Canada: Skiing the western limit

By Minty Clinch

Vancouver Island in British Columbia has a mighty mountain at its heart.

The ski fields of Alberta's Rocky Mountains are a cut above. Photo / Thinkstock
The ski fields of Alberta's Rocky Mountains are a cut above. Photo / Thinkstock

The further west you go in Canada, the better it gets - at least in terms of skiing. The ski fields of Alberta's Rocky Mountains are a cut above those of Mont Tremblant in Quebec, and are in turn trumped by British Columbia notably Whistler, where many of the 2010 Winter Olympic events were held. Yet amazingly, you can keep going even further west, over a slim portion of the Pacific and ski on idyllic Vancouver Island.

The six-seater seaplane came down smoothly on choppy seas in Comox Harbour, a dramatic 50-minute hop from Vancouver. Five minutes later I was sitting round an open fire in the Blackfin pub, real ale on the table, an order for chowder followed by catch of the day in the kitchen. The ends-of-the-Earth feeling suggested a remote part of Scotland but, as I would soon learn, the skiing at Mount Washington on Vancouver Island is slopes ahead of Glencoe.

The reason for this is snow, glorious snow: a massive average of 10.5m a year, dumped by the prevailing westerlies on the first high ground they come to after crossing the Pacific. That's the spine of Vancouver Island, narrowly separated from British Columbia's mainland, opposite the city of Vancouver.

The island, which stretches for 150 miles from Port Hardy in the north to the capital, Victoria, in the south, has roughly the same land mass as England, but only 700,000 inhabitants. My hostess was Sarah Nicholson - British-born but a resident for more than 20 years. She loves the savage diversity on offer here, something that is impossible to find in more densely populated places.

With plenty of space for exotic wildlife on Vancouver Island, the cougar - leopard-sized and lion-coloured - shares top-of-food-chain status with the grizzly bear. Grizzlies can be seen catching a ride on log flotillas as they head downriver in search of prey. But the cougar is as swift and merciless, as Sarah's neighbour discovered when she found her horse half eaten in its field.

Vancouver Island has two ski stations. Mount Cain, with two drag lifts operating at weekends, is pretty much for locals only. But Mount Washington makes a rewarding add-on to Whistlers super glitz. The 30-minute drive from Comox dips past pretty period townhouses and simple agricultural communities - but the resort itself is entirely contemporary.

I checked into my condo in Bear Lodge then made my way to Fat Teddy's, where everyone eats, drinks and makes merry. Named after a local engineer with a big appetite, it is dominated by a very long bar with notices designed to tempt you and rows of glasses for every kind of cocktail.

Once I'd hired my kit in the shop next door, I joined the jovial aprs-ski crowd and stayed on for supper. On Friday or Saturday there's live music, stand-up comedy or a DJ. But today, a Sunday, I indulged instead in the convivial atmosphere.

In the morning, I was back for a full Canadian breakfast before hitting the mountain. Clip in outside Bear Lodge and you can be sitting on the Eagle Express quad within 30 seconds, riding up to the summit at 1588m.

From there, skiers head over to the slopes served by the Sunrise Quad and some encouraging blue glade runs spiced up with a couple of blacks: Schum's Delight and Rick's Ride. Straight down means Powder Basin, East Bull and Whiskey Jacks Glades, the trees nicely spaced, perfect for powder days.

Last season, the old nursery lifts were replaced by four magic carpets, each in its own caterpillar tube for bad weather protection: a particularly welcoming place to learn. Once the basics are mastered, the Hawk six-seater chair provides rewarding up-mountain variety, a selection of runs that give a sensation of going places. For even greater well-being, take a break at Sushi Mon at the base of Hawk. Here you can lunch deliciously, healthily and cheaply.

Until 2005, that was it. Then they built the Boomerang chair to open 180 hectares of steep, and often very deep, double black diamond tree skiing on the back of the mountain. No easy riding here and not many trails, but plenty of scope for adrenalin burn, especially in the North Bowl.

The Boom has given a pleasant recreational hill a sniff of the beast, creating a must-ski area for visitors and a weekend retreat for Vancouver city residents who think that Whistler has grown too fast. Many who like their challenge combined with tranquillity have bought homes in Mount Washington's Alpine Village, 100 chalets and small apartments set in hilly glades with no car access.

The hyperactive can enjoy snow tubing in the Ozone Park every evening until 9pm and floodlit skiing from Thursday to Sunday until 10pm. Nordic enthusiasts will enjoy the Raven Lodge Centre, located on the edge of the resort near open snowfields. The handsome new building has a restaurant and massage suites as well as cross country equipment and lessons.

The town also hosts the annual Wood Sculpture competition, a Vancouver Island special. One artist, one tree trunk, one chainsaw, two days to create a masterpiece. After an encouraging introduction to chainsaw techniques, I have to admit its tempting. Tricky, though, to get the winning trunk back home.

- INDEPENDENT

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