Peaking early has its risks.
After spending a weekend skiing knee-deep powder against a jaw-drop mountain backdrop at Purcell Mountain Lodge outside Golden, B.C., my expectations for the rest of my ski trip in British Columbia were, well, modest. A few days of lift-serviced skiing on the humble ski hill in Revelstoke and some day tours on Rogers Pass would round out this adventure nicely, and my sextet of comrades could feel content.
Besides, the last time I was in Revelstoke, the week had not gone well. At the time, Revelstoke was spoken of in hallowed tones among a far-flung posse of powderhounds. The small railroad town – which holds the Canadian record for the snowiest single winter (80 feet, set in 1971-72) – was then home to a ragtag assortment of heli-ski operators, a snowcat skiing service and glassy-eyed skiers who spoke of endless, bottomless powder. So when I went there to go snowcat skiing in the 1990s, I was confident that I would be doing the best skiing of my life.
It didn’t turn out quite that way. “I hereby suspend the rule that ‘if the guide goes down, he buys a round,’” our snowcat ski guide informed us on that fateful trip, after he took two turns in breakable crust and cratered. After two days of trying to link more than five turns without meeting a similar fate, our group of a dozen skiers bailed on the ski week and headed for the handful of dive bars that was Revelstoke. Oh yeah – we also took a four-hour spin down the bulletproof trails at the Mt. MacKenzie ski area, which was about three hours more than we needed to ski everything the undistinguished town ski hill had to offer.
That was then. When I turned off the Trans-Canada Highway into Revelstoke, I thought I had arrived in a different town – or a different planet -- than the one I last visited. Espresso machines were as ubiquitous as the 10-foot high snowbanks. Microbrew beer flowed as freely as the nearby Columbia River. Skiers and riders trolling the streets made the whole town resemble an oversized base lodge.
That’s when I discovered that something big had happened here. Pathetic little Mt. MacKenzie, the bump of a ski hill, had been put on steroids. Starting five years ago, the lift-serviced skiing in Revelstoke has been undergoing an extreme makeover. Revelstoke Mountain Resort now boasts over 3,000 acres of terrain, including high alpine bowls and 15 gladed areas, served by five high-speed lifts and a vertical drop of 5,620 feet —the highest in North America.
Little trace of the old town ski hill remains. Gone is the utilitarian base lodge. In its place is the luxurious Sutton Place Hotel. A ski village of over 5,000 housing units is steadily rising in the base area.
After a night in The Sutton, where my friends and I were teased by floor-to-ceiling views of the mountain, we made a beeline for the lifts at first light. North Bowl, the snowflake magnet at top of the mountain, had been closed the previous two days due to wind; this meant it was a powder day at Revelstoke. Fifteen minutes before lift opening, there were already dozens of skiers in front of us in the lift line.
Which didn’t really matter. Because the once at the top, the ski area is so vast that there’s little problem finding your own line. Skiers were traversing out across the headwall of North Bowl and peeling off down the face like bike racers banking a hard turn. I did my part to scribe first an arc, than a series of scribbles down an untracked section of the face. Ten, 20, 30 turns later, I was at the bottom…of the first drop. I followed small packs of skiers as they splintered off into numerous glades, private stashes and hidden snowfields. Long open faces dropped into surprise cul de sacs shooting through rocky outcroppings.
“I thought you said the lift-serviced skiing wasn’t all that great here,” my friend Barry sputtered between gulps of air after a particularly long set of powder turns. “Make sure to invite me along when you go somewhere that you think is better,” he said with a wry smile.
Lap after lap, we probed further and deeper into Revelstoke’s stashes. Sue and I did a duet of turns down through Jalapeno, the glades that hug the ski area boundary. Each run seemed to take us through openings and reveal corridors that we hadn’t seen the run before.
At day’s end, we stood at the top of the mountain and peered down on the supersized landscape beneath us. The Columbia River carved a large lazy swathe through town. On the other side, backcountry runs beckoned. It was time to rest our weary legs.
But the bottom doesn’t come up fast in Revelstoke. Five thousand vertical feet and over 10 miles of trail separated us from the base area. A half-hour of skiing later, we hit bottom, contentedly spent.