Revelstoke, British Columbia
Thirteen years ago, Revelstoke, British Columbia, was a tiny railroad outpost of 8,000, sandwiched between the whipsaw Selkirk and Monashee ranges, populated by lumberjacks, a Junior B hockey team, and a midrange family hotel, dubiously named the Regent, that had a strip club in the basement. Elite backcountry skier Greg Hill moved there to escape the crowds. At the time, ski bums lived in the shadows, hung out at the 7-Eleven, grew weed in their backyards, and hiked everything they skied. "It was rough," Hill recalls. "Anywhere you went, you'd get into a fight."
When a developer announced plans in 2006 for a billion-dollar resort on nearby 8,058-foot Mount Mackenzie, Hill figured his personal backcountry Valhalla was done for. Two years later, the project went belly-up, and after a local family bought up the assets, the hard-core skiing crowd in "Revy" got some of the greatest Christmas presents in modern skiing history: three new high-speed lifts, the tallest vertical of any ski resort in North America, the only base-accessed heli- and cat-skiing operation in the world, and a new base-area hotel-restaurant complex.
These days, Revelstoke evokes the days when ski bums lived alongside blue-collar workers in mining towns like Aspen, Telluride, and Sun Valley. A growing number of skiers sardine into a clapboard, mint-green bakery aptly named the Modern, which serves Paris-worthy croissants in a scene more reminiscent of Chamonix than B.C. A few streets over, on Victoria Road, La Baguette is filled with skiers wearing avalanche transceivers, downing the most intense coffee in town.
Being set in the middle of B.C.'s most storied mountains – 400 inches of annual snowfall attracted heli-ski pioneer Mike Wiegele here four decades ago – also means Revelstoke is not near anything. Calgary is a treacherous four-hour drive away. Vancouver is six. After a six-hour flight from the East Coast to Seattle, and an hour-long puddle jumper trip back to Kelowna, guests still have to drive two and a half hours on an icy road to get to the resort (which is part of the reason the original plan flopped).
Skiing the remains of a mega-resort is strangely awesome, in an anarchic, DIY kind of way. With loosely defined trails cut between Mackenzie's great stands of spruce – and the distinct possibility of getting lost in-bounds – the mountain is more of a lift-serviced backcountry mecca than a Summit County conveyor belt. Just three lifts cover more than 3,000 acres of skiing and 5,620 vertical feet. The Revelation Gondola rises 3,547 feet from the base, and the Stoke high-speed quad takes skiers from there to a ridge 758 vertical feet from Mackenzie's summit.
On a powder day, pro skiers like Chris Rubens, who moved to Revelstoke after hearing about the new infrastructure, typically start skiing in North Bowl on looker's left of the mountain – the rolling, rockbound cirque typically gets six extra inches of wind-blown powder during a storm. Revelstoke sits within the only inland rain forest in North America, making the trees on Separate Reality Glades and Conifers of Narnia perfectly spaced apart. Skiing the rock gardens on 3,100-vertical-foot Kill the Banker – named for how much it hurts visiting day traders who try to ski top to bottom – is like shredding Telluride's front side, if you were to stack three of them on top of one another. "The mountain is this cone shape," Rubens says. "You start at the same spot at the top and can end up kilometers apart at the bottom."
The actual backcountry north of the resort's boundaries is one of Revy's gems, though the runs are not officially named and skiing there without a guide is not a good idea. For pro skier wannabes, the summit of Mount Mackenzie is where it's at. An hour's hike from the top of the Stoke chair to the summit leads to near-vertical runs like Mac Face, which rolls over into a hanging snowfield edging a 150-foot rock wall, then continues into the white apron of Greeley Bowl.
If that's not enough vertical, powder junkies can drop $775 a day to heli-ski with Selkirk Tangiers or $460 to hit the southern bowls in a cat. But the reality is, skiing Revelstoke in-bounds is about as close to heli-skiing as you can get. Whatever your plan, be sure to stay a week. As Hill says, once you arrive in Revy, you're not going to want to leave. "This place is hard to get to," he says. "Once you're here, you're a Revelstokian for good."
The Perfect Day: Revelstoke is as much about the hike-to terrain as it is lift-accessed runs. For an incredible intro to sidecountry skiing, start with Mackenzie peak – an hour's hike up from the Stoke chair. Experienced out-of-bounds skiers should then hit Revy's southern boundary, and its semi-forbidden snowcat territory: South, Montana, and Kokanee Bowls aren't patrolled, but mountain ops recently cut a wider, smoother traverse from the bowls back to the gondola, making them easier to access.