The Biggest One: Revelstoke
Is bigger always better? Investors pouring a billion dollars into B.C.’s Revelstoke Mountain Resort think so. One writer explores what just might become the continent’s largest ski resort and answers the question on everyone’s mind: Go now or wait it out?
The mountain finally breaks me. Some 5,620 vertical feet after I disembark the highest chairlift at the new Revelstoke Mountain Resort—after I bebop through the timberline krummholz on Clyde’s Secret, swing through evergreens wearing wizards’ caps of snow along Snow Rodeo’s fringe, then roar downhill in my best thigh-burning Bode mode for what seems like forever—only then do I run into the mogul field.
Now my quivering legs have a question: How can there possibly be more? The sanctuary of the base lodge is still nowhere in sight; by my best guess it’s another couple of thousand feet below—making Revelstoke’s vertical drop the longest on the continent. “Well, this comes a bit late,” I manage to sputter to the guy standing next to me.
“I can’t keep up with this place,” he wheezes back. Eventually we both push off down the run, called Pitch Black, skiing as elegantly as overcooked noodles toward the lodge we cannot see. I’ll spot him there later, his feet up on a chair, too pooped to hurry back out.
A packing note if you’re headed to Canada’s newest ski resort: Bring an extra set of legs and a knapsack full of wonder. At a time when many are seriously questioning skiing’s prospects—whether because of global warming concerns or the graying of the baby boomers—Revelstoke Mountain Resort has jumped into the field with both feet. And unlike the other newcomers—Tamarack, Idaho; Moonlight Basin, Mont.; Kicking Horse, B.C.—Revelstoke already shows more potential to join the ranks of the world’s elite resorts. It seems to have the pieces in place to do it right, and do it soon.
Ten years ago—even three years ago—no one had heard of Revelstoke, B.C., except a few heliski nuts, snowmobile junkies and train fanatics. That’s only a slight exaggeration. This hinterlands town of 8,500 people located on a bend in the Columbia River where the Monashees shake hands with the Selkirks is home to some of the planet’s best heliskiing and snowmobiling, thanks to big snowfalls and bigger mountains. Locomotives pause to catch their breath right in town before scaling famed Rogers Pass, a few miles to the east.
For decades 8,058-foot Mt. Mackenzie, the towering peak three miles out of town, sat underutilized in the eyes of many. A snowcat operation rumbled around the upper slopes, while the community’s modest ski hill poked along at the bottom; its rickety chairlift, “The Powder Slug,” still lives. “All that was up here were a few trailers—and what you smelled wasn’t the food,” says local Greg Louttit, a teacher and librarian at Revelstoke Secondary School, as he tucks into his artichoke and salmon pasta at the new resort’s handsome steel-and-timber base lodge. This lodge was a long time coming: The city tried several times unsuccessfully over the years to help attract a legitimate resort operator with deep pockets. Finally a deal was inked between the province and a group of investors in early 2005. That’s when things really began to happen.
Hearing that Revelstoke debuted in 2008 with just two lifts, you could be excused for thinking that the place was opening with a whimper. Those two lifts accessed a double-take-worthy 5,620 vertical feet and a respectable 1,500 acres of skiing. In 2009 they added a third lift lift, The Ripper, a high-speed quad chair offering 1,640 vertical feet and extended the Gondola a few hundred feet to a new Resort village. Visitors should prepare for a long haul, though. Six hours on the road from Vancouver—five and a half from Calgary—Revelstoke is truly in the middle of BC.
The resort might be the new kid, but it already boasts the longest vertical on the continent. Skiable acreage comes in at 3,031, with visions of expanding up to 10,000 acres, which would make it the biggest ski resort on the continent. But if that’s not enough, Revelstoke is the only resort in North America to offer lift, cat and heliskiing out of its village. At build-out (about 15 years), Revelstoke will be a $1 billion four-season resort with 20 lifts, 130 trails, 5,000 lodging units, 500,000 square feet of retail space and an 18-hole golf course.
