Snow sports are both enticing and intimidating to those of us that never grew up with blue runs and ski chairs and powder and edges. It’s clearly a thrill for all ages, and yet the cold and effort and risk and technique seem like something that only comes naturally to natives of the northern hemisphere (notwithstanding the young Australians of Whistler).
When I immigrated to Vancouver, I took up snowboarding because all the cool kids were snowboarding. The learning process, I recall, is best described as a meat grinder. Aches and pains and wipe-outs and tedious practice but eventually – after visiting Cypress Mountain one night a week for an entire season – I linked a turn here and linked a turn there and became a confident snowboarder. All my gear was donated by a group of pro snowboarders in return for me building their website, and I used their equipment for a dozen-plus years, until a sympathetic instructor informed me that I was basically using a horse and buggy in the age of electric cars. New gear made a massive difference (and a hole in my bank account) although snowboarding still required me to sit on my butt and strap for every run while skiers could simply flow down the hill. I was never quite brave enough to do jumps and tricks, but became proficient enough on challenging terrain so that years later I was able to go heli-boarding, where all my skills counted for elk shit. Grouped with skiers, I discovered the hard way that navigating powder is an altogether different sport, and after digging myself out of neck-high holes multiple times, I finally grasped the concept of leaning back, and eventually was able to slalom between forest and glide down the Selkirk mountains of the BC interior. My fourth- and fifth-day snowboarding with CMH Heli Ski out of their Nakusp Lodge are among the best days I’ve ever had. But damned if skiing didn’t look like a lot more fun.
Someone and everyone will tell you that snowboarding is harder to learn, but skiing is harder to master. They will also tell you how the skiing industry adapted technical advances from snowboards and have rejuvenated the sport with better skis, grippier edges, and more forgiving balance. After a couple decades in the limelight, snowboarding is retreating into the shadows of extreme daring-do. Nowadays it seems that kids are flocking to skis. You can do all the tricks, it’s a lot easier to get around, traverses are a cinch, and even the boots are comfortable. I’ve seen a lot of older people on skis, and hardly any on a snowboard. It is time to learn a new skill.
Researching a winter story for the Vancouver Sun, I took my wife and kids to three fantastic and very different ski resorts in the BC interior. RED Mountain outside of Rossland would be the boutique experience – first stop on the Powder Highway, a legendary local mountain steeped in history and unparalleled tree runs. Revelstoke would be the mid-size resort, a skier’s mountain with the longest lift-served vertical on the continent. Sun Peaks, Canada’s second largest ski area, represented the traditional family ski village getaway. Admittedly there are easier hills to learn on than RED and Revelstoke, but every mountain has its green runs, and these two have fewer crowds and a ton of soft snow (as opposed to wet ice masquerading as snow). Within our first hour, my wife and I had figured out the pizza-French fry technique and were on a RED ski chair to our first green (easiest) run. Skiing is just a matter of feel: the more time you put on the mountain, the more familiar you are with the feel. The more familiar with the feel, the more comfortable you’ll be stopping and speeding, carving and turning at will. A fantastic new boutique hotel at the base of RED, the Josie, all but eliminated the hassle and schlepp. They assisted us with gear rental, set-up, storage, and even boot drying. Admittedly it was a shame forgoing RED’s legendary powder while figuring life out on the green runs, but you have to start somewhere, and it may as well be a place where your room is less than a five-minute walk from the main ski chair. Having a helpful, patient instructor also goes a very long way, although I found too much instruction bamboozled my head. Crouch and extend, put my hands over my knee, look where you want to go, find the edge. I took at least a dozen wipe-outs, but fresh snow is soft and forgiving.
WHERE TO EAT: The Velvet Restaurant and Lounge in the Josie has mountain views and fine gourmet fare. Order ale and hot chocolate during lively apres at Rafters. In Rossland, Gabriella’s serves outstanding and authentic Italian.
MORE FAMILY ACTIVITIES: To get a good stretch and help the kids burn off some indoor energy, hit Flux Climbing’s bouldering wall in the basement of the historic Rossland Miner’s Hall.
GEAR TIP: Nobody has fun if they’re cold. We packed quality winter and thermal gear from MEC, a large box of hand warmers, and warm boot socks to keep our feet toasty. Save the technical equipment and advanced boot settings for when you’re good enough to use it!
