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SECRET GARDEN (Ski & Board magazine January 2008)
In the heart of southern British Columbia there lies some of the best skiing on the planet – you just need to know where to find it. Alf Alderson goes in search of the secret garden.
I’m traversing high above the base lodge at Whitewater Resort with a motley but supremely experienced crew of local skiers, grinding and sweating my way just below the 7,000-foot contour in British Columbia’sSelkirk Mountains as they cruise along without a care in the world – and certainly no sign of excessive perspiration.
As they make conversation, I croak back in response; as they tell jokes I smile through gritted teeth; and as they eventually prepare to ski down through a powder field that is virtually untracked nine days after the last snowfall (despite being within view of the resort’s base lodge) I make the excuse of ‘technical problems’ with my bindings in a desperate bid to grab a breather.
Fortunately, whilst my four Canadian companions might be irritatingly fit and accomplished skiers they’re also nice guys, and wait for me – even let me have first tracks, once I get my breath back – sorry, fix my bindings.
But then I guess you can afford to make allowances like this for rubbish, unfit Englishmen when you live in the heart of a region that enjoys around 40-feet of powder every winter and is so sparsely populated that you can always find freshies if you know where to look. And these boys sure do know where to look.
Let me introduce them: Up front on our traverse, the ever smiling Jason Wishlow, part-time ski patroller and co-owner of Secret Stash (about which more later); behind him, ace ski photographer Matt Scholl, who’s quality lensmanship you see displayed here; following him the other half of Secret Stash, hungover ski patroller Andrew Voigt, who is originally from the UK but has had the good sense to stay put in BC; and finally my good buddy Roly Worsfold, Red Resort ski guide and currently a man who will hit the snow on everything from telemark skis to snowboard to carvers – sometimes all on the same day.
It’s no bloody wonder I was struggling to keep up…
Jason, Matt and Andrew were giving myself and Roly a guided tour of Whitewater, a rough diamond of a ski hill above the equally gem-like former gold mining town of Nelson, a hub of Bohemian outdoor living in southern BC. Ski photographers flock to Whitewater on account of its consistently good snow and the consistently hot local skiers they can shoot here – check out any ski mag and chances are that the gallery section will feature someone doing something outrageous at Whitewater.
Yet few people outside BC have ever visited the hill, and at first glance that seems understandable enough – with only two slow chair lifts and a very modest vertical of only 1,300-ft, who would travel all this way to ski a place which could literally be deposited and lost within the boundaries of the average French mega-resort?
Well, quite a few people actually, especially those who like deep, soft, grade A British Columbian powder.
NO (GIRL)FRIENDS ON A POWDER DAY…
I’d first discovered what’s on offer here ten days earlier after clambering from my bed in the atmospheric old Hume Hotel in downtown Nelson at a distinctly unatmospheric time of – well, I’m not sure but it wasn’t light yet.
Outside thick heavy flakes of snow were piling up on Nelson’s streets and the single-mindedness that such conditions evoke in any avid skier had set in. My girlfriend Noelle was left beneath the warm duvet with an ankle swollen and purple after a little mishap on the slopes a couple of days earlier, and I was off up the mountain without breakfast or even a shot of pre-ski caffeine. This was serious snowfall, hence the injured partner left to fend for herself – callous I know but all true skiers will empathise…
I arrived at Whitewater ten minutes before the lifts opened, stood in a queue ten yards long, spent about ten minutes riding the lift to the summit and then about two minutes floating back down through British Columbian smoke – this stuff can’t be described as snow because snow, certainly snow as I usually know it, is not this light and delicate.
There were a few tracks already laid down, but essentially here I was on one of Whitewater’s main runs in knee-deep untracked powder and only a handful of other skiers to be seen. Not knowing the mountain I spent the morning first of all skiing the easy, wide open Bonanaza, Paydirt and Motherlode trails as the snow continued to pour out of leaden skies, and when they started to become tracked out I simply traversed a few hundred yards either side and skied my own lines down through lovely open glades where there was also the advantage of finding rather better visibility.
I’d promised to be back in Nelson by mid-day so hit it hard all morning, and despite increasingly busy slopes even non-locals like me could find great snow with ease, whilst the locals could be seen making long traverses to who-knows-where? This made me think that if I was having a ball in the heart of the resort God only knows what kind of amazing conditions could be found with a twenty minute hike.
But this hiking business is really what skiing at Whitewater is all about. You’d probably get bored if you only ever skied the limited number of marked trails here, so on my return here a few days later it was a real advantage to have Jason, Matt and Andrew showing myself and Roly around.
The thing about Whitewater is that it sits in a bowl between two dramatic ridges that come together to form the craggy apex of 8,000-foot Ymir Peak, which rises spectacularly above the resort. This bowl catches the vast quantities of snow deposited by westerly moving storms crossing the Selkirk Mountains, and if you’re prepared to bootpack away from the marked trails you can find tremendous skiing pretty much anywhere you care to go.
