East vs. West: Where’s best skiing in Canada?

If you are wanting to ski powder, you should cat-ski in the Monashee Mountains, the first high range to greet moisture-laden clouds from the Pacific Ocean as they pass over the interior of British Columbia. There is always powder snow in the Monashees.

Once you’re finally up there, snow and terrain abound. The lodge and separate sleeping quarters are full of pleasures: hot tubs (two, both outdoors, covered and uncovered), massage therapists, dining room, staff of 15, pool table, gear store, two bars, excellent wine list, on-slope photographer, en-suite bathrooms and showers in every room, in-house chef (Dave, a mad snowmobiler) and baker (Fiona, a rock climber with Haida tattoos on her precision-cut triceps, who I meet as she returns to the kitchen from the hot tub in her bikini top to make a rhubarb compote and pistachio crème anglaise for her caramel meringue – oh, and, where was I?, a large screen TV on which to view the day’s crop of video ski-porn, which is what everyone does before and after dinner each evening, all the while oohing and mmming and saying things such as “when you land that fakey, then we’ll talk.” This is a ski vacation. It’s total immersion. You would be surprised how engaging a conversation about refurbishing a set of snowcat treads can be.

One of the things people talk about in the back of a snowcat as they trundle their way to the top of a mountain 10 and 12 times a day is whether helicopter skiing is better than cat-skiing. It’s certainly more expensive: a minimum of $6,700 for four days of bare-bones heli-skiing vs. a bargain of between $2,000 and $3,200 for the same stretch in a cat (January is cat-skiing high season, but it snows until April). Helicopters get higher faster, but they can’t fly when it’s foggy or snowing heavily, whereas a cat can roll in any weather. There is some (debatable) thinking that cat-skiing is safer. Helicopter guides frequently have to make quick decisions about whether a slope is safe to ski, within a vast flyable territory, whereas a cat guide has more time to assess conditions in a smaller territory that he moves through every day. Cat guides certainly seem calmer, and they last longer in the job.

Karl Klassen, the chief guide at Monashee Powder, spends half his time as the Canadian Avalanche Association’s public warnings manager in Revelstoke. He has been in the guiding game 30 years, and sees his delicate and difficult job as “putting together a well-thought-out risk management plan” that will keep his clients both safe and happy. He also brings his 10-year-old son up to the Monashees. Having observed him in sober action and meticulous daily guide meetings, I would let him guide mine as well.

What I remember best about the Monashees were the last runs we took. We’d been skiing for two days under cloudless skies – at least 23 runs, some 6,400 metres of vertical, through trees thick and thin, down wide bowls, even off half a dozen peaks that normally don’t get skied more than twice in two years. But on the third and last morning the lodge was solidly fogged in.

We climbed into the cat and made our way up the ghostly mountain. You could just see tracks from the previous day in the woods, artifacts proving we had been there.

Then the cat poked through the cloud cover, and we climbed onto a bright peak to ski a slope called Epiphany. Karl Klassen told a joke. “What’s the difference between God and a mountain guide?” he asked. “God doesn’t think of himself as a mountain guide.” We laughed anyway. Then Karl showed us what we were going to ski, hazards to watch for, and where to head so that we all got fresh snow but still ended up together at the bottom. He did not mean it as a metaphor, but maybe it was. Maybe the metaphor is one reason people like to ski.

Below us, the valley was filled with boiling cloud. But up above we could see for miles. For a few moments it was all ours, and it skied that way, too.

Ian Brown

VERNON, B.C.— From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012
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