Ivan is one of those hardy downhill veterans who probably sleeps with his skis on. As a Guest Guide at Kimberley Ski Resort in southeastern British Columbia, Ivan delights in escorting visitors around the mountain, occasionally stopping to help skiers in distress.
Ivan and his fellow guides, volunteers all, are part of Kimberley’s free service to skiers. (At nearby Panorama they are called Ski Friends; at Fernie Snow Valley, Ski Hosts. They guide visitors in return for a season lift ticket, probably the greattest idea since chairlifts.)
On my first day at the mountain, Ivan quickly sized up my ability, did some mental geography on the ski map in his head, and deftly swept me across the terrain, keeping to the runs that exactly fit my skills (or lack of same). He even made some helpful suggestions - aimed at improving my technique - in such a diplomatic manner that my pride was left wholly intact.
Over lunch, high on the slopes overlooking the Rockies’ jagged escarpment, Ivan entertained with local lore about the mining days. The nearby hamlet of Kimberley, once heavily reliant on lead and zinc veins which ran thick through the hills, has begun to rethink its future. As the ore plays out, skiing becomes more and more “in.”
And no wonder. Here in the southeast corner of British Columbia among the toothy peaks of the Rockies and adjacent ranges, sits one of the finest - and perhaps least publicized - winter recreation hot spots in the Northwest.
Powdery snow. Rocky Mountain views. Exhilarating runs. A laid-back atmosphere punctuated by some very friendly folks. Lift lines? Unheard of. Together, the region’s four neighboring mountain resorts represent the perfect easy-does-it ski tour for those with some time and a taste for variety. And the scenery is just plain awesome.
However, the ski resorts of Kimberley, Fairmont Hot Springs, Panorama and Fernie Snow Valley are hardly a secret to those residents of British Columbia and Alberta who are eager to bypass the glitz and accompanying crowds at Whistler and Lake Louise. The four near-at-hand ski destinations are perfect either for a weekend at one, or a longer ski vacation that includes all four.
Kimberley, already sizable, will soon expand its ski area. Currently there are 44 runs, the longest of which is an awesome four miles. Two triple chairs and one double will be joined by an additional three or four lifts and accompanying runs.
Kimberley is located in the Purcell Range, due north of Sandpoint and about four hours by car from Spokane. The ski slopes have something for everyone. There are long easy beginner trails, perfectly groomed cruising runs and thigh-bashing double black diamond moguls.
The town of Kimberley, which bills itself as a little city with a big ski hill, has been redesigned with a Bavarian facade. Apres ski, a relaxing stroll among the unique restaurants and specialty shops of the pedestrian mall known as the Platzl is a must.
About an hour’s drive north of Kimberley lies Panorama Ski Resort, which boasts North America’s second highest vertical drop at 4,300 feet. From double black diamond glade skiing to uncrowded wide open groomed cruising to novice-only trails, Panorama offers a smorgasbord of ski adventure, complimented by ski-to-your-door accommodations.
The resort area is perched on the edge of the Bugaboo Mountains. To the initiated, this means unsurpassed heli-skiing. And you don’t have to be an expert to give it a try. Both intermediate and advanced skiers enjoy more than 680 square miles of open snow fields, glaciers and gladed tree trails on 120 runs spanning up to 6,500 vertical feet in the Purcell Range. Helicopters transport skiers on a daily basis.
Fairmont Hot Springs
Fairmont Hot Springs, a small jewel of a destination resort located 30 minutes east of Panorama, may offer the only “Ski and Swim” package in North America. After some exhilarating runs down the flanks of the Rockies, skiers can relax in Canada’s largest natural, odorless hot pools, heated to a muscle-soothing 102 degrees.
A half-million gallons of water each day flows through the diving pool, lap pool and two large soaking pools, one of which is reserved just for resort guests. The resort’s spa program, continually expanding, includes massage, hydrotherapy, and popular head-to-toe makeovers.
Less than two miles above the resort and its steaming pools sits the ski lodge. Fairmont is the smallest of the four downhill areas, but its dozen or so runs are surprisingly long and boast some incomparable scenery.
Fernie Snow Valley
Legend has it that an old mountain man once tangled with a grizzly bear, and actually won. Affectionately known as “Griz,” the fanciful figure is the mascot of Fernie Snow Valley.
Located just outside the town of Fernie, southeast of Kimberley, the ski area occupies a Rocky Mountain niche that channels snowfall, piling up the powder to an impressive average of 24 fet (compared to 20 feet at Montana’s Big Mountain).
Legend also has it that as long as Griz is happy, there’s ample snow. He must be quite a good-natured fellow, because Fernie needs no snow-making, good news for skiers who relish the real stuff.
Runs are designed for all levels, even up to the huge alpine bowl where a green traverse switchbacks past challenging blue and black runs.
All four ski areas feature a cross-country trail complex. Two unique getaways in the same region are Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, which features ski touring and sno-cat skiing in high country; and Kilmorey Lodge in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, which offers nordic skiing about two hours east of Fernie.
For more information:
Kimberley Ski and Summer Resort, 800-667-0871.
Panorama Resort, 604-342-6941; heli-skiing: 800-661-6060.
Fernie Snow Valley, central reservations, 604-423-9284.
Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, 800-663-4979.
Island Lake Lodge, (604) 423-3700.
Kilmorey Lodge, (403) 859-2334.