Revelstoke Mountain Resort has recently installed the Stellar chair specifically to up their game for beginners like me. On my first green run (Big Bend) I was thrilled to find the learning curve a lot steeper than the hill. On just our third mountain day of the trip, we were starting to parallel with ease. I was going faster, longer, working up to some easy blues, feeling better and better (if a little uneasy on my less-dominant foot). Unfortunately, on the final run of the day (and it’s always the final run of the day) I was traversing mid-mountain when I hit an awkward bump and splattered hard. You know when you really hurt yourself, and stars and wrenching pain will leave little doubt if you don’t. My instructor wanted to call Ski Patrol, but I had enough pride in me to somehow ski to the bottom with a deadbolt shoulder. I even skied pretty well. Ski Patrol took one look and sent me to hospital, where X-Rays were inconclusive but it looked to be a torn rotator cuff. This was bum luck, and with all sports, bum luck happens. My tumble killed my second and third day on the mountain, robbing me of more mountain time, and a snowboard session with a local ambassador. I iced up, took painkillers, and still took the kids dogsledding with Revelstoke Dogsledding Adventures. The cold snap hit, it was -20C, and we got stuck behind a train. Life is full of such challenges, and you can either face them with a grimace, or let them overwhelm you.
WHERE TO EAT: The Rockford offers wok-inspired and comfort dishes just steps from the gondola. Hit La Baguette for coffee, soups, sandwiches and lighter fare. In town, spice up at the exotic yet family friendly Taco Club.
MORE FAMILY ACTIVITIES: Revelstoke Dogsled Adventures is a rollercoaster of fun on a remote logging trail. Non-skiers will enjoy daily snowshoe tours from the top of the gondola. Kids soak up hours in the Sutton Place Hotel pool, while parents soak up complimentary wine tasting nightly in the lobby.
GEAR TIP: Fashionable, oversize mirror goggles don’t work great if the sun isn’t shining. Canadian brand XSpex have magnetic clips to easily replace sun goggles with yellow snow lenses to drastically and easily improve visibility.
I’ve always loved Sun Peaks, and I was determined to get back on the hill. With a dull throbbing shoulder, I gave up any notions of taking on more challenging blue runs and just concentrated on my turns. 5 Mile and Cahilty are terrific wide greens and there was ample snow. Stopping into the mid-mountain Sunburst Lodge to warm up, I received a message from the ER doctor in Revelstoke that the torn rotator cuff might be more serious, and I should have it checked out. Oddly enough, the only time I didn’t feel pain was when I was skiing, feeling the rush of wind, focused on my edges, dodging trees on my favourite Sun Peaks Run; Into the Sticks on Morrisey Mountain. Putting on my boots, carrying the skis, sleeping, breathing, that was painful. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the bruised rib. Still, I relished more hours on the mountain. If you want to learn, you’ve just got to put in the hours, it’s that simple. I even managed to ski down the mountain at night with a headlamp, after a hearty fondue with the mountain’s must-do Alpine Fondue and Starlight Descent activity. The stars glowed, the air crystallized, and you don’t need an ice-pack at -15C.
WHERE TO EAT: Mountain Tiger adds a welcome ethnic addition to the village dining options, serving excellent and sizeable Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Take-out excellent thin crust pizzas from Mountain High, and enjoy a festive atmosphere at Bottoms Bar and Grill.
MORE FAMILY ACTIVITIES: Kids will love the bungee trampoline at the base of Sundance Express. The Bucket List Dog Sledding Tour is a memorable 10km-long mush through pristine forest. Kids make fast friends at the Sundance Kids Centre.
GEAR TIP: Do you rent or buy equipment? Before spending hard cash, it’s worth renting first to discover if the sport is for you, and what kind of ski and boot combination works best. Renting also allows you to easily swap out gear if you have any issues.
A few days later, after returning to Vancouver, I went to ER, did more X-Rays, and discovered I have two fractures in my shoulder. In other words, I learned to ski with 2 broken bones. Still, it was entirely worth it because of two very important accomplishments:
- I can ski! Not great mind you, but confident enough to enjoy it.
- As I get older, I’ll be reaching for skis over snowboards, and while the bones will heal, optimistically, in 6-8 weeks, skiing will serve me for a lifetime.
I look forward to my greying years, carving down a mountain with a big smile on my face, my kids shooting off in different directions, a true adventure the entire family can appreciate. With any luck I’ll be able to become as proficient on skis as I am on a snowboard, and return in good health to RED, Revelstoke and Sun Peaks, where it all started.