The snowbanks looming over us as we drive into Revelstoke, BC, say it all.
First off, it has been a winter to remember in British Columbia, with storm after snow-charged storm barreling in off the angry Pacific, dragging its ass over various mountain ranges and dumping large pretty much everywhere. Like many areas of the Interior, Revelstoke and its well-known alpine galaxy of local touring, sled, cat and heli-skiing have benefited from the meteorological largesse. But then the mountains surrounding Revy always seem to come out on top in the Western Canadian snow equation. Even in years where the warm, wet coast suffers the depression of low freezing levels, where the Southern Interior is shut out by a split jet-stream of storms tracking everywhere but, and where the perpetually thin Rockies cry full Chinook foul, this historic Victorian-styled town and gateway to Rogers Pass lodged on the western slopes of the fabled Selkirk Range can still be counted on to taunt the entire country with reliable steep and deep.
The town itself isn’t all that high, though. Situated on the Columbia River below 500 metres and pinched between large lakes that rarely freeze, adding moisture to storms but warmth—and fog—to the valley, snowbanks here usually rise and fall with the frequent temperature tides of coming-and-going air masses. Though it’s snowing on the mountains, right now snowbanks around town bear the grey muck of a serious ebb.
The telling sign, however, is that they’re still double overhead.
Great for us, but an even better omen for Revelstoke Mountain Resort.
First it was on, then it was off, then it was so on, you could almost feel the faceshots. But after the idea went to sleep again for a decade, everyone seemed to forget about it. Until 2004, that is, when British Columbia’s government, starry-eyed with the impending 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics, started green-lighting every slumbering resort proposal on the books. Now it seemed nothing could stop the birth of Revelstoke Mountain Resort on Mount MacKenzie, BC’s much ballyhooed billion-dollar dream hill. Except money. And criticism. And leaseholders.
When an initial capital investment of $270 million was announced, however, with investment revenue of $800 million based on projected real estate sales, it seemed the single-lift Powder Springs ski hill that had operated since 1969 on the lower 330 metres of Mount MacKenzie would indeed soon be transformed: the 1,829-metre vertical drop would be the biggest in North America—edging out Whistler’s 1,624 metres—and fourth in the world. An annual snowfall that consistently topped 12 metres would set RMR in the top ranks of North America’s snow leagues. The modern all-season resort would have 21 lifts, 115 trails, and 16,000 beds—one-third the size of Whistler and more on par with Big White or Sun Peaks, popular family resorts of the Interior.
Things moved significantly forward when they brought in Paul “Bones” Skelton, former mountain operations manager at Whistler Blackcomb and a man who knows a thing or two about opening up badass terrain. But, of course, the promised money would have to be raised. And then there was the airport issue and long-standing arguments over where the skiers would come from—with Vancouver 630 kilometres to the west, Calgary over 400 kilometres east, and even Kelowna some 200 kilometres distant, Revelstoke is a long way from anywhere. And what about Cat Powder Skiing, which had held tenure on the upper mountain since the ’70s and had taken over the floundering town hill in 1999? All would have to be appeased. And it would all take time. Triumph seemed all but comatose again. Almost.
Chris Eby. Berger photo
Significantly, the problematic Cat Powder was acquired in April 2005, and development silently inched along until the final wake-up call: Jan. 16, 2007, the resort announced a partnership with Leitner-Poma Canada to install a gondola and chairlift that would be functioning by this winter. The fabled hill is indeed alive, and the dream appears to be coming true. But real skiers don’t really care about condos at the base of the mountain, underground parking, cobblestone-heated pathways and a coming plethora of bars and restaurants. They want to know about the skiing. Pure and simple.
So far as RMR went, this is the great unknown. There were criticisms from core skiers that Mount MacKenzie will just offer up to another “loser cruiser,” of which BC already has plenty. Sure the heli, cat and sled-skiing book-ended by the Monashee and Selkirk ranges is awesome, but what will a ski hill in Revelstoke be like? Does a sled-head town have what it takes to be a major resort? We all want to know.
Out comes the mental plus-minus column.
Karla Rizzuto. Berger photo
The first day on the mountain our small group is alone in the cat with Bones and Cat Powder’s longtime lead guide. We grind upward from the 800-metre staging area of Powder Springs—current site of the new gondola base and RVR’s future upper village—for what seems hours. We top out well above 2,300 metres, on a ridge overlooking a tasty series of scalloped, windswept bowls. The guide points down. We tip in to find blower knee-deep tearing at our legs.
We scatter like cold-smoke cockroaches. Someone is hooting and hollering. It’s the guide. “I didn’t think it would be this good,” he says.
At tree-line we angle into some natural chutes, suturing V-drainages and popping pillows. So far so good for a cat-ski outing. But wait, this will actually be in the ski area. The cat-skiing operation attached to the resort will be moved to adjacent terrain on the next mountain over.
On our second run we push a bit farther out the ridge. Bones wants us to look into North Bowl. We scramble to the edge and peer into a gnarly piece of chute-addled terrain whose complexity rivals any North American ski-area alpine. It’s an unexpected wow.
