Month: April 2023

GCSA Summary


For a long while, ever since I started buying the Mountain Collective Pass, I had been doing these trips. I’d pick a set of resorts based on physical proximity and travel from one to the other. The Mountain Collective Pass was limited to two days at each resort (50% off for additional days), so that was a lot of traveling.

I did three such trips. The first one was along the Pacific Coast, hitting Mammoth, Lake Tahoe, and Whistler. The second included Jackson Hole, Park City, Little Cottonwood Canyon, and Aspen/Snowmass. The third one was Sun Valley, Jackson Hole, and Big Sky.

This fourth one was supposed to be slightly different. I was planning on going from Calgary to Vancouver, hitting the same resorts as we did, but skipping Schweitzer (a last second addition, anyway) and RED in favor of Whistler and Cypress.

In the end, I am very happy with this trip. Tim was an amazing companion, patient and enthusiastic even in the face of adversity (measured in degrees Fahrenheit). The resorts were mostly well above expectation, aided by snow that was perfect from the first to the last day. And even the eternal driving wasn’t much of a factor, considering that the Impreza was well-behaved the entire time, and that we had excellent connectivity most of the time.

I am very happy with the Canadians, who lived up to their reputation as incredibly friendly and congenial people. Very happy with the resorts chosen and their offering.

I am not so happy with my own planning, as I should have figured out the blackout dates first and built the trip to avoid them. That’s not even as much about the cost, but about the crowds. We would have had a much better time if we didn’t have to hit the slopes with everybody else. But I really can’t blame anyone by myself for that, and I am very forgiving of my own mistakes and faults.

Not happy with Mint Mobile. I paid for international access, but the instructions on the web site were entirely wrong. It took me all the way to Lake Louise, a week in, to figure out that the solution was simple: I had to create an APN on the phone and all it could and had to do was offer the name WHOLESALE. All other settings that Mint suggested resulted in the APN being deleted. To make things worse, the $10 I paid lasted all of one day once I had set up the phone correctly, and that was just maps and text.


GCSA The Long Drive Home


Really, I should have titled this article based on the mountain/resort we visited, but it wasn’t worth it.

Lake Louise and Sunshine Village always show up in concert with a third resort, Mount Norquay. They form Alberta’s Big 3 on all marketing material, to the point that IKON passes are valid for 5 days total at any of their resorts, except for these three that count as one.

After Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, I was expecting another world class resort. True, people that had been in Alberta all told me Norquay was “not worth it,” but how bad could it be?

We piled in the car after cleaning the AirBnB and saying good-bye. We warned the hosts that we were leaving one day early, mostly because we already had a hotel booked in Great Falls MT and we had to leave the key on the lock.

The initial part of the drive is the same as to Sunshine Village. Then, you continue into Banff and turn left to the access road.

I should mention that this particular section of the highway was surprising. The rest of the drive, there is a range-and-valley theme going on. Subsequent mountain ranges that go roughly North-West to South-East are separated by low-lying valleys that carry major rivers. To get from one valley (and resort) to the next, you have to cross a range.

That’t not the case here. The Bow River is powerful enough that it drilled through three ranges in the Banff area, creating an essentially level drive. From Lake Louise, you simply follow the course of the river to the plains, where it flows through Calgary, Ultimately, the river will merge into the Saskatchewan River, which flows through the entire state and finally into Lake Winnipeg, 1000 km away.

We get up all giddy about our last day on the mountain and see it’s a total zoo. It’s early, but the parking lot is filling up. Worse, when we get to the lodge and see the layout and compare it to the visible slope, we realize the place is tiny. it does have four lifts, but they are all short. One of them serves black runs, two are intermediate, and to get to these three you have to take the beginner lift.


GCSA Sunshine Village


Our time in Canada was coming to an end. It was Friday morning and the AirBnB was booked to Sunday. But between the insane cold and the realization that it was near impossible to make it in one go from Field to Lakewood after a day of snowboarding, we decided to leave a day early. Friday would be our last full day of snowboarding, then we’d do the first half of the drive on Saturday, sleep somewhere on the way, then continue to Colorado on Sunday.

Where to go? We decided to brave the cold and go to Sunshine Village. We sort of needed to try it, once: it was as famous as Lake Louise, always mentioned in the same breath as the other, and we probably wouldn’t get a chance to see it again, maybe ever.

