ROSSLAND, British Columbia — At Red Mountain Resort in British Columbia, you can catch a ride on a snowcat to wild, ungroomed terrain for less than the cost of a hamburger.
You can also get a free mountain tour from a volunteer guide, sleep in a bed at a hostel near the base for a pittance, or get toasty in a barrel-shaped, slope-side wooden sauna with a bubble window that looks out over the mountain.
Regardless, you probably won’t get stuck in a crowd.
Here’s the deal with Red Mountain: It doesn’t attract throngs of people. It doesn’t even seem to want to. In 2009, the off-the-beaten-ski-trail resort created a marketing video featuring an obviously hung-over guy in a business suit lamenting "this crappy ski hill I’m staying at," and complaining about the slow lifts (well, maybe a little, but who cares), the crowded slopes (far from it) and the "fake trees" (they are not). The video, youtube.com/watch?v=T7Z0MBLHF20, went viral, and the tongue-in-cheek, nothing-to-see-here mantra stuck.
In winter 2018, the ironically-named Nowhere Special hostel (it’s quite special) opened at the base area, a 7-minute drive from the town of Rossland, offering tidy rooms, a modern community kitchen, and a slopeside location for as little as $40 Canadian (about $30 U.S. as of this writing) per bed a night.
About the same time, the upscale Josie Hotel (where I stayed) also swung open its doors within seed-spitting distance of the chairlifts. Coincidentally, the Josie’s only sister property, The Stella, is located in College Station, Texas.
I was ladling water over a pile of hot rocks inside the wooden sauna out back of the Josie when I met Cristi Sullivan and Drue Kerns from Missoula, Montana, who invited me to ski with them the next day. I accepted.
That’s how I ended up on the snowcat. My new friends and I barreled around a snow-spackled, pine tree-lined bend and discovered the menacing-looking machine, which is built to safely climb steep, frozen slopes. We climbed into the cabin along with a dozen other folks and forked over $10 Canadian (about $7.50 U.S.) for the lift.
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Red Mountain is the one of the few places I know where you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars for a cat-skiing experience. The next best deal, as far as I can tell, is Powder Mountain in Utah, which offers snowcat skiing for $25 U.S. per ride.
The snowcat operates, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily, and accesses only advanced terrain. No reservations are needed.
A 15-minute ride delivered us to the bald top of the Kirkup Mountain, where we clambered out, popped on our skis, and dove into 200 acres of ungroomed snow. That bombs-away run through the glades, which spilled us 20 minutes later onto a marked run, turned out so well — meaning I didn’t wipe out too badly — that we headed off to some even trickier terrain.
That’s the advantage of skiing in packs. Sullivan, an anesthesiologist, used to compete in ski racing. Kerns, a horseback riding instructor, likes to go fast and steep. Both provided support and reassurance as I tested my limits.
We skipped lunch, ate cookies Kerns had stuffed in her pockets, and kept skiing. We dipped into the glades. We blasted — some of us more slowly than others — down Capt. Jack’s Trees, a steep, tree-dotted swathe of mountain.
Then we finished with beers on the outdoor patio of The Josie Hotel, where a trio of French Canadian women, also tough and spirited, pulled up chairs. They’d spent the day hiking up to terrain that’s not served by lifts, then swooshing down. Their husbands were off at the grocery store, getting food to cook dinner.
We got a laugh out of that, and talked about how Red Mountain seems to attract athletic, independent women, and how we liked the low-key vibe of the place.
"The mountains are legit," Sullivan said. "The lift-access back country is plentiful, and there’s every type of terrain."
Without further ado, things I love about Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, British Columbia:
The "snow host" program. Local skiers and snowboarders give free mountain tours to visitors daily. Just head to the base area to meet one at 9 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. It might be a few folks in your group, or it might be just you. Seriously, do this. It’s fantastic.
Powder stashes. Red Mountain Resort is the first stop on what’s known as the Powder Highway, and it’s known for never ending pow.
No crