Fun Without Fear

Travel
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Fun 1104

Powder-dusted cliffs slide

past the window as the helicopter banks and pulls up sharply, sending a blizzard swirling as it settles onto the snow. The door slides open and 12 skiers clamber out to crouch in a huddle amid the snowy gale. The thwup thwup thwup of the rotors deepens as the bird rises, then pivots and slips away behind the ridge. Within seconds, we're enveloped in silence. Our guide points a few feet to our right. "Don't walk over there," he says. "You'll fall off the mountain."

We stand on a pillow of white. Above us is a line of rocky peaks laced with blue glacier ice. Below is a roadless wilderness. My heart pounds, I start sweating despite the cold, and I can't help but think: This is not your typical family ski vacation.

But then, I haven't come to your typical family ski resort. Panorama Mountain Village, secluded in the heart of British Columbia's Purcell Mountains, is the biggest little resort you've never skied. Its 2,800-acre size is solid, if not spectacular, while its 4,000-foot vertical is world-class, putting it in the same league as Whistler and Jackson Hole. But Panorama's ace card-especially in the competition for harried American skiers-may be that the resort only draws about 3,000 visitors on a busy day. (Vail's Vista Bahn quad does double that by lunch.) When you ski Panorama, you keep looking around from the lifts, wondering where everyone is. You quickly realize, however, that you are everyone. The resort offers such beautiful isolation that parts of the movie Alive (the story of a rugby team's survival after a plane crash in the Andes) were filmed here.

But Panorama is about more than ample space. With a huge variety of terrain-from green groomers to double-diamond chutes and glades-plus a heliski operation located in the base village, it's designed to provide on-slope thrills for every age and skill level. Panorama is the rare resort where you can push your personal limits without the fear of ending up in a toboggan. And a new $7 million lift expansion program means you can run laps on those underpopulated runs faster than ever.

[NEXT ""]Locals like to say that Panorama, probably the most low-key of Intrawest's 10 ski resorts, is a big mountain with a small village. Because the nearest international airport, in Calgary, is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, crowds are restricted by the limited lodging in the village. "It's our boutique property," says General Manager Mark Woodburn. "We're never going to be a big resort."

"That's the character of the mountain," another local veteran explains. "The scale's intimate enough that when you come for a vacation, you get to know people. It's the kind of interaction that skiers miss at most places. It's like coming back to grandma's house." Especially when grandma is a big supporter of guest services. A homey feel pervades the operation. There are daily "Good Morning Panorama" tours of the mountain and other tours of the village. Nightskiing extends until 10 p.m. And for kids heading to bed earlier, the local library hosts a story hour.

The day after my arrival, a Pacific storm system has blanketed the area with fresh powder, and I'm raring to go. I board the Mile One Quad. Though it's a spring holiday weekend in the States, there's no line here-a pleasant surprise, attributable to the fact that though Panorama lies just 150 miles north of the U.S. border, Americans make up only 10 percent of its visitors.

From the lift, I drop a few hundred yards past the Champagne Express and over to the Summit Quad, which takes me all the way to the top. The mountain's layout is straightforward. The lowest third is stocked with broad easy greens and some of the less challenging blue runs. Intermediate skiers tend to stick to the middle third, where wide groomers and easy black-diamonds predominate. Experts prefer the Summit Quad, which serves a network of gladed runs that thread down the front face, as well as a doublblack forested bowl called the Extreme Dream Zone. On the backside lies the Taynton Bowl expansion, 1,000 acres of mostly double-black former heliskiing terrain. Think Jackson's Hobacks, with about half of the traffic. Altogether, Panorama serves up an ideal terrain mix for a family ski vacation: 20 percent beginner, 55 percent intermediate and 25 percent expert.

[NEXT ""]After a few warmup runs, I head to one of the mountain's back corners, an area of gladed intermediate runs called Sun Bowl. If the slopes on the central spine of the mountain are quiet, here they're positively empty. The backcountry terrain is even more deserted. Unlike the white lie heard at many resorts, I would learn that after a dump here you really can find untracked powder for four or five days.

As the morning draws on and the winter sun paints the slopes a bright gold, I stop for a snack at the cozy Summit Hut. In one corner, the Australian women's freestyle team is having chocolate fondue near the wood-burning stove, while across the room some burly young men from Toronto huddle around bottles of Kootenay beer. Warm light pours through the windows, which look out in every direction over a sea of frozen peaks. Across the scenic valley, snowy Mt. Nelson rises amid a crowd of lesser brethren.

