British Columbia: Get the best in Canada's west
British Columbia has backcountry powder for all, says Matt Barr, whether you take to the air or the chair
Wednesday 23 January 2013
For many skiers and snowboarders, riding perfect powder runs, far out in the backcountry, is the Holy Grail. The difficult bit is actually finding them. In the world's biggest resorts – Chamonix, Verbier, Whistlers – crowded slopes are making this increasingly difficult. As a result, many skiers are heading to isolated, snow-drenched towns far off the beaten track. Towns such as Revelstoke, in Canada's British Columbia.
Revelstoke was established in the 1880s, at the height of the region's gold rush. Now the mountains are attracting a new breed of hardy pioneers. They come to ski and snowboard on the ridiculous amounts of snow (the record is 24m in a season) that falls here, a thick wintry blanket of white gold that is transforming this venerable old mining and logging community.
Not that skiing is new here, of course. Local guides have been exploring the 200,000 hectares of skiable terrain in the local Selkirk and Monashee ranges since the early 1970s, either by hiking or by taking advantage of several heli-ski operations that opened over the years.
Two changes marked a new era for Revelstoke, and have broadened the appeal of the town for powder-hungry skiers on all budgets. The first was the opening of Revelstoke Mountain Resort in December 2007. It currently only has four lifts (there are plans for 21 lifts and 115 runs), but the area they access is vast and the resort's 1,800m vertical drop is the lengthiest in North America. Perhaps more importantly, RMR gets the same amount of snow as the rest of the region, only here there are chairlifts and gondolas to get you there.
And now another new frontier is being opened to cater for an exclusive coterie of very rich skiers that can afford to live out their fantasies by paying for heli-ski trips of ever more rarified levels of sophistication and exclusivity. It's a trend that the recent opening of the new Bighorn Lodge, just outside the town's ski resort, perfectly demonstrates. The hefty price-tag – £128,000 for you and 15 equally deep-pocketed friends to hire it for a week and spend five days heli-skiiing with Selkirk Tangiers – means this is a holiday that will remain an idle fantasy for most skiers.
For British owners Michael and Chris Kirkland, Bighorn Lodge is an attempt to create the world's most exclusive, powder-sure heli-ski operation by combining a high-end chalet holiday with a North American heli-lodge, and a level of service a testy Russian oligarch would appreciate. They've certainly succeeded in that goal. I've been fortunate to stay at some fancy chalets during my time as a snowboarding writer; Bighorn Lodge is something else entirely.
Take the food. No lemon drizzle cakes and dodgy coq au vin made by a flustered chalet girl on the menu here. Affable live-in chef Peter Hughes apparently used to cook for David Bowie, is publishing his own cookbook calledThe Mountain Chef and personally makes the 15-hour round trip to Vancouver Farmer's Market to make sure his dishes have the best possible ingredients.
It's a similar story elsewhere in the chalet, from the 10m-high stone fireplace in the living room, to the indoor "treadmill" pool in the basement. As I relax on a palatial sofa, glass of Okawangan wine and locally sourced salmon canape in hand, I realise real life is going to be quite a comedown after this.
And that's before I've even sampled the endless hectares of powder-filled terrain that guests can access via the lodge's private helipad. Skiers booking a heli-ski day usually have to travel to a remote, fairly basic take-off point where they're picked up and dropped off at the start and end of each day. Here, guests just step outside the door, where their own private chopper awaits to ferry them to the snow.
I spent three exhilarating, fantastical days in this vast playground, every run untracked, every turn a bottomless face shot of airy powder. The snow is so deep there's a real danger of being swallowed whole by the deep treewells that form at the perimeter of each soaring, snow-covered pine ("snow ghosts" to the locals), and our guides are ever-watchful for avalanche danger. Once each run is over, our helicopter simply flies us to the top of the next one.
It is a uniquely seductive experience, and without question the best three days powder riding of my life. How can a ski resort match it? Happily, the answer comes the next day, when I ride the nearby Revelstoke Mountain Resort. It's a classic purpose-built American resort, with a hotel and a few bars at the base and easy access if visitors would prefer to stay down the valley in livelier Revelstoke itself. Staying down here at a three star, such as the Sandman Inn, is certainly more affordable.
I quickly discover, the resort is also a fantastic place to ski. The locals I join in lapping the resort's huge bowls and tree runs seem to have their grins glued on, and it isn't long before I'm wearing one myself. There's so much snow falling that our tracks have almost filled in each time we pass around. The turns are almost as good as those I essayed over the previous three days – at a fraction of the price.
"Am I jealous?" muses Pete, my companion on one chairlift ride and local from Revelstoke town, as we watch the latest distant helicopter beat overhead, ferrying it's cargo to the same remote runs I'd enjoyed. "Not really. A day like this is almost as good. Plus, I usually save up and go for a day at the end of the winter, so I get the best of both worlds."
That type of experience – days at the resort with the odd heli treat thrown in – will be the norm for most people visiting Revelstoke. But whether you experience it from the sealed cocoon of a helicopter or the camaraderie of a cheerful lift-line, one thing is certain: some of the best snow and skiing in the world is here and waiting for visitors.
British Airways (0844 4930758; ba.com/vancouver) offers a seven night fly-drive to Vancouver from £789 per person for travel until 31 March. The price includes British Airways flights from Heathrow and Avis car hire. Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) also flies from Heathrow. Air Transat, sold in the UK through Canadian Affair (0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com), flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow to Vancouver.
The writer stayed at Bighorn in Revelstoke Mountain Resort (020-3664 6510; bighornrevelstoke.com). Weekly prices start from $64,500 (£40,500) for exclusive use of the chalet for up to 16 people. Price includes the services of a chef and housekeeping staff, cooked breakfast, afternoon tea, pre-dinner cocktails and canapés, gourmet evening meals (six nights) and all drinks. The above, plus five days private heli-skiing with Selkirk Tangier (001 800 663 7080; selkirk-tangiers.com) costs £128,000 for 16 people.
Ski Independence (01312 438081; ski-i.com) offers one night in Calgary at the Delta Calgary Hotel and six nights in Revelstoke town at the Sandman Hotel from £1,245 per person, including return flights on BA from Heathrow to Calgary and car hire.
A day pass at the Revelstoke Mountain Resort (revelstokemountainresort.com) costs $76 (£47) A six-day pass costs $431 (£270).
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