Revelstoke is perhaps the most dramatic example of how British Columbia, already home to 42 ski areas, is positioning itself as the next Colorado. As many as a half-dozen more resorts are in the planning stages and could appear around the province in the next decade, from Canoe Mountain near Alberta to Mike Wiegele’s private mountain now taking shape near Blue River.
The growth isn’t by chance. After B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell and his business-friendly Liberal Party took office in 2001, he famously charged the tourism sector with doubling its revenues by 2015. Campbell promised that the government would do its part by streamlining how British Columbia approves use of its massive land holdings—known as Crown Lands—which make up 94 percent of the province. The government now processes most applications within 140 days. The upshot has been a climate favorable to resort development. After all, investors want certainty, and Revelstoke got it with timely approval of the resort’s master plan.
That’s not the only benefit. Under a deal struck with the province, the developers will be able to buy increasing amounts of public land around the resort, and at a fixed price—for condos, for homesites—as a sort of reward for building amenities such as ski runs and lifts. “That’s part of the incentive,” Revelstoke VP Rod Kessler explains. It’s an arrangement that’s potentially quite lucrative. And it’s an arrangement that a would-be ski area developer won’t find if he goes scouting public lands in the U.S. today.
Greg Hill is 32 and lean as a whippet, with leading man looks and the slicing blue eyes of a mountain guide. Before arriving in town I’d called him to show me around the mountain. After all, he knows the place nearly as well as anyone. Hill is a Revelstoke backcountry ski guide who a few years ago set a goal of ski-touring one million vertical feet in one winter, uphill, often poking around Mt. Mackenzie during his quest.
As we ride the eight-person gondola and then the upper quad chair, Hill gives me the Big Picture. “The two lifts take you to the top of a triangle, and there’s so much you can access from there.” Then he corrects himself: Maybe this mountain is better viewed as a pyramid, he says, “because you can go from all aspects.”
To show off his home, Hill first traverses over to sun-shaded North Bowl. Before dropping in, we stand atop a long ridge and look at the back of Mackenzie’s craggy head above. Up here, above the treeline, amidst Revelstoke’s four high bowls, the air is filled with bluish light. Shredded pennants of clouds snag on parapet ridges. There’s not a soul around. It’s all very Great White North. “Got a very alpine feel back here, even though it’s inbounds,” Hill agrees. Most of North Bowl is, well, a snow-stuffed bowl, and we’ll soon drop into powder that’s up to the third boot-buckle several days after the last dusting fell. But before that we stand along the rim of the bowl on the cusp of plenty of micro-chutes—along with several not-so-micro chutes. “It’s a great place to test your mettle,” Hill says.
If there’s anything wrong with this picture, it’s that North Bowl, like most of Revelstoke 1.0, is simply too challenging for lower-end to intermediate skiers and their families—precisely the folks who keep ski resorts alive. More than half of the mountain is rated “advanced.” Only two green runs meandered down the entire mountain last winter—if you counted the eight-mile service road from the top. To their credit, the mountain managers are working to soften the ski hill’s tough face: For this winter, a new high-speed quad will rise from the bottom of the North Bowl area and create 900 additional acres of intermediate terrain—cut runs and treeskiing—as well as 300 more acres of expert skiing and 885 added vertical feet.
Now Hill slides toward the undiscovered country of the resort’s south flank. He motions with his pole at a ridgeline hung with alpine bowls, some with tantalizing chutes. Hill names them: South Bowl, Montana Bowl, Kokanee Bowl. “That’s the Fallopian Tube, over there,” he says of one squeezed chute that tumbles toward the trees. High above, I can see a group of guys who’ve gained the ridge tossing their carcasses off a cornice.
To expand its options as a resort, Revelstoke gobbled up both Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing and a catskiing operation, and it will run both out of the new base village. The area we’re looking at is the snowcat’s playground, Hill says. But skiers can hike to the slopes legally, and easily, from the ski resort. “If you have touring ability, the stuff you can access from here is endless—and you can wrap right around back to the lifts,” Hill says. “I call it ‘slackcountry’—little effort with maximum reward.” And skiers who don’t feel at ease can drop in right before the boundary, into spicy tree runs like Jalapeño or Hot Sauce.