We woke up early and checked the phones. It wasn’t looking good and windchills of up to -40 were forecast. Fun fact: -40 is the only temperature that is the same on the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales. And it’s almost infinitely unpleasant.

We headed out. Same deal as the day before: the car started, but was almost unbearably cold. We drove off, fortunately to better road conditions. By the time we were in Lake Louise, we felt fine. Then we drove on, the hour it takes to follow the Bow River. Eventually, a sign said we should drive off and we followed one of those little roads to a parking lot.

Coming from the giant lot at Lake Louise, this thing seemed puny. Worse, there was no obvious overflow lot. I was glad we were there early, because I don’t know what we would have done if the lot had been full (especially at the temperatures). We got out and ready, but – boom! – we were missing a pair of boots. I had asked Tim to get them when we left, he forgot, and now I was in Sunshine Village without boots.

I was fuming like an idiot, thinking we’d have to drive back to Field, wasting 3 hours. Then Tim said, “Can’t we just rent a pair?” and I felt dumb (but happy). We booked a rental, but had to pick up the boots at the top. They had lockers on top, they said.


GCSA Revelstoke


It turns out that the extreme cold was only in the Bow River valley, and that temperatures to our West were much, much milder. We were familiar with the phenomenon from Denver, where under certain circumstances the East is bitter cold with Canadian temperatures, while the mountains of Summit County are relatively balmy, despite being a full mile higher up in the air.

We had skipped Revelstoke on our first attempt, but it was going to see a high of 32 instead of -10. Was it worth the two hour drive in potentially frosty conditions on potentially slick roads? You betcha!

We packed in the car way too early and drove off. By opening hour, we were in the parking lot at Revelstoke, obviously stoked.

Now, Revelstoke is famous for one thing, internationally, and one thing only: it has the highest vertical of any resort in North America. I won’t bore you with the details, because nobody cares, but I was seriously unimpressed with that factoid. I was even less impressed when I saw the place has even fewer lifts than Kicking Horse, clocking in at two lifts and one gondola. So, it’s like Kicking Horse with the beginner lift taken away.

The ride up was nice. We were in a gondola with a local snowboard shop owner who could give us pointers, and we ended up following his directions to Ripper chair, on the North side of the resort. It took a lot of cat tracking to get there, not a lot of fun. The chair itself was a relatively slow affair that visibly got to some amazing terrain. There were a few runs to the left and right, marked blue. There was a lift line, also marked blue, but very much not a blue run at any resort I’ve ever seen. And trees, trees everywhere.

Ripper was novel. The terrain there is as difficult as you’d like it to be, with chutes and cliffs and moguls. I found myself doing a wrong turn and boxed into a 6×6 depression out of which I have to laboriously crawl, hoping nobody else was kooky enough to follow my trail. I got to a cliff with 20 people sitting in the snow, slowing waiting for the courage to make it down. I went down moguls on the lift line (Denver Dollar) and had an amazing time.

Tim was not as lucky: it seemed the place was oddly either too flat or too steep for him. The runs were all either like the flat cat track from the gondola, or the “blue” Denver Dollar. There seemed to be nothing in-between.


GCSA Lake Louise


We got up “late,” around 8. The storm had dumped about a foot of snow and the host (actually, the neighbor) came out to clear it. Then we got to the car, which was covered thick, to nobody’s surprise. At least, it started just fine and we could drive away with no issue.

The drive was what you’d expect after a major snow storm. While it’s just 28 km, less than 20 miles, it requires going up to Kicking Horse Pass and then down into the valley of the Bow river. Just to tell you how steep it is, the railway connection from Golden to Calgary had to be built over the pass, and necessitated two corkscrew, Spiral Tunnels cut into the mountainside, one to the North and one to the South of the valley. The trains would enter the tunnel, do a fully loop, and find themselves at the exit slightly higher (or lower) the where they got in.

The drive was uneventful, and the parking was unproblematic. The lot was a little over a mile from the highway, easy to find, and plenty large enough for the amount of cars. Things might get busier, but at this point, we only needed three minutes to walk to the lodge.

It was still high holiday in Canada, and the lifts were crowded. As mentioned, the parking lot was not, so most of the people must have stayed overnight or bussed in. We quickly familiarized ourselves with the layout and started boarding the least crowded chair. We first wanted to get an idea of what the snow was like.

