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Revelstoke’s Reckoning

A big B.C. Resort known for deep snow and huge vert refocuses its vision.

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Five years ago, Revelstoke Mountain Resort was hailed as skiing’s Next Big Thing, an area that appeared to be lifted straight off some dreamy, après-ski bar-napkin sketch. Wedged between the Selkirks and the Monashees, two of British Columbia’s legendary ranges, it offered 5,620 feet of lift-accessed terrain, the most vertical in North America, and 40 blessed feet of annual snow. The remote rail and mining town of Revelstoke, located on a crook in the Columbia River and still populated by working-class locals, suddenly offered skiers a choice of lift, cat, heli, or backcountry skiing from a single village base. “Revel” and “stoke” were literally right there in the name. 

Skiers flocked to get some. Canadian skier Izzy Lynch recalls the fever. “It was insane,” she says. “Every day was like the best powder day of my life.” In the fall of 2008, before Revy’s second season, Lynch, like many others, relocated there. She started a small ski program on the mountain and worked at a pub. “It seemed like a new frontier with tons of opportunity.”

This was precisely what Revelstoke’s developers had imagined. As early as the 1960s, dreamers recognized Mount Mackenzie, with its steep, varied terrain and top-to-bottom glades, as ripe for something awesome. But the big plans didn’t materialize until 2005, when four partners, including Denver housing developer Don Simpson, finally stepped up with a master plan and the $22 million needed to build the lifts. Revelstoke opened on December 22, 2007, with an eight-person gondola, a high-speed quad, a double, and 27 trails. Simpson’s plan called for 20 chairlifts, more than 120 runs, 5,000 new housing units, and a golf course, all to be built within 10 years.

A global economic meltdown, however, wasn’t foreseen. The crash, after Revelstoke’s second season, forced the resort to scale back its highfalutin ambitions. “The original thought was to be a monster megaresort, with high-end clientele coming from all over the world to this destination that had everything,” Revelstoke’s general manager, Rob Elliott, says. “The mountain hasn’t changed. Snow is still plentiful. But we just narrowed our focus. Instead of going for big-name skiers and deep pockets, we’re becoming a ski hill for everyone.”

For local skiers, the crash was kind of a blessing in disguise. Despite the layoffs and shelved expansion plans, Lynch thinks it helped Revelstoke retain some of its charm. “For all the people that had just moved to town to ski, all we really cared about was that it was going to be a good snow year,” she says. “We felt like pioneers of the area—we were exploring terrain that had never been skied before. And the hill was empty. We pretty much had our own private ski resort for the first three years.”

These days, there’s a queue for the gondola on powder mornings, but Revelstoke’s sizable terrain (3,121 acres) spreads skiers thin, harboring fresh lines for days. The resort relies on weekenders who drive from Calgary, four hours east. “One cool thing about there being more people is that it’s pushed us to explore beyond the boundaries of the ski area,” Lynch says. “Every year we seem to go a little deeper into the backcountry, and there’s just endless possibilities out there.”

Today, a visitor will find a modest base area: some retail shops, a little café, a restaurant, a bar, and a 222-room hotel. In a few years, according to Elliott, they’ll probably only notice a couple more terrain parks, a few more blue runs, and better green terrain—Revelstoke sells itself to powder-loving experts, but the resort hopes to lure families in the future. The hype may be gone, but the vision for the place is still big-eyed. A lift planned for the mountain’s south side would open up 50 percent more terrain.

Meanwhile, in the historic town of Revelstoke, “granola-eating hippies”—Lynch’s words—coexist easily with loggers, and skiers with snowmobilers. Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, which flies out of Revelstoke’s base area, as well as Canadian Mountain Holidays, Mica Heliskiing, and Eagle Pass Heliskiing, have turned the area into a heli-ski hub. In the summer, mountain bikers from across the continent converge on the local trail system.

“It’s so quiet here, and we have so much space to explore,” Lynch says, actually giggling as she utters the second “so.” “And it’s pretty remote. You feel like you’re in a snow globe, tucked away from everything else in the world.”

Andy Isaacsonis a writer and photographer based in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Smithsonian.