Story by Kathleen Kenna
MOUNT WASHINGTON, BRITISH COLUMBIA — There are four things about this mountain that all Canadians should know.
- It has the deepest snowpack in the world.
- It’s the only ski resort with an ocean view.
- The entire backside of the mountain is powder, ungroomed, and open for skiing.
- There are more “magic carpets” here than at any other resort in North America.
In a province world-renowned for its ski destinations, Mount Washington stands alone.
It’s the only Canadian ski resort with a view of the Pacific Ocean. To be more accurate, Georgia Strait, a waterway that separates Vancouver Island with mainland British Columbia.
The scenery is phenomenal on a sunny day when the sapphire blue of the strait is set against white-dusted forests.
“It’s the only place I know in the country where you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon,” says Rob Morrow, who lives near the base of the mountain.
While younger adventurers head for surfing, Morrow prefers to golf, which he can do year-round in Courtenay. (It takes hours to drive to surf beaches from here, and less than a half-hour to get to a golf course.)
The Morrow family skis, boards and goes tubing on Mount Washington from early opening in December to late closing in July.
Mount Washington gets so much snow that it stayed open for all winter sports until July 3 last year.
Its season usually runs from December to April. Official opening date was re-set to December 2 this season because there was so much of the white stuff so early (200 centimetres in three weeks).
“Mount Washington has the deepest snow in the world,” boasts Brent Curtain of the resort.
The average snowpack is 11 metres; a new record was set last year at more than 19 metres.
“There was so much snow they had to truck it out,” Morrow says.
Workers had to shovel snow off the cycling trails in mid-July so the resort’s mountain bike park could be opened.
Mount Washington Alpine Resort is huge, at 688 acres, and still relatively undiscovered. Only 2 percent of its annual visitors are international.
“It’s the islanders’ own mountain,” says Curtain, who has lived and worked at ski resorts in Japan, Australia and Whistler, BC.
“To say we’re Canada’s best-kept secret is a bit over-used,” he adds. “We’re off the beaten track … that makes Mount Washington an authentic Canadian experience.”
It’s less crowded than BC’s top ski resort, Whistler Blackcomb, which draws 2 million visitors a year. Locals brag they can ski here some weekdays and have runs all to themselves. Vancouver Island has so many mountains residents call them the “spine” of their backyard.
From Mount Washington’s slopes, there are coastal mountains as far as the eye can see. On a clear day, skiers here can see Mount Baker, to the south, in Washington state. It’s also draped in snow all year.
Mount Washington, opened in 1979, has 81 alpine runs, from beginner to double black diamond (on “The Outback” powder runs). Learning to ski here just got easier with a $3-million investment in four “magic carpets.” They’re similar to moving sidewalks at airports, built on a gentle grade to help new skiers learn to balance and get used to wearing skis.
Magic carpets are covered with see-through canopies so skiers can stay dry and admire the view. They’re at “Easy Acres,” a learning centre set on a part of the mountain that was regraded to make it more accessible for newbies.
The resort also has more than 55 kms of nordic trails at its Nordic Centre, and two snow-sliding lanes at its Ozone Tubing Park. There are 17, machine-groomed trails. But the real lure of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing at Mount Washington is that the resort sits next to BC’s first park. The 250,000-hectare Strathcona Provincial Park, opened in 1911, has alpine lakes, century-plus trees, and wildlife. Bald eagles are common here; the ravens are as big as puppies.
More than two dozen international ski teams lived and trained at Mount Washington before the 2010 Olympics. The national nordic team trains here; Canada’s Olympic biathletes trained here, too.
Mount Washington is also popular with Paralympians, and has an accessible skiing program well known among people with disabilities, including Canadians, Australians and Americans wounded at war.
“It really does take your breath away,” Curtain marvels. “There aren’t many places where can ski on an island in the Pacific.”
MORE ABOUT MOUNT WASHINGTON ALPINE RESORT
Ski Passes: Lift tickets, for day skiing, start at $68 for adults, $55 for youth and seniors, $35.25 for children. “Late night” passes, from 7-10 p.m.: $21.50, $17.50 and $11.25. There are four webcams, running 24/7 too:
Getting There: Mount Washington Alpine Resort is about 30 minutes from the Comox Valley Airport (YQQ), central Vancouver Island. Service: WestJet, Pacific Coastal Airlines, Central Mountain Air, Island Express.
Staying: Bear & Deer Lodge has 4,000 rooms in chalets, log homes, condos and townhouses at the resort. “Stay & Ski packages” start at $228 for two nights and two lift tickets. For more info on drive-in, ski-out stays, check Tourism Mount Washington (877-754-4661).
Dining: Resort food ranges from beavertails and Quebec favourites, to noodle bowls at Sushi Mon. Alpine Cafe serves big salads and hot meals with a stunning view of the mountains. For more info, call: 888-231-1499 or 250-338-1386.
Highly recommended off-mountain: Locals, a new restaurant in nearby Courtenay, owned by Chef Ronald St. Pierre. It focuses on everything local, including photo displays of Comox Valley and Vancouver Island farmers, vintners and other producers. The seasonal menu runs from Qualicum Cheeseworks cheese and Big D Bees honey to organic greens, herbs and vegetables. Seafood, bison, pork, beef, lamb and poultry are all local, too. Duck is from Christine’s Quackery, and to-die-for pasta, Prontissima Pasta.