Words: Colin Wiseman
Until recently, Revelstoke was a quiet town in the backwaters of British Columbia that attracted a small hardcore of shredders. Now this epic powder stash is opening its doors to the world. Colin Wiseman weighs up the gamble.
The sign didn’t bode well. Its fluorescent orange surface bore two black arrows: one pointed towards the piste and a picture of a fully loaded gondola, while the second pointed down into the trees – and an unhappy face with x-ed out eyes. Imminent doom or peas in a pod? The choice should have been obvious. But there was something intriguing about that cartoon face… Maybe big frowns really stood for big stacks of pillows that hadn’t been mapped out yet?
“Should we do it?” Joel asked our crew of five.
“I dunno man, it looks dicey,” I replied.
Keith smiled. “Let’s roll the dice!”
He turned and pointed his board towards fluorescent doomsday, and we peeled off one by one.
We wound down a cat track through the forest, buttering rollers and occasionally ducking onto the high banks to lay down a powder slash. Both sides of the road held nicely spaced trees, and from time to time a bonkable, mushroom-topped tree stump flashed by. After several switchbacks and a few hundred metres another florescent sign warned us not to continue our descent. We decided to pull up and hike it out. The day was drawing to a close, and getting stuck in a drainage creek hours from town (as had already happened to several unfortunate individuals, resulting in a few cold nights and a few long walks) wasn’t too appealing. Plus, these trees would still be untracked tomorrow. I was just finishing my first day of riding at Canada’s Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR) and, in its first year of operations, even the locals had hardly scratched the surface of what the mountain has to offer.
Developed by the Simpson Property Group from Denver, RMR is a brand new resort with big plans. Replacing a sleepy little one chair ski hill known as Powder Springs, RMR consists of a gondola and a quad chair stacked on top of one another, accessing 1,443 vertical metres of consistently graded trees and groomers. The mountain was opened in a flurry of activity on December 23rd 2007 and experienced big hype in the first few weeks as visiting film and photo crews swarmed the town. Since then the media circus has retreated, and the boil-over of opening day has been reduced to a simmer of activity. The hill, at least for its first year, has remained relatively small and un-crowded. But this is about to change.
By the start of the current season the resort will have added an additional 270 metres of lower mountain terrain and a new quad chair on the upper mountain – the first steps towards a master plan that includes 20 more chairs and 100 new runs over the next 20 years. They have purchased ‘Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing’ and ‘Revelstoke Cat Skiing’ and operate both businesses out of the day lodge, making Revelstoke the only resort in the world to offer all three options (heli, catboarding, lifts) in one location. Real estate development is a big part of the plan, with a village to match the grandeur of the resort itself in the works: 5,000 new holiday properties in a town of only 8,500 – a town that already has its own identity and a thriving mountain culture. As photographer Ryan Creary, who has been working in the area for over a decade, explains, “Revelstoke has a nice mountain town feel but it still retains some redneck charm, which helps to keep the city influence at bay.”
The small town of Revelstoke has always been home to a healthy population of rural blue collar individuals (with logging, trucking, and tree planting being popular occupations) but the scales are starting to tip towards tourism – driven by a plethora of heli and cat skiing operations in the area. Revelstoke also attracts a growing summer crowd, who come to see the spectacular mountains in the nearby Glacier National Park. And as well as tourists, a new wave of residents are rolling in: seasonal workers from Eastern Canada, Australia and beyond, seeking a winter in the mountains.
Some of the mega-resort “city influence” has already arrived. Housing prices have gone through the roof, with average homes listing for $500,000 and condos with heli pads selling like hot cakes, mostly to wealthy Americans. For current residents, especially those nearing retirement, this means a huge jump in taxes and an incentive to sell your home to investors and move somewhere more affordable. For others though, this influx of dollars means opportunity. Construction companies are booked solid and new restaurants and spas, often run by locals, are beginning to take off. Business is booming and Revelstoke is certainly set to expand – how much is still in question. What is for certain, though, is that the terrain is there. RMR is the real deal.
