A Powder Highway Ski Trip Through Canada
About halfway into the 18-minute, high-speed gondola ride up the mountain, my brother-in-law turned to me. He had a concerned look on his face. Beyond us in the distance we could see the steep vertical drops along the south ridge of the forebodingly titled Terminator Peak, the 7,900-foot mountain that caps the southern portion of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort.
Concerned is not the look you want to see on your skiing partner, especially when your skiing partner happens to have a good 20 years more of experience than you and is arguably at peak condition. Oh, and did I mention, had successfully trained at and passed the Police Academy?
“Just don’t tell my sister,” was the best I could come up with.
We were on the first lift up marking the beginning of a road trip through Canada’s famed Powder Highway. Despite the name, the Powder Highway isn’t a highway at all, but the unofficial name given to the region of southern British Columbia located on and between the Rocky Mountains and Columbia Mountains that is home to roughly 30 ski-related destinations ranging from traditional Nordic-style mountains, heli- and cat-skiing operators, and backcountry lodges.
To get there, most people fly like we did, to the oil-rich plains of Calgary, Alberta, rent a four-wheel-drive vehicle, then drive three hours due west through the Rocky Mountains on what is probably one of the most scenic stretches of road in the world through Banff National Park (itself home to several of the most famous ski resorts in Canada), where you are quickly enveloped by snow-covered peaks on either side of you. It’s here you realize early on you’re entering ski country.
Our plan was to take a circuitous route starting from the north at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in the Purcell Mountains, head due south along Highway 95 and ski Kimberley Alpine Resort, then turn due east and back into the Rocky Mountains and take on Fernie Alpine Resort, before returning north to Calgary to catch our flight a week later. This would allow us to visit three of some of the most well-known ski resorts in the region, and to get a taste of the different snow conditions each mountain offers given their different terrains and locations (there was a lot of talk of snow composition during this trip, so be prepared).
Kicking Horse, located in the small mining town of Golden, is what is truly known as a “Skier’s Mountain.” Featuring the fourth-highest vertical drop in North America and over 2,800 acres of skiable terrain, Kicking Horse is one of those mountains that remind you of the footage you see in hardcore skiing movies you watch back when you’re safely on flat ground.
Having only started up skiing again the winter before after a decade-long break, the tentacles of trails plunging precipitously downward underneath our gondola had me racking my brain as to what level of skier I had told our guide that I was.
“I did mention on the email that I probably fall closer to the novice/intermediate level than advanced, right?” I asked Emile, a former ski instructor from Whistler and recent transplant to Golden.
“Don’t worry, we’ll stick to the beginner and intermediate trails,” he responded.
A memory popped in my head of someone telling me how the trails out West were graded on a curve, meaning many of those black runs back on our icy mountains on the East Coast were given such fuzzy labels as “Beaver Tail” and “Jelly Bean” here.
After arriving to the peak and making our way across the gently sloping trail atop CPR ridge (yes, really), we in turn dove down and into the nearly empty Crystal Bowl, gliding effortlessly through the “champagne powder” layer that had accumulated the night before, our skis naturally catching each turn and responding to each motion.
Did that just really happen? Powder snow? Responsive turns? Open glens bereft of hordes of skiers? As any East Coast skier can tell you, the initial sensation you feel on a mountain out West after years of carving through narrow, icy chutes, elbow-to-elbow with other skiers, is akin to the joy a bird must feel when let loose from their cage after years in captivity.
It was a classic bluebird day, and we spent the morning making trips up and down the mountain, an amazing feat when we realized how much skiing one can do when there are no lines at the lifts. Given that the distance from top to bottom is roughly 4,000 feet, it’s not unheard of to get in 40,000 feet of skiing on a comfortable day, a truly amazing amount of distance.
Of course, that would likely mean skipping lunch at the famed Eagle’s Eye Restaurant, which we weren’t prepared to do. The mountaintop eatery at the top of the main gondola offers skiers the opportunity to lunch on Truffle Fries or dig into a Strip Loin Steak, featuring Alberta Angus Beef served with Garlic Butter and Onion Jam, all while gazing several thousand feet out across the mountain vista. For those looking for one of the more unique lodging experiences, the restaurant is also home to two B&B-style rooms on the second floor with sweeping views of the resort.
