By Jess Thomson
The trip we’ve designed is the stuff of dreams: Couple Ditches Children, Hops Border, Skis Canada’s Best Resorts. We don’t want to spend the week pretending we’re still in our twenties, exactly, but we do want a winter road trip from Seattle with less responsibility than usual, a chance to ski “Capow” (the unfortunate term now popular for designating Canadian powder), and perhaps a few great meals. We want an adventure.
The Canadian Rockies and Columbia Mountains (not to mention the Coast Mountains, which Whistler calls home) are a vast and attractive winter playground. When we were planning, we sought out a variety of mountainous terrain, good tree skiing, and a dose of glamour for good measure. We decided to go to RED Mountain first, then Revelstoke Mountain Resort, then Whistler Blackcomb, with the goal that by the end, when we were good and tired and our well-heeled Subaru started looking like a yeti after almost a thousand miles on the road, we’d be closest to home. We dedicated ourselves to convenience, booking slopeside rooms at each, and added cold-weather windshield fluid to the car.
Only a couple hours north of Spokane, Washington, RED Mountain is a skier-owned mountain nestled next to the once-booming gold mining town of Rossland. Late at night, as we pass through the empty, twinkling streets of a town sparked by a Norwegian miner with a skiing habit, there’s a palpable sense of history. We notice cross-country skis leaning patiently outside a bar, and wind up the road a few miles to The Josie, our cozy home base (and RED’s first slopeside hotel) for our visit.
With a total of about 160,000 skiers each year, RED feels dinky compared to North America’s grande dames. (For contrast, Vail sees 1.6 million annual visits.) But as we soon learn, pushing off toward the Silverlode Quad chair, RED is a place where the mountains feel bottomless. Sure, there are only six lifts, and not one of them is high-speed—in fact, you can tell the regulars by the three grayish bars running across the backs of their coats, earned by sitting for cumulative hours on the ancient lifts. But by the time we’re three or four runs in, we’re grateful for the leg breaks, and beginning to understand the way the skiable area wraps around three separate peaks (or four, if you count Mount Kirkup, which is accessible only by snowcat). While we’re panting mid-run, it seems significant that RED is also home to what the locals call lone pine trees, whose branches start further up the tree than most pines—leaving noticeably more room for turns (and less risk of sliding into a tree well in deep powder). With a new intermediate lift opening this season, it’ll likely attract a wider variety of skiers in the future, but for now, it feels like an expert’s paradise. With the possible exception of the taco truck at the bottom of the Grey chair, RED is always and only about the sport.
At the end of the day, we slump in The Josie’s dining room, The Velvet, and devour a soul-quenching French onion soup. We have dreams exploring Rafters, the bar above the main lodge that’s literally squeezed into the beams at the top of the building, but it’s all we can do to stumble toward the deep leather couches in the lounge for a few minutes before bed.
On day two, we plot our day based around Mount Kirkup: there’s glorious 1600-vertical-foot pay-per-run cat skiing, delivered slopeside on a first-come, first-served basis, at $10 Canadian per run. In American dollars, it’s basically like someone paying you to ski untracked powder. While we wait between rides—it’s the only waiting we do at all at RED—we enjoy friendly chats with other skiers. The morning is a blur of geeky comments about forgetting our snorkels, unbridled squeals of glee, and, afterward, frostbite. (When you’re preparing for your trip, it may be useful to think of Canada as being next to Greenland—which it is, technically, from a global perspective, and hyperbolically, from a foot-warming perspective.) We purchase too many packets of foot warmers, pack our gear, and move north.
Anyone driving from RED Mountain to Revelstoke, home of North America’s biggest skiing vertical, should note that the most direct route requires a ferry crossing. We miss this little detail. About three-quarters of the way through our drive—at night, and in a blizzard, naturally—we realize we’re lining up to cross Upper Arrow Lake just in time to see the car ferry haul up its lines and head west, leaving us to shiver in the dark for an hour before it returns to fetch us. (You can do better.) But poor planning aside, the drive is an enjoyable twist through the heart of British Columbia, provided that like we did, you plan to land easily at the Sutton Place Hotel, Revelstoke’s massive slopeside condo complex. What it lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in convenience. In a matter of minutes, we’ve whisked our gear inside and hung it to dry for the next day, and have time for a beer with a group of friends we’ve arranged to meet in the warm outdoor pool.
