It wasn't supposed to go down like this.
In a normal year, conditions would be ideal for a late February-early March trip to Revelstoke and Panorama. The two resorts are located on B.C.'s Powder Highway, an area in the Kootenay Rockies region of southeastern B.C. that boasts more ski (and snowboard) resorts and helicopter, snowcat and backcountry-touring operations than anywhere else in the world.
But the 2009-10 season wasn't normal for some resorts in Western Canada. In fact, it was the warmest, mildest and driest winter on record in 63 years, according to David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada.
Why? It was a darn El Niño winter.
El Niño is characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures -- and less precipitation than normal -- in the Pacific region. La Niña is the opposite phase of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation cycle and features colder temperatures and increased snowfall. The weather experts are predicting a La Niña 2010-11 season.
My high hopes of two weeks of dashing through the snow were dashed by some silly weather phenomenon.
Don't get me wrong; there's plenty of enjoyment to be had when the sun is shining and the (groomed) snow is glistening under a canopy of brilliant blue skies. But after a few days of this, a seasoned skier starts to long for some fresh stuff and to venture off-piste. After all, you can only work on your turns and carving up groomed runs for so long before boredom sets in. Even admiring the breathtaking views both resorts offer can get old when there's no snow in the forecast.
I still had a blast visiting the up-and-coming, adventure-oriented Revelstoke Mountain Resort and the recently expanded and more family-oriented Panorama Mountain Village. But I definitely long to return to both resorts to explore the tantalizing terrain poor snow conditions prevented me from experiencing.
Revelstoke Mountain Resort (Feb. 21-25, 2010)
LONGEST lift-serviced vertical in North America? You bet.
Greatest snowfall? Not during my visit, unfortunately.
It snowed a wee bit, but just a tease for a region that boasts an unreal 12 to 18 metres (40 to 60 feet) of snow annually.
I'd been eager to visit RMR ever since learning that a new ownership group had assumed control of the modest ski hill on Mount Mackenzie in 2007, armed with a 15-year, billion-dollar master plan that called for 20 lifts servicing more than 100 runs and an ambitious village development.
It also happens to be the only ski resort in the world that offers lift, snowcat, heli and backcountry skiing from one village base.
I hadn't been this excited about a ski trip since going heli-skiing in March 2009 (thanks again, Snowwater Heli-Skiing).
With its location overlooking the Columbia River in the heart of the Selkirk and Monashee mountain ranges, RMR seemed like the perfect playground for two avid skiers -- me and a Kelowna-based buddy.
Upon arrival we checked in at Nelsen Lodge, which serves as the epicentre of the resort's village base area. The lodge offers fine dining and lounge-style entertainment at the Rockford wok/bar/grill, an Asian-fusion restaurant.
There are also a couple of spots on the mountain to visit if you get hungry, thirsty, or just need a break from the action. The Mid Mountain Lodge, which is located much closer to the bottom of the mountain than the middle, has a cafeteria-style restaurant with espresso bar, huge deck with outdoor barbecue, and a retail shop. At the end point of the Revelation Gondola you'll find Mackenzie Outpost, which is located about mid-mountain and is perfect for grabbing a quick snack or cold beer, and enjoying spectacular views from the deck.
Also located in Nelsen Lodge is the Revelstoke Outdoors Centre, which provides the easiest access to the resort's snow school, retail and equipment rental shops, snowcat-skiing/boarding, heli-skiing/boarding, backcountry touring, mountain awareness courses and other activities.
Nelsen Lodge also offers the only accommodations at the resort, unless you own or can rent one of the swanky homes in the development. Your other option is to make the short drive to the town of Revelstoke, where a variety of accommodation, restaurant and nightlife options await.
Our suite was sweet, all new and shiny and with a partial view of the gondola and slopes, parking lot and a few of the grand vacation properties -- some with their own heli landing pads -- going up in a development called Mackenzie Landing.
Mike Vopni, a transplanted Manitoban whose family operated Vopni Press, publishers of the Daily Graphic in Portage la Prairie for many years, is director of sales and marketing for the real estate division of the resort (Sotheby's International Realty Canada). Over dinner he told us how Albertans have been the dominant buyers of properties there, not unlike other resorts in the region. RMR has also attracted international interest, including visitors from more than 25 countries.
Upon completion, RMR is expected to have more than 5,000 housing units, including condominiums, hotel suites, townhomes, and single-family and estate homes. The village will offer 500,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.
