Canada: Wild or mild in the Rockies

By Chris Moran

The Elkhorn Cabin at Panorama. Photo / David Gluns
The Elkhorn Cabin at Panorama. Photo / David Gluns

"Welcome to the slack country," says Jamie, my guide, as we unload from Panorama Mountain Village's summit chair.

"Let's hike along that ridge line there. We'll get some fresh turns for sure," he says, pointing a ski pole towards a well-trodden path.

The term "slack country" refers to the area surrounding a resort that is accessible by its lifts but not featured on the piste map.

"To be honest, I had never heard of it before last winter," admits Jamie. "But it's the perfect word for Taynton Bowl."

Jamie used to drive the piste-bashers at the British Columbia resort of Panorama but eventually swapped the graveyard shift for a role in the marketing department. The 300-hectare former heli-ski terrain of Taynton Bowl is the marketing team's baby.

"It's patrolled and avalanche controlled, so it's as safe as off-piste can be," says Jamie.

"Perfect for intermediates wanting to try out some steep and deep stuff."

It has been several days since the last snowfall, but there are still pockets of untouched powder to hit. It's early season, and the 1200m, double black-diamond graded descent through steep, tightly spaced trees is frankly exhausting. But I need the practice: at the end of the week I'm booked in for a day with Panorama-based company rk heliski.

Founded in 1962, Panorama was developed in the mid-1990s by Intrawest, which styles itself a "leader in experiential destination resorts".

The credit crunch forced Intrawest to sell much of its portfolio, so Panorama was snapped up by Canadian businessman Rick Jensen, a local-boy-done-good whose family-friendly rebranding of the resort increased the number of UK tour operators from one to eight - an impressive feat in the current economic climate.

The town's wooden lodges, restaurants, cafes and shops have different themes and personalities but this is a self-contained entity. Your apartment key opens private ski lockers and communal swimming pools, and you can charge everything from ski hire to supermarket groceries to your room.

There's an air of moderation, with a strict alcohol ban in the public Jacuzzis and obligatory helmet-wearing for even the toboggan rides down the nursery slope. Hell-raisers looking for a moshpit should probably turn the brochure page.

For many, though, the safety and convenience of the resort are its biggest draw. Add in the fact that it's one of the few real ski-in, ski-out resorts in North America, and it's perfect for families.

I meet the Crozier family in 'Panorama Springs', a collection of open-air hot-tubs, whirlpool baths and saunas arranged on the terraces between my apartment building and the piste.

"We drove eight hours here from Edmonton," says Mr Crozier, trying to control his four boys as they leap around the rocks and try to stop snowflakes landing in the hot water.

"There are closer resorts, but everything is on our doorstep here."

Right on cue, Mrs Crozier waves from the balcony two floors above and calls them in for food.

The eagerness to retain such families perhaps explains why the resort has so many organised activities off the hill. For children, there's a nightly tobogganing session, a sleigh ride with a chocolate fondue finish and dog sledding.

Older skiers and snowboarders can eat, then head up the hill again until 9pm for the night-riding sessions, while those who'd rather relax can sample the nightly cinema screenings and games evenings in the main hall, and even sign up for a poker workshop.

There's also a mountain treasure hunt for kids and families, with photo opportunities and prizes to win once you upload your snaps to the Panorama website.

The next day I join the mountain friend tour, a daily guided excursion around the mountain aimed at singles or those who don't want to go into ski school. It's free and the guides are chatty, friendly, and keen to find the perfect run for everyone's ability.

"This is awesome," says an Australian in my group.

"I didn't even get a lift map on my last holiday."

I ask where he went to, although I'm sure I can guess.

"France," he replies.

Of course, the problem with making the most of this exemplary North American service culture is that you have to go to North America to experience it.

It's a journey that many are happy to make though. I stop for lunch and get chatting to Dan, host of the all-you-can-eat buffet service in the main lodge.

"There are lots of Brits, but I think there are probably more Australians here than anyone else," he tells me in a thick Leeds accent.

"The Irish definitely have an iron-grip on the ski instructor jobs."

I see him later on the hill, part of a multinational group of staff snowboarding and skiing their way around the perfectly groomed pistes. It all looks like watching a Ralph Lauren advert come to life.

And so to my end-of-week treat: a day with the rk heliski operation. The company's lodge is classic: a cavernous room with a roaring fire in the corner, moose heads on the walls and photos of people gliding through bottomless snow littered throughout. At C$700 per day (NZ$902), it's an expensive excursion, but it has been snowing on and off all week and the lure of more powder snow is too much to resist.

We take off, swoop up and over the resort, and head up the valley, deep into the Purcell Mountains; the promise of virgin powder creating a palpable sense of excitement in the heli cabin.

The day is mind-blowing, with powder explosions, swooping drops and some epic turns. And I'm surrounded by familiar accents. Apart from a German couple, we're all Brits. Pilot Alex is from Bath, and our guide, Erica, from Bristol.

At the end of the day we pass up and over Taynton Bowl, before looping down past the steaming pools and wooden apartment blocks where all the families are getting ready for a dip.

From extremes to indulgence: that's Panorama.

- INDEPENDENT

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