Late in the afternoon after another lengthy run down the mountain, my brother-in-law turned to me as we came to a stop at the base. “This is easily the best skiing I’ve ever done in my life!” The irony of the statement is that the local staff kept apologizing to us for the unseasonable lack of recent snowfall the past week. Believe me, no apologies were necessary.
After a quadriceps-burning afternoon catching as many runs as we could before the low-rising winter sun began to set, we cleaned up back at the base lodge, then headed into town to explore Golden’s après-ski offerings.
Our first stop was the newly opened Whitetooth Brewing Company. Opened by home brewer Kent Donaldson, the brewery is part of a recent uptick in the number of breweries in the province as a result of the elimination of a law that once prohibited such breweries form serving beer to the public. Whitetooth specializes in so-called “West Coast” and Belgian-style beers, including the Thread the Needle Witbier, featuring lemon and pepper flavors, and the Icefields, a Belgian-inspired Pale Ale with a toffee aftertaste. The best option is the four-beer flight served with collectible cards that break down each beer’s composition (including names of each beer’s hop, malt and yeast).
After downing our flights, we decided on dinner at The Wolf’s Den. With its woodsy lodge interior and bonfires burning out front, you could almost imagine you had stumbled into a restaurant deep in mountain country, which, technically we were. In keeping with that theme, I chose the Elk Burger because, well, when else am I going to get the chance to eat one? The 7-ounce elk patty was served with peppercorn sauce and topped with Swiss cheese and whiskey bacon jam. I’m not much of a burger guy normally, but the flavor I tasted after biting into the game meat had me wishing there were more New York restaurants looking to expand their menu offerings.
For our second stop, we turned southward and made our way through the long valley between the steep Purcell and Rocky Mountains. We passed several pristine mountain lakes nestled along the highway, their surfaces shining bright blue in reflection of the sky. Along the way we also drove past Radium and Fairmont Hot Springs, publicly accessible natural hot springs bubbling up with sulfuric-tinged water pushed to the surface as a result of geologic activity that has its roots in the very mountains that now framed the horizon out our car’s windows.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at Kimberley Mountain Resort and settled in to the Trickle Creek Lodge where we would be staying for the evening. With the stated goal of stuffing ourselves with as many calories as possible to make up for the last 2 ½ days of downhill exertion, we met up with local Jesse Ferguson who agreed to show us a bit of what this former mining town had to offer.
First we stopped off for provisions at Centex Market. Run by Jill Bentley, this former gas station had been in operation for over 30 years before being recently converted by her into a thriving organic grocery store teeming with products that could rival any Whole Foods. We stocked up on breakfast burritos and Stoke Juices, her signature line of bottled juices prepared fresh every morning on site by cold pressing between 3 – 5 pounds of fruits and vegetable per bottle.
After parking near the center of town, we made our way to downtown Kimberley where rows of Bavarian-themed storefronts and buildings line the carless thoroughfares. Finding a place to eat or drink in Kimberley is not difficult given the fact that it’s home to the most number of restaurants per capita than anywhere else in Canada. We decided on pre-dinner beers at the wood shed-themed bar appropriately named The Shed, where you can try pints from local brewer Over Times Beer Works among groups of local “lifties” (those who work at the nearby resort) and racks of tools hanging from the walls.
For dinner we walked around the corner to Pedal & Tap, one of the highest rated restaurants in the city and which decided on a bike theme for its decor (they’re big on themes here). We decided on their famous Mucky Fries for our starter — hand-cut fries mixed with mozzarella, aged cheddar, maple bacon and green onions, and topped with a chipotle sauce — and the Wild Boar Meatloaf Medallions (they come wrapped in bacon and served with a cherry BBQ sauce) and the Vegan Thunder (a hearty Indian-influenced soup) for dinner.
By the next morning a wintry cold front had moved in, and the trails were covered with a fresh layer of powder snow greeting us as we headed out to explore the mountain’s 75 runs spread out across four faces — Northstar Mountain, Tamarack Ridge, Vimy Ridge and Black Forest. We were joined by Ron Concoran who, having sold his business years ago, now calls Kimberley home year-round and lives in a mountainside chalet-style home just a 30-second ski run away from the main chair lift — not a bad way to enjoy your winters.
We began with a few runs on the wide-open trails that make up the accessible Northern Mountain. We then cut across the ridgeline to the back end of the resort to Black Forest for what was to be some of the best skiing I’d ever experienced in my life.