We ventured into town a couple of times to grab some supplies and a bite over a beer at one of the local hangouts. Revelstoke (pop. 8,500) has a definite ski-town feel to it and appears to have plenty of funky stores, restaurants and bars worth checking out.
But we didn't come here for that; we were here to ski.
On the slopes
Our first day on the slopes was going great, skiing endless cruisers with enough groomed snow to make it enjoyable.
After a few runs we hooked up with an RMR staffer, and it wasn't long before we convinced him to guide us to something a little more challenging than groomed trails -- the fringe of the resort's North Bowl area.
The absence of other skiers should have been a good clue that conditions weren't great, but our enthusiasm to venture on prevailed.
Before long we were faced with a situation that was spiralling out of control. In fact, it was my buddy, Ron. The former Canadian Ski Patrol member had caught an edge and was careening down an icy black-diamond (big bumps) run, heading in the direction of a small stand of trees in the middle of the run.
After what seemed like an eternity, he managed to slow his forward progress, coming to a halt mere metres from a crash ending after sliding face-first, backwards, upside down, etc. for what must have been 200 metres.
It was about this time that I came to the realization that RMR was not to be taken lightly. This place offers as much as any big-mountain skier cares to take on... and then some. It's host to an event on the Freeskiing World Tour in January, the only location in Canada.
The eight-passenger Revelation gondola whisks skiers from the village base to about half-way up the mountain in mere minutes. From there you can pick a path back down or ski over to the Stoke chair, one of the four-seater chairlifts that access the upper areas of the mountain. The other quad is the Ripper, which services the less extreme, lower portion of the North Bowl.
All told, RMR currently offers 52 named runs (some thigh burners that seemingly go on forever), 13 gladed areas, and five bowls. There's 1,713 vertical metres of lift-serviced skiing -- the longest in North America -- and a top elevation of 2,225 metres (7,300 feet).
RMR's longest run (dare you to ski it non-stop) is the Last Spike. It winds its way down the centre of the mountain for a staggering 15.2 kilometres. Just seven per cent of the mountain is designated Green (beginner), and it consists of the above run and a dedicated beginner area with a Magic Carpet conveyor lift.
There are also three bowls reserved for snowcat skiing (Revelstoke Cat Skiing) and 200,000 hectares (half-million acres) of heli (Selkirk Tangiers) terrain.
About $200 million has been invested in RMR to date, including a new wine bar in the village for the 2010-11 season, the completion of phase 2 of Nelsen Lodge, and the commencement of phase 3. Expansion of groomed terrain and a new beginner lift are planned for the 2011-12 winter season. There's also a Nick Faldo-designed 18-hole golf course in the works, scheduled to begin play in 2013.
To truly appreciate the resort's grandeur, try paragliding it. I took a tandem flight with Altitude Adventures. They offer the highest vertical tandem flight in North America, and the spectacular views of the Columbia valley below are well worth the price of admission ($200).
Opening day for the 2010-11 season at Revelstoke Mountain Resort was Dec. 3. If you're serious about skiing or boarding and you're looking for a great adventure, you need to check this place out.
Panorama Mountain Village (Feb. 28-March 5, 2010)
I left my buddy behind in Kelowna, flew home to collect my wife and our two almost-teenage girls, and jumped in the van for the delightful annual family road trip to a western Canadian ski resort.
The village at Panorama Mountain Village was literally buzzing with excitement upon our arrival. I suspect it had something to do with the fact Team Canada was battling Team USA for men's world hockey supremacy at the 2010 Olympic Games. We all know how that turned out -- way to go Team Canada!
The fact that the resort had just come under new ownership, with a consortium of local business owners/investors taking over from the Intrawest monolith, also had villagers in a tizzy.
The village at PMV is awesome, offering a great outdoor setup with lots of space for events and seating for people to relax and enjoy the great views while watching others playing on the slopes. There's a grand hall that serves as an indoor gathering place for family games nights and other forms of entertainment.
The pedestrian-friendly village has upper and lower portions connected by streets, walkways and a gondola.
There's a wide variety of accommodations to choose from with slope-side lodging for 3,000 people, two retail stores, a grocery store and a decent assortment of dining options to choose from -- with many more available 18 kilometres away in the town of Invermere.
We stayed in the upper village at the Panorama Springs in a two-bedroom condo with a super convenient ski-in, ski-out location (the excellent beginner area is a snowball throw away) and the best access to Panorama Springs pools, Canada's biggest slope-slide hot tubs. You can't beat it after a day on the slopes. If that's not enough, Radium and Fairmont hot springs are nearby.
