In the far west of Canada, the saw-tooth Rocky Mountains gather into a horizon-busting barrier, gazing towards the North Pole and shielding the prairies of Alberta from British Columbia’s Pacific coast. Some 4800km long, the spine is studded with snowy crests and photogenic ski towns so quaint and cute they end up framed as pictures on mantelpieces. It is big mountain country at its best, where even in the midst of a talcum-puff blizzard, the dusted heights and evergreen forests retain a mystical beauty.
Last year I found myself stuck inside this snow globe at the edge of the subarctic in the Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia. I spent 10 days exploring an area the rough shape of a smudged circle, stopping off at improbable resort towns, tight-knit winter communities and Nordic ski areas, all threaded together by some of the world’s most spectacular mountain roads. It was a road trip, of sorts, travelling by car, inland ferry, ski lift and cable car, and would have been magical – like something from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros – even without its bewitching name, the Powder Highway.
The singularity of this winter trip, nicknamed Route 66 for skiers, was clear the moment I arrived at Red Mountain, my first stop after a day-long drive into the interior from Vancouver. A fledgling resort on the outskirts of the former gold-mining town of Rossland, it looked like a vintage alpine postcard stuck to a refrigerator, a scene of jagged peaks, frozen lakes and snow-white firs.
From here to the Alberta border, the Kootenay Rockies snowpack has given life to tales of wild descents, heli-skiing outfits and enterprising back-country lodges that offer first-track privileges down virgin slopes, funnelling skiers through snow-thick forests, their branches hung heavy with fresh powder.
After a frenzy of ski activity at Red Mountain, cold-blown snow billowing in my face and nights watching flurries from the lodge window, I was struck again in Nelson, my second stop, with no more than a string of higgledy-piggledy houses and a historic saloon hotel on the shores of Kootenay Lake.
Knee-deep powder was to be found at nearby Whitewater, a pokey resort stripped of ski tows, restaurants, ski rental stores, even people. With only three rudimentary chairlifts to choose from, yet some 479 hectares of skiable terrain, the possibilities on its sunny soft-snow slopes were endless. Though the secret has long been out, other skiers and snowboarders remained eerily low.
From here, I double-backed on snaky roads through the Selkirk Mountains on a route cleft in two by Upper Arrow Lake, forcing a welcome breather on a frost-bitten ferry service to connect back to the Trans-Canada Highway. Amidst the emptiness and solitude, I passed beneath the talismanic Valhalla, Monashee and Bugaboo mountains, all peering imperviously from the horizon before creeping through the drifting snow to Revelstoke, a community populated with ski bums boasting base-camp beards, goggle-tanned ski instructors and yeti-haired helicopter pilots.
Bragging more vertical than anywhere else in North America, Revelstoke takes its winter sports seriously. Its peaks rise above the clouds, its off-piste knows few limits, and its apres-ski bars rarely empty out in season. Early the next day, soundtracked by the rotor-buzz of choppers circling above Mount MacKenzie, I revelled in the kind of epic, once-in-a-lifetime powder runs skiers chase year after year. There were so many unheralded runs and so many turns to savour, I lost count of the number of down-soft, tree-lined chutes I discovered. At night, when the low, fat stars crowded each other out, I slept as well as I had for years.
Two days later, I took the road from Revelstoke leading up over the serene Rogers Pass to the heart of Glacier National Park, flanked on either side by snow caps with spirited names like Avalanche Mountain, Eagle Peak and Wolverine Mountain. The roadside was strewn with birch, conifers and swathes of trees that seemed to go on forever, a worthy distraction until I reached Golden and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, the latter so named after an irksome stallion that once had a reputation for knocking British military captains out cold.
Once settled in a cosy log cabin, I took the long Golden Eagle Express cable car from the parking lot up the mountain to soak up the rays over lunch at Eagle’s Eye Restaurant, the country’s most elevated dining experience. Looking out at 2347 metres above sea level, it felt like all of Canada and the Columbia River Basin, where more backcountry adventures awaited, were tantalisingly within reach.
If only I had more time. My 1250km road trip diverted from the Powder Highway’s traditional journey’s end at Fernie, instead criss-crossing the provincial border to Alberta and Banff, a place of baronial mansions and grizzly bears, now frozen in the minds of millions as the ultimate winter getaway.
The end of a Powder Highway trip represents a sort of spiritual affirmation. It is a hard-earned dream turned reality, confirming why skiers and boarders remain so motivated to gear up and embrace the harsh cold each winter, like a kid before Christmas after the first snow falls. Life on the Powder Highway exists outdoors, and that’s why it feels as though it has no boundaries.
Three More Canadian Ski Adventures
Fernie Alpine Resort
Located in the East Kootenay region, Fernie receives an average winter dump of almost nine metres, making it one of the most snow-sure resorts in North America. Experts shouldn’t miss its 2360m-tall Lizard Range, which opens up to five knee-deep powder bowls.
Panorama Mountain Resort
Having come a long way since 1962, when it first opened with a single rope tow, Panorama has a mammoth 1152 hectares of skiable terrain and 120-plus runs, including some wicked double-black diamond terrain in Taynton Bowl for the more hardcore. It’s hidden in the Purcell Mountains off Route 95.
Kimberley Alpine Resort
On the east face of the 1853m-tall North Star Hill, Kimberley has unparalleled views across Rocky Mountain Trench, as well as cross-country, downhill and million-star night skiing – a rarity in these parts. Of its 80 runs, the majority are best suited to beginners and families.