New-look snowshoes help Brian Johnston stay one step ahead of the ski crowds.
I'm in downtown Vancouver, surrounded by high-rises and dumpsters and gritty slush piled up by snow ploughs. It's a cold but blue-sky day and I hanker for the mountains. I want to smell pine instead of car exhaust and see snow deep and crisp and even, like a Christmas carol. Fortunately, the hotel concierge sees nothing eccentric in the idea. In Vancouver, all you have to do is hail a taxi and mountains are there for the asking.
Twelve kilometres, 20 minutes and $35 later, I'm at the foot of Grouse Mountain. It could have been a few dollars on public transport, but I'm impatient. Shortly, the Skyride gondola is hoisting me above the trees. Snug, suburban Vancouver falls away, and then the entire city is Google-zooming out to the ocean. I step off at 1110 metres above sea level and snow crunches. Inside my head, I giggle at my good fortune.
Grouse Mountain is no giant by Canadian standards, but its proximity to Vancouver makes it a playground for locals, who nip up here in winter to ski, snowboard and sleigh ride, although the sleighs are hauled by not-so-romantic Sno-Cats. Momentarily disconcerted, I find a summit cluttered with rental shops, bars, and businesses spruiking helicopter rides and First Nation feasts.
I have a plan, though: I'm going to go snowshoeing. People dismiss it as the poor alternative to skiing, but it's quite another experience. Surely among its chief pleasures is that I won't have to queue for lifts and can escape the crowds. I sign up for a beginner's lesson with Gerald, an instructor of rosy-cheeked alpine freshness. He gazes sadly at my waistline and says we have to work out the "recommended load" for my snowshoes. The bigger snowshoes get, the more evenly my weight is distributed on the snow, but the harder they'll become to handle. The ideal compromise is the smallest size that will support me.
The last time I was on snowshoes, they looked like wooden tennis racquets. Now they're clever contraptions of flexible metal and nylon webbing. Gerald suggests we use snowshoes designed for rolling terrain, which is a relief, as he describes mountainous terrain as "steep, with harsh conditions, and maybe icy".
I strap the snowshoes onto my boots and lurch off like a penguin. The proper stance involves walking with my legs further apart than usual so the shoes' frames don't clack together - something my groin muscles punish me for later. Otherwise it's easy. "If you know how to walk, you can snowshoe," says Gerald blithely, as he leads me straight into deep snow that would leave a normal walker floundering.
Snowshoes let you float on the surface, but they're still hard work, and soon I'm hot and panting. Conversation falls away. Feet go crunch, crunch. Occasionally there's a whoosh as snow slides from a branch. There are no people. Sun glitters on snow in a landscape whittled down to cheerful basics: green pines, red jackets, blue sky.
"Use your toes going uphill in powder, so that your crampons dig in right under your feet," Gerald says.
Going downhill is easier on lungs but harder on legs. I instinctively lean back into the hill, and have to concentrate on keeping my weight solidly over the crampons beneath my feet.
We skirt around snow wells beneath trees, which can easily collapse.
Our breath clouds the icicle air and pines stand sentry under epaulettes of snow. It's marvellous, and I can see why Canadians snowshoe right off into back-country to sleep in thermal swags rolled out under the stars.
After a while, my legs go haywire. I wobble back towards Altitudes Bistro. As I tuck into a creamy squash soup popping with maple-flavoured croutons, I can see the ocean in the distance. Icicles drip from the eaves in flashes of sunlight, and I feel like winking back.
Moonlit snow steps
If you don't have a day for Grouse Mountain, head there in the evening after sightseeing in Vancouver. A Snowshoe Fondue experience starts with an hour of snowshoeing to the light of a miner's lamp strapped to your forehead. Stars are already out between the fir trees, the lights of Vancouver twinkle far below and the moonlit snow scenes are magical. The tour finishes at Altitudes restaurant, with three convivial fondues: cheese, broth and, finally, chocolate. A Snowshoe Fondue costs $C95 a person, including rentals, guide and meal, and should be reserved in advance. See grousemountain.com/snowshoe-fondue
Getting there Air Canada flies direct to Vancouver daily from Sydney (about 14hr), with domestic connections from Melbourne. Return economy fare from $2499 from Melbourne and $2515 from Sydney low season, including taxes. Phone 1300 655 767, see aircanada.com.
Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel captures beautiful water views from spacious guest rooms and its restaurant, which emphasises seafood and British Columbian white wines. Phone +1 604 662 8111, see panpacific.com.
Four Seasons Hotel is colourful and light-filled and has a health club. Phone +1 604 689 9333, see fourseasons.com.
While there Entry to Grouse Mountain (including Skyride and snowshoe trails) is $C39.95 ($38.50) adults, $C23.95 for children 13-18 and $C13.95 for children five to 12. Phone +1 604 980 9311, see grousemountain.com.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Air Canada and the Canadian Tourism Commission.