Red Mountain Resort: Canada's first and last great ski town

Wake Williams is the only man I ever met with grizzly bear scratch marks on his front door. "I was reading my book," he tells me. "Then, wham, the whole cabin shook. I went out on my porch, and we eye-balled each other; he was only me-to-you away (two metres). There wasn't any menace in him. I thought he'd gone on his way till I heard him scratching again to get in." Williams is more spooked, though, about the cougar that snuck up on him the time he was going about his business. "The pitfalls of an outside toilet in these parts," he says with a chuckle … now. But then, Wake Williams does live all alone in an old log cabin on a ski run, on top of a mountain in Canada. And that's something you sure as hell won't see at Whistler.

Red Mountain Resort is about as far from Whistler as any ski resort in Canada gets. Sure, with its big mountain reputation (it's home to some of North America's best tree runs, and some of its steepest in-bound slopes), you'll see a who's who of pro skiing and snowboarding filming most winters. But at its heart, Red Mountain Resort's just a very steep hill beside a very old mining town. A lot of locals in these parts prefer flannelette over Gore-Tex, and while it has long attracted a loyal legion of Aussie skiers (some who live here permanently), you won't catch them spilling the beans to anyone. Red Mountain Resort offers the largest area per skier in North America. And it's as steep in-bounds as Jackson Hole (Red Mountain was the first Canadian ski resort to host a World Cup competition), and just as big in size, but while skiers across the world flock to Jackson Hole after every snow dump, Red Mountain Resort manages to stay off their radar entirely.

Truth be told, I'm lost just finding Red Mountain Resort. Some choose to fly to Spokane in Washington state, seeing as Red Mountain's on the border with the US. But I'm arriving via Vancouver and Kelowna, ditching GPS for a dog-eared, photo-copied map. Outside a place called Rock Creek, I take the road east just like the girl at Budget said to. It's a heck of a drive: there are deer running beside the road and there are mountains on every side of me, all framed behind a slow moving river. But the road's turning now to dirt; and so I stop and traipse through knee-deep snow to check a sign to see where the hell I am. I haven't seen a single home in 50 kilometres; which is precisely the distance I've gone the wrong way.

Back on Highway Three, I pass through tiny towns peddling jerky and ammo in stores just one step-this-side-of-decrepit. I pass over some of Canada's highest mountain passes; and by the time I make Red Mountain, I'm not sure Canada gets prettier.

It's twilight as I amble through Rossland's main street. This was once one of the biggest towns in Canada in its gold-rush days. There were 42 saloons and 21 brothels here then. These days hard-as-nails thrill seekers have taken over from hard-as-nails miners, though it looks to me like their beards are every bit as bushy. There's grit in this 1890s streetscape – you can almost smell the bar-fights – but there are bars and restaurants here now that look about as retro-hip as those you'll see in Colorado silver-mining hot-spots, Aspen and Telluride.

It snows overnight, star-shaped flakes so dry and weightless they don't fall so much as float through space. And because of this, I rise just past dawn to beat the crowd. It appears, however, that there isn't one. Twenty centimetres of fresh snow and not a single skier waiting in line for the chairlift to open? "There's never … ever a line-up," the bloke making my coffee says. "And it's been a good season, so 20 centimetres is nothing anyone's going to wake up for."

Perhaps that's just as well too, for the chairlifts move slow round these parts, and there's only five of them (though they do provide access to 110 runs). Locals say anything faster might spoil conversation. "Most things in town get said on the 15-minute ride up the Motherlode Chair," local rider Jamie Rizzuto says.

That's not to suggest Red Mountain is hick (though, it's worth nothing the restaurant built out on one of its highest peaks, Paradise Lodge, does come with pit toilets) but old-time locals say the culture that used to exist at ski resorts throughout North America in the '60s and '70s is still alive at Red Mountain Resort. Octogenarian Reno De Biazzo says nothing's really changed at Red Mountain since he started patrolling here 61 years ago (he held the record as North America's longest serving patroller).

Then there's Wake Williams, of course. In 1944, his father packed lumber from old discarded mines onto a pair of packhorses and built his cabin right up there on Red Mountain; 73 years on, it's still there. Nobody who ever ran Red Mountain Resort cared that Williams' old shack might be an eye-sore. In fact, these days they use it, and Williams, to promote the place. Go and knock on his door; maybe he'll invite you in for a red wine by the propane-stove he uses to warm his place up all winter.

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But then, Red Mountain Resort always was about the locals. Scandinavians who came to stake their fortune here when gold was discovered in these parts in 1890 came together to form a ski club, making this one of the oldest ski hills in all of North America. They held the first recorded ski competition in Canada in the 1890s. Ski club members kept their stake in the mountain for near on 80 years. As of last year, locals have the opportunity again to own part of the resort, via equity crowdfunding – management preferred locals own the mountain, not the mega-corporations who control so much of the North American ski market today.

Three years back, they opened a whole new mountain here (Grey Mountain) offering 400 new skiable hectares, the largest expansion of any existing ski resort in North America in decades. There's a fancy new hotel in construction too, right beside the one I'm staying in, but Red Mountain Resort's base building is still the very same one local ski clubs built in 1947. And there's sure a lot of ghosts in this base building.

There's faded black-and-white photographs going back 125 years; the unsmiling faces of hard men and women who built Red Mountain on nothing but hard work and a love of skiing. And there's a bar (Rafters) in here where their sons and daughters, and their grandkids, and their great-grandkids congregate, to worship skiing in their own way. It's surely the prototype for the last great ski bar in the last great ski town, right down to the drooling Alsatian curled up under my bar stool, and the old timer who skis in denim, who says he helped build this place as a kid.

There are fancier ski towns and ski resorts all over Canada, and they're sure a lot easier to get to. There are faster chairlifts, some with warm seats so your backside never feels the real sting of winter. But I prefer it here so far south that few outsiders bother to venture. For when it snows – and it snows a lot – there's still nowhere that can beat the first mountain they ever figured to ski down in Canada.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

helloBC.com.au

redresort.com

FLY

Air Canada fly daily to Vancouver from Sydney and Brisbane and from December 3 to February 4, 2018, direct flights from Melbourne are available four times per week, then fly on to Kelowna. See www.aircanada.com.au

All major car rental companies operate at Kelowna Airport. Red Mountain Resort is a 3½-hour drive from Kelowna.

SKI

Red Mountain Resort offers some of Canada's most inexpensive lift tickets: adults pay $C89, teens (13-18) pay $C71, juniors (7-12) pay $C45, or buy in advance to save at least 12 per cent, or consider a season pass for $C859. See www.redresort.com 

Australian Kieran Gaul runs one of North America's best cat skiing operations out of Red Mountain Resort. See www.bigredcatskiing.com

STAY

Stay right beside the slopes with your own private hot tub on your balcony. See www.redreservations.com

Craig Tansley travelled as a guest of Destination British Columbia

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