It's easy to see why Intrawest was drawn to purchase Panorama in 1993, a time when the company owned only Blackcomb Mountain, B.C., and Tremblant in Quebec. Panorama then was an unprepossessing local hill with good bones and a history of serial bankruptcies. After buying it, Intrawest spent four years formulating a 15-year master plan. Then the company set to work. Step One: Build a golf course to make Panorama a year-round destination. Step Two: Upgrade and expand lodgings to offer a true ski-in/ski-out experience. Step Three: Expand terrain, install lifts and double the snowmaking capabilities.

At the moment, the plan is in its fourth phase, expanding Panorama's base village and retail options. The goalis to offer something for everyone, so that even nonskiers will find reasons to return. The intention, though, is not to make the village a draw in itself. Clearly, this is not destined to be Whistler II.

Intrawest's vision will probably take a decade to realize. When the master plan is fulfilled, Panorama will have 7,000 beds, more than double the present number. But the resort will strive to maintain an intimate, uncrowded feel-"like you're still in the Canadian wilderness," as G.M. Woodburn puts it. "It's always going to be about the mountain."

By 4 p.m. the action has shifted to the base village. In the Great Hall cafeteria, a family of seven swaps stories over mugs of hot chocolate. In T-Bar's Grill a few doors down, three couples from England pass around a digital camera as they sip Irish coffee, while five recent college grads from Alberta dismantle a plate of hot wings and a pitcher of ale. The action on the hill isn't over, however, as the lights wink on for the start of nightskiing.

[NEXT ""]The real scene, though, is in the hot springs a couple hundred feet away. Located next to the kiddies' T-bar, three adjacent pools offer great views of the slopes and soothingly hot water set to 100, 102 and 104 degrees. As I blissfully soak, I strike up a conversation with 59-year-old Washington, D.C., resident Kevin Quinlan, who bought a condo here with his wife three years ago. "Skiing in Canada is a real treat for Americans," he says. "Even though the U.S. dollar isn't as strong as it once was, you can still get great deals. And Canadians are so wonderfully friendly. I've skied a lot of different places, but when I came here, it just felt like home. It's like a small town."

I can understand his attachment. The village has a feeling of integration and attention to detail that's all too rare in modern resort development. Each lodge follows an Alpine-Western theme, evoking both Swiss chalets and national park lodges of the Rocky Mountains, with solid wood beams and sturdy stonework, but tweaked to give each a feeling of individuality.

Above all, the resort is designed to be practical. When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, I checked in, bought a pass, rented gear and was on the slopes within an easy hour. At the end of the day, I skied back to my lodge, stowed my gear in a ground-floor ski locker and rode the elevator to my suite. I found it spacious and clean, with a rustic-modern feel: sunny yellow walls, scroll-back chairs around a country wooden kitchen table and an overstuffed sofa facing a stone fireplace under a mantle of rough-hewn wood. The windows looked out over the hot pools and up the valley to the high peaks beyond. The suite had a full kitchen, tons of closet space and a laundry room down the hall. Best of all, the slopes were right at my doorstep.

That's a particularly appealing feature for parents. "As a mother, you find that if your child is tired or cold, it's very easy for one parent to take the child into the condo while the rest of the family is off skiing," says Calgary mother-of-two Lynn Gibson, who purchased a condo on the hill with her husband eight years ago. "It allows everyone with different interests or abilities to meet their own needs in the day." And if any given family member should become bored by riding lifts, alternatives include sleigh rides, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, nordic skiing, ice fishing and skating on a nearby lake, to name just a few.

[NEXT ""]Then there's Panorama's deal-closer: heliskiing. Though an independent operator, R.K. Heli-Ski has been an integral part of the Panorama experience since it first opened the Heli-Plex-a building on the northern edge of the village-in 1987. The Heli-Plex Restaurant is one of the most popular in the resort, and the drone of helicopters taking off and landing outside is a distinctive part of Panorama's soundscape.

R.K. aims to bring the backcountry powder experience to as broad an audience as possible, encouraging intermediate skiers to expand their limits on the rolling snowfields of untracked powder. And unlike many heliski companies, which offer only multiday trips, R.K. sells mostly one-day packages, costing roughly $500. Before gearing up for the day, the guides assess each skier's ability based on their own claims (North Americans tend to overstate their abilities, Europeans to understate), how nervous they seem to be, how well they carry their gear and other general impressions. Even so, it's a gamble every time a customer hits the slopes. But that's OK. "Heliskiing wouldn't exist without the perception of an adrenaline surge," operations manager Rod Gibbons told me the day before my ride. "If there were no fear, we wouldn't have any customers."

