Cheap thrills on the British Columbia slopes
Cat skiing is impressively affordable at British Columbia's Red Mountain resort, says Alf Alderson
Saturday 18 January 2014
As I looked down upon several hundred metres of untracked powder – known in these parts as "cold smoke" – I realised that Jim's early morning phone call, and his advice to "Get your Brit ass in gear!", delivered in order that we might be the first to hit the slopes, had been a far better move than it appeared in the harsh light of dawn.
I set off, shin-deep powder becoming knee- then thigh-deep as I descended, "cold smoke" billowing behind me as a million or so British Columbian snow crystals took to the air. Lower down the slope I hit pine glades, skimming between the trees, before eventually bouncing out on to an open groomed run that reminded me I was actually in a ski resort and not the British Columbian backcountry.
The prosaically named "4b" run that I'd just done – along with locals Jim Green and Ann-Marie Seguin as well as ski patrollers Louis Lajoie and Robin Beech – is just one of seven named runs on Grey Mountain, a recently opened extension of the ski resort of Red Mountain in southern BC. The runs get steeper and more challenging as the number gets higher, and as with most things at Red, it's all a little off-the-wall – this new ski area is accessed by snow cat, rather than ski lift, for a mere C$10 (£5.50) a ride.
Yes, for a mere 10 Canadian dollars you can enjoy cat skiing at Grey Mountain. Admittedly, that 10 bucks entitles you just one ride up the mountain, but it's quite possible to get in eight or more runs a day, which is much the same as you'd get in a regular cat-ski operation which would cost three times the price.
Each time you hit Grey in the cat you'll be skiing with just 12 other passengers, so it takes a long time for the terrain to get tracked out. Indeed, wherever you choose to ski, you'll have plenty to enjoy on your own. Perhaps the only downside is that the cat operates on a "first come, first served" basis, so you have to wait in line for your ride. However, Red is such a quiet ski hill that you rarely have to wait for more than 20 minutes.
Until recently, Grey Mountain was only accessible to ski tourers, but in recent years runs have been cut through the forests in some places, while elsewhere the trees have been thinned to allow safe tree skiing. Some of the runs are groomed, and others remain untouched, which provides appeal for both experienced cat skiers and first timers. Indeed, if you've never been cat skiing before, there couldn't be a better introduction. Rather than chance a minimum outlay of C$150 (£84) for a half-day skiing with a regular cat-ski operation, you can shell out a fraction of that amount to see if you like it.
And I think you will. As Roly Worsfold, another local I skied with, told me: "It was good here before; now it's even gooder…"
On this particular day, it was so good that we only did one cat run, since there was plenty of powder to be found without having to wait in line for the cat. While Jim and the ski patrollers had to head back to work after our run, Ann-Marie and I hit the glades of Powder Fields and Jumbo Gully on Red's best-established ski hill Granite Mountain. Meanwhile, just round the corner in an area known reasonably enough as Paradise, Roly was enjoying equally good conditions on and between the pistes until mid-afternoon. This was despite the fact that Paradise has less than a dozen named runs (and lots of tree skiing in between) and in Europe would easily be skied out by 10am on a powder day.
Since I skied it, Grey Mountain has also become accessible by ski lift, so the cat-ski operation is moving to Kirkup Mountain, next to Grey. It will provide more of the same mix of virtually deserted piste and off-piste skiing for all abilities. This stealthy expansion at Red has been going on for a decade. Indeed, Red has seen some of the largest expansion of any ski resort in North America recently, yet it still retains the feel of a small, local ski hill.
The resort's satellite town of Rossland, about three miles away, is actually the oldest ski town in western Canada, and there's still a hearty backwoods feel to it – lumber trucks grunt along the wide main street past ski and bike emporiums, while little coffee houses and bookshops offer a warm invitation to passing ski tourists.
I found myself regularly struggling to decide whether to dine at Drift Izakaya, the contemporary sushi restaurant on Columbia Avenue, or hit The Flying Steamshovel on Washington Street, a classic bar and burger joint named after what was allegedly one of the first-ever helicopters, which flew – albeit very briefly – from the same site in 1902.
Both the town and the ski hill would still be recognisable to men like Olaus Jeldness, the Norwegian mining engineer attracted by the region's gold-mining opportunities over 100 years ago. He went on to organise ski races and ski jumping competitions on Red Mountain, and was the first Canadian ski champion. A statue has recently been erected in the middle of town. He might not recognise the cat skiing – but then few 21st-century skiers would recognise a cat ski operation that costs only $10 a run either.
Frontier Ski (020 8776 8709; frontier-ski.co.uk) has an eight-day package deals to Red Mountain from £1,600 per person including flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Vancouver, an overnight stay in the city, then transfers, slope-side self-catering accommodation in Slalom Creek luxury condominiums and a lift pass.
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