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A road trip exploring the lesser-known peaks of the eastern Rocky Mountains

This road trip offers up small, characterful towns, whose local sheer-drop chutes, powder-filled bowls and untracked cat skiing backcountry provide an authentic North American ski experience.

By Alf Alderson
Published 24 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT
The ski resort of Whitefish is a 3,000-acre resort with 14 ski lifts that sits above ...

The ski resort of Whitefish is a 3,000-acre resort with 14 ski lifts that sits above the town and lake of the same name.

Photograph by Alamy

I’m standing atop a snow-plastered ridge in the Canadian Rockies, about to begin my first descent of the day. From my vantage point, I can see vast distances across the range, taking in Fernie Alpine Resort immediately to the north west, Castle Mountain Resort to the south east and, further afield, the peaks of northern Montana. They’re all locations I’ll be skiing in over the next week as part of a road trip that’s designed to avoid the glitz and glamour (and long lift queues) of international favourites like Whistler or Aspen and instead take in some ‘real’ North American skiing. 

For the first stage of the trip, I’m touring the Rocky Mountains with Fernie Wilderness Adventures, a local operator set in an old hunting lodge in the Elk Valley. It’s located 14 miles from the town of Fernie, the last five of which are on a snow-covered dirt road — so a four-wheel-drive vehicle is a must. 

Straight from the outset, it seems I’ve found what I’m after. Despite it having been at least 10 days since the last snowfall, our guides Josh and Kevin have discovered an area of untracked powder, perfect for cat-skiing (accessing remote backcountry ski terrain in a ‘snowcat’ — an enclosed tractor-like vehicle with caterpillar track wheels, its name a portmanteau of ‘snow’ and ‘caterpillar’) . Together with a group of American and Canadian skiers and boarders, I take on terrain that varies from open glades and gently angled slopes to tightly packed trees and steep chutes. It’s varied enough for all of us to find slopes we’re comfortable with — as Josh puts it, “Choose your own adventure”. 

Each run funnels us down onto a track where a snowcat waits to take us back up the mountain to begin our next descent, a process we repeat 10 times over the course of the day. By the end of it, I’m wearing a fixed grin and sporting aching quads, so we head for a swift beer in downtown Fernie. To my mind, this is one of the most bohemian of Canada’s ski towns, a night out here almost always guarantees craft beer, checked shirts and beards at every turn.

The next morning sees me zooming around Fernie Alpine Resort’s five famous bowls — Siberia, Timber, Currie, Lizard and Cedar — with local ski instructor Shawn Clark. There’s a contrasting mix of terrains here, from vertiginous steep drops beneath the towering Rocky Mountain headwall to mellow cruisers that cut between the trees.

The highest point in the resort of Whitefish, Montana, is the 6,817ft-high Summit House restaurant.

Photograph by Alamy

With just 10 lifts and 2,500 acres of skiable terrain, Fernie is proof that you don’t need to be big, brash and corporate to provide a fine ski experience. Its average annual snowfall is 30ft, meaning the slopes are usually cloaked with white. Indeed, on my two previous visits, I spent most of my time skiing fluffy, shin-deep powder. However, the lack of recent snowfall means we’re largely restricted to the pistes, so we blast down an array of blue runs, scarcely spotting another skier despite the bright sunshine and spring-like conditions.

But this is a road trip, and Route 93 beckons — so after a quick lunch surrounded by hipsters at Big Bang Bagels in downtown Fernie, I hit the highway, heading south towards Montana.

A two-hour drive takes me over the US border to the ski resort of Whitefish, a 3,000-acre resort with 14 ski lifts that sits above the town and lake of the same name. I check into the cosy ski in, ski out Kandahar Lodge and, the following morning, access the slopes via the Big Mountain Express chairlift, which takes me to the resort’s highest point, the 6,817ft-high Summit House restaurant.

As the lift ascends, I look over my shoulder for ever better views of Whitefish and the plains leading south towards Flathead Lake. Closer to the summit, I turn my attention to the nearby Glacier National Park and its mighty walls, crags and peaks, including the 9,376ft Mount Saint Nicholas — its shape reminiscent of the Matterhorn — and the 10,147ft Mount Stimson, the second-highest peak in the park after Mount Cleveland (at 10,479ft).

Some of the terrain at Whitefish is pretty wild: the Big Horn black diamond slope, for instance, is more cliff than ski run, and there are plenty of challenging glades and chutes to provide all the excitement any thrill-seeker could want.