We drop into the bowl and angle back around into the frontside trees again. They seem kind of tight.
“We cut a few runs in summer 2006, but mostly we did tons of glading,” says Bones. “We’re planning on even more glading this summer, and we’ll get to these ones eventually. Add in the vertical here, and in classic Selkirk style, I think this mountain will be all about trees.”
Strike that: Plus.
Bones manœuvres us through the forest over to the lift-line cut for the high-speed quad that will run from 1,600 to 2,245 metres. It’s completely untracked and as much fun as you can ever have skiing a cut-line. It rocks and rolls, without a single bench being flat or lengthy enough to stop the freefall.
At the end of the day Bones and I skim down some cut runs and onto Powder Springs’ offerings. The snow is heavier below, but it’s all sweet, thigh-burning cruising. No losers here.
These days Revelstoke isn’t just about dropping into untracked lines. It’s about dropping into untapped potential on every front. Ski types of every stripe have been percolating into Revy for a few years now. Dan Treadway, of big-air and big-sled fame, was one of the first of the gang to drop in and buy a place. The Whistler exodus had begun. Joe Lammers also bought here, and he’s glad he did. He has a mobile home on a town lot. Basic housing. His neighbour has the same sort of thing going on two lots. They are, all of them, both expectant and patient.
“I figured it would be really cool to be in on the ground floor of a project like this,” Lammers tells me before our first day of skiing, summing the feelings of many. “Revy has been the heli-ski epicentre of the known universe forever. That speaks volumes about the type of terrain and snow and that there should be on a ski hill here.”
Longtime Whistlerite Jason Worby and wife Tash bought a restaurant outside town on the Trans-Canada called the Great White North Bar & Grill, and we all gather there for dinner one night.
“It’s been an adventure,” says Jason, surrounded by some seriously cool Canadian kitsch that includes a Terry Fox poster, Wayne Gretzky jersey and a talking scale model Bob and Doug McKenzie SCTV set. “But it’s really just starting.”
Bones moved here from Whistler to take over the project after 20 years in the coastal Shangri-la where he drove a groomer and patrolled before moving up to mountain manager at Blackcomb in 1996. He went over to Whistler when the two mountains merged the following year. Then he heard Revy calling a few years back. He’s a pilot and flies back and forth from the coast over the vast mountain barriers of the Interior, but can’t hide his enthusiasm for the project he’s deeply immersed in.
“The thing I’m most excited about right now is that everyone consistently underestimates the size of the place. Even the guys installing lifts are saying, ‘I didn’t realize it was so big…,’ ” he enthuses. “Everyone asks me to compare the development here to Whistler Blackcomb, but you can’t go there. Let’s give Whistler Blackcomb its due—they’re fantastic mountains with huge bowls and a ton more alpine terrain. We’re big too, but we’re not them. We’re big and we’re different.”
Chris Eby. Berger photo
On the second day our cat-load also includes two Quantas pilots, a heli-company owner who does work in ski-area development and a banker involved in backing the entire operation. They’ve been around the cat- and heli-ski block and are still impressed with every aspect and line. There’s more terrain than any of us had expected, and some short faces plunging off ridges into deep valleys are steep as shit.
The quad line was so good, we decide to ski the newly cut gondola line; it’s narrower and more varied, dropping over small cliff-bands, waterfalls, boulders and lay-about lumber but, again, completely untracked. And it goes on and on and on and on. The vertical is serious. Actually, it’s ridiculous. With the line’s over-summer widening and a fresh top-to-bottom snowfall it would be insanity.
A day of sampling the powder and tree offerings of Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing, acquired by RMR in spring 2007, proves that the one-two-three punch of hill, cat and heli—which will comprise 515,000 acres altogether—is going to vault this resort into a league of its own.
For the upcoming season it will still be a bit of a Little League as things coalesce and get rolling. Still, lift ticket and season pass prices are set, the Dec. 22 opening is looming, and a huge amount of glading has ensured that 500 of an available 1,500 acres of terrain this winter will comprise natural and man-made glades. (“One of the cutters on the crew, who’s a lead cat guide, keeps calling me on my cell after he thins something out and says, ‘I can’t wait to ski this with you this winter!” relays Bones.) The vertical of 1,446 metres includes newly cut upper trails as well as some steep mid-mountain trails that Bones claims are so steep that “I don’t think we’ll be able to groom them.”
In fact, on the whole, the only minus for Mount MacKenzie and RMR seems to be that skiers will probably flock to the mountain like flies to cowpies, and since the place won’t be fleshed out in one shot, it might get momentarily crowded around town until the bed-base expands. But if that helps soak up some of the bazillions of shredders stealing all the powder in Whistler and Fernie, then that would certainly be… well, another plus.
• Revelstoke Mountain Resort, Revelstoke Cat Ski, Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing: discoverrevelstoke.com
• Great White North Bar & Grill: (250) 837-3495, greatwhitenorth.bc.ca