NELSON, B.C. – The easiest of questions stumped Travis Hauck as he tended to his duties recently at Gerick Cycle and Ski.
What is your favorite run at Whitewater Ski Resort?
Hauck has skied at the resort for more than a decade and seen it, in his words, “blow up in terms of popularity the last few years,” but he couldn’t answer this question.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even look at the signs. I just ski.”
There’s good reason for this. Whitewater doesn’t have an abundance of traditional resort-style ski runs, wide swaths of snow through the trees. Whitewater, 41 miles north of the Metaline, Wash.-Nelway, B.C., border crossing, looks more like somebody set up a small lodge and three chairlifts in the backcountry.
In fact, that’s not far from what actually happened.
“It’s like cat skiing or heli skiing without the cat or helicopter,” said Kirk Jensen, Whitewater’s general manager.
“We’re back to the grassroots of skiing here,” said Rebeckah Hornung, the resort’s marketing director. “It’s all about good snow and good skiing.”
Nelson and the Selkirk mountains are a mecca for backcountry skiing, so why should Whitewater be any different. Of its 1,184 acres and 2,044 vertical feet, 55 percent is classified as advanced or expert terrain.
“You won’t find better tree skiing,” Hauck said.
Located in a bowl below Ymir Mountain, the lift-serviced slopes are covered with lush evergreens. There are named runs, 76 of them in fact. But aside from the 20 runs off the beginner and intermediate Silver King lift, there are only a handful of ways down the mountain without skiing through the trees.
“It makes us very unique,” Hornung said.
Hornung likes to say Whitewater is a resort that has stripped away non-essentials such as five-star dinning and slope-side Ritz-Carltons and focuses instead on what’s most important: good terrain, good snow and good food.
“We are pure, simple and real deep,” she said.
Ride Powder Highway
For 80 years, people have skied in Nelson, but most of those years were spent taking runs on a small hill near town.
In the early 1970s, in the pursuit of better skiing, community members started scouting the terrain for a place to build a better ski area. Jensen said flags were tied to trees one summer to monitor snow depth.
“But when they went back in the winter, they couldn’t find the flags because they were under the snow,” said Jensen, a local ski legend who has graced the cover of several industry magazines. “They figured this would be a good place to build a ski resort.”
Thirty-six years since Whitewater opened, the resort is still best known for its abundance of dry snow.
Whitewater claims to average 40 feet per year. That’s not quite at the level of Mount Baker, the Northwest’s undisputed snow king with more than 50 feet per year, but it’s significantly more than Northwest destination resorts such as Whistler Blackcomb (30 feet per year), Big Sky (33), Mount Bachelor (31) and Sun Valley (18).
“We have the best snow in Western Canada,” Jensen said.
Whitewater is one of eight Alpine ski areas and dozens of backcountry guide services in southeastern British Columbia who promote their region as the Powder Highway.
“It’s a trip a lot of skiers take and a lot of them put us on their list.”
Jensen said there are several reasons for the glut of snow: The lake effect from nearby water bodies, a base area 5,400 feet above sea level and Ymir Mountain, which holds weather in the area.
“Word is getting out about the snow,” Jensen said. “About 75 percent of our visitors are local season pass holders, but we are starting to see more and more visitors from south of the border, from Europe, Japan and China making there way here.”
Former Whitewater co-owner Shelley Adams made sure the area was known for more than deep snow and tree skiing.
She opened the Fresh Tracks Cafe and it quickly earned its reputation for healthy and tasty meals with items such as its Wildhorse curry bowl, chai barbecue pulled pork panini and, arguably most popular, the tofu and candied almond Glory Wrap.
The food is so popular, Hornung said, Whitewater recently found a way to address constant requests for skiers and snowboarders to have a way to buy meals during summer.
This summer, the resort bought a truck it calls the Fresh Track Cafe Express and parked it in Nelson. The resort plans to drive the mobile cafe to the ski area this winter and park it at the base of the Glory Ridge lift so backside skiers don’t have to travel back to the base area for lunch.
Keeping it natural
The Glory Ridge lift is entering its third season and, along with the snow, is helping the ski area become more popular.
Whitewater, owned by Calgary’s Knee Deep Development, purchased the old High Noon lift from Vail Resort in Colorado and installed it in what used to be popular backcountry.
Hauck used to ski Glory Ridge regularly before the lift and after each run, he’d have to click out of his skis and try to hitch a ride back to the base area.
“In those days, it was hard just to get in nine runs,” Hauck said. “Now we have that lift and it makes it pretty easy to ski all day on steeper tree runs.”
Glory Ridge offers a few intermediate runs through the trees and one open intermediate top-to-bottom cruiser called Morning Glory. But most of the runs are rated “most difficult” or “extreme.”
“Our philosophy is we want to preserve the natural aesthetics of the area,” Jensen said. “We’ve always been known as a powder mountain with great tree skiing. We don’t want to clear cut the mountain. We want to keep it natural.”
The Nelson community seems to have a deep connection to this type of backcountry skiing. The local high school, L.V. Rogers, offers free backcountry courses through the resort. The Silver Sliders is a local group of 60-plus skiers.
And Nelson has more backcountry cat and heli skiing operations than any other town in Canada, Jensen and Hornung said.
When snow covers the art studios and historic buildings in Nelson, it’s not uncommon for some people to ski the streets, Hauck said. (Watch this: bit.ly/sqwlip.)
“The people are all passionate to be here,” Hauck said. “You might have to take a cut in pay to live here, but quality of life is better than living in the city making big money.”
Hauck said it was the snow and the ski culture that brought him to Nelson from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And he said it’s the reason he’ll stay.
“This isn’t one of those places where you can spend a few days and do everything,” he said. “It’s been 12 years for me, and I still haven’t done it all.”
WHITEWATER SKI RESORT
Where: Nelson, B.C.
Lift tickets: $64, $51.25 (13-18 and 65 and older), $32 (7-12) and older. All rates are in Canadian dollars and do not include tax. Those 75 and older ski free.
Terrain: 1,184 acres, terrain park and a Nordic center.
Lifts: 1 triple, 2 doubles and 1 hand tow.
Elevation: 7,377-foot highest lift, 5,333 feet at base, 2,044-foot drop
Annual snowfall: 40 feet
Stay here: You want find lodging on the slopes at Whitewater, but nearby Nelson has options ranging from a Best Western to The Blue Church, a renovated building that houses up to six people for $179 (CAD) per night. The ski area offers a directory of local resorts, hotels, bed and breakfasts and hostels.
Dine here: Nelson resident Travis Hauck recommends stopping at BiBO for mushroom risotto or mingling with artists and ski bums at Mike’s Place Pub in the Hume Hotel. Also, to experience the local nightlife, check out live music at The Royal. Oso Negro is a popular local coffee shop. The Nelson Brewing Company also offers free tours.
Helis and cats: Nelsonites will brag about their abundance of heli and cat skiing guide services. Better to experience them for yourselves. Check out powderhighway.com for a listing of backcountry ski guides.
More info: skiwhitewater.com, 800-666-9420