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Penner: Plundering powder on Red Mountain 


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There I was at the top of Granite Mountain – the highest summit at the legendary Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, B.C. – gawking at rock-and-ice ramparts punching through angry clouds, wondering if a hidden powder stash lay somewhere out there. I exited the lift, skidded stage-right down the ridge, and eyed two runs that diverged in the yellow-grey gloom. I chose “Captain Jack’s Trees.” And it made all the difference.

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Indeed, when it comes to seeking out untracked powder lines, choosing the run less travelled is the obvious mission. Ask any lover of powder, any off-piste pirate who plunders far-away peaks for silky-soft turns: this is what it’s all about. This is why we download snow-forecast apps on our phones and strategically call in sick on “certain” days.

And this is why we go to Red Mountain. Yes, for in-the-know powder privateers who sail the seas in search of the steep-and-deep, “Red” is certainly on the radar. A go-to spot on the rota. But, for the masses, not so much.

The historic town of Rossland is a little gem in the West Kootenays. Photo, Andrew Penner
The historic town of Rossland is a little gem in the West Kootenays. Photo, Andrew Penner jpg

Located deep in the West Kootenays, just outside the quaint, history-rich town of Rossland, Red Mountain is, easily, one of the best under-the-radar ski resorts in North America. And for many good reasons.

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First and foremost, it’s not easy to get to. For Calgarians, it’s an eight-hour drive west through multiple mountain passes. Vancouverites? Same thing. If you want to fly, Spokane (2.5 hours) and Kelowna (three hours) are reasonable choices. (Interestingly, due to Red’s location near the U.S. border, approximately 30 per cent of visitors are Americans. So the border closures during the pandemic have hit hard.) Nearby, Trail and Castlegar also have regional airports that could be options. So, as you can see, you can’t just hop off your couch and get to Red for mid-afternoon turns.

Mount Kirkup at Red Mountain Resort is only accessible via ski touring or a snow-cat ride. Courtesy, Rory Court
Mount Kirkup at Red Mountain Resort is only accessible via ski touring or a snow-cat ride. Courtesy, Rory Court Photo by Rory Court /Rory Court

Red is also massive. At 3,850 acres, it’s comfortably in the top-10 in North America for skiable acres. Five snow-smothered summits comprise the “pillaging” area. (The furthest in-bounds peak from the base area, Mount Kirkup, is only accessible via ski touring or shelling out $10 for a snow-cat ride, which, due to COVID, isn’t being offered in 2022.)

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With all that space comes, well, plenty of powder. For everyone. In fact, Red is ranked No. 1 in North America for most acres per skier. Don’t expect long lift lines. On my recent mid-week visit, perhaps one in 10 chairs were occupied.

But, while Red’s legendary status is often attributed to its size, it’s the incredible quality of the terrain that stands out. “The best thing about this place is the fact that you can literally go anywhere and you’ll find powder stashes that last for days,” says Erik Kerr, director of sales and marketing at the resort. “You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere deep in the backcountry but you’re actually smack-dab in the middle of resort tenure.”

While Red’s authentic and grassroots ski culture (Red is also the oldest ski area in Western Canada) is certainly another notable characteristic, it’s also a resort that’s on the move. A major condo development, The Crescent, is breaking ground this spring. And The Josie – an ultra-modern and luxurious boutique hotel – just opened and is “wowing” discerning guests.

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Not surprisingly, it takes some time – weeks, not a couple of days! – to truly understand the opportunities, the scope of what’s available, at Red. Of course, on a powder day, it’s pretty easy. Take a lift, point ’em down and go. Untracked “treasure” is everywhere. And it will be so for multiple days after a snowfall.

Red Mountain Snow Host, Steve Tomich, in front of one of many cabins at Red Mountain Resort. Photo, Andrew Penner
Red Mountain Snow Host, Steve Tomich, in front of one of many cabins at Red Mountain Resort. Photo, Andrew Penner jpg

Fortunately, for me – or anyone else who makes the pilgrimage – Red employs a team of “snow hosts” who lead wide-eyed powder seekers to the gold. Considering the dizzying size of the place, it’s advantageous to tap into some local knowledge. So on my first morning, my host Steve Tomich – a distinguished member of Red’s venerable Old Bastards Ski Club – led me down fast, freshly groomed cruisers (it hadn’t snowed for five days) and pointed out numerous intermediate and advanced areas. However, with most areas – including long-standing favourites like The Orchards, Powder Fields, and The Slides – tracked out and crusty, we stuck to the well-travelled routes.

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It’s all fun and games in Rafters Bar after a day of skiing at Red Mountain Resort. Courtesy Ryan Flett
It’s all fun and games in Rafters Bar after a day of skiing at Red Mountain Resort. Courtesy Ryan Flett jpg

Throughout that first day, Tomich, who like many locals worked in the mining industry, enlightened me with many stories of Red’s illustrious past. Some of my favourites were the wild apres shenanigans at Rafters Bar (a rough and ragged apres-ski bar), the 1968 du Maurier International (the first World Cup ski race held in Canada), and the unique “cabin culture” at Red. (Peppered throughout the terrain are a handful of tucked-away and historic cabins, many of which are privately owned and used daily by locals).

On day two, I solo explored a few of the distant, half-remembered areas that Tomich told me about. The off-piste skiing was patchy, difficult. But then, in the afternoon I stumbled on Captain Jack’s Trees. Fifty filthy turns later I reached the bottom with a big ol’ grin on my face. This powder pirate got the booty after all.

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary. Follow him on Instagram @andrewpennerphotography.     

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