Now, as with many resorts built in glacial valleys, Lake Louise suffers from the U-shape associated with them. The bottom is flat, the top is steep. The lodge fans out into three lifts: Juniper is a short lift that gets to a lower mountain location (and had no lines). Glacier is a mid-mountain lift, and Grizzly gets most of the way to the top. There is another express lift on the front side, a six-pack from the top of Glacier, named (aptly) Top of the World.  A short quad accessible from the top of Top of the World (Summit) gets you a little farther and allows access to the West Bowl.

On the other side, two lifts (Paradise and Ptarmigan) churn skiers on the back bowl. Paradise is a double black heaven, while Ptarmigan offers some amazing tree runs. To round it all off, a second mountain is accessed by an express lift, Larch.


GCSA Kicking Horse


Let me shorten the experience for you: What A Let Down.

We woke up in the morning. Tim, who isn’t a hardcore snowboard aficionado, decided he wasn’t going up the mountain, but I thought it dumb to be in Golden, BC and not at least try out the local and pretty well-known ski resort. I had low expectations, based on layout and map, and I knew it was going to be mobbed.

Tim drove me up. You get to the Bluebird Cafe, continue along the river until you cross it on a very unconventional, one-lane bridge that looks almost made to block you for hours if you time things wrong (that is, if you try to cross during resort rush hours). If you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that at times, the water under the bridge has two different colors for the two rivers it’s composed of (the Columbia and the Kicking Horse from which the resorts gets its name).

A swooping switchback road takes you to base lodge. Parking – as at all resorts on this trip – is free. Tim dropped me off at the ticket counter and waited for me to buy my day pass, which ended up costing an absurd $169. It was, of course, the ticket for the most crowded day of the year, so not exactly the resort’s fault.

Next, the line for the gondola. KH is not a big resort, from an infrastructure perspective, and offers only four lifts. One of them, essentially mandatory, is the gondola that gets you from bottom to the mountain top at Eagle’s Eye. The gondola is nice, wouldn’t want to sit on a chair for that duration. It comes with a downside, though, which is that you are crammed with a bunch of people into an enclosed space. Cue the sneezing and coughing. Someone was having a bad day, and it sounded like the rest of us would, too, in a few days.

I got off the gondola at the top, realizing it was highly unlikely I would get back on in a crowd like that. I also realized that that left me with only two options: stay at the mountaintop, where a second lift (Stairway to Heaven) promised hard territory, or keep doing loops at the bottom.

The drop from the gondola is simply spectacular. A wide, flat area houses a lodge and enough room for even the holiday weekend crowd. People were lining up to take pictures, strapping up and buckling in. Everywhere there was excitement.


GCSA RED Mountain


Waking Up

The night before, lost in the middle of nowhere, Tim made a harmless comment. Maybe we could go to the mountain later, noonish. I lost it: I had been sitting in the car by then for 48 hours and I wanted to snowboard. Not drive, not sleep, not explore, but snowboard.

We woke up at an unreasonable time after an unreasonably short sleep and headed to town. Trail is a small place on both sides of the Columbia, dominated by an enormous hilltop factory that looks like a medieval castle, if the architect/stonemason had decided to make it as scary as possible. The factory does gases of some kind and seems harmless, but it certainly harshes the otherwise very touristable buzz of the town.

We were on the East side of the river (which is the side with the view of the factory). In the summer, a riverside park would have given us access to a beach, but it was mid-February and a damp cold. We hit town to look for food and drink, which we found at Ferraro Foods. Then we drove on the highway up through Rossland (again, super touristy) to RED.

It was Friday by then and I still didn’t expect a lot of people. Who has ever heard of RED Mountain resort? It’s so unknown, Google Maps doesn’t even know there are lifts there.

Still, when we parked, we already had to go to secondary parking. It was fine, as it was close to the lifts, but I was not happy it might be crowded.

The Mountain(s)

RED is slightly odd in layout. The titular Red Mountain is on the far East side of the layout (all North-facing) and is not attracting any visitors. Everybody instead heads to the other two mountains, Granite and Grey.

Because of our parking, we started at Red. The lift, Red was an incredibly uncomfortable two-seater with the hitch in the middle, so that you only had the width of the seat to get on. We tried it twice: the first time, Tim almost fell off; the second one, I managed to get thrown off the chair for good. Fortunately, there was nobody interested in the chair, or I would have felt bad for slowing everybody down.

