Revelstoke, B.C. has it all: heli-skiing, cat-skiing, backcountry skiing, and a 3,121-skiable-acre resort with 5,620 vertical feet of pure B.C. pow for the shredding.
It began as many things do, on a wild promise. Rooted in British Columbia's inland temperate rainforest, at the edge of the foreboding Selkirk Range, was Mount Mackenzie.
With 5,620 vertical feet of elevation to the valley floor—where the Columbia River cuts through an expansive flow of wetlands that stoke a brooding microclimate—and 34.4 feet of annual snowfall, the proposition of a ski resort here was one of mythic proportions. So when, in 2003, a group of real-estate investors tabled a master plan for a billion-dollar ski resort that would supplant Powder Springs (a humble subalpine ski hill etched onto Mount Mackenzie’s skirt, above a 7,500- person blue-collar Victorian burg with affordable land), those in the know tuned in sharply. CMH and Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing had been based out of the same locale for years, along with a cat-ski operation called Cat Powder Skiing Inc., which milked the upper reaches of Mount Mackenzie. Revelstoke Mountain Resort (RMR), as it would be dubbed, would absorb the cat-skiing, build out to have the longest vertical drop in North America, with more skiable acres than Whistler, and private mansions with personal heliports strewn across it. It wasn’t just going to be a mega resort, it was going to be snow-sliding deliverance.
In 2007, that dream came true. At least the beginnings of it. RMR bought Selkirk Tangiers, relaunched Cat Powder Skiing Inc., and then spun its new lifts (all two of them) for the first time, laying out the triple-pronged proof of its prophesied bounty in absolute terms. The booming terrain, the massive snowfalls, the easy living, it was all real. Media swarmed, pro skiers moved in (along with their followers), and property prices skyrocketed.
Then, in 2008, the global economy collapsed. Real estate prices fell back to earth, and RMR narrowly missed going bankrupt. One of the resort’s investors, Northland Properties, stepped in to become majority owner of the resort and save it. Financial realism would temper development from then on. Twelve years later, and the resort has just gotten around to cracking phase two with a small but crucial lift called the Stellar Chair, which links two existing zones. And while the opulent dreams and extremely aggressive timelines of the original developers may lay crushed under 10 feet of snowpack, in their place, something far more lasting has grown.
RMR, with its modest lift system, insane vertical, deep and stable snow, and unending terrain, came at a time when skiers were seeking wilder experiences. The types who came to Revelstoke didn’t want creature comforts, appreciated the minimalism of the resort, and fawned at its myriad powder extensions. The quaint town supporting it—which, since the 1880s had revolved around the railroad, forestry, and (later) hydroelectric dams— quickly developed a new identity. Leagues of young people and entrepreneurs moved in, and a symbiosis with backcountry culture came to redefine the place.
Today, Revelstoke is home to four heli-ski and three cat-ski operations, and over a dozen others orbiting within a 150-mile radius. It’s likewise the staging point for 11 backcountry lodges, and—between the storied heights of Rogers Pass (40 miles east) and the up-to-10,000-foot local peaks— accesses more vertical relief and more ski-touring and ski-mountaineering options than you could tap in a lifetime. Only 12 years after RMR opened, the secret is out: Revelstoke is the most well-rounded adventure-skiing destination on Planet Earth.
Following Christina Lustenberger down the steep, groomed highway of RMR’s Snow Rodeo after a solid eight hours evading sluff in Montana and Kokanee Bowls (both sidecountry), her ex-racer legs carve as impressively into corduroy as they did the blower powder above. RMR’s fall-line groomers are nearly as hair-raising as the undulating faces and couloirs that feed into them. Lusti, as she’s known, moved here in 2008 as a ski coach, but was quickly shaped into one of the world’s strongest ski mountaineers thereafter, not to mention a renowned Canadian ski guide.
“The neat thing I’d say about the first two or three seasons that the resort was open was all the inbounds terrain was new to everyone,” the 34-year-old tells me over coffee. “So it was kind of this exploratory frenzy where everybody was figuring out the little pockets, how the resort flowed. The first year I was here I was really interested in all the terrain that was around the ski hill. Then I started [ski touring] in Rogers Pass and that was super exciting.”
“We're so lucky here, there's vast, vast amounts of terrain."
How much that exploratory ethos helped shape Revelstoke, and how much Revelstoke helped shape it, is a chicken-and-egg question. Lusti’s quick to point out there’s a reason the heli-ski industry was the first to find Revelstoke, over 40 years ago. Then the Canadian Avalanche Association and Avalanche Canada in 1981 and 2004, respectively, because of the concentration of backcountry operations that spiraled out from it as an epicenter.
“We’re in this little bubble of really good snow,” she explains, “plus we have a huge elevation band of skiing, so we don’t lose many days. The Coast doesn’t really have reliable tree skiing. And then you go to the [Canadian] Rockies and they have less snow. We’re able to ski on poor weather days, and then we also have the alpine. We’re so lucky here, there’s vast, vast amounts of terrain.”
Albeit enormous, RMR is just one microcosm of that. It’s hard to tell where the inbounds terrain ends and the backcountry begins. There are cat roads leading off to the south and helicopters flying overhead. Rope lines marking the in-bounds areas are critical—especially given the frequency of blinding storms.'
From the top of the Stoke Chair, it’s a 15- minute hike to the subpeak of Mount Mackenzie. Once here you can drop south, into the soft- sloped tree runs of the frontside; or north, into the aptly named North Bowl, where steep chutes feed into gladed benches of pillows and cliffs. To your right, seasoned sidecountry connoisseurs will descend Brown Shorts—the king of local couloirs—and be spat back down into Greely Bowl at the boundary line. Stay in the glades from here and you’ll end up at the Ripper Chair (a long time later). While the groomers under this quad are mellow, they’re still premium. You’ll have to spin back to the frontside to get home, though, where—on the way—you can descend flowing runs like Kill the Banker (2,854 vertical feet), and really finish off your muscle fibers.
Stepping out of the heli, you’re presented with 3,500 feet of knee-deep champagne, sagging like a sheet hung up on the trunks of old-growth cedars.
As you tip your skis forward and braid turns with Eriks Suchovs, the cold smoke whips up like ropes of vapor and ecstasy takes over—it’s effortless. Suchovs, a 38-year veteran guide at Selkirk Tangiers, and general manager, doesn’t get out in the field as much as he used to, but when he does it’s for this run: Outsolation. It finishes at the edge of the glassy Akolkolex River, where fish swim in exposed pools. It’s like a jungle, but cast in snow.
For Suchovs, runs like this, and heli-skiing in general, are baked into Revelstoke’s DNA. They foreshadowed the rise of the town as the adventure outpost it is today. “We helped make the success of the resort,” he says, “because Revelstoke heli-skiing was so well known already, it made sense [for investors] to put a resort here.”
When RMR bought Selkirk Tangiers, they were tapping a 41-year legacy. In the last decade, though, Revelstoke heli-skiing—once only the province of niche powder seekers with deep pockets—has come to appeal to a whole new kind of skier. The naturally progressive features of Mount Mackenzie have opened the doors of curiosity to people from all over the world, and made it viable to mix and match. You don’t have to do a pure heli-ski trip anymore, you can also ski the resort, or go backcountry skiing, and still have a full trip without paying to fly every single day.
“We find we get a lot of experienced guests now,” Suchovs says, “RMR really attracts a stronger skier. A lot of skiers are a lot more aware. They’re coming to us with some good backcountry skills, and that builds the guide’s confidence, and that makes for a better experience.”
Thirty-three miles west, in the Monashee Mountains, Kris Moore is experiencing the same cross-pollination of his business. Surrounded by clam-shell like faces and burnt forests that serve as nature’s best glades, he co-founded K3 Cat Ski in 2008—the same year the resort opened. “Revelstoke has always been the center of the ski world,” he says, “but then when the ski hill expanded it popped up on everyone’s radar internationally. … They got bigger, we got bigger, people discovered them, people discovered us, and away it went.”
K3, like all other operators, is booked solid a year or two in advance now for all but day skiing. Business is booming enough they’ve just opened a new lodge for winter 2020. They also have plans to move into the ski- touring market, too. They’ll soon open two backcountry ski-touring huts in a quiet, deep corner of their tenure. “Once you get that critical mass,” Moore explains, “they’re not just coming to do a trip with us or do a trip to the ski hill, they’re doing the whole neighborhood.”
The whole neighborhood, around Revelstoke, increasingly means self-powered skiing, too. Snowsports Industries America (SIA) consistently reports ski-touring gear as the fastest-growing category of equipment sales. And while in Revelstoke you can do a day trip to Rogers Pass (the birth place of North American mountaineering) or hit the sidecountry around RMR (both world-class trips)—more people are looking for fully immersive experiences when they earn their turns.
“It’s the magic,” Marty Schaffer explains, his thighs bursting from uptracking—nearly as big as his famous perma-smile. Schaffer’s family owns Blanket Glacier Chalet, a classic A-frame cabin due west from RMR in the Monashee Mountains. He operates the fly-in hut via his guiding company, CAPOW, and says it’s like a modern meditation retreat.
Spend four days offline, crunching snow under your skins, navigating the alpine, and feel more online than you ever have. Schaffer (an ACMG-accredited ski guide) says climbing to your runs and keeping your wits about you makes you more connected than any other form of skiing. But he’s sober about the fact that, locally, ski touring feeds off the same energy that supports the whole industry.
“It’s at a point now where you specialize in certain things,” he tells me. “CMH, K3, even the ski hill, they don’t provide guiding in Rogers Pass, so they give that to the local guides. Eagle Pass [Heliski] sends guests my way all the time. And I don’t have a heli-skiing tenure [so I do the same]. A lot of visitors who come to town want the diversity, they don’t want one thing or the other.”
Though it may seem a rapid shift, Revelstoke has been primed to become what it is for a long time. The last spike in the transcontinental railway (the namesake for the longest groomer on RMR) was driven just 30 miles west, in Craigellachie, in 1885. The nearest whistle-stop then adopted the curious name of the British financier who finished the final stretch: Revelstoke. The railway then brought with it the first instances of mountain tourism in North America, on the glaciers of Rogers Pass. Two national parks came next: Glacier (in Rogers Pass) in 1886, and Mount Revelstoke (which is actually adjacent to RMR) in 1914. Then, in 1962 the Trans-Canada Highway opened the flood gates to even more visitors. In the 1980s, two major dams went in on the Columbia River north of town, creating a hydroelectric boom, and kickbacks for the community. In 1986, Revelstoke took one of those economic injections ($2.8 million) and used it to beautify its downtown core, installing stoic statues of bears at the entrance and exit to town, gussying up the streets with trees, and cobbling a central plaza. Since then, downtown has frequently been used as a set for Hallmark holiday films. It was, in effect, pre-destined to attract people from around the world.
Nowadays, it’s the definition of hip. You can get a killer Americano with steamed almond milk at La Baguette or The Modern, a locally distilled cocktail at Monashee Distillery, fusion Mexican food at The Taco Club, or hoity-toity fare at The Quarter Master. There’s music, festivals, performances, broadband internet, a co-working space for digital nomads, and new businesses popping up all the time. In the early days of the resort, the Freeride World Tour helped spread the word. In recent years, the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes have opened a lot of Americans’ eyes.
Meanwhile, the town, which, through various councils, has resolved to maintain its blue-collar authenticity, has struggled to keep up with the rush of recent appeal. With 2008 now a distant memory, property prices are climbing drastically once again. In 2019, the average price of a single-family home increased more in Revelstoke than any other town in British Columbia, by 18 percent, following on the heels of 19.6 percent the prior year. Though the Canadian census counts the population as 6,719, data from Telus, the company that owns the local cell towers, says it’s actually 14,570. Revelstoke is on the cusp of swelling beyond its shell. As is RMR. But a renewed phase of thoughtful development is stepping in to help.