Spread out across two dozen runs, Black Forest was eerily quiet and bereft of the other skiers who tended to bunch up at the front of the mountain, which meant we were given free range to loop up and down the mountain the entire afternoon, varying our runs between the several black diamond chutes carving their way through the snow-covered spruces.
The climate here is drier and less windy than most mountains, resulting in a fine, powdery snow that provides one of the best skiing conditions in the world. Skis feel like they float on the snow’s surface as you navigate through it, and it provides an amazing amount of responsiveness with little exertion, a plus for long days skiing.
After a quick lunch at Stemwinder Grill in the resort village, we packed up and drove 1 ½ hours due east through the Rockies to the range’s eastern facing side to the famed Fernie Alpine Resort.
The resort has long been regarded as one of the favorite mountains in all of the Powder Highway for a few basic reasons. First, it’s huge. The resort features five main bowls and 142 runs spread out over 2,500 acres. Second, the resort, to put it bluntly, gets pounded with snow every year, averaging 30 feet (360 inches!) per year. Lastly, it’s just plain a lot of fun. Dating back to its opening in 1973, the resort adopted the party-friendly atmosphere like many ski towns of that era, particularly highlighted by the annual Griz Days Winter Festival that honors a fictional mountain man (Griz) that is said to call the area home (the festival itself revolves around live music, food, entertainment and other related winter revelry).
With a near-blizzard setting in that night, we woke up the next morning to over a foot of freshly fallen, heavy and wet powder that carpeted the entire resort — a typical variety of snow given the moisture that collects at the front of the mountain range here.
Starting off at the far northern end at Cedar Bowl, I was not prepared for it was like to experience true powder. For an East Coast skier like myself, I was a bit unprepared on how different it would be. Used to digging in my skis and forcing directional changes as needed, I quickly planted myself face first into the snow on my first turn.
“Here’s a tip: Lean forward and let the skis float above the snow,” our guide for the day, Christina, suggested as I awkwardly picked myself up with my poles.
Though not intuitive, her advice to lean forward helped, and I slowly but surely got my ski legs back as we headed up and down each of the rest of the bowls, including the massive Lizard Bowl, the resort’s largest, as well as Currie Bowl, Timber Bowl and Siberia Bowl. By the time we made it to Siberia Bowl on the southern edge and cruised the length of the resort’s longest trail, my legs were burning and I was eyeing an excuse to break for the day and get my body in a warm tub of water as soon as possible.
Lucky for us, we were staying at the Lizard Creek Lodge, located at the base of the mountain and a stone’s throw away from one of the three base-level lifts. After a much-needed hot tub break (Fernie is where they filmed Hot Tub Time Machine after all) we met up with a group for dinner at Cirque Restaurant. With its soaring ceiling lined with exposed wood, four-sided fireplace and magnificent views of the mountain just outside the windows, it felt like a mix of Vegas mixed with the Rockies. Featuring such options as Duck Ragu Pappardelle, Sea Bass and Prawn Paupiette, and Elk Ribeye, you can rest assured you’re going to eat well in your effort to replenish the calories burned carving through thick powder during the day.
Just off the lobby of the restaurant is one of the more unique bars in the resort, the Ice Bar. We were handed fur-lined Helly Hansen parkas and led through a thick, metal door that opened up into a temperature-controlled ice-covered room complete with an carved ice bar and frozen shelves featuring dozens of different vodkas for tasting. With little knowledge in the world of Vodka, the hostess/bartender that escorted us in suggested a few bottles to try, including my favorite, the award-winning Crystal Head Vodka, partially owned by Canada’s own Dan Akyroyd.
With our nightcaps finished we strolled out into the night. The storm continued to churn over the mountains, blanketing our surroundings with another fresh layer of snow in the short time since we had sat down for dinner. The sky was pitch dark and it was quiet out except for the low drone of the snow groomers high above us on the mountains tending to the runs for tomorrow’s eager skiers. We would not be a part of them. Our legs were exhausted and our flights were the next day. Flights that would take us back to flat land thousands of miles away and to days spent calculated not in miles per hour or vertical distance covered. Those days would have to wait, once again, until the next winter.
Matt Stabile is based in New York City, and is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Expeditioner which was founded in 2008. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.