Now, Red is not terrible. There are great runs coming down, and even the trees look nice, despite being too dense and steep. It’s the kind of place that a local might want to check out: the first few times slow and cautious, and then more and more breaknecky. You know, like the Free Fall Glade at Copper. But we were not in the mood and repaired for better locations.

We hit the base lift to the middle mountain, Granite. Silverlode got us a third of the way up the mountain and was clearly a beginner lift. From there, we could explore the rest of the place. We opted to go for the slow Motherlode that got us to the top of Granite.


GCSA Schweitzer

[previous] Alright, so the first resort was technically not in Canada, and was a last second idea. I had read there was a resort on IKON right around Spokane, where I had to be, anyway. So I decided to try it out if I felt like it.

I woke up in the morning in Coeur d’Alene, checked my mojo after the mandatory six shots of espresso, and decided I was not going to spend all day moping around until I could pick up Tim at the airport. I was going snowboarding!

I had never heard of Schweitzer before, but it sounded good. It was fairly large (3000 acres or some such) and located right off a beautiful lake. I would have to drive straight North, then take a windy mountain road, and finally snowboard on what looked like a decent enough mountain.

Getting There

The drive itself started pretty dull. First, an insane strip mall that went on for miles and miles. And the drivers, I must report, seemed to be either way too slow or way too fast. Some ignored the speed limit entirely and blew past me 20 or 30 miles too fast. But others would drive on a 65 mph zone with the seats reclined back, barely making it to 45 mph in the left lane.

Things started looking up at Cocolalla Lake, where the views got much better and the traffic was more reasonable. Then you cross the lake (Pend Oreille) into Sandpoint. That’s a tourist destination if I’ve ever seen one – similar in a way, but less fancy than, Breckenridge.

You take a left on Scheitzer Basin Road, then go around a traffic circle (they made it to Idaho!), and the turn right on Boyer Road. Left again and you are on your way past the Shuttle Parking Lot up the hill. The road conditions were good enough and I didn’t want to deal with the vagaries of the shuttle schedule on my way down, so I drove.

I was hoping I could get a parking spot at the upper parking lot, especially since it was named Lakeview Parking, but no such luck, I had to get down and take a tragically icy road onto a secondary lot. The good news was that I could take the beginner lift (Musical Chair) to the main lodges and lifts.

The Mountain

Now, long story short, Schweitzer was amazing!

Long story long: After a brief ride on Musical Chair, I was already introduced to two salient facts about the place. First, the weather was extraordinarily good, and the usual fog/cloud cover was not present as it had been for much of January. Second, locals were so in love with the place, they rarely went anywhere else. I guess that was already a good start.


The Great Canada Snowboarding Adventure

The pandemic came in 2020 and ground all traveling to a halt. I had bought both IKON and EPIC passes that season, but by the beginning of March things started looking iffy. By mid-March the resorts all closed and travel, especially the international kind, had stopped. And for three years, all attempts at getting a trip together failed among successive waves of COVID-19.

Then, at the end of 2022, it looked good. There seemed to be a window of opportunity, with the world mostly immunized against the disease and quiet settling in for the moment. The war in Ukraine was going  on, but that wouldn’t prevent us from traveling between the USA and Canada. Inflation was high, but that was no different up North. So I sat down with the trusted Tim and we hashed out a plan.

There was only IKON, no EPIC this season. That meant no Whistler. But there were tons of other resorts in Canada that just waited to be explored, and some of them were on a long string. We could either fly into an airport, rent a car, and return it, or I could drive to a convenient location, pick up Tim, and we could drive from there on in my familiar car. The advantage of this setup: we could pack whatever we wanted, unlike the restrictions on weight and size and materials of an airplane.

Since Tim only had this many days of PTO, and I can work remotely, we decided that I was going to leave on my own, drive to Big Sky first, stay there overnight, and then pick him up. Between the possible airports, we figured that Spokane was factors cheaper than any airport in Canada. Since the first resort we wanted to hit was RED Mountain and that was just a few hours from Spokane, that seemed a good fit.

I ended up not going to Big Sky, because the drive from there to Spokane seemed too long. Instead, I visited Schweitzer Resort in Idaho – and boy am I glad I did!

Here a list of the resorts, linked with their respective pages. Resorts not on IKON are italicized.