As RMR pushes into phase two, for example, staff housing will become part of the matrix. In 2018, they also shuttered Revelstoke Cat Skiing and sent their machines south to support Great Northern Snow Cat Skiing near the resort. Too many ski-tourers were using the cat-skiing terrain, and the resort would eventually put lifts there anyway, so it made sense to close it down. RMR now offers pickups for day cat-skiers right at the resort, and partners with Revelstoke Backcountry Guides to offer guided ski tours in the former cat-ski terrain.
Then there’s the Stellar Chair, which launched phase two of Revelstoke’s growth—signaling a renewed proof of commitment. Lusti, for her part, says it’s a conceptual evolution. She’s excited for what the newly minted lift represents: a reframed forward thrust.
“I think it’s really exciting,” she says. “It’s a good move. This lift may seem boring to many hard-charging locals, but I think it’s much needed. It’s going to help with the flow of the ski hill. It’s going to open up terrain for intermediate skiers and families and kids and get them off the tricky [runs].”
According to a revised master plan (as of April 2019), the next 10 years will include five other lifts, including one to South Bowl, and improved access to North Bowl, as well as increased capacity on the existing Revelation Gondola. There will likewise be new hotels and residences, a conference center, and summer facilities. And while that might sound antithetical to the minimalism of yore, the new plan follows the guiding light of the mountain’s natural draws. It will open up endless new corners to explore, and only introduce more people to the experiences at the bleeding edge of the resort. Because at the end of it all, adventure will always remain the driving force in Revelstoke.
Or, as Schaffer puts it, “I know Revelstoke will never become a Whistler, because the brand is just a lot more core.”
Revelstoke, B.C. Trip Planning
Getting to Revelstoke
- Revelstoke’s closest airport is Kelowna International, with nonstops from Seattle, Vancouver, Toronto, and more. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive to the resort. The Stoke shuttle costs $114 CAD per person each way and must be reserved in advance.
Stay and Dine
- Sutton Place is ski-in/ski-out with a few eateries, heated pool and hot tubs, and a spa. Explorer’s Society houses nine rooms in a 1911 building in the heart of downtown. For tasty wood-fired pizzas, try Nico’s. Stop by Taco Club for amazing street tacos and Bierhaus for creative mac- n-cheese and the best craft beers in town. Breakfast? Eggs Benny at Main Street Café.
- For details on Selkirk Tangiers Heli-Skiing, Great Northern Snowcat Skiing, and guided backcountry options, visit revelstokemountainresort.com.
Trends: Chasing Broadband
It’s not terribly surprising that water is responsible for nearly all of British Columbia’s winter bounty, from sculpting the mountains, to stoking the microclimates that deliver intense dumps of snow.
But it’s also responsible for the newest wave of destination-goers, or, rather, destination-stayers bunking down in the province. In 2012, the Columbia Basin Trust—an organization funded by the royalties that flow from the U.S. to Canada via the Columbia River, whose hydroelectric dams power more than 40 percent of the Pacific Northwest—brought fiber optic internet to the Kootenays. With it came a whole new class of tourist.
Thanks to booming broadband, a raft of cafés, and two co-working spaces, Revelstoke has become a hub for digital nomads who can take their work on the fly. These days it’s a destination that draws remote workers on extended stays from places like Seattle, San Francisco, and Boulder, as well as from across Canada and Europe. Whether working in the tech industry proper, or just tech-enabled by modern technology, the nature of work is ever more contract–based and freelance, and more and more skiers are capitalizing during the snowy months. Mountain CoLab Cooperative, a co-working space in downtown Revelstoke, reports that it surges from 40 members in the offseason to over 70 during the winter months. So if you’re dreaming of a mountain vacation this season and have a laptop and a flexible work schedule, you could well make it a staycation yourself.
Written by Matt Coté for Ski Magazine and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured image provided by Ski Magazine