Going backcountry in Revelstoke


Cat-skiing prep courses give skiers a taste of backcountry powder in Revelstoke, recently named the No. 1 ski resort in North America. (Photo provied by Doug Ward)

Story by Doug Ward Senior Writer

REVELSTOKE, BRITISH COLUMBIA — When we got off the Stoke chair at the summit at Revelstoke Mountain Resort and skied right on a short traverse towards the Separate Reality glades, I was relieved to be with a professional guide familiar with this behemoth’s dangers and glories.

Five of us were taking a cat-ski prep course, a one-day session designed to give newcomers to Revy a sense of where they are in skiing ability, along with tips for ripping through off-piste power.

RMR may have only three lifts but it has a dazzling amount of terrain, much of it not for the faint of heart. While there are plenty of intermediate runs, more than half of Revelstoke’s ski terrain is designated as advanced. The resort has 3,121 acres and the longest lift-accessed vertical descent of any North America resort.

I was reminded of Revelstoke’s plus-size character as we stood at the top of Mount MacKenzie and checked out the impressive British Columbia tableau of the Selkirk Mountains around us, the Columbia River far below and the Monashee Mountains across the way.

Luckily, we had veteran guide Simon Ettin — and a cushion of about 10 centimetres of overnight snow provided by Revy’s reliable refresh button, just in case we wiped out and had a yard sale.

Straightaway we pushed off on our fat powder skis down an ungroomed black-diamond pitch so that Ettin could assess our ability levels. Minutes later he was leading us into a playland of trees and fresh untracked lines.

“The spacing is quite tight, but it’s mellow,” Ettin told us. “With the spaces between the trees, you’re always looking for the path of least resistance.

“Choose your own adventure. The snow will be fantastic.”

And it was as we carefully weaved our may down through the maze, in groups of two to prevent anyone from getting lost, coming together again on a cat track below.

We climbed back to the top of Mount MacKenzie on the Stoke chair and traversed to a ridge called Vertigo, overlooking a steep bowl none of us would have dared drop into without some guidance — and encouragement. Ettin took us to the most user-friendly of the three lines up for grabs, and showed us how to enter by gingerly side-slipping our way across the top, before starting to link our turns to the bottom.

Everybody made it down safely and we were dazzled when we looked back at daunting fall-line we’d just nailed. Then it was back through the trees, and into more soft stuff. By the end of the day, I was gaining the confidence I wanted for the next day’s cat ski session, my first.

Unfortunately, that outing was cancelled because of the area’s extreme avalanche conditions in late February. On the upside, I now knew how easy it was to find backcountry skiing conditions inbounds at Revy.

Remarkable Runs in Revelstoke

I’d skied Revelstoke two years earlier but during that visit had relied on a buddy who’d brought some prior knowledge of the resort. He’d skied RMR on its opening day in December 2007, joining thousands of other skiers and snowboarders who’d come to herald the opening of the biggest new ski area in North America in more than a quarter century, a place people were comparing to Whistler.

Previously, there had only been a small local ski operation with one double-seat chairlift and a couple of ski runs. But the potential of the place was well-known as Revelstoke had long been at the heart of Canada’s heli-skiing and cat-skiing industry. (Cat-skiing is so named because it trucks skiers up the mountain in a Snowcat, rather than a chair lift or via helicopter, and gives them the pleasure of scooting downhill amid lightly traversed terrain often loaded with snow.)

The mountain typically gets 12 to 18 metres of snow annually. RMR had received about 10 metres by the time I arrived in late February for my cat-ski prep day.

Ettin said the prep sessions provide an orientation for skiers who want a true dose of Revy. “So that in the next few days, if they decide to go out on their own, they know where they are going and can get there safely. So that they understand the dangers, for lack of a better word,” he said. “Here you’re doing quite a lot of exploring, versus other resorts where it is more cut and dried.”

I wasn’t the only skier in the cat-ski prep session who came away impressed by the operation, which only a few months earlier had won the coveted No. 1 spot in Powder Magazine’s ranking of the continent’s top ski resorts.

Heather Malcolm, a 38-year-old lab tech from Calgary, had skied Revelstoke earlier in the season, but had never pushed herself in the same way.

“I skied harder terrain today than I have ever skied in my life. And I skied longer than I had ever skied in the nine days I’ve skied at Revelstoke this year. I learned a lot and saw parts of the mountain that I would never have attempted on my own.”

Malcolm said she was skiing inside her comfort zone, even though the session had forced her to be more aggressive than normal.

“I felt safe in the trees, which is something that I never felt before. Having Simon there to tell us where the cliffs were and to keep us directed, was awesome. Because that is one of my fears. But my confidence level is 500 times higher than it was before.”

Glen Corke, a 60-year-old from Australia, had just arrived from a week at Whistler and was happy to have a safe but challenging introduction to Revelstoke.

“This mountain is one I wouldn’t venture on to without a guide. This is a big mountain. We don’t have this in Australia where the snow is slushy and icy. We don’t get powder like you do here. Here, it’s so light and very forgiving,” he said.

“And Simon gave us a bit of discretion. Some people went through trees and some down runs. He understood everybody’s ability level and looked after us.”

Ettin said that about 50 per cent of his customers end up going cat-skiing.

“Most people would like to go cat-skiing, it’s the availability that is the tricky part,” said Simon. “Our cat sells out quickly and if the weather isn’t appropriate then the cat can’t run.”

Tell me about it.

More About Revelstoke Mountain Resort

Location: 2950 Camozzi Road, Revelstoke, BC
Telephone: 250-814-0087
Cat-skiing Prep Course: The full-day course costs $108 and includes lunch. The heli-ski prep course costs the same. To book the prep courses, call 250-814-5060.
Cat-skiing Rates: The rate is $450 for the rest of the 2012-13 season. To inquire about further details, email
Lift Tickets: Adult lift tickets cost $76, but the price in March is reduced by 15% and dropped by 25% during April. To take advantage of those rates, you need to purchase the tickets online at the RMR website.
Room Rates: In March and April 2013, a hotel stay at the Sandman Hotel (1-800-726-3626) in the village starts at roughly $112 per person and $170 per person at the Sutton Place (1-800-378-8866).

More Coverage of Revelstoke

Heli-skiing Takes Your Breath Away

Dog-sledding Is a Wild Ride

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