When I first moved to the Pacific Northwest 18 years ago, a veteran outdoors writer and mentor told me, “When it has snow, Red Mountain is my favorite place to ski.” Coming from a guy who had dragged his planks all over the globe in search of good turns, such praise about a British Columbia ski area I’d never heard of made a lasting impression.
In the winters since then, I gathered scraps of information about Red — about its legendary steeps and tree-skiing, its ghostly empty slopes, the great little village of Rossland at its foot.
Still, like most people I never rallied to visit Red (now called Red Resort).
I had the usual excuses: For many Americans, Rossland isn’t particularly near anywhere, a 2.5-hour drive north of Spokane, in a region of British Columbia known as the West Kootenays. And people again told me that Red really shines only when it has plenty of snow, which can be hard to predict.
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The news that finally got me in the car came in fall 2012: The resort’s owners had embarked on the biggest ski-area expansion in North America in years. The growth spurt onto adjacent Grey Mountain has added nearly 1,000 acres of skiable terrain to the resort, accessed by a chairlift that opened this winter, including about 250 acres of additional terrain on the lower Topping Creek area that will be accessible by snowcat for $10 a run.
Lift-served terrain has ballooned from 1,685 acres to 2,682 acres, which suddenly lifts Red into the pantheon of North America’s largest ski areas. Just as important, adding Grey Mountain plumps up the tamer, intermediate offerings in a ski area whose slopes are more famous for delightfully terrifying its paying customers than coddling them.
Clearly it was time to visit, before everyone else did.
Skiing’s popularity in this corner of British Columbia goes back more than a century. In 1890 miners found gold-copper ore on 5,208-foot Red Mountain. The gold wouldn’t last, but a byproduct would: skiing.
Many who came to the mines to work were Scandinavians who brought a passion for snow and skiing. In 1947 the ski club strung one of North America’s first chairlifts on Red Mountain, cobbled from disused mining equipment.
Today Red Resort includes three mountains — Red, 6,807-foot Granite (home to most of the skiing) and 6,719-foot Grey. My buddy Scott Schell and I arrived one Thursday last winter at the perfect time: About 7 inches of snow had fallen the night before and broken a two-week snow drought.
As we rode Granite’s lower Silverlode chair, the mountain that unscrolled beneath our skis didn’t seem like much, a skein of beginner and intermediate runs. Then we transferred to the Motherlode chair, which stretches to the mountaintop, and the place got down to business. Mountain faces whiskered with hemlock and spruce and yellow cedar rose up on either side of steepening bowls.
The first person we bumped into atop the mountain was adventure skier Kasha Rigby, a friend and fellow American. We should’ve known better than to follow her. Without a warm-up run she led us into Captain Jack’s Trees, a forest of tall, silent fir and hemlock perfectly spaced for a high-velocity pas de deux with the stout trunks.
The sun had been shining for weeks, icing the old snow on other faces of the mountain, but in the shaded northeast-facing glades the snow remained cold beneath the new powder — a great example of how at Red, you can usually find better conditions by simply shifting a few degrees. Diving through the trees at highway speeds, we whooped in happiness (and in fear of meeting lumber). It was one of the best forest runs of my life.
“If they’re all like this,” I wheezed at run’s end, bent over my ski poles, thighs already howling, “I ain’t gonna last long.”
The first run wasn’t a fluke. Sprinkled generously around Red is some of the most technically challenging, and most entertaining, steep tree-skiing that I’ve done, anywhere. Take some advice before jumping in: caffeinate and wear a helmet. You’ll need the former for your reflexes and the latter when the first wears off.
Lovely and empty
So where was everybody? On the first powder day in weeks the slopes were nearly empty. Later I was told that just 1,015 people were on the slopes. (Vail averages about 6,000 daily.) An employee later confided that the best time to come here was March: Red often starts a bit slow with snowfall, but after building up a solid base the resort gets pounded by late-winter storms, he said. The mountain is so devoid of others by March that skiing then is almost creepy, he added.
One other reason for the lack of many customers has been terrain: Until the expansion, nearly half Red Resort’s trail map was dedicated to experts. Experts don’t pay the bills, however. A resort needs lesser skiers and their bucks to thrive. Yet Red has little beginner terrain (just 16 percent of its slopes), while offerings for intermediates — the bulk of skiers, and the sweet spot for a resort — have also been limited here. Adjacent Grey Mountain changes the equation with the addition of 997 acres of largely intermediate and groomable, tamed runs.
So now that Red has built Grey, will skiers finally come?
The answer isn’t so clear.
Every virtue at Red Resort cuts both ways. On the one hand, Red feels like the place you grew up skiing. One afternoon during the lunchtime “rush,” a family sprawled out on a cafeteria table playing a board game. The cashier knew almost everyone by name.
This recently renovated lodge is still, in its bones, the century-old compressor house from the Black Bear Mine, with rows of cool, old wooden lockers in the basement. Upstairs in the attic lives Rafters, one of the best ski bars around and jammed (when the lifts stop turning) with locals sitting at picnic tables and downing British Columbia’s unofficial après-ski drink, the Bloody Caesar, a Bloody Mary with Clamato (!) juice.
For its part Rossland, 2 miles down the road, is a genuine town, the four blocks of Columbia Avenue lined with stores, including a good grocery store.
No valets here
Yet the flip side of all this character is a more rough-and-ready ski experience than some prefer.
If you’re the type to winter in Sun Valley or Aspen (or who uses “winter” as a verb, for that matter) — Skier, pass by. No valet here will carry your skis or help you don your boots.
But authenticity and funkiness can take a place only so far. Not one of the seven charmingly retro lifts (even the new one) is high-speed; it takes a sometimes bone-chilling 25 minutes to reach the mountaintop from the base. That friendly ski cafeteria serves the same regrettable burgers and hot dogs you remember from your ski-bus days, eaten at the big folding tables you last saw in middle school. The sole on-hill warming spot, Paradise Lodge, serves up still more not-worth-it food, and its restrooms are plywood stalls above pit toilets.
None of this fazes you? Great. Then Red is the place for you — as it was for me.
Still, let’s hope they don’t start serving appletinis on the menu at Rafters in lieu of Bloody Caesars.