and nine-to-fivers, here’s the place to grab a head-for-the-hill breakfast, light lunch, or great cuppa, prepped at Nelson’s very own coffee roastery.
604 Ward Street, Nelson. (250) 352-7661
The Hume Hotel
Pick your poison. This century-old hotel has a rollicking three-floor pub called Mike’s Place, a gorgeous heritage lounge dubbed The Library, and a swanky club venue named Spiritbar that lures a heap of big DJs and bands.
422 Vernon Street, Nelson. (250) 352-5331
The Brickhouse Bar And Grill
If you’re looking to chill, chat, or shoot a few games of pool, this is one of Fernie’s newest hangouts, with live music on tap most weekends.
401 2nd Avenue, Fernie. (250) 423-0009
Downstairs from the Brickhouse, this place hops ’til all hours with DJs—bumpin’, grindin’, et cetera.
701 Second Avenue, Fernie. (250) 423-0009
A Bar Named Sue
Honky tonkin’ with regular rockabilly, country, and folk acts. Check the Web site for the night’s entertainment: abarnamesdsue.com.
301 Second Avenue, Fernie. (250) 423-3343.
It’s musty, rustic, and usually a riot. Located in Red Mountain’s 60-year-old lodge, this might be one of North America’s last great olden-days slopeside pubs. Pound beers in your boots. Puff on the patio. Then ride back to the condo or get a ride into town with a local and his dog.
Red Mountain, Rossland.
Dancing Bear Inn
Nelson is a labyrinth of hostels and B&Bs. This one’s cool, clean, and close to everything.
171 Baker Street, Nelson. (250) 352-7573
Raging Elk Hostel
Amongst Fernie’s most famous traveler hangouts, this place has a civilized communal scene, great amenities, free breakfast, and it’s right downtown and only five minutes from the hill.
892 6th Avenue, Fernie. 1-888-423-6811
Red Mountain’s five-star, ride-in/ride-out condos. Deluxe … but pricey.
4310 Red Mountain Road, Rossland. (250) 362-9129
The Red Shutter Inn
One-of-a-kind, with six cozy rooms and an A-frame cabin. It’s on-hill, with an in-house chef, thin walls, and a big hot tub.
4420 Red Mountain Road, Rossland. (250) 362-5131
The Mountain Shadow Hostel
Right downtown, this place is popular with boarders from abroad. It’s a good price and a ten-minute shuttle away from Red’s lifts.
2125 Columbia Avenue, Rossland. (250) 362-7160
Wolf’s Den Mountain Lodge
On-hill, affordable, and a one-minute walk to the nearest chair.
Fernie. (250) 423-2423
Down Days Are Lookin’ Up
Fernie, Nelson, and Rossland have great aquatic centers (Rossland’s is actually down the hill in Trail) with big pools, hot tubs, and gyms. There’s an indoor skatepark at the Nelson Youth Centre. Ainsworth Hot Springs is 45 minutes north of Nelson and well worth the drive to soak your aching body. Oh, and FYI—the drinking age in British Columbia is only nineteen.
Cats, Birds, And Blower
Snowcat and heli-boarding in the Kootenays.
A trip to the Kootenays without shredding one of the region’s snowcat or heli operations would be like taking a surf trip to Oahu without stopping by the North Shore. The snowcat scene was born here 33 years ago, when Selkirk Wilderness Skiing (selkirkwilderness.com) founder Allan Drury and his wife Brenda modified an old grooming tractor and started hauling adventurous skiers up wintertime logging roads onto the uninhabited slopes of the southern Selkirks. When Drury passed away last year at age 67, he left behind an industry’s legacy. Today there are 23 snowcat and heli ops in the Kootenays. Of course, where you plan to play depends on how much you plan to pay.
Island Lake Lodge: With a 3,000-bottle wine cellar, 800-square-foot spa, and a stunningly beautiful, privately owned tenure, Fernie’s 25-million-dollar Island Lake Lodge is the Kootenay’s five-star backcountry spread. Craig Kelly turned the snowsport media’s attention Island Lake’s way when he joined on as a shareholder in the late 80s. islandlakeresorts.com
Baldface: A decade later, Craig Kelly set down roots at Nelson’s Baldface Lodge. Everyone from Victoria Jealouse and surf icon Gerry Lopez to the dudes from Pearl Jam, Metallica, and The Foo Fighters have hung here. baldface.net
Stellar Heliskiing: Want to go big? Four boarders, one bird, huge mountains. stellarheliskiing.com
What’s a Canadian holiday without hockey?
Road-tripping snowboarders with a yen for blood, sweat, and beers will want to pack their skates and hangover cure-alls, and then sniff out the local rink. Canadians go bonkers for hockey—maybe even more so in the Kootenays, where the game is celebrated all winter long on frozen mountain ponds, in blast-from-the-past arenas, and at rowdy junior team tilts between towns that have been rivals for decades.
If you want to cheer from the beer gardens, check out Web sites for the Trail Smoke Eaters, Rossland Warriors, Nelson Leafs, and Fernie Ghostriders for game dates. If you want to sample a little shiny (a friendly pickup game, pronounced “shin-ee”), you can rent or buy most equipment for cheap at any sports store in town. Just keep your head up and your stick down.