Bluebird skies and cold sunlight drew me out of my leather couch slumber. Empties littered the floor and the alarm clock inches from my head flashed 9am. The lifts were already running. Struggling out of early morning spins, the floors began to creak as a house full of hangovers rose to the smell of a fresh pot of Kicking Horse Coffee and the sound of Motorhead blaring on the stereo. If snow had been falling I imagine the atmosphere would have been a lot more urgent. As it was, it hadn’t snowed in two weeks – unheard of for Revelstoke in early March. In fact the area was experiencing one of its worst snow years on record, with barely half of the 20 metre annual average having accumulated in this wet pocket of the Kootenay Mountains. “We haven’t had a 20 centimetre day since opening,” explained Tyler Corrigan – a local carpenter, entrepreneur and one time sponsored snowboarder. “Usually we get them regularly.” So, we took our time climbing out of hangovers concocted from Pilsner, Jägermeister and heavy metal, not sure what to expect from our plan to push deeper into the RMR backcountry. If someone had told me then how good we were going to get it I would have skipped the coffee.
Half an hour after finally getting my Subaru packed and up the potholed dirt road to the temporary lodge (which is set to be dismantled when the new shopping centre-sized lodge is ready), we were on the gondola. We did a quick warm up lap, then started the hike to Critical Summit, a sub-peak of the resort’s true high point at Mount Mackenzie. After fifteen minutes of boot-packing straight up the fall line we were rewarded with an incredible view, and for the first time I could see the resort’s massive potential. The tree lines we’d experienced on the frontside of the mountain – though long, well spaced and steep – are merely a side dish, the Brussel sprouts to Revelstoke’s meat and potatoes. Across North Bowl we could see epic couloirs, accessible with an hour’s hike, while further over were four of Mackenzie’s seven powder bowls – all slated for lift access in the near future. These faces each boast a top section of wind lips and rock, funnelling into spines, walls, and big evergreens – finally rolling into the shimmering Columbia River a kilometre below. Big lines with easy access: the new resort promises much the same experience as the heli leases that fan out from Revelstoke in every direction.
Tyler had ridden this line a couple of times before and he dropped first, hitting a small windlip for speed and leaving two turns of spray on the ridge before ollieing out of sight. He reappeared at speed about ten seconds later, charging through the avalanche debris in the bottom of the bowl. The snow looked good. Really good. Had it really been dry for two weeks? The boot pack to the peak was well worn and tourists dotted the ridge line taking pictures, devoid of backpacks, avalanche gear or any real clue of the consequences that a mountain this size could serve up at a moment’s notice. I dropped cautiously into a convex roll over an inviting pocket, feeling out the windblown snowpack, before tying into Tyler’s line and hopping through some rocks into stable, dry, wind drifts and opening it up on the heelside for a swooping arc into the safety zone on the high side of the bowl. Nothing moved. It was on.
A quick traverse put us on top of the next ridge, moving farther away from the resort’s boundaries and out of reach of the gaping tourists looking to chalk off a black run in the wrong place. “What’s this zone called?” I asked.
Nothing but blank stares greeted me. Apparently our local companions, in 50-plus days on the hill, hadn’t even ventured here yet. Considering the ease of access this seemed a little odd, but I guess when fresh turns are available off the lift you don’t need to put in any extra effort. Spying dozens of possible lines, we fanned out and worked down the ridge. Keith lofted a backside 180 over a natural booter and hiked back up to the next knoll while Joel, Matt and I found a set of rollers sculpted into abstract waves by the wind, which launched us into a deep field of pristine powder. There were too many options to hit in a day, a week, or maybe even a season. Popping in and out of the trees further on down, we yo-yoed from hit to hit, exploring the newly named ‘ATM ridge’, before Tyler capped the day by tweaking a method off a solid 30 foot rock. Despite the lack of snowfall, RMR was firing.
The next three days were spent picking out new lines and riding a handful of the chutes off ATM ridge and North Bowl’s upper reaches. Hike, ride, traverse, repeat. The rhythmic nature of powder riding took hold and the boot pack to the top felt increasingly easier, while the snow held up well amidst a weekend of visiting tourists and sustained sunshine. Around every corner was a new set of pillows waiting to be found, emptying into wide open runouts. Towards the bottom, well-spaced trees provided makeshift slalom gates for the race back to the chair for more. And on the last day the storm finally hit. These were the conditions Revelstoke is known for: whited-out alpine and deep tree lines through tall, hulking evergreens. Stumps and pillows provide enough pop to get you into the next pocket of fresh, as you catch the occasional glimpse of your crew burning through the incessant green of the forest. Joel knew the trees well and introduced us to a long, consistent line that left me wheezing for breath after five minutes of high speed chasing. Even the pistes were exceptional, with 1400 meters of steep, rolly, empty runs with half a foot of fresh right down to the bottom of the hill.
