How to ski the Powder Highway
I wrote this travel article for Outdoor Fitness magazine about How to Ski the Powder Highway in British Columbia. You can see it as a pdf or read on…
Ski-drive on the Powder Highway
There is one question that almost everyone asks as I travel the Powder Highway with my husband Gordon: “What is your favourite resort?”
It’s not even that they want you to name their resort as the best – most locals are happy to share the limelight on the brilliantly named ski-drive route in British Columbia (BC) – it’s more that they want to hear your excitement as you list the numerous highlights.
And each time we answer, as we tell them enthusiastically about the many “bests” and “greats” on this fantastic journey of seven ski mountains, we see their smiles turn to grins, and their grins light up their faces.
They can see that we’ve discovered what they have known for years: That this is a very special skiing destination, quietly tucked way in a corner of their home state.
What is the Powder Highway?
The Powder Highway is a nickname for a snow-blessed route of some 1300km that loops through the magnificent Kootenay Rockies between eight far-flung Alpine ski resorts in BC.
Where is the Powder Highway?
The Kootenay Rockies are located in south-east British Columbia, in south-west Canada.
How long does it take?
You could ski a different resort each day – although some resorts are divided by 4.5 hours of driving – but it’s recommended you take your time to enjoy several days at each mountain centre. A fortnight is the minimum and, better still, go for three weeks. Alternatively, you could visit a few of the resorts over 10 days.
How to get there
The Powder Highway is most easily accessed through Calgary International Airport, in the neighbouring Canadian state of Alberta, and Spokane International Airport in Washington state, America. Pick up hire car at the airport and set off for the drive. There are also companies that specialise in Powder Highway tours by bus.
What is so special the Powder Highway?
Let’s start with the snowfall. The average annual dump of snow across the Powder Highway is around 10m and in some resorts this tops 15m.
It’s claimed the area has the highest concentration of ski options in the world, including downhill, backcountry, cross-country, cat-skiing and heli-skiing.
The variety of terrain is equally impressive, through wide pisted groomers, powder-filled back county bowls and both steep and gently winding runs.
Yet the resorts rarely feel touristy or over-commercialised, rather they offer an atmosphere that is laid back and friendly.
What is surprising is how less travelled the Powder Highway remains.
Warm up at SkiBig 3
If you arrive through Calgary airport, you could stretch your skiing legs at Alberta’s SkiBig3 resorts first.
The three ski centres are located in Banff National Park and include Lake Louise, the second largest resort in Canada, the high-rise ski village of Sunshine and the locals’ favourite, Norquay.
7 great stops on the Powder Highway
The drive: Calgary to Kicking Horse, 3 hours, or Lake Louise to Kicking Horse, 75 minutes.
1 Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
Nearest town: Golden
Where to stay: Glacier Mountaineer Lodge, in-resort.
Known as the Champagne Powder Capital of Canada and with a reputation for steep and deep, Kicking Horse is a legend in its own right.
The resort offers a skiing menu of 7m average annual snowfall, 129 runs, four alpine bowls, 85 chutes and a superb 1,260m of vertical.
The drive: Kicking Horse to Revelstoke: 2 hours.
2 Revelstoke Mountain Resort
Where to stay: Sutton Place Hotel for ski-in-ski-out luxury or Revie for downtown lodgings.
Revelstoke is Canada’s newest ski resort – it opened in 2007 – and claims North America’s title for the longest lift accessed vertical of 1713m and the longest ski run at 15km. The average annual snowfall is 10m.
Just three lifts and a few short traverses allow you to ski almost every metre of the 3200 acres, with a mix of groomers, flattering tree skiing and easily accessed big bowls.
The drive: Revelstoke to Nelson: 4 hours
We broke the journey overnight at Halcyon Hot Springs & Spa.
3 RED Mountain Resort
Nearest town: Nelson
Where to stay: The Adventure Hotel, Nelson.
Uncrowded, under-stated and relaxed, RED Mountain, near Rossland, is well worth the drive. The resort has two main peaks extending to almost 2700 acres of skiing and some 883m of vertical.
Some say it’s one of the steeper BC resorts but a big dump of fresh powder meant every run felt like skiing slopes of the silkiest butter.
The lifts are a bit slower and the cloud can be low, but the friendly atmosphere meant we would have happily stayed for the rest of the season.
The drive: Nelson to Whitewater, 25 mins.
4 Whitewater Ski Resort
Nearest town: Nelson
Where to stay: Ainsworth Hot Springs Hotel. www.ainsworthhotsprings.com
Authentic, endowed with snow (annual snowfall is 12m) and as warm and welcoming as an old friend, Whitewater is a gem of a find.
The mix of skiing is sublime, including beginner-friendly groomers, beautifully gladed tree lines, testing steeps and pristine backcountry.
