You're bounding down a wide-open slope with no one in sight but family and friends. The mountain might as well be your own. From up here, you can't see a highway or any buildings-and you definitely aren't encountering any liftlines or on-snow stampedes. The backdrop is majestic, a wilderness symphony of craggy, high-alpine peaks. The 4,000-foot vertical drop under your feet is one of the biggest in North America, but it's not intimidating in the least. Best of all, at Canada's Panorama Mountain Village, the vibe is reminiscent of how skiing used to be: friendly, unharried and spacious. A ski vacation here is more about camaraderie and outdoorsy good times than cojones, coolness or anything "extreme."
If Panorama is an anomoly-resort-style amenities without the crowds-it's also a place you're not likely to encounter in passing. Located in the sunny southeastern corner of British Columbia, Panorama sits surrounded by wilderness, a stunning three-hour drive from Calgary-and the nearest airport-across the Canadian Rockies and through two national parks. The nearest town is pastoral Invermere, a half-hour drive away.
Panorama's base area cascades down Toby Creek Canyon's terraced hillside. A new day lodge and new condominiums add comfort and polish, but Panorama is hardly a resort village à la Aspen or Stowe. In fact, it's downright removed. Shoppers here can choose between three small shops and the general store. Dining choices are limited to exactly five, if you count the new, decidedly mediocre marketplace-style cafeteria. The lone nightclub operates only three nights a week. There are two bars and no full-service hotels. Nevertheless a full two-thirds of Panorama's visitors are return customers.
Panorama's appeal is that of a beloved summer camp or lakeside resort-a place that families enjoy returning to year after year. Kids roam freely, and grandparents are plentiful on the slopes. Staffers remember your name and enthusiastically participate in activities such as on-mountain ski rallies (a cross between a scavenger hunt and a mountain tour) and nighttime jibbing in the terrain park. Long-standing friendships get their start at the centrally located barbecues and in the communal hot tubs at night. "What makes this place special," says Graham Wood, Panorama's vice president and general manager, "is the lack of crowds and the personal feel."
For the Calgary Cats, it's a combination that works. The 16 women from Calgary-doctors, teachers, a sawmill operator, an artist and a full-time mom-leave their husbands and children behind and come to Panorama for a girls' weekend each year. An economical girls' weekend, that is. With a bit of planning and a massive condominium, the high-spirited sisterhood travels, eats, drinks and skis for less than $200 U.S. per person for the weekend. From start to finish they find the weekend stress-free. "It's a great getaway," says lifelong skier Annie Walker, who enjoys the remote quiet compared to the busy ski areas of Banff and Calgary. Some go to the cross-country center while others alpine ski, but all easily reconvene for a sprawling picnic lunch on the deck of the day lodge. Nighttime is filled with camp-style hijinks, late-night tobogganing on trash can lids, guitar-playing around the hearth, a bit of dancing on tables and hours of howling laughter. Easy-going camaraderie is the theme for the annual gathering, which makes Panorama the perfect setting.
Fritz Zehnder and Guy Messerli, two transplanted Swiss loggers who missed the Alps, cut Panorama's trails and opened its first rope-tow in 1964. Other local skiers formed a partnership to invest in the first chairlift, which began operation in 1967. People drove up from Invermere for day skiing, a few Calgarians built modest weekend homes, and the slopes slowly began to creep up the long, even grade of Panorama's ridgeline to its 7,800-foot summit. Alan Graham, then owner of Calgary-based Sovereign Life, bought Panorama in 1976 witth a vision of building a golf course and transforming the ski enclave into a four-season resort. He was still cutting fairways-and Panorama was losing $1 million a year-when the Intrawest Corporation took over in 1993.
Despite its big vert, Panorama was, until recently, regarded as a hill for intermediates, with miles of cruisers comprising more than half of its terrain. Since its acquisition by Intrawest, however, the amount of terrain has more than doubled. Panorama's 2,000 skiable acres are now rich with great bump runs and other treats for experts, particularly in the Extreme Dream Zone, a cluster of technical, tree-glutted chutes and steeps.
First, though, you have to go up. And then up and up and up. (No one said it would be quick.) Panorama's only high-speed quad rises one mile from the base area to midmountain. The Horizon fixed-grip double chair continues up Panorama's spine, passing over popular intermediate runs Skyline and Rollercoaster and the black-diamond bumps of Tacky and Black Bear. To continue your ascent, grab the Champagne T-bar, then ski the cat track to the Summit T-bar. From the peak, intermediates should bear far right, past the entrance to the Extreme Dream Zone to the View of 1,000 Peaks. The left flank of the mountain features Panorama's signature run, Schober's Dream, a three-mile blue/black descent lined by newly thinned glades-an excellent training ground for those who wish to become better tree skiers. Intrawest's 10-year plan for Panorama includes additional on-mountain expansion as well as extensive development at the base, including townhomes, a championship golf course and an on-mountain water park. The idea, as with all Intrawest resorts, is to pre-sell condominiums before ground is broken, and then create enough activities to keep beds "warm," or occupied year-round. Throughout, asserts Wood, the intention is to maintain Panorama's current low-key appeal-not become a Whistler or Tremblant. "The fact that we are three-and-a-half hours from the nearest hot spot is our greatest advantage," says Wood. "We will never grow too fast."