For first-timers, few sports intimidate like skiing. Consider the reaction of my Brazilian wife when I explained my plans to get our family on the slopes. “You want to clamp my feet into hard boots snapped into greased planks to slide down a mountain?”
“It’s what real Canadians do,” I explained, because South African immigrants think this is what real Canadians do. For two decades, I have watched locals eagerly scanning the snow reports, and listened to their tales of blues, blacks and powder. I have heard how young kids take quickly to skis, and will still be skiing when they’re old. How difficult can it be? Where does a family of four begin? Is it possible to go from zero to blue with just six days on a mountain, and with so many options, what mountain do you choose?
Let’s start small, although with 3850 acres of ski terrain, Rossland’s RED Mountain is no trifle. Laid-back, unpretentious RED might not have a village stroll or internationally renowned restaurants, but it has two incredible assets for first-timers: the fantastic Josie Hotel, and a superhuman guest supervisor named Robin Hethey. No sooner had our van pulled up than we were swept up by both: welcomed warmly with smiles and games in the stylish lobby, and directed to the Josie’s easy-as-pie Ski Concierge. Within an hour we were geared up at RED Rentals, with Robin arranging our lessons and organizing fun tents for the kids in our spaciously modern suite. You cannot stay any closer to RED’s main ski chair than the boutique Josie, a logistical joy for those unaccustomed to all the layers and equipment. Learning to ski has become easier than ever. Manufacturers have introduced snowboard inspired technology to make skis more stable and forgiving, while modern boots are comfortable and warm. Within our first hour of lessons, we graduate from the magic carpet to the ski chair for a green (easiest) run. My daughter quickly proceeds to bomb down the mountain, but she’s always enjoyed French fries over pizza. These two food groups double for beginning ski instruction: straight skis to go, a wedge to stop.
Even our 3-year-old figured that out pretty quick. By the second hour, we are actually skiing: unbalanced like a new-born foal, but skiing nonetheless. There is a special swell of pride when you witness your family bonding in a physical challenge, surrounded by stunning Kootenay winter wilderness. Although known for its more challenging terrain, RED turned out to be a perfect place to learn: easy to access, no line-ups, friendly locals, no worrying someone with our skill level was going to plow into our back. Beneath the helmets and goggles expect big goofy smiles on beginners and pros alike. Returning to the Josie, the Ski Concierge makes offloading a cinch. They take care our boots, skis and poles, and sort out our tomorrow’s lift tickets too. A small resort has plenty of advantages, especially for families: kids quickly have the run of the place, you get to know the staff personally, and everything is contained. What’s more, Robin and her team could drop off and fetch our kids from the convenient Kindercare, granting my wife and I time to tackle runs on our own. “Parallel will come naturally, you just need to put the hours in,” explains a Snow Host on one of the chairs. As with everyone we meet on RED – and in the town of Rossland a few minutes’ drive down the road – he is in love with the three mountains that make up the resort. History is on full display in the adjacent Rafters pub, with sepia photos of old school ski teams, various trophies, and boards honouring local Olympic heroes like Nancy Green, Derek Mayer and Kerrin Lee-Gartner. Skiing is a culture as much as a sport. RED proved to be an inspiring introduction to both.
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: 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.
Outside Magazine called Revelstoke one of North America’s Next Great Ski Towns. American media is a little behind on BC’s wonders: Revelstoke has been a great ski town for over a decade. After a four-hour snow-packed drive from Rossland, we arrived in Revelstoke to find a different resort experience. Located about a ten-minute drive out of town, Revelstoke Mountain Resort is served by the on-site Sutton Place Hotel, several decent restaurants, a few stores, and 3100 acres of terrain with the longest lift accessed vertical in North America. More relevant to beginners is the 15-km-long Last Spike, the continent’s longest ski run. We’d access this green, zig-zag track from the new Stellar Chair, a welcome addition for newbies on a mountain known for its deep powder and steep hills. You miss Ski Concierge services when you don’t have it. Instead we lined up with excited locals and a surprisingly high number of Australian, UK and American tourists to get fitted for rentals. 20cm of fresh snow had fallen overnight, and while the early morning line-up at the Revelation Gondola was noticeable, it was nowhere near what you’d find in Whistler. Revelstoke’s handy RFID lift card system quickly sped things along without the need for a manual ticket scan. The runs might be steep, but so is the learning curve. My 6-year-old and I were already itching for blue intermediate runs, although I couldn’t keep up to her without wiping out in the powder.