The recent snow drought once again means I spend most of my time blasting down the groomed pistes, but I’m far from disappointed. The Inspiration route swiftly becomes my favourite; a sublime blue ridge run, it starts off from Summit House and allows you to floor it all the way back to base. And since queues for the lift are virtually unheard of here, especially mid-week, I get to ski lap after lap for as long as my legs can handle it.

 The magical little ski hill of Castle Mountain has seven lifts and 3,592 acres of skiing terrain.

Photograph by Alamy

Back on the road

I resume my journey the following afternoon with a spectacular four-hour drive around the southern perimeter of Glacier National Park, where serrated peaks and huge mountain walls rise up into a milky-white sky that promises snow. The route takes me out onto the western fringes of the Prairies — an area ‘flat enough to watch your dog running away for two weeks’, as the locals say — before heading to the eastern fringes of the Rockies, crossing back into Canada for the magical little ski hill of Castle Mountain, with its seven lifts and 3,592 acres of skiing terrain.

“A diamond in the rough” is how Cole Fawcett, the resort’s sales and marketing manager, describes Castle Mountain to me — and he’s not wrong. Located at the end of a road that was only paved a few years ago, this is very much a locals’ ski hill. Its facilities consist of accommodation in one basic but cosy lodge, one bar, two cafes and some of the best skiing in the Rockies. This is the kind of place where everyone knows each other, and strangers are welcomed with a smile and a few tips on where to find the best snow.

The panorama from the resort’s highest point 7,799ft summit is Canada in a nutshell: to the east, the plains of Alberta stretch to the horizon; to the west lie the Rockies, rugged, wild and seemingly endless. Four old and somewhat rickety chair lifts provide access to 2,799ft of ‘vertical’ (downhill runs), which starts in open alpine terrain and then plummets into the trees. I use the word ‘plummet’ advisedly — one of the main ski areas, The Chutes, has the majority of its runs graded at the most challenging double-black diamond level (easier pistes can be found elsewhere on the mountain). 

There are also cat skiing opportunities, with terrain suitable for intermediate and advanced skiers. Being based on the edge of the resort means you can take a break whenever you like to ski back down to base and rest up for a while in the Day Lodge Cafeteria, Joe’s Cafe or T-Bar Pub & Grub.

It snows throughout my weekend at Castle Mountain, the kind of ‘blower pow’ (light powder snow) that’s still floating in the air when you’re four turns lower down the mountain. When I leave on Monday morning, conditions are near perfect:
cobalt-blue skies, a temperature of -10C and shin-deep powder. Only three people are heading up the mountain on the Sundance Triple Chair at 9.20am; were I back home in Les Arcs, the lift queues would be horrendous on a bluebird day like this. 

As I set off on the three-hour drive to Calgary Airport, Castle Mountain fills my rear-view mirror, pretty as a picture, tantalising me to turn back, further proof: you don’t have to be big and internationally branded to provide world-class skiing.

Cole Fawcett, Castle Mountain resort’s sales and marketing manager, describes it as, “a diamond in the rough.”

Photograph by Alamy

Three more local backcountry ski areas to try
 

1. Whitewater, British Columbia
Whitewater may be tiny by European standards and have a very modest vertical drop of 2,044ft (from a high point of just 6,700ft), but it also has an annual average snowfall of 40ft. Another big attraction is its satellite town of Nelson; this bohemian lakeside settlement regularly wins awards for ‘best ski town’ and ‘best outdoor town’ in Canada, and its friendly small-town vibe can be felt on the slopes.

2. Brundage, Idaho 
Located above Payette Lake and the town of McCall, Brundage markets itself as having ‘The Best Snow in Idaho’. This is one of the least populated states in the US, so lift queues are never an issue. From Brundage’s 7,640ft high point, you’ll see ridge after ridge of incredibly remote mountains with entrancing names such as the Sawtooths, the Gospel Hump and the Seven Devils. 

3. Mount Bachelor, Oregon
Mount Bachelor is the sixth-biggest ski area in the US and has a lengthy ski season, lasting from mid-November to mid-May. It also gets plenty of the white stuff, with an average annual snowfall of 38ft. Since there’s no slopeside accommodation, you’ll need to stay in nearby Bend — one of the country’s hippest mountain towns.

How to do it

Ski Safari offers a 10-day package taking in all the mentioned resorts and cat ski operations, plus return flights from Gatwick and SUV hire. From £3,000 per person, based on two sharing, travelling in March 2021.
For more information visit skicastle.ca  skiwhitefish.com  skifernie.com

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the European ski season. For the latest advice, visit gov.uk

Published in the Winter Sports 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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