But you do need to have a care about where you go – avalanches are a serious hazard here if you get off the not-too-beaten track. So having a clutch of dyed-in-the-wool locals to show us around the mountain was just the job. Trees and steeps, usually together, are the Whitewater trademark, and we got to ski fresh lines within view of Whitewater’s base lodge all morning and then, in the afternoon, we headed further afield with a traverse to skier’s left from the top of the Summit Chair.
This was the quintessential Whitewater experience. Clamber on to the rickety old double chair, have a natter with whoever you happen to be sitting beside (everyone chats to you at Whitewater, even if you’re an American…), hop off at the top, reconvene with your buddies and traverse off into the wild blue yonder.
Everywhere you go you’ll see tracks heading down through the trees, although the further you traverse the fewer the tracks. We eventually dropped down through nicely spaced firs, a few glades opening up here and there, snow cascading over our knees until eventually we found ourselves down at the road up to the resort, where we stuck out our thumbs, hopped into the back of a passing pick-up, and went back to do it all again.
And if that doesn’t excite you enough, you give Secret Stash a call…
Secret Stash is the brainchild of Jason and Andrew. These two affable twenty-somethings from Nelson have spent a lifetime skiing, exploring and acquiring invaluable knowledge of the ranges of interior BC and are now using that expertise to offer a custom ski guiding service, showing visitors the best skiing to be had in the mountains around Nelson. This can vary from the exciting and challenging tree skiing of Whitewater or nearby Red Resort to visit to the backcountry with one of the area’s many cat ski operators.
I’d done the cat ski thing with Jason a few days prior to my Whitewater experience. Indeed, I well recall my first run with Retallack Cat Skiing, a funky co-operative operation based about an hour and a half north of Nelson in the Selkirk Mountains. Our guide Denis pointed down through tight packed Douglas firs which rose tall and proud above the 35-degrees powder drenched slope on which they grew. “OK guys, see you at the bottom – have fun!” he shouted as he set off.
Somewhat to my surprise I actually managed to thread my way between the mighty trees and make it to the bottom in one piece through spectacularly perfect knee-deep powder. The skiing remained challenging throughout the day – at least by my standards – but that was only to be expected. Retallack’s website and brochure make it quite clear that they’re all about steep tree skiing, so if you don’t like steep and you don’t like trees – well, don’t come.
Surrounded by splendidly monikored mountains ranges – the Selkirks, Purcells, Valhallas and Monashees – Retallack has 38 sq kms of terrain spread over three mountains, Reco, Wishful and Texas, which due to a serendipitous combination of geography, aspect and snowfall receive incredibly light powder in huge amounts – three feet in a single snowfall is not uncommon.
And as for the mountains – well, as the website says ‘Overall the terrain at Retallack is steep!’ I approve of the exclamation mark – in the USA it would mean nothing except over-excitement induced by a diet of caffeine, monosodiumglutamate andHollywood tosh. In British Columbia it means exactly what it stands for, which in my case is the cry of a skier heading towards a 50-foot spruce tree with only a semblance of control.
The nearby town of Kaslo on the shores of Slocan Lake was once nominated to become the capital of BC, in which case the whole place would no doubt have become an alternative Whistler (but with better snow), so local skiers and boarders at least are thankful that the gold that was mined hereabouts and prompted this proposal ran out before Kaslo became a latter day Vancouver.
This means that when you ski at Retallack instead of sharing the slopes with thousands of others there’ll be no more than another 23 riders, plus guides, in two snow cats. Nice… Both days I was at Retallack we got in around 14,000-feet of vertical, the majority of it through the kind of snow that dreams are made of, and at the end of the day it was a real pleasure to kick back with a bunch of friendly Canuck and Yank skiers in Retallack’s cosy timber framed, eco-friendly lodge in the heart of the mighty Selkirks.
As I relaxed in the outdoor hot tub with an ice cold beer, looking up at a star-spangled sky, it occurred to me that for an English-speaking skier this is about as good as it gets – world class untracked terrain, superb snow, excellent company – if I owned Secret Stash the company would go bust in no time, because I’d be keeping it all to myself…
THE SECRET’S OUT
Secret Stash (www.secretstash.ca) offer customised trips from $129CAN per day for seven days which includes seven days resort skiing at either Whitewater or Red Resort, seven nights accommodation at the Best Western Nelson, breakfast, all transportation (including airport transfers), one hot springs visit and a guide for the week. Cat and heli skiing trips cost extra.
Frontier Ski (0208 776 8709; frontier-ski.co.uk) offer flights to Castlegar Airport from the UK from £550 return, from where it’s a 45-minute drive to Nelson.
Whitewater – www.skiwhitewater.com
Retallack Powder Cats – www.retallack.com
Red Resort – www.redresort.com
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