While the slopes are surprisingly quiet, you’ll need to jostle for a place in the packed Fresh Tracks Café for best slopeside food we’ve ever eaten.
The drive: Nelson to Ainsworth Springs, 45 mins.
Ainsworth Springs to Fernie, 4hrs 30 mins.
5 Fernie Alpine Resort
Where to stay: Lizard Creek Lodge, in-resort.
A mild yet snowfall-heavy climate has given Fernie a strong following and there are many people who only come to this resort to ski each year.
It’s easy to see what holds their attention with more than 2500 acres of skiable terrain, 107 runs, five alpine bowls and a large beginner’s area.
We checked in for three days and were lucky enough to enjoy some of the annual 9m of fresh powder – and more than an average amount of sunshine.
The drive: Fernie to Kimberley, 1hr 30 mins.
6 Kimberley Alpine Resort
Where to stay: Trickle Creek Lodge, in-resort.
Small town charm meets powder-sure slopes in a small but perfectly packaged resort.
Kimberley is great for groups of mixed abilities with an easy to navigate piste map covering everything from wide-open groomed runs, to short but steep bump runs and all with stunning backdrop of the Rockies.
7 Panorama Mountain Resort
Where to stay: In-resort lodgings, www.panoramaresort.com/planning/lodging-at-panorama/
The name says it all and this ski-in-ski-out resort offered some of the most fantastic views of the trip, although, to be fair, there was hardly an ugly moment.
There’s 2,975 acres of patrolled, skiable terrain and three-quarters of runs are suitable for beginners and intermediates. For experienced skiers, you’ll want to head to exhilarating Taynton Bowl.
More info: www.powderhighway.com
Get kitted: For ski touring back country
The Powder Highway is famous for its back country skiing and that often requires a discipline called ski touring. As well as skiing downhill, often in powder, you will do a bit of boot-packing (walking while carrying skis) and “skinning up” (skiing uphill).
Here’s a guide to the right kit for ski touring.
The aim is for warmth on the downhills and cool, through ventilation, as you work hard on the uphills.
Look for windproof, waterproof, breathable fabrics in a lightweight design with zips that you can open to let the air through.
Layer up with plenty of thin baselayers underneath for extra warmth when required, or take them off when you are too hot.
Salewa Ortles 2 Gore-Tex Pro Jacket and Pants
Jacket €550, Pants €450 (male and female fit)
Skis, skins and boots
Touring skis offer the option to ski downhill and ski back uphill. You stick fabric called “skins” to the base of the skis to allow you to grip the snow on the uphills.
The skis have fittings that allow the boots to be secured at toe and heel when downhill skiing and unattached at the heel when walking on the skis uphill.
I ski Dynastar Cham 97 women’s skis, which offer a great all-round option for piste skiing and touring.
A newer, lighter version is the Mythic 97s, with sizes for men and women.
See www.dynastar.com/en-gb/ Around £600
Scarpa Gea boots
I wear Scarpa Gea 2 boots but a newer option for women is Scarpa Gea RS. Lightweight and with walk and ski options, they are perfect for back country. They have soles that grip the snow if you are boot packing.
Scarpa Gea RS for women, £301, www.ellis-brigham.com
For men, Scarpa Maestrale RS 2 Ski Boots, £500, www.ellis-brigham.com
G3 Alpinist skins at around £150 from many ski stores are a good choice although there are plenty of others.
Lightweight poles that can be extended for skiing or retracted for carrying.
Black Diamond Compactor poles, feature Z-Pole technology, folds up small enough to fit in a touring pack. €110, eu.blackdiamondequipment.com
Transceiver, shovel and probe
Ski touring back country does have its dangers and you should always ski in pairs.
It’s important that you have learned the skills of rescue should something go wrong, such as an avalanche. (There are plenty of skills courses for ski touring.)
You also need to carry the right kit, including a transceiver, shovel and probe (each).
Backcountry Access Tracker DTS Avalanche Beacon. Around £160. One each. Various ski shops.
MSR Operator shovel, £51, www.tamarackoutdoors.co.uk
Mammut Probe 240, £21.88, www.snowcountry.eu
You need a pack to carry your equipment including safety kit, spare clothes, food and water. Ski-specific rucksacks also allow you to carry your skis while boot-packing.
Osprey Kresta and Kamber ski and snowboard packs
Kamber for men and Kresta for women.
30l to 42l packs for back country skiing, with space for snow shovel, probes and attachments for carrying skis.
From £120, www.ospreyeurope.com
Everyone falls when skiing. A helmet will keep your head and brain as safe as possible fro knocks.
I love POC helmets. There are lots to choose from for men and women.
Receptor Bug Archive helmet, £125, www.pocsports.com