In the snow resorts of Canada’s magical Powder Highway Martin Johnston finds conditions unlike anything back home.
Skiers in Western Canada develop an affinity for deep, dry powder — so it's easy to forgive those among them who know nothing of ice.
Ice and I, on the other hand, share a close bond from my many years skiing at Mt Ruapehu and earlier in the South Island.
Sometimes the bond has been far too close, more than once forcing an improvised self-arrest with a ski pole, on snow slopes polished to a slick, high-speed surface by wind, sun, rain and cold.
So I was inclined to scoff into my scarf when in Canada's southeastern British Columbia, at the foot of a tree-lined bowl, a young skier described the conditions to me as "boilerplate", meaning hard ice.
Granted, it was a bit firm. There had been a January snow-drought on the famed Powder Highway — the snow resorts of the Kootenay Rockies. Taynton Bowl, facing away from the sun at Panorama resort, still held some powder, but as the valley funnelled towards the bottom, it was the twiggy shoots growing through the snow that caused a few ice-like slips.
Formerly a heli-skiing area, Taynton Bowl falls from the 2375m summit of Panorama. The view from here is, well, panoramic. On one side the 3312m-high Mt Nelson rears up; on the other, the broad sweep of the Canadian Rockies extends for what seems like hundreds of kilometres, a thin, white line of 3000m peaks on the far side of the Rocky Mountain Trench.
Panorama took home the award for North American Resort of the Year at the 2016 World Snow Awards. It has the sixth greatest vertical drop among North American ski and boarding areas, at a leg-burning 1225m, compared with 722m at Ruapehu's Turoa.
Our four days' skiing the Powder Highway in January and February saw a bit of cloud and some light winds at first before settling into windless, cloudless days — and brutal cold. A long-term staffer at Panorama told me he couldn't recall the resort being closed by bad weather since he started there in the mid-90s. Strong winds are rare.
It was -24C at mid-morning, much colder than the area's average of -0.5C. Even my battery-heated boots weren't sufficient: I had to settle in beside the log fire at the summit cafe for a 40-minute revival session after the three-chair ride up the hill.
On my group's first run from the summit, we took a steep, 30m-wide trail between the trees. It was graded black diamond but the perfectly-groomed surface made for nice carving.
Second time out, after a ski and walk out along a gently undulating ridge from the summit, we plunged into the Taynton Bowl's boot-high powder, navigating around, between and under small trees.
I've never found much powder in New Zealand, except on the Tasman Glacier and once or twice at Ruapehu before the wind sets in, and tree-skiing is virtually non-existent here — so I had some skills to learn.
Even with the lack of new snow on our loop road trip starting in Calgary, we found some great skiing at Panorama and the other two resorts we visited, Fernie and Kimberley.
I gravitated to the fast, smooth, groomed slopes, although at Kimberley — which, like Panorama, has a stunning view of the Rockies — our guide thought we might like a few knee-punishing runs on the moguls, so I had to sharpen up my quick jump turns among the bumps.
Each of the resorts has a big variety of runs — groomed, bumps, trees — with plenty of steep and gnarly for the adventurous, through to ample "green" runs deemed the easiest.
Quick jump turns were my survival mechanism in the steep tree runs at Fernie, which seemed to hold some pockets of powder. Apparently some of the forests are thinned out — "gladed" — for the benefit of skiers and snowboarders.
I took it pretty quietly through the trees, sometimes stopping and sliding backwards if my path was blocked. The last thing I wanted was to end up like a cartoon skier hugging the bark of an alpine tree.
While all three of the resorts we visited are on the Powder Highway, it is Fernie that is renowned for the bigger dumps of light, dry powder, with an average annual snowfall of about 8.8m.
At Fernie, we were taken out at sunrise, soon after 8am, for "first tracks" — no queues and your group gets to put in the first tracks of the day. Sleepy eyes soon shot wide open and alert as we raced down groomer-smooth runs.
Our guide, Shawn Clarke, led us around the enormous ski area. I was glad he was with us as Fernie is so big I'd get lost on my own. It comprises five large bowls divided by forested ridges, plus the imposing Polar Peak, which has a chair-lift to its 2134m summit.
For high-end experts who like cliffs and chutes — and when conditions allow —10 double-black diamond runs lead off Polar Peak, and another six fall from the nearby Currie Headwall.
As we gazed around at the sea of snowy summits on display from Polar Peak, Clarke pointed out one and described a mild encounter with a bear. Canadian outdoors types all have a bear story.
Mid-morning, he took us for a short burst of "uptracking" — a tour the resort has introduced that is kind of an introduction to alpine ski-touring. You use different ski bindings, ones that have a hinged front and lockable rear, and removable skins that are stuck onto the bases of the skis to allow uphill travel.
I brought my own skins. The glue on them — a tacky, semi-dry goo — was still new and super-sticky so I hade to fight like a wrestler to get them apart and on to my skis before the other three in my group took off.
Fernie promotes uptracking as "an art form and sometimes described as a Zen exercise for true lovers of skiing (or snowboarding)." It was fun to skin around, but there was so much new terrain to see without the need for skins that the effort of uphill "skiing" reminded me of the mountaineering maxim: you should always drive (or ride the chairlift) as far as you can. In the search for the exotic, Panorama runs one of its midfield cafes as an apres-ski venue. My group settled in for late-afternoon drinks and selfies with Mt Nelson at the Elkhorn Cabin on the Rollercoaster trail, followed by raclette.
The highlight came after dark when head-torches were handed out for us to ski back down. Rollercoaster, a blue run with deceptively steep sections, was the site of an epic wipe-out the day before when I was seduced beyond my abilities by high speed lift-offs and ate a face-full of snow.
So, in the dark of night, I focused on full, safe, controlled turns and was mesmerised by reflections sparkling in the Powder Highway crystals floating up around me - not a patch of ice to be seen.
THE POWDER HIGHWAY
• Eight alpine resorts plus heli-skiing, cat-skiing, backcountry lodges and nordic skiing in southeastern British Columbia's Kootenay Rockies region.
• Season dates: Early December to early April.
• Ticket prices: $97, adult, one day at Panorama (cheaper online).
• Snowfall: Fernie receives an average of around 8.8m of snow a year.
• Main airports: Cranbrook and Calgary.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop services to Vancouver from Auckland.
Further information: See hellobc.com