The Great White Hope - Ski Mag

The Great White Hope

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The stories are rarely first-hand. More often, you'll hear about a friend of a friend of a friend who spent a week skiing ridiculously deep powder in southern British Columbia. Occasionally the narrative pinpoints a mountain range—the Kootenays, Purcells or Selkirks. Once in a great while, the storyteller alludes to an actual resort. Whitewater or Red Mountain. Apex, Silver Star or Big White. But the narrator is never sure. More important are the numbers. A hundred thousand vertical in three days. Maybe 200,000 in a week. Tales tell of remote towns, amiable locals and empty slopes. The geography is always vague. About 100 miles north of Spokane, in Canada's great white void between world-class Whistler and breathtaking Banff. Where the snow cascades while names, directions and hard facts slip through the cracks.

After years of listening to rumors, I needed to finally fill in the blanks, pin down the facts, verify tales that smack of legend. I'd move from town to town, resort to resort, run to run—in pursuit, of course, of powder, but also of a way of life.

Where to start?

Canada's border guards will know. They're friendly enough, as long as you don't try to winter over—you know, rent a place, find a job, buy a season pass, go native.

In early February, there's no waiting at the border crossing between Porthill, Idaho, and Rykerts, B.C. The Americans wave me through, but the Canadian guard wants to know why I've come to ski British Columbia when I live in Utah.

"It's a rental car," I tell him. "I'm from Idaho."

"Driving a Utah rental?" He's suspicious. "Any spirits? Firearms?"

I reply no to both. "Only boots, skis and poles."

He waits to see if I blink. When I don't, he studies my passport, hands it back and waves me through.

The snowcapped Selkirk Mountains hem the two-lane road from Rykerts to Nelson, my first stop. Blocking all but a sliver of sky, these high buttresses shelter arguably the best powder skiing in the Pacific Northwest. The Kootenay and Salmo rivers wend past half a dozen small logging towns and twice that many family farms in expansive valleys. Snow flurries fly as I cross Kootenay Pass.

By the time I reach Nelson, a dozen white flakes have morphed into a blizzard. Nelson's Victorian buildings and 19th-century streetlamps stand as testaments to the historic roots of the town, which ascends a gentle hill above Kootenay Lake. Gold was discovered near here in 1867 and subsequently financed a power-generating station, streetcars, a sewer system and police force—all before 1910. Nelson's granite civic buildings speak of the town's pivotal role in southern British Columbia's halcyon days, when mining, timber and railroad industries blossomed here. I notice that the streets are deserted; the storm has driven Nelson's part-hippie, part-yuppie populace into the downtown art galleries, restaurants and coffee shops—or 12 miles south to the snow-smothered slopes of Whitewater.

Flanked by forests on one side and towering bowls on the other, Whitewater tops out at 6,700 feet, which in the Selkirks is considered Himalaya-high. Whitewater's nearly 500 annual inches of incredible powder energized Nelson locals who, in the 1970s, blasted a road, built a lodge and erected a ropetow in this high basin. Three decades later, two chairs have replaced the original surface lift, and the immense terrain now stair-steps away from the base lodge. It's anyone's guess how many acres fill the groomed runs, glades, bowls, chutes and the lift-accessed backcountry that radiates out to all compass points. Along with sandwiches and bottles of water, locals often pack beacons, probes and shovels—even if they plan to stay inbounds.

Under dark blue skies and a pale midwinter sun, I ski Tramline's rolling bumps, seek out islands of pristine powder in the surrounding glades and marvel at the lack of crowds. My shins cut through the snow as I float toward the base lodge, where I find doughty backcountry threeinners mixing with local families and a dozen German skiers on tour, who have followed rumors of fathomless snow and wild terrain to this sunny cirque. I contemplate staying another day to explore with them, but my fact-finding mission has just begun and I can't get sidetracked now.

I head south and then west to Rossland.

Unless you're a mining expert interested in the history of Le Roi Gold Mine or remember Nancy Greene's gold and silver medals at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, you likely haven't heard of Rossland. Retired miners and Tech Cominco smelter employees lend the town a bedrock, blue-collar feel. You can almost hear the ghostly hammering of cold steel on hard rock and feel the rumble of ancient blasting in abandoned shafts that run beneath the streets.

When I arrive, however, it's difficult to get a fix on Rossland. For the past two weeks, moviemakers have transformed its red-brick downtown for a staging of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's Miracle on Ice. Transplanting Lake Placid, N.Y., to southern B.C. may seem a bit contrived, but one look at Rossland's historic Columbia Avenue explains why the director chose the weathered mining town. Storefronts are camouflaged with Olympic logos, and empty lots have been flooded, frozen, then lined with national flags to imitate practice rinks.

The slopes of Red Mountain rise directly from the edge of town. The first ropetows and a one-room log lodge were constructed in 1934 by miners looking for a winter sport to complement hockey. In the decades since, the ski area has grown from Red Mountain's forested cone out to Granite Mountain's intermediate south faces and expert north-facing chutes. The resort now sprawls over 1,200 acres and 2,900 vertical feet.

Morning dawns with subzero temperatures and light snowfall, which signals the distant rumblings of a Pacific storm. In Red's base lodge, I meet Rob Darrah, who works for the smelter. Rob was born near Rossland, learned to ski at Red and spends his time away from work skiing the mountain's myriad runs and glades.

The air is cutting-cold in the shadows, so Rob shows me Sally's Alley, a sunlit south face that careens toward Rossland's faux-Olympic downtown. Yo-yoing around the summit, we explore the icy north-facing Cliff and Face, which plummet toward Red's base lodge. Catching the Silver Lode Triple to Granite Mountain, we drift down the groomed Inagadadavida's sun-softened corduroy where Rob points to the fresh tracks on the out-of-bounds Mount Roberts and Gray Mountain. Red's chutes, groomers and glades speak of possibilities—of early mornings, tight trees, curtains of falling flakes. I feel a flash of envy toward Rob, for whom Red is not a possibility but a reality.

The lifts have closed when we make a last run down the Face's blistering bumps, then adjourn to Rafters, Red Mountain's historic bar. Wooden skis, leather boots and photos of local skiers give a nostalgic glimpse into Rossland's past—and present: its hard-rock miners' love of sport, their capacity for back-breaking labor and their hearty embrace of simple pleasures. Rob notes that the weather is turning and snow is expected by morning. "You need to ski Red after a storm, when deep powder blankets Roots and 1st, 2nd and 3rd chutes," he says, referring to the mountain's sheer, north-facing lines.

Indeed I do, but unless I plan to go native, I also need to get back on the road. I finish my Molson beer, thank Rob and reluctantly head back to my car. The setting sun extends shadows on the dormant Okanagan vineyards that line the road to Penticton, two hours from Rossland and the closest town to Apex resort. Set on Lake Okanagan's south shore, Penticton faintly resembles Northern Italy's Como district, where vineyards scale lakeside hills. Even this far north, the Okanagan's soils, moisture and summer heat produce wines that rival California's best. Along with fine merlots and chardonnays, Penticton is famous for film and jazz festivals, 40 golf courses, and Canada's Ironman Triathlon.

Snow spins in the headlights as my four-wheel-drive fishtails up the twisting road to Apex and skids to a stop in front of Saddleback Lodge. Saddleback's concierge—a Bernese mountain dog named Shadow—trots through the falling snow to greet me. Saddleback owners Barbara and John "Diesel" Davis first fell in love with Apex, then found a way to build the lodge as a home for their family and a slopeside base for their guests. In the blue light of the following morning, smells of eggs Benedict and fresh coffee wake me. Diesel is cooking and cleaning, Barb is shuttling their children down the mountain to school in Penticton, and snow is pouring from low-hanging clouds when I shoulder my skis and cross Apex's empty parking lot to the base.

Apex is famous for dry Okanagan powder and well-pitched terrain: double black-diamond chutes enveloping a blend of cruisers. Viewed from the Stock's triple, which rises to midmountain, Sluice Box and Gambit unroll in twisting corduroy and islands of Douglas fir. To my left, Sweet Sue and Tusk tumble from bump to bump to bump down narrow alleys that, I will learn, leave you breathless, either with success or failure. To the far, far right, beyond Juniper's intermediate ridge, the sheer, bump-filled gullies of Gunbarrel and Gromit plunge to Apex's original base area, which has been replaced by a new, compact village, half a mile to the south.

Other resorts may offer more polished amenities than Apex, but when snow blankets its 1,112 acres and 2,000 vertical feet, the resort's lack of crowds translates to run after heavenly run in untracked powder. Beyond light snow and expert terrain, the hospitality of Apex's working ski tuners, lodge owners, waiters and bartenders define this resort. When Ray Keetch at Apex's Mountain Shop can't find a replacement basket for my pole, he lends me his poles for the day. Diesel Davis takes a morning away from his construction company to give me a local's tour of Apex. Their generosity—and the imminent storm—make me wish I could linger. Instead, I retrace my way down the mountain road and drive two hours north from Penticton to Vernon, again winding among vineyards that crowd the shores of Okanagan Lake. Ahead, Kelowna's waterfowl-filled parks and enormous Maple Leaf flag lead the way to Vernon and Silver Star's distant, alpenglow-tinted peaks.

Australia's Schumann family owns both Silver Star and nearby Big White and packages flights, lodging, dual-mountain lift tickets and intermountain shuttles to bait fellow Aussies. One result is that Aussie is spoken here—by waiters, bartenders and ski bums who have saved up the loonies to winter over. Silver Star has one foot in the 19th century and one in the 21st. The village's pedestrian-only core features Victorian architecture and colors, bay windows, brass lanterns and wood filigree, which are replicated in private homes above the intermediate Silver Queen and Roller Coaster runs. Following a day on the mountain, families sled down Tube Town's intermediate face, ice-skate on a frozen pond and ride horse-drawn sleighs through the village and neighboring forest.

While the village emits a warm family vibe, the skiing shows the wild side of Silver Star. The resort consists of two mountains: cruiser-friendly Vance Creek and expert-haven Putnam Creek, which offers plentiful glades, bumps and steeps. Between the two, Silver Star encompasses 2,725 acres and 107 marked runs.

Klaus Fux and his daughter Helen are manning the Lord Aberdeen Hotel's front desk when I dust the snow off my jacket and check in. Born in Zermatt, Switzerland, Klaus moved to Canada in 1976 to work as a Canadian Mountain Holidays heliguide. Since then, he's skied a hundred million feet of deep powder, corn and breakable crust.

The following morning, Klaus leads Helen and me down Silver Star's FIS racecourse. With his weight centered over a pair of long, well-used straight skis, he floats from edge to edge. Ss, and Canada's Ironman Triathlon.

Snow spins in the headlights as my four-wheel-drive fishtails up the twisting road to Apex and skids to a stop in front of Saddleback Lodge. Saddleback's concierge—a Bernese mountain dog named Shadow—trots through the falling snow to greet me. Saddleback owners Barbara and John "Diesel" Davis first fell in love with Apex, then found a way to build the lodge as a home for their family and a slopeside base for their guests. In the blue light of the following morning, smells of eggs Benedict and fresh coffee wake me. Diesel is cooking and cleaning, Barb is shuttling their children down the mountain to school in Penticton, and snow is pouring from low-hanging clouds when I shoulder my skis and cross Apex's empty parking lot to the base.

Apex is famous for dry Okanagan powder and well-pitched terrain: double black-diamond chutes enveloping a blend of cruisers. Viewed from the Stock's triple, which rises to midmountain, Sluice Box and Gambit unroll in twisting corduroy and islands of Douglas fir. To my left, Sweet Sue and Tusk tumble from bump to bump to bump down narrow alleys that, I will learn, leave you breathless, either with success or failure. To the far, far right, beyond Juniper's intermediate ridge, the sheer, bump-filled gullies of Gunbarrel and Gromit plunge to Apex's original base area, which has been replaced by a new, compact village, half a mile to the south.

Other resorts may offer more polished amenities than Apex, but when snow blankets its 1,112 acres and 2,000 vertical feet, the resort's lack of crowds translates to run after heavenly run in untracked powder. Beyond light snow and expert terrain, the hospitality of Apex's working ski tuners, lodge owners, waiters and bartenders define this resort. When Ray Keetch at Apex's Mountain Shop can't find a replacement basket for my pole, he lends me his poles for the day. Diesel Davis takes a morning away from his construction company to give me a local's tour of Apex. Their generosity—and the imminent storm—make me wish I could linger. Instead, I retrace my way down the mountain road and drive two hours north from Penticton to Vernon, again winding among vineyards that crowd the shores of Okanagan Lake. Ahead, Kelowna's waterfowl-filled parks and enormous Maple Leaf flag lead the way to Vernon and Silver Star's distant, alpenglow-tinted peaks.

Australia's Schumann family owns both Silver Star and nearby Big White and packages flights, lodging, dual-mountain lift tickets and intermountain shuttles to bait fellow Aussies. One result is that Aussie is spoken here—by waiters, bartenders and ski bums who have saved up the loonies to winter over. Silver Star has one foot in the 19th century and one in the 21st. The village's pedestrian-only core features Victorian architecture and colors, bay windows, brass lanterns and wood filigree, which are replicated in private homes above the intermediate Silver Queen and Roller Coaster runs. Following a day on the mountain, families sled down Tube Town's intermediate face, ice-skate on a frozen pond and ride horse-drawn sleighs through the village and neighboring forest.

While the village emits a warm family vibe, the skiing shows the wild side of Silver Star. The resort consists of two mountains: cruiser-friendly Vance Creek and expert-haven Putnam Creek, which offers plentiful glades, bumps and steeps. Between the two, Silver Star encompasses 2,725 acres and 107 marked runs.

Klaus Fux and his daughter Helen are manning the Lord Aberdeen Hotel's front desk when I dust the snow off my jacket and check in. Born in Zermatt, Switzerland, Klaus moved to Canada in 1976 to work as a Canadian Mountain Holidays heliguide. Since then, he's skied a hundred million feet of deep powder, corn and breakable crust.

The following morning, Klaus leads Helen and me down Silver Star's FIS racecourse. With his weight centered over a pair of long, well-used straight skis, he floats from edge to edge. Stopping to watch, I comment that he's a hard act to follow.

"The hardest," Helen agrees with obvious pride.

Klaus' favorite line is Cowabunga, a precipitous bump run that funnels back to Putnam Creek's Powder Gulch Quad. When he and Helen return to the Lord Aberdeen, I tackle the Headwall. Here, powder-laden bumps erupt between second-growth Douglas firs that cover the mountain's abundant gullies and off-camber faces.

Victorian architecture and color schemes aside, Silver Star is no contrived theme park but a steep, demanding mountain. If you ski Putnam Creek as a family, you'd better put bungee leads on the kids. Or figure on next seeing them at dinner.

Sister resort Big White, my next and final southern B.C. destination, is nearly as large and every bit as challenging as Silver Star. After a night at the White Crystal Inn, I watch from my window as a lone skier walks across the pedestrian-only streets of Big White's tiny base village. Slipping into fleece and Gore-Tex, I cross to the base lodge for a muffin. There I meet Ted Morgan, Big White's Ski School Director and a transplant from Whistler/Blackcomb. A young daughter, the lack of crowds and a chance to direct the growing ski school enticed him to Big White.

When Ted learns I'm from Sun Valley, he offers to join me for a run. "Just a warm-up before class," he says, leading me to the Bullet Express, which climbs to the midmountain start of Sun Run. What follows is truly a local's take on an incredible mountain. Six inches of fresh snow fills the Corkscrew Glades, and we link turns through a warren of snow ghosts, tunnels and untracked meadows.

Soon, Ted returns to work and I catch the Powder triple, which rises to a summit crown ringed with black-diamonds. Surrounded by the moguls and glades, I realize that with 112 named trails and 714 acres of bowls lacing the resort's 2,565 acres of terrain, Big White is, in truth, a small resort snugged up against a huge mountain. Local wineries, deep and dry snow, and a favorable exchange rate set Big White—and its fellow southern B.C. resorts—apart from their better-known U.S. and Canadian cousins.

Watching the alpenglow touch the distant peaks, it occurs to me that if I could take a clear crystal and hold it against southern British Columbia's bright winter sun, the light would refract into a spectrum of white, red, green, blue and purple. The white would fall on the snow-covered mountains, red on the late-evening peaks, the green on B.C.'s dense forests, and the blue and purple on the lakes and rivers that have sculpted the countryside.

Amid such a remarkable setting, where the world appears to have taken a breather, how do you return home? How do you not go native, find a job, buy a season pass and settle in for the winter?

The truth is, while I am slowing down for the U.S. border crossing, the radio reports that the mother of all storms is sweeping across British Columbia. And as the U.S. Customs Agent asks where I've been and why I'm transporting more than the allotted two bottles of B.C. wine, for a wild moment I contemplate slamming the Utah rental into reverse and flooring it back north until summer.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures and descriptions. e. Stopping to watch, I comment that he's a hard act to follow.

"The hardest," Helen agrees with obvious pride.

Klaus' favorite line is Cowabunga, a precipitous bump run that funnels back to Putnam Creek's Powder Gulch Quad. When he and Helen return to the Lord Aberdeen, I tackle the Headwall. Here, powder-laden bumps erupt between second-growth Douglas firs that cover the mountain's abundant gullies and off-camber faces.

Victorian architecture and color schemes aside, Silver Star is no contrived theme park but a steep, demanding mountain. If you ski Putnam Creek as a family, you'd better put bungee leads on the kids. Or figure on next seeing them at dinner.

Sister resort Big White, my next and final southern B.C. destination, is nearly as large and every bit as challenging as Silver Star. After a night at the White Crystal Inn, I watch from my window as a lone skier walks across the pedestrian-only streets of Big White's tiny base village. Slipping into fleece and Gore-Tex, I cross to the base lodge for a muffin. There I meet Ted Morgan, Big White's Ski School Director and a transplant from Whistler/Blackcomb. A young daughter, the lack of crowds and a chance to direct the growing ski school enticed him to Big White.

When Ted learns I'm from Sun Valley, he offers to join me for a run. "Just a warm-up before class," he says, leading me to the Bullet Express, which climbs to the midmountain start of Sun Run. What follows is truly a local's take on an incredible mountain. Six inches of fresh snow fills the Corkscrew Glades, and we link turns through a warren of snow ghosts, tunnels and untracked meadows.

Soon, Ted returns to work and I catch the Powder triple, which rises to a summit crown ringed with black-diamonds. Surrounded by the moguls and glades, I realize that with 112 named trails and 714 acres of bowls lacing the resort's 2,565 acres of terrain, Big White is, in truth, a small resort snugged up against a huge mountain. Local wineries, deep and dry snow, and a favorable exchange rate set Big White—and its fellow southern B.C. resorts—apart from their better-known U.S. and Canadian cousins.

Watching the alpenglow touch the distant peaks, it occurs to me that if I could take a clear crystal and hold it against southern British Columbia's bright winter sun, the light would refract into a spectrum of white, red, green, blue and purple. The white would fall on the snow-covered mountains, red on the late-evening peaks, the green on B.C.'s dense forests, and the blue and purple on the lakes and rivers that have sculpted the countryside.

Amid such a remarkable setting, where the world appears to have taken a breather, how do you return home? How do you not go native, find a job, buy a season pass and settle in for the winter?

The truth is, while I am slowing down for the U.S. border crossing, the radio reports that the mother of all storms is sweeping across British Columbia. And as the U.S. Customs Agent asks where I've been and why I'm transporting more than the allotted two bottles of B.C. wine, for a wild moment I contemplate slamming the Utah rental into reverse and flooring it back north until summer.

Check out the slideshow below for more pictures and descriptions.

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