Mother Nature provided Southwestern Pennsylvania with ample snow for skiers and snowboarders this season, although the temperature was a bit more fickle.
The week in February when the mercury here hit 78 degrees, I joined members of the Pittsburgh Ski Club on a journey to the Great White North, where temperatures dropped to a bone-chilling 13 below zero. Our Western Canadian hosts kept apologizing for the deep freeze, telling us “It’s not normally this cold by now!”
The truth is, we didn’t care. Well, we cared, but we weren’t there for warmth. No, we journeyed more than 2,000 miles by plane, another three hours on a white-knuckle bus ride through a snowstorm and a total of 595 miles through the week, traveling Canada’s Powder Highway, for the snow.
When you mention Canada and skiing in the same sentence, people often think of Whistler near Vancouver or Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta. All of those are stellar ski locales, but this trip was a more “adventurous,” as one of my fellow travelers described it. Adventurous, indeed, and perhaps a bit ambitious.
Three resorts and six days of skiing spread out over a 200-mile one-way route made for an exciting yet, at times, tiring itinerary. Flying five hours from Pittsburgh to Calgary, then spending another three hours on a bus will wear out even the most intrepid traveler. But it is absolutely worth the time and effort, since you’ll be rewarded with abundant sunshine, piles of powder and scenery that will leave you speechless.
First Stop: Fernie
“Powder Highway” is the catchy nickname for an enormously snowy region along route 95 in Eastern British Columbia. The entire “Powder Highway” is a 630-mile loop through the Kootenay portion of the Canadian Rockies, and is home to dozens of spots where you can downhill, cross country, back country, and helicopter and snow-cat ski to your heart’s content. Choosing just one resort to stay and ski is tough, so it’s fun to do a multi-resort road trip.
We headed southwest from Calgary to our first stop in the funky little town of Fernie, which lies on the Elk River and got its start as a mining town. Fernie’s terrain includes five powder-filled bowls, 2,500 acres of skiable terrain and 142-named runs, which is the most of any of the resorts. The Polar Peak lift installed a few years ago whisks skiers to the 7,800-foot summit in mere minutes. Terrain here is nicely divided among beginner, intermediate and advanced, and there are plenty of stashes and steeps for powderhounds.
Fernie is full of fun legends. There is a rock face, resembling a human face, that overlooks the resort. Some claim a young Indian chief and three maidens were all turned into mountains. Others say it’s the face of the mountain man called “the Griz” who is responsible for huge snowfalls. Fernie celebrates the legend with the Griz Days Winter Festival every March.
As much fun as we had on the mountain at Fernie Alpine Resort, we had just as much fun exploring the town. The Park Place Lodge provided comfy accommodations in the heart of Fernie, plus a pool and hot tub right in its lobby. The attached pub is one of Fernie’s most popular spots for nightlife. We found a real gem down the street at the Bridge Bistro, where we enjoyed savory wild game dishes like wild boar and poutine – Canada’s national dish of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy – topped with braised elk.
After a few awesome days skiing Fernie, we trekked north into the Purcell Mountains and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Kicking Horse is famous for its fluffy, light, powdery snow and it didn’t disappoint. The temperature was subzero, so the fact they were blasting Jimmy Buffett on Radio Margaritaville at the base of the Golden Eagle Express gondola made me smile.
The gondola ride lifts you to the 7,700-foot peak, where 60 percent of the terrain is black or double black. The vertical drop here is 4,133 feet, so it’s not for the faint of heart. Don’t let the Kicking Horse reputation scare you off, though. We found plenty of beautiful blue runs to cruise under bright sunshine and dined high in the clouds, enjoying lunch and warming up with mulled wine at the Eagle’s Eye restaurant beside the top of the gondola.
Our final stop lived up to its name. Panorama Resort is one of the prettiest places I have ever skied. Stunning vistas greet you everywhere you turn and the terrain is wide and friendly with 75 percent suitable for beginner or intermediate skiers.
There’s plenty of excitement here for experts, too, if you head to Taynton Bowl, where terrain that was once accessible only by helicopter is now within bounds for everyone – if you’re brave enough to try.
Speaking of heli-skiing, you can cross that off of your bucket list here thanks to Panorama’s on-mountain operator, RK Heliski. They’ll fly you out-of-bounds to more than 900 square miles of glaciers for about $800 per skier.
The Panorama base village is cozy and unique with a mini gondola transporting shopper and diners to the condos and slopes. The slopeside condos offer stellar views plus steamy outdoor hot tubs.
We enjoyed some of the most delicious meals of our trip here. The Cabin Restaurant is a cozy eatery with an on-site smokehouse. Tender brisket and ribs are on the menu along with local craft brews. Another gem is the Cliffhanger Restaurant in the clubhouse of Greywolf Golf Course, which sits at the base of the slopes. In between ski runs, we lunched on short rib poutine and a sampler flight from Arrowhead Brewing in nearby Invermere. Our final farewell dinner was a real treat at Chopper’s Landing in the RK Heliski complex, featuring a crackling fireplace and winter squash soup, cheese fondue and tender bison ribs.
We boarded the bus for our three-hour ride back to Calgary and the flight home, wistfully recounting all of our adventures on and off the slopes while soaking in the stunning scenery of Banff National Park.