The next day dawns cold and clear, and during our safety briefing at the Heli-Plex, skiers are taut with nervousness and anticipation. The adventure starts at takeoff as the chopper lifts upwards and climbs along the length of the Toby Creek Valley, soaring higher as it enters a realm of blue sky and snowy peaks.

After we pile out onto the shoulder of a mountain and don our gear, we stand motionless for a moment, just taking it in. I can't believe the extent of the untracked powder awaiting us. At last the first skier takes the plunge, and we all dive in. The next few hours are a blur of flying powder and lightning helicopter ascents. I finally stop to take a breather and, hurrying to catch up with my intermediate group, mistakenly follow the wrong set of tracks and wind up amid a throng of teenaged thrill-seekers taking turns jumping off a cliff band. Suddenly I'm way beyond my personal envelope-but a guide, not missing a beat, shows me a more moderate, though still challenging, route down. Bouncing through knee-deep fluff, I'm exhilarated almost to the point of being giddy as I make some of the best turns of my life.

That, in a run, is the foundation of a Panorama visit: testing your personal limits andh solid wood beams and sturdy stonework, but tweaked to give each a feeling of individuality.

Above all, the resort is designed to be practical. When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, I checked in, bought a pass, rented gear and was on the slopes within an easy hour. At the end of the day, I skied back to my lodge, stowed my gear in a ground-floor ski locker and rode the elevator to my suite. I found it spacious and clean, with a rustic-modern feel: sunny yellow walls, scroll-back chairs around a country wooden kitchen table and an overstuffed sofa facing a stone fireplace under a mantle of rough-hewn wood. The windows looked out over the hot pools and up the valley to the high peaks beyond. The suite had a full kitchen, tons of closet space and a laundry room down the hall. Best of all, the slopes were right at my doorstep.

That's a particularly appealing feature for parents. "As a mother, you find that if your child is tired or cold, it's very easy for one parent to take the child into the condo while the rest of the family is off skiing," says Calgary mother-of-two Lynn Gibson, who purchased a condo on the hill with her husband eight years ago. "It allows everyone with different interests or abilities to meet their own needs in the day." And if any given family member should become bored by riding lifts, alternatives include sleigh rides, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, nordic skiing, ice fishing and skating on a nearby lake, to name just a few.

[NEXT ""]Then there's Panorama's deal-closer: heliskiing. Though an independent operator, R.K. Heli-Ski has been an integral part of the Panorama experience since it first opened the Heli-Plex-a building on the northern edge of the village-in 1987. The Heli-Plex Restaurant is one of the most popular in the resort, and the drone of helicopters taking off and landing outside is a distinctive part of Panorama's soundscape.

R.K. aims to bring the backcountry powder experience to as broad an audience as possible, encouraging intermediate skiers to expand their limits on the rolling snowfields of untracked powder. And unlike many heliski companies, which offer only multiday trips, R.K. sells mostly one-day packages, costing roughly $500. Before gearing up for the day, the guides assess each skier's ability based on their own claims (North Americans tend to overstate their abilities, Europeans to understate), how nervous they seem to be, how well they carry their gear and other general impressions. Even so, it's a gamble every time a customer hits the slopes. But that's OK. "Heliskiing wouldn't exist without the perception of an adrenaline surge," operations manager Rod Gibbons told me the day before my ride. "If there were no fear, we wouldn't have any customers."

The next day dawns cold and clear, and during our safety briefing at the Heli-Plex, skiers are taut with nervousness and anticipation. The adventure starts at takeoff as the chopper lifts upwards and climbs along the length of the Toby Creek Valley, soaring higher as it enters a realm of blue sky and snowy peaks.

After we pile out onto the shoulder of a mountain and don our gear, we stand motionless for a moment, just taking it in. I can't believe the extent of the untracked powder awaiting us. At last the first skier takes the plunge, and we all dive in. The next few hours are a blur of flying powder and lightning helicopter ascents. I finally stop to take a breather and, hurrying to catch up with my intermediate group, mistakenly follow the wrong set of tracks and wind up amid a throng of teenaged thrill-seekers taking turns jumping off a cliff band. Suddenly I'm way beyond my personal envelope-but a guide, not missing a beat, shows me a more moderate, though still challenging, route down. Bouncing through knee-deep fluff, I'm exhilarated almost to the point of being giddy as I make some of the best turns of my life.

That, in a run, is the foundation of a Panorama visit: testing your personal limits and finding that they're further out there than you thought. You taste adrenaline, but not so much that you wouldn't want to return to push your limits again. And again.

NOVEMBER 2004

and finding that they're further out there than you thought. You taste adrenaline, but not so much that you wouldn't want to return to push your limits again. And again.

NOVEMBER 2004

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