Chasing Powder in the Rocky Mountains

A dedicated thrill chaser on the passion, pain and commitment required to ski the ultimate snow
 

Island Lake Lodge, Fernie

Nestled under a warm duvet, I wake up well before the sun in a log-framed suite surrounded by towering pines at Lizard Creek Lodge, a ski-in, ski-out resort next to the Elk quad chairlift at Fernie Alpine Resort on British Columbia’s famed Powder Highway.

Despite the soothing crackle of the fireplace, I’ve had a restless sleep, anxiously wondering about the weather outside. With butterflies in my stomach, I leave my cozy bed to do a weather check, like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m hit with a blast of cold air and white flakes as I slide the cabin’s front door open.

The deck is piled with fresh, fluffy snow that has accumulated overnight, the result of sub-zero temperature and the area’s low humidity. These conditions create light, crystal-like snowflakes that contain a minimal amount of liquid water and are not at all sticky. They pack loosely, producing feather-light snow dubbed “powder.”

My mind is flooded with images of the day before me: journeying high above the clouds where I’ll drop into deep, airy pillows of fresh powder, skis disappearing under me.

For those who plan their winters around ski trips, there’s nothing quite like a powder day. Cruising meticulously groomed runs at the country’s best ski resorts is an incredible experience, and a luxury often taken for granted, but riding untamed drifts of deep, untouched powder is skiing’s Holy Grail. Powder skiing can be found elsewhere in the world, but Canada’s Rocky Mountain ski resorts are known for huge annual snowfalls, great powder-producing conditions and long seasons.

 

Timber Bowl at Fernie Alpine Resort

Timber Bowl at Fernie Alpine Resort

 

You don’t merely ride on top of powder; you immerse yourself in it, like you’re swimming through it. Like surfers riding that perfect curl or white-water rafters suspended in the silk of an epic river wave, the freedom that comes with gliding through fresh, waist-deep powder drives those who’ve skied it to continuously seek it out.

But, the powder experience doesn’t come easy. Ideal snow conditions and un-skied landscape need to be sought out, often by strenuous hikes through deep snow. Most ski resorts feature lifts that will get you high but not all the way to the top. A leg-burning hike to the summit from the top of the chairlift while carrying your board or skis to inbounds “side country” is often required to find powder.

Powder days are precious and few, delivered at Mother Nature’s whim. You’ve got to push yourself out the door to find this fresh snow. Some mornings, you’ll want to stay put in that warm, cozy ski-resort bed until the sun rises and begins to warm the day, but if you do, you’ll lose your chance to ski the morning’s precious bounty of fresh snow. Once the sun is fully up, it heats the stuff, causing it to partially melt and become sticky.

Knowing this, and that there are no avalanche warnings this morning, I’m out of the lodge before dawn and start the day with a trek high into the clouds, taking three chair lifts up until I reach the top of Polar Peak ridge. No hiking is required as the newest lift, Polar Peak, is one of the rare ski resort chair lifts that takes skiers to its summit, in this instance, to an elevation of 2,134 metres.

I choose the Mama Bear run, one of 10 double-black-diamond runs accessible from Polar Peak that aren’t for the faint of heart and are definitely not for beginners. I stand tall on that sharp peak, the wind piercing into me, and I watch the sun slowly rising over the jagged Rockies. I take a deep breath and drop into the powder, which instantly engulfs me as I hurtle downward. The only sound I hear is that of my own breathing and the pulsing whoosh of snow as I race along, carefully seeking openings in studded timber. Adrenaline pounds, allowing my brain to negotiate each unique turn and calculate my next move ever so quickly. Like a Great Lakes blizzard, snow swirls around me, and I’m taken to a better place.

This is powder skiing, and once you have experienced it, you will always want more.

Three resorts with the best powder

Downtown Fernie

Downtown Fernie

Fernie Alpine Resort

The perfect combo of sub-zero temperatures and low humidity create Fernie’s epic powder. Every third day averages about 10 centimetres of new snow.

Annual snowfall: 11 metres+
Runs: 142
Skiable terrain: 1,013 hectares Bowls: 5
Lifts: 10

Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort

Sunshine has one of the area’s longest ski seasons, beginning in early November and lasting well into May. It gets plenty of powder throughout the season.

Annual snowfall: Up to 10 metres
Runs: 132
Skiable terrain: 1,359 hectares
Bowls: 3
Lifts: 12

Whistler Blackcomb

Whistler is an internationally renowned ski destination. Together, Whistler and Blackcomb mountains have 3,307 uncrowded square hectares of skiable terrain.

Annual snowfall: 11.7 metres
Runs: 200+
Skiable terrain: 3,307 hectares
Bowls: 16
Lifts: 37

Getting there: WestJet flies to Calgary 110 times a day from 24 Canadian, 12 U.S. and 12 international cities.

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