Time to explore
After tiring out the daughters after several runs down groomed slopes -- you know conditions are lousy when your kids, who are on skis just one week a year, complain about the lack of snow -- I'd leave the girls to their own devices while I spent a couple of hours each afternoon exploring the outer limits of the resort to see what's out there for the more adventurous skier.
Turns out Panorama puts many resorts to shame with its abundance of challenging terrain in the mountain's upper regions.
While riding up the nearly deserted Summit Quad chairlift I'd spot awesome-looking lines that would be great to ski -- if only they had sufficient snow cover. I'm talking acres of glades with well-spaced trees. The Summit lift takes you to the top of the mountain into Taynton Bowl, the Extreme Dream Zone and Outback Ridge.
I took a peak at a few of the double-black diamond (extreme) runs but decided against trying them, given I was skiing alone, conditions weren't good and few other skiers were up there.
I did take the aptly-named View of 1000 Peaks run, stopping often to appreciate some of the most stunning scenery anywhere on Earth.
But I need to go back... to explore some of the best-looking tree skiing I never had the chance to experience.
Even some lift attendants and waiters at Panorama remarked that there hadn't been any significant snowfall in several weeks (an admission their employers surely wouldn't be thrilled to hear about.) Only the miraculous work of the grooming crews provided enough snow coverage to justify the resort accepting skiers, though we did uncover patches of ice and the odd chunk of rock or stump.
Conditions bordered on dangerous in some spots. While skiing virtually by myself in ungroomed areas such as Founders Ridge and Sun Bowl, I didn't so much pick my line but rather played dodge the obstacles.
To be sure, Panorama isn't known for its snowfall. It claims to average 479 cm (almost 16 feet) annually, but we could've counted the amount of flakes that fell when we were there.
As it was, the familiar whump whump whump of chopper blades had me pining for some heli-skiing action. RK Heliski operates out of Panorama, offering skiing and sightseeing tours in the Purcell Mountains. The accompanying Choppers Landing restaurant and lounge offers an upscale dining experience.
Panorama Mountain Village Inc., the consortium of local investors that assumed ownership of the resort's ski operations and a 50 per cent ownership position in neighbouring Greywolf Golf Course (one of the finest public golf courses in B.C.), has already made changes to the resort with more plans in the works.
New for 2011: On the slopes the night-skiing area has tripled in size and now runs the length of the Mile 1 chairlift; the Rockstar Terrain Park has been relocated with new features added; an extension of a new gladed area that opened last season off of View of 1000 Peaks opens up an area that was previously inaccessible. Away from the slopes there are new dining options, an expanded rental shop, and a new direct shuttle service from Calgary International Airport to PMV.
Other activities offered at or near PMV include cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at the Greywolf Nordic Centre, dogsledding, ice skating, snowmobile tours, and sleigh rides. There's the Bavin Glass Cabin for classes on making beads and jewelry, or for kids to make Pano Buddy dolls. This family-friendly resort has many kid-friendly activities, which also gives parents some time on their own.
Something to keep in mind for those who love to golf: there are nine golf courses within a 40-minute drive in the Columbia Valley
Panorama Mountain Village is nestled between the Purcell and Rocky Mountain ranges in the heart of the Columbia Valley. The scenery around the resort and along the drive from Banff is spectacular.
Opening day for the 2010-11 season at Panorama Mountain Village was Friday . Time to check out what's new and improved.
Rob Knodel is a Free Press copy editor who often daydreams about getting in over his head on the slopes.
If you go:
Revelstoke Mountain Resort
Getting there: RMR is located six kilometres southeast of the town of Revelstoke, B.C. WestJet and Air Canada offer daily flights to Calgary and Kelowna, B.C. RMR is 413 kilometres west of Calgary, 200 kilometres north of Kelowna. There are also direct flights between Revelstoke and Calgary through Hawkair.
Where to stay: Nelsen Lodge is a ski-in/ski-out all-suite resort at the village base. It features luxuriously appointed suites (studio to four-bedroom) with fully equipped kitchens, wireless Internet, secure underground parking and a huge outdoor hot tub overlooking Mt. Begbie.
More info: www.revelstokemountainresort.com
Panorama Mountain Village
Getting there: PMV is located just a two-hour scenic drive from Banff, 3 1/2 hours from Calgary.
Where to stay: Panorama Springs offers fully appointed suites conveniently located near the lifts and all the village amenities. Walk out the door and into Canada's biggest slope-slide hot tub.
More info: www.panoramaresort.com