Back on the road with three generations, dancing lifties, best-on-planet pizza and elusive-but-exquisite pow days. Words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten.
A lifetime ago, I met a pretty swell guy on a big-mountain road trip. After a full month in a Subaru, criss-crossing the Rockies to ski five states and two provinces, we emerged— beaten, battered, exhausted and coughing—with a few certitudes: We’re getting married. And: That was fun, but holy hell. Twenty stops was a few too many.
Seventeen winters, a worldwide pandemic and a healthy dose of cabin fever can wreak havoc on one’s memory. By the time Thornbury Lockdown 18.0 arrived, we were gazing longingly at the B.C. map. Let’s take the Powder Highway again. Retrace some of our steps—with the children and grandfather, of course. Why not, really?
Crammed this time into an embarrassingly massive rental SUV, our circle loop would take the five of us from the Calgary airport to Fernie, Rossland, Nelson, Kimberley, Invermere and out through Canmore. Seven condos, hotels and cabins in two weeks. But who’s counting?
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In Fernie, full of anticipation—real mountains! Real snow! Ski-movie-worthy powder turns are imminent!—we clomp through the base area to meet Christine. From whom we re-learn an invaluable lesson: The key to a glorious day is an outstanding local guide.
“I came here for one season and never left. Everyone is so nice here; it motivates you to be a nicer person.”
The weather is pretty much shite. Visibility is low. Our useless goggles are caked in ice, and removing them is an open invitation for ice pellets. But we don’t care. We whoop through the pain, we find the fresh snow. The boys launch all the kickers, my daughter survives her first ungroomed gully and genuinely (finally, after nine years on skis) falls in love with the sport, exclaiming mid-turn, “The snow! It’s so soft! And there’s no one here!”
That night we feast on mounds of curry from Himalayan Spice Bistro and decide we’re never, ever leaving. We’ll move to Fernie and Christine will be our best friend.
The next morning dawns clear, revealing the peaks and couloirs hidden behind yesterday’s clouds. After another full day on the mountain, our attempt at a post-ski fat-biking session is laughable. Who has legs left for this struggle? We throw in the towel and hit the bar for nachos. Then the brewery. Later, we order the best pizza on the planet. (Sweet Beaver from Funky Goat Pizza for the win, folks.)
At every path, sidewalk, shop and lift, we encounter kindness. Friendly, warm and welcoming locals. A genuine, non-corporate, old-school vibe. Picking up our pizzas, the cashier confides, “I came here for one season and never left. Everyone is so nice here; it motivates you to be a nicer person.”
A quick MLS search makes us feel a bit less welcome, but our spirits are not yet broken.
Stuffing gear into bags, we begin a routine of small discoveries that repeats over the next two weeks: Man, real mountain towns are chill. Wow, is it ever beautiful. Crikey, Tetris-ing ten bags into the truck every other morning is a total pain in the arse. And damn, wouldn’t it be nice if it would snow?
After that first socked-in day at Fernie, we spend the rest of our trip skunked. Some places haven’t seen a dusting in weeks. The trip becomes an adventure in fast groomers, delicious food and fine people making the best of what they have.
At Red Mountain we wave to groomers from our balcony hot tub. We ski rock-hard moguls beneath vintage Erector-set double chairs. And we feast on edible art at the ultra-swanky Velvet restaurant.
An overnight at the on-mountain Constella Cabins takes us out of our comfort zones and into the stars. Après at Rafters, we bump into buddies we made along the way—guides, hosts, lifties—then we’re off to Idgie’s for a classic retro dinner, straight from the 90s: French-onion soup, pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and oozing lava cake.
By the time we make it to Whitewater, Pappy’s sciatica is irate. Skiing is great—sitting, too. But standing and walking? Forget it. We lap the Summit chair and he takes off ahead each time, waiting for us at the top on his makeshift snowbank bench.
At the base, our liftie dances in ski boots to Bluetooth reggae swinging from his chest rig. “Tubular!” he calls out after beeping my son’s pass. “Universal!” for my daughter. My husband and I get “Far out!” and “Wicked!” but the next skier totally wins with “Galactic!” This guy is hilarious, and we’re in heaven.
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Whitewater has soul. Whitewater has personality. And Whitewater, it turns out, still has some snow. We find it hidden under the Glory Ridge chair, then break for lunch with the incomparable Mikey Bourke, head dude at the Glory Lodge. There’s zero room for chit-chat between lip-smacking Mmmmms and Ohmygods.
We pack out of our funky boutique Cloudside Hotel in Nelson and book it over the Kootenay Pass to Kimberley, where our single night/single-ski-day plan is nearly the death of us.
Dragging luggage into the posh and trendy Larix Hotel, we frantically clean up for our reservations across town at the Old Bauernhaus. The schnitzel is worth the stress, but the next morning’s 7 a.m. checkout is brutal.
Sunrise from a snowcat, though, is pretty sweet.
When an arsonist destroyed the control centre of Kimberley’s main lift early in the season, local resorts immediately stepped up to help, including the loaner Revelstoke cat that rumbles us and our guides to the top.
It’s a Saturday, and we feel like we’re one of 100 people on the hill. Sure, it hasn’t snowed in days. But the views are forever and the grooming is top-notch. Meegan encourages my daughter while Rob heads into the trees to seek out soft spots with the 14-year-old on his tail. Tree-run-obsessed Pappy opts out—for the first time in four decades—announcing dramatically, “The torch has been passed.”
We have only a brief moment to savour the grandfatherly sentiment before we’re shoving off from Kimberley, on our way to possibly the greatest meal of the trip at Birchwood Restaurant in Invermere. We catch up with an old friend, then we crash. Hard.
Panorama, at the tail end of this Powder Highway loop, is not finding us at our best. Road-weary, brains rattling from endless hardpack, the youngest tearily homesick and at least one of us unquestionably cranky, we peel ourselves out of bed and onto the chairlift.
It’s true, the vista from the peak is spectacular. And the place is filled with families. Racers, primarily, who zoom past our now-wobbly legs. We find our happy place in the gentle Sun Bowl, belly-laugh at the lifties’ 80s soft rock, and eat a yodel’s worth of raclette at the Elkhorn Cabin. That night we get a local insider’s take on Invermere while skating the Whiteway, and vow to return one day, well-rested.
Our last stop before exiting the Powder Highway isn’t a ski resort. We’re booked on a half-day snowmobile tour at Toby Creek Adventures. Rolling into the parking lot, our expectations are low: Snowmobiling? What were we thinking? We’re skiers, not tourists.
Six hours later we return, beaming. Buzzing, even. Rocketing around mountain trails on a gorgeous bluebird day with an animated, goofball guide, it turns out, is a helluva lot of fun. We’re physically and mentally rejuvenated, and wish we had time for a second tour.
Now we’re truly pumped for our final days at Lake Louise and Sunshine, where the clouds return and we finally—finally!—get a real powder day and my son finally—finally!—makes his first real powder turns. His muffled cries of, “Wooo hooooo!” are some of the most satisfying and gratifying sounds of motherhood to date.
Three generations on the Powder Highway was a fairly epic undertaking, and we return home predictably battered, beaten and exhausted, but miraculously not coughing. Riding our post-vacation high, I immediately begin planning next year’s trip—which my family makes me swear, hand on heart, will be to a single destination.
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