Revelstoke is in many ways the opposite of RED Mountain Resort. Because it only opened in 2007, the resort feels decidedly more modern than RED, with 100% high-speed lifts and a comfy gondola to tote you to the dazzling cliffy terrain above treeline. But like RED, it has the ultimate pairing of good ripping steep runs and more forgiving groomers for when the legs begin to give way.
We’d arrived with strict instructions from my father to ski a run called Snow Rodeo, so the next morning, feeling stronger and stouter already with two days of Canadian skiing under our belts, we beeline up the gondola and then up the Stoke quad, ready for a long warm-up run. Snow Rodeo delivers on Dad’s promise of gorgeous grooming, rolling terrain, and a threat of never ending. Challenged and warm, we decide to dive into the famous North Bowl. It’s a good place to ski if you’re a pretty fit middle-aged person with a lifetime of experience on snow, but even the strongest among us (spoiler: it’s not me) is fatigued by late morning. After a gut-busting lunchtime platter of nachos at The Mackenzie Common Tavern at the base, we spend the afternoon cruising Revelstoke’s glades, which are similar to much of the terrain east coasters know from Vermont and New Hampshire (just with much colder, much lighter snow).
“Revy,” as many call Revelstoke, feels far more challenging than RED. It may be because we’re compelled to ski ‘til we drop because the snow is so good—the mountain typically holds the Canadian record for annual snowfall—or it may be because we’re with friends and the stoke, as many riders call the general enthusiasm for getting out and enjoying the mountains, is sky high. A day at Revelstoke isn’t nearly enough; there’s so much more to ski, and we’ve missed the famous railway museum in town.
As we pack up the next morning for a day dedicated to driving and relaxing, we look forward to having a bit of town time at Whistler Blackcomb, the two-mountain behemoth almost as famous for its off-piste activities as it is for what happens on snow. We are now smarter people after our ferry experience, and we know the drive to Whistler crosses the northern part of Canada’s Okanagan wine country and creeps along the breathtaking-but-curvy Duffy Lake Road through the Coast Mountains. We know we’ll arrive exhausted. Which is why we plan to stop first just outside town at the Scandinave Spa, a Nordic-inspired outdoor oasis of calm where we soak, sauna and nap our way through the late afternoon before checking in to the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside, which we’ve loved for years because it’s the ideal combination of affordability and comfort. We treat ourselves to an indulgent dinner at Il Caminetto, a mountain-glam Italian spot known for its killer wine list. The sommelier is a genius and also generous, and as we pour ourselves out the door after beef carpaccio, venison ravioli and caramel budino, we decide our next stop should be the bus to Vallea Lumina, bedtime be damned.
Vallea Lumina is an unusual new attraction a few miles south of Whistler village. Part walk in the woods and part electronica light show, it’s a trail participants navigate to follow a techno fantasy about a little girl experiencing nature with a wise old friend. Advanced LED lighting takes us with her to meet talking trees, a story-tall bear, and glittering branches, and we understand, through our own exhausted fog, why the greeters so vehemently discouraged drug use. We hurry back to the hotel, mystified and confused about what parts of the modern world belong embedded in nature.
The next morning, with a new, sobering appreciation of what the mountain might be without a ski resort on it, we decide to start our morning on Whistler Mountain, take the three-kilometer-long Peak 2 Peak gondola over to neighboring Blackcomb Mountain around lunchtime, and spend the afternoon skiing off the brand-new Blackcomb gondola. After riding at RED and Revy, Whistler Blackcomb feels like a mountain full of less advanced skiers, and it feels more crowded. But like so many of the world’s most iconic ski resorts, it has an unmistakable grandeur we can’t find anywhere else, good steeps above treeline, and impeccable grooming. Eventually, we give in to the smell of the waffles at Crystal Hut on the edge of Blackcomb, which is a perfect decision from a digestive perspective but doesn’t do much for our ski legs. As the sun begins to duck behind the mountains, we succumb to the allure of après at The Raven Room, known for its cocktails. We don’t even make it to dinner.
On our last day, feeling more than a little sore but totally sated, we start talking about what it is about a skiing-centered road trip that we love so much. Perhaps it’s the lack of connectivity. (We’ve spent much of our time out of cell phone range.) Maybe it’s the ability to discover new spots without knowing exactly what we’ll find. Or it could just be about finding the same thrill skiing itself offers: We like gaining momentum, but we also like being forced to change direction. It’s the latter—enjoying the challenge of change—that we want to take back home.
PLAY: Mount Kirkup Cat Skiing
STAY: The Josie
STAY: The Sutton Place Hotel