Why serious skiers head for Canada's Powder Highway

Serious about an actual ski, rather than the après-ski? Take a trip along Canada’s Powder Highway: it’s low on flash but high on steep thrills, soft snow and hard-core runs.

There are times on the Powder Highway when the Canada we all know from the brochures feels nothing like the Canada I'm in: when snow falls on spindly, lifeless tree limbs. When locals stare hard, wincing at the cold, grey world around them. When I can't see a single triangular mountain; only the kind that never reach a peak and just roll on, and on, to the horizon. When timber trucks hog the fast lane. When towns aren't just plain, they're plain ugly, little more than industrial estates with a dive bar for recreation and a school for the offspring of the blue-collar folk who live and work here.

This isn't just Canada's best ski road trip; some say the Powder Highway's the best ski road trip on earth. Not that there's actually any such thing as the Powder Highway; it's a network of five roads running for about a thousand kilometres in a circle around the south-eastern fringes of British Columbia.

No one sells the Powder Highway, either – there are seven resorts on it, but no ski pass that covers them all. And yet, nowhere has a higher concentration of ski options: from groomed piste to the steepest back-country runs in North America; from cross-country trails to the world's best snow-cat and heli-skiing experiences (there are 15 cat-ski and nine heli-ski operations here). There's no other place on the planet with so many mountains, so much powder and so few skiers.

You can start your Powder Highway journey anywhere along the route you want: fly to Calgary and drive to Fernie or Kicking Horse Resort, or head northeast from Vancouver to Revelstoke. Or maybe you want to try it clockwise instead; there's no set pattern, nor is there much in the way of a beaten path. I'm "doing" the Highway anti-clockwise: flying from Vancouver into Kelowna, and driving across the Monashees to Red Mountain Resort, the Powder Highway's southernmost point. Red Mountain is one of North America's steepest, and attracts the world's best pro skiers, yet somehow manages to stay off the radar of the vast majority of international ski travellers. 

From here I drive east to Fernie, traversing the highest mountain pass in all of Canada. I arrive at night, when Fernie is lit up like a Christmas tree. It's a 19th-century silver-mining town which wears its history proudly in a streetscape that's every bit as picturesque as much more famous towns in Colorado. Fernie Alpine Resort is built right beside town, and each year enough snow falls on it to cover a three-storey building. Nowhere in Canada has more soft, dry powder. But I don't stay long – there are too many skiers in town for me; I long to push deeper into the boondocks. 

Revelstoke is friendly and down-to-earth – on my first morning here, a local walks a pet pig down the main street,

So I hit the highway north, passing towns like Canal Flats, where gravel quarries dominate the landscape. This grittier side of Canada intrigues me, maybe because I feel about as far as I can get from all the other Australian skiers in their perfect log cabins at Whistler. And because driving a pick-up through towns with names like Skookumchuck – it boasts jerky shops, ammo stores and locals who spit tobacco on the street – makes me feel like I'm travelling, not just skiing.

I pass by Kimberley Alpine Resort – the country's most underrated, and uncrowded, family ski destination –and Panorama Mountain Resort. I'd like to stop at them all, but to experience the Powder Highway in this way would take at least three weeks. And so I push on to Golden, at the base of Kicking Horse Resort. I was last here a decade ago, and while there's a brewery in town now, and a fancy restaurant or two where main courses cost upwards of $25, the best bar in town is still the Riverhouse Tavern. 

These days, Golden is a magnet for cashed-up heli-skiers seeking untracked powder on the steep slopes around town. Fifteen minutes' drive up the mountain from here, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort is one of Canada's most challenging mountains – black runs make up 45 per cent of the mountain, while double-black diamond runs account for 15 per cent more.

Most of the Powder Highway's offerings are like this: steep, deep and no easy way down. There are exceptions – all the resorts here offer at least a few beginner and intermediate runs – but to come without sampling the region's infamous back-country powder is as crazy as skipping the pyramids on a first trip to Egypt. 


That's why I'm making Revelstoke my final destination on the Powder Highway. Ninety minutes' drive west of Golden, Revelstoke is regarded as Canada's most hard-core ski destination. Heli-skiing was invented in here 52 years ago, and it's now the epicentre of the world heli-skiing industry, with the highest vertical descent in all of North America. But the town still feels like just another stop on the Canadian Pacific railway line rather than the spot that attracts the world's highest-spending skiers looking for the ultimate rush. It's friendly and down-to-earth – on my first morning here, a local walks a pet pig down the main street, and the local bars are the type where the staff remember your name, lest you forget it. But you still wouldn't call Revelstoke pretty: functional is a better adjective. 

Australian Brad Murphy has lived along the Powder Highway for two decades. On my last morning in Canada he takes me para-skiing (combining paragliding and skiing) right off the back slopes of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. Above us, columns of back-country skiers look like lemmings as they climb the highest peaks seeking the biggest thrills. 

As we circle high above Revelstoke, Murphy summarises why he won't go any further: "Did Whistler already, too busy," he says matter-of-factly. "Out here's the real Canada, with actual Canadians. There are more adventures here than you've got lives for. And the best part is, you never have to grow up." 

The writer travelled as a guest of Destination British Columbia. 

This article Why serious skiers head for Canada's Powder Highway was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.