"Sure isn't much snow up here this year, eh?" For five consecutive chairlift rides, I've heard the same complaint. And for the fifth time, I respond: "There's plenty of snow up here. Just not as much as you locals are used to."
But I guess you can't blame regulars at Mt. Washington Alpine Resort-the largest of two ski areas on British Columbia's Vancouver Island-if they're spoiled when it comes to snow. Located at the crossroads of two major storm tracks, it's not unusual for the ski area to see around 400 inches of snow in a season. This winter, only 202 inches have fallen.
On a clear day, the view from the top of Mt. Washington's Eagle high-speed quad is unique in all of British Columbia. At 5,215 feet, the mountain is merely a bump compared to the craggy summits of the Beaufort Range to the south and west. Directly to the east lie the blue waters of the Gulf of Georgia, dotted with forested islands. Rising from tidewater, the heavily glaciated summits of the Coast Range form an impenetrable curtain to the horizon.
It's been more than a decade since I last enjoyed this outstanding vista, and this time my wife, Sheila, and our two kids, Cameron, 4, and Maddie, 2, are accompanying me. It's our first family ski vacation, one that I encouraged because I'd heard that Mt. Washington is a family-friendly mountain.
Nearly all of the resort's skiers come from either the nearby oceanside communities of Courtenay and Comox or from Victoria, British Columbia's second largest city and home of such tourist attractions as Butchart Gardens and the Empress Hotel, which serves high tea each afternoon. The number of skiers from Victoria-on the southern tip of the island-has increased with the recent completion of the Inland Island Highway, a speedy four-lane track that has cut the drive to a manageable three and a half hours-lengthy for a day-trip, but fine for a weekend.
Even so, Mt. Washington sometimes has trouble attracting its down-island clientele. With considerably more hours of sunshine in the winter months than the Comox Valley and seldom any snowfall, Victoria is in Canada's relatively tiny Banana Belt. Tearing Victorians away from their tulip beds is tough after mid-February-but as we discover, the mountain is well worth the drive.
To The Mountain
We opt to spend the first night at the base of the mountain in Courtenay at the new Crown Isle Resort. This luxurious golf resort recently opened to great fanfare, and in early March the course appears surprisingly playable. By 9 a.m., the parking lot is filling up with duffers, keen to get in a quick round by lunchtime. If golf was my game, I'd be tempted to tee it up as well, but flawless blue skies and the shimmering, snow-clad peaks lure us up the paved 22-mile Strathcona Parkway to the ski area.
The lift map shows a solid mix of beginner (25 percent), intermediate (40 percent) and expert (35 percent) terrain on 1,000 acres; though, by the end of the weekend, I come away feeling that experts and beginners are better served than intermediates.Beginners and kids are at the heart of Mt. Washington. The Kidz Zone day care accepts both newborns and toddlers, and there's a great beginner area just steps from the day care, with easy, uncrowded slopes serviced by a poma, handle-tow and a double chairlift. The ski-school and child-care staffs are capable and friendly, and they know how to comfort parents ridden with separation anxiety-as well as entertain children for a full day.
Intermediates and experts congregate at the Eagle Express high-speed quad, located next to the main lodge. The lift (locals call it the "fast quad," as opposed to the "slow quad" Sunrise chair) follows the crest of a subtle ridgeline. Off the summit, gladed bowls drop steeply for several hundred vertical feet in either direction. All but one of these runs are rated "expert," and in this relatively snow-challenged winter-with a 91-inch base-the moguls are huge and poorly cut. The lone interrmediate run, Linton's Loop, is the longest trail on the mountain at just more than a mile.
Linton's offers excellent cruising and a few cutoffs that take skiers back to the base area. There are no novice runs off either the Eagle Express or Sunrise chairs. We find our favorite runs off the Sunrise chair. The terrain is consistently steep, with broad trails and opportunities to cut through huge stands of coastal rainforest. It's less crowded than other parts of the mountain, and on a big powder day, the glades are more protected from the wind and snow than are the runs off of Eagle. Groomed, cruiser skiing is found mostly on the lower mountain, serviced by three short chairlifts. While my wife and I are enjoying the first full afternoon of skiing that either one of us can remember, Cameron and Maddie are both having fun in Kidz Zone. It's the biggest treat we've had in months.
Off The Slopes
After skiing, we retire to the Deer Lodge, the resort's only condo-hotel and our home for the remainder of our trip. As the resort's major ski-in/ski-out facility, Deer Lodge is convenient but utilitarian. It has a tiny lobby, but no restaurants or a bar for an après-ski beer and nachos. For that, you have to walk five minutes to the main base-lodge complex, little changed in the past 30 years. That's where you'll find the Fireweed Restaurant, an agreeable and affordably priced bistro-the only place on the mountain that serves anything close to gourmet food. But even the Fireweed puts fried bacon bits on the Caesar salad, so you probably won't mistake it for epicurean haunts in Whistler or Vail.
Though dining and lodging options are limited, Mt. Washington officials hope that will soon change. A foundation has already been laid for a new hotel, and the resort plans to have two more parcels available later this year to attract even more lodging facilities. On-mountain developments are planned as well: The resort has purchased 600 acres to the west and intends to add two new lifts over the next two years, one accessing novice terrain and another servicing expert terrain. Once the expansion is finished, the resort's new 10,000-square-foot Nordic Lodge-which was completed this summer-will serve as a west base for both alpine and nordic skiers.
Expansion plans for Mt. Washington have been proposed-and delayed-in the past, so some local cynicism accompanies the unveiling of the newest proposal. In the meantime, the mountain's promise of stunning scenery, superb snow conditions and family-friendly programs will continue to lure skiers to its slopes-and its delivery will continue to send them home happy.