Nearing the bottom, we slowed above a silent relic of a double chair, rusted orange and swinging in the wind and falling snow. “This is where Powder Springs ended,” Joel told me. He pointed to a roller on our left. “That was the best jump on the hill, we used to spend hours hitting it.” The 20-foot roller was a fun way to finish the run, but it had nothing on the previous thousand metres. Indeed, change could be a good thing for the Revelstoke locals. Going from small time mountain town to big time resort will take some getting used to, but the riding is hard to beat.
Looking back on my stay, RMR came through despite minimal snowfall, a good sign for a new resort. As the slopes get more crowded (and they surely will) things might be a little different, but with this much terrain, turns will always be available for those willing to put in the effort. With plenty of room to develop, the mountain is set to blow up. But questions of accessibility remain: how many people want to take a flight and drive for several hours in order to visit such a remote resort? And with housing prices hitting Whistleresque levels already, it might just be easier for buyers to look at more established and accessible ski towns. On the other hand, this could prove to be a good thing. Tempered development could allow RMR to develop world class riding whilst retaining its blue collar roots and redneck charm – creating an authentic mountain town free from the attitude you find at resorts closer to the city.
Back in town, logging trucks rumbled past the Chinese buffet in which we ate our dinner, and the streets were quiet despite the raucous atmosphere inside. Stories of pow days gone by floated over Chinese beer and chow mein, a spinning table punctuated by laughter and raised glasses. Outside, colourful little houses used picket fences as retaining walls to keep the metre of snow safely in their yards. At the discount motels on the highway, pickup trucks and snowmobiles dominated the parking lot, beer bellies and goatees drifting in and out of the door on their way to pick up an 8-pack of Lucky Lager and prepare the sleds for another day ripping trails around town. It seemed like little had changed in Revelstoke since the opening of RMR, the landscape in town disconnected from the booming developments just ten minutes northeast at the base of Mount Mackenzie. It was almost as if we had been somewhere else that day – a parallel universe where gondolas and do-rags replace the sleds and plaid shirts of town. Just down the street sat the Simpson Group’s real estate headquarters, with mini-models showing a development plan at the hill that promises to dwarf the town of Revelstoke altogether. Whether the town will adopt the resort atmosphere is questionable, but change is certainly in the air. The sense of community is strong, however, and the people that live there prefer moose burgers and a cold one to fois gras and Dom Perignon. “It’s getting a little hard to stay here,” Joel Nixon, a forest fire fighter and lifelong resident told me. “It’s starting to cost a lot to buy a house. But it’s good for the town, it’s good to see new faces. And the riding is insane.”
As long as the new additions stay true to the small town mountain culture the future bodes well for Revelstoke. They have a big mountain, endless backcountry, and plenty of employment opportunities. But they must also be wary of the influx of capital that could push out the very soul that makes this place unique.
The town of Revelstoke is rolling the dice and all bets are placed on ‘RMR’. Let’s hope the town, as well as the resort developers, reap the rewards. One thing, however, is for certain: those in search of great riding are already cashing in.
Colin Wiseman is a Pacific Northwest native and the Senior Editor of Frequency: The Snowboarder’s Journal.
Drive East from Revelstoke and you immediately begin to climb towards Roger’s Pass – the deadliest stretch of the Trans-Canada highway and home to arguably the best backcountry touring in the country. Situated on the Western side of the Canadian Rockies, the highway runs directly through Glacier National Park with steep, gnarly peaks rising to over 11,000 feet from the avalanche tunnels on the highway. With everything from roadside pillows to multi-day hut tours, the season is long and the snow is dry and plentiful. When the often sketchy snowpack settles, logging trucks rumble past dirt bag pickup trucks as riders ascend to find their dream lines.
As Ryan Creary describes, “Roger’s Pass has big epic terrain right off the road with glaciers, couloirs, peaks, trees, pillows, pretty much everything you want. The only catch is you have to earn those turns because it is in a national park, which also means no sleds, helis, or noise; just you and your split board. I’ve spent close to eight years riding there and have yet to have a bad day.
Both Golden and Revelstoke have hardcore touring contingents. Until the lift systems get good a lot of people take advantage of the pass. But even during busy times you can always find the goods if you know where to go. For me it is perfection.”