We’re not set up for a big tour, but the snow is stable so we plunge in for a thousand-foot drop toward the catch-road. The subalpine fir and spruce seem to part briefly and allow us to pass before tightening up again.
Despite all the attractions of the mountain’s flanks, however, most skiers will spend their time in the center of the resort. That’s hardly a letdown: Revelstoke’s main stage is a thigh-frying wonder. The front of the pyramid, if you will, has what might be the most consistent fall line of any ski resort in North America. On their nearly 5,000-foot plunges, groomers like Snow Rodeo and Devil’s Club scarcely pause or falter. They just keep going. And going. And going. More than once—OK, a lot more than once—while bombing down these empty runs behind Hill I have to pull up short to let the riot in my legs calm down. I can only watch as he vanishes in a puff of spindrift.
The treeskiing is equally intriguing, if not yet fully realized. So much precipitation falls around Revelstoke that it’s home to the world’s only inland temperate rainforest. (Call it a snow forest: Most of that precipitation falls as snow.) The fat spruce and mountain hemlock tinseled with moss that spike runs like Separate Reality and Clyde’s Secret make for well-spaced Northwest-style glade skiing—though much more thinning is needed to make this thick-furred mountain the treeskiing sweet spot that it could be.
So many things keep reminding me of Whistler in the 80’s: runs without crowds; the vast relief between low valley and treeless bowls; the 360-degree views across a jawbone of peaks and the meringue of glaciers; the amazing nonstop skiing. I’m not alone. People keep asking, “Is this the next Whistler?” I say no, “It’s what Whistler once was”.
“It’s great for others to recognize us in comparison to Whistler, but it’s not even in our vision right now,” says Kessler. “We’ve got the town of Revelstoke right now. We don’t have to create it. It’s authentic. It’s the real deal.”
Steve Parsons, the mountain operations manager, chimes in. “We want to be the next Revelstoke.” There’s humility in both those statements, but there’s also a hint of attitude. And maybe there should be some of each. Revelstoke Mountain Resort is nowhere near Whistler right now—for better and for worse.
It’s clear that both on and off the hill the place has a far sight yet to go. Take the runs: Like its namesake plant, portions of Devil’s Club, one of the mountain’s chief runs, is prickly with slash that pokes through the snow—even in a good year. And some runs could benefit from a rolling pin; the blue-square Critical Path jogs and bounces so much as if trying to buck skiers off it. And then there’s the issue of the lack of diversity of terrain: Oddly, developers decided to wait until the resort’s second season to install a much-needed beginner chair and more novice runs that they had been considering for the middle of the mountain.
At the bottom of the hill, visitors find the beginnings of a base village—a handful of shops, as well as 56 condos in the Nelsen Lodge (an additional 200 units are scheduled to be finished by the start of this season). But the base village is only in its infant stage. This season also brings a full-service restaurant, rental shops and skier services such as a lift ticket office.
Downtown Revvie? Let’s be frank: It’s a working town that’s no charmer under winter’s snowdrifts. The place can be walked in about 20 minutes, including the street where the Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 46 advertises the Saturday Night Meat Draw.
Curious, I ask a local what I should do for fun once night falls. “Well,” he replies, “There’s the local folk dancing.”
“The Revelstoke Ballet,” he says.
“The peeler joint,” he says, finally giving in to his grin. Ah—the strip bar.
For the next few years, skiing at Revvie will be an experience for the sport’s hard-charging early adopters—the alpine equivalent of those who bought the first iPhone. It’s an experience for the hardcore skier who isn’t concerned with niceties so much as bragging rights and some deep B.C. powder on empty slopes.
The rest of you might want to wait to give this baby a little time to gestate. But don’t worry: Given how fast change is coming, you won’t have long.
by Christopher Solomon