World's best slopes: On the trail of legends

The slopes of Red Mountain in Canada hold a unique place in Olympic skiing history, says Matt Carroll
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The Independent Travel

From a quick glance, you'd never guess that Red Mountain has produced so many ski champions. Sure, it looks beautiful, surrounded by breathtaking Canadian backcountry; its snow- covered slopes glinting away in the mid-winter sunshine. But really, it looks like many other small ski resorts. It's only when you get to know the locals that you find out about Red's unique place in skiing history.

Located five minutes' drive from the sleepy town of Rossland, in British Colombia, Red has spawned more Olympic ski racers than any other resort in North America. From the Sixties through to the Nineties, the famous Red Mountain Racers club produced no fewer than 12 Olympic skiers – including the legendary Nancy Greene, who won gold and silver medals at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics.

So what is it about this place that creates such special skiers? Arriving here on a bright mid-January morning, there are no obvious clues. One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Red is the simplicity of the place. This is an old-school resort, just like they used to make them; there's none of the stifling development you'll find in the likes of Whistler – and none of the hustle and bustle either.

Instead, it's all about cosy, family-run hotels with hot tubs and easy access to the slopes. This is a community first and a ski resort second.

There are 83 runs spread over two mountains – Red and Granite – both serviced by just six lifts. Forget endless après-ski options and expansive (and expensive) hotels; Red is all about the skiing. And it's the quality of the skiing that has produced so many champions.

While there's plenty here to keep beginners and intermediates happy, the piste map is predominantly covered in black lines, detailing the huge amount of expert terrain available.

Shortly after they learn to walk, Rossland's youngsters are skiing terrain that would make most of us weak at the knees – double diamonds with names such as "The Cliff" and "Granite Towers". Eagle-eyed ski scouts from the Red Mountain Racers club take the promising ones under their wing, on a mission to turn them into tomorrow's Olympians.

Red's slopes are steeped in history. At almost every turn you're likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with skiing stars from the past, present and future. Outside the old clubhouse (now the "Welcome Center") I get into a conversation with one of the big names from the late Sixties: Grant Rutherglen.

Aside from being an accomplished ski racer in his own right, he was also the club's most successful coach. From 1975 to 1981 he took nine skiers – from a development group of 15 – on to the national team. Recent seasons have been lean for the Red Mountain Racers, however. For the first time since the Fifties, there is no one representing it on the national squad. It's Rutherglen's mission to get this famous club back on track.

When I bump into him he is heading off for a training session with the latest young hope, 17-year-old Sasha Zaitsoff. The ambitious teenager already has his eyes set on the 2010 Olympics, to be held in Whistler, and is busy preparing for his first downhill race.

After completing a few warm-up runs, we take the Motherlode chairlift up to the top of Granite Mountain and head off right, for the start of the old downhill course.

It's a beautiful spot. Ahead of me I see pine-covered peaks poking above the cloud base, like the stubbly chins of sleeping giants. While I sit back and admire the view – not to mention the smell of burgers wafting over from a nearby cabin – Rutherglen gives Zaitsoff a pep talk about his forthcoming practice run.

One peek at the super-steep pitch is enough to have my palms sweating with fear, but Zaitsoff doesn't seem the slightest bit phased. The start section is almost as steep as a half-pipe, before it eventually smoothes out and carries on along a fairly wide ridge. At this point it turns 90-degrees right, before plunging once again and weaving its way along by the Motherlode lift, and on down towards the base area.

After a countdown from Rutherglen, Zaitsoff takes off like a toe-punted rat, rounding the first corner before I have time to negotiate my first turn.

"There goes our next big hope, right there," says Rutherglen. "If anyone's going to take theV C Red Mountain Racers back into the Olympics, it's Sash."

At the bottom, Rutherglen goes to work some more on Zaitsoff's technique, while I head back up the hill to find some tamer terrain.

This time I head left off the Motherlode chair, along a relaxing green called Ridge Road, which leads on to Rino's Run – taking you around the backside of Granite mountain. It's the perfect cure for tired legs, with a spectacular view as you reappear around the front.

If you fancy something steeper, duck off left from Ridge Road and you have the choice of Gambler Towers (black) or Gambler (blue). The great thing about both of these pistes is that there are powder-packed tree runs on either side. Herein lies the key to getting the most out of Red: making it up as you go along.

As much as I want to carry on, though, my legs are crying "enough" and I make my way inside to rendezvous with some of Rutherglen's former protégés. Among them are Don Stevens – who went to the 1988 Olympics in Calgary – and Brian Fry, who was perhaps the most promising of the "Rutherglen nine". Having made it onto the national squad, he was shaping up to join the long list of Red Mountain greats, until a heavy crash on ice shattered his femur – and his career hopes. He was just 19 years old.

Like Rutherglen, Fry is now looking to pass on the baton to a new generation of Red Mountain Racers (RMR). As well as being the club's vice-president, he is heavily involved with the Red Mountain Racers Ski Academy – a programme run in conjunction with the local school.

So what's the secret of the RMR's success? "It's partly the terrain," said Fry. "Also the fact that we've already had two Olympic champions and so many national team members. It makes the kids realise what's possible."

Zaitsoff and his team-mates have certainly got a tough act to follow. The walls of the clubhouse bar are lined with photographs of the legends who've skied these historic slopes for nearly a century. Everywhere you look there are grainy shots of skiers with names like Butch and Mitch cranking out huge, carving turns in their wooden skis and woolly jumpers.

Does Zaitsoff see himself carrying on the great Red Mountain tradition?

"I'd love to," he says, with a glint in his eye. "Right now I'm training four times a week and racing twice a month, so we'll see."

For Rutherglen, Fry and the residents of Rossland, it might seem like centuries since they last had one of their racers representing Canada. But the way things are shaping up for Sasha, it won't be long before things are back to normal. Indeed shortly after we met, he went on to win the FIS (Federation Internationale de Ski) British Columbia Cup. It looks as if the remarkable story of the Red Mountain Racers is about to begin a new chapter.