While my wife perfected her parallel turning technique, I discovered the joys of speed, and what happens when one pushes beyond their talent level. A spectacular wipe-out reminded me, rather painfully, that I’m not six years old, flexible as Play-doh, and with the healing powers of Wolverine. You will do better. Take your time, go at your own pace, and find the joy of simply gliding down the mountain, enjoying the scenery, breathing air so fresh it should be bottled. Given the number of kids about, Revelstoke is certainly an all ages affair. Our kids loved their instructors, who work with the Roc Kids Centre and Mountain Childcare. Much like an all-inclusive vacation, we could simply drop off the kids in the morning, and pick them up in the afternoon. As for lessons, the benefit is obvious and there was little doubt my kids did much better when we weren’t around. “Everyone has a different level of challenges,” explains our supremely patient instructor Matt. Originally from Adelaide, he relocated to Revelstoke a dozen years ago, discovering a mountain community so ideal he never left. “Our job is to help you achieve your goals, from simply getting up in a chair to conquering a black run.” Matt and his colleagues were certainly helping us achieve ours: before we left Vancouver, I dreamed of being able to see my family on skis, together, enjoying an adventure. On a lovely green run called Big Bend, that dream came true faster, and more clearly, than I could have hoped for.
WHERE TO EAT: The Rockford Grill 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.
In less than a week, our confidence on skis appears to have grown with the size of the ski resort. If RED is a community mountain, and Revelstoke a full-service resort, Sun Peaks Resort represents a more traditional ski getaway. Located 45 minutes’ drive outside of Kamloops, the resort has grown from a single obscure mountain in the early nineties into Canada’s second largest ski area, bursting with energy, a charming village, and a growing all-year community. We may not be tackling any wild blue or black runs yet, but we have started to zip between trees and explore Sun Peak’s sprawling powder. We holed up in a comfortable suite at the Coast Sundance Lodge, just steps away from the mountain base lifts which shoot off in different directions. By now, layering up had become easier, and having had the opportunity to try various styles of boots and skis, the rental equipment we picked up at the Elevation store slipped on without much effort. Comprised of three different mountains, Sun Peaks offers the full village apres/shopping/dining experience. Whistler’s crowds and costs have long intimidated local skiers, and it appears to be intimidating international skiers too. I met several Australian families on their summer holidays, and all believed the extra effort to get to Sun Peaks was well worth the effort. Ski veterans frequently tell me Sun Peaks is the perfect family mountain, with gorgeous runs for all levels. Our lovely instructor Kate guides us to a run off the Morrisey Express called In the Sticks, allowing us to slalom between patches of wonderland forest. Above the Sunburst Express, the whole family skis down a green run called Cahilty, and once again I’m struck at how obvious a delight skiing is, and how it will only get better as our skills improve, and the kids get older. For now, they’re happy to escape the chill and be dropped off at the Sundance Kids Centre, making friends from around the world, sharing their own toddler-sized ski stories. The climax of our journey takes place at night. My wife and I sign up for the Alpine Fondue and Starlight Descent, which takes place in the mid-mountain Sunburst Bar + Eatery. She’s nervous we don’t yet possess the skill to descend the freshly groomed 5 Mile trail by flashlight, but we’re in the safe hands of volunteer Sun Peaks veterans, and a belly full of wine, cheese and chocolate goes a long way. Buoyed by fine company – including two Antipodean families with independent teenage kids to give us hope – we group up for the night-time ski of a lifetime. Throughout our journey, the BC interior had been hit by snowstorms and an unseasonal cold snap. Temperatures at the base of Revelstoke and Sun Peaks had fallen to -25C, and low clouds had boxed us in. Tonight, on cue, the temperature warms and the stars sparkle. Halfway down the hill, after carving a series of figure 8s, we stop to switch off our headlamps and admire the sweeping galaxies above. Surely this is as good as it gets.
WHERE TO EAT: Mountain Tiger adds a welcome ethnic addition to the village dining options, serving excellent and sizable 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 aptly named 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: 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!
We spent just 6 days learning to ski on 2-week BC road trip. It has fundamentally changed the way we look at winter, and already we’re eyeing Vancouver’s local mountains with a newfound interest. At last I understand why skiers are so excited each winter. If you ski already, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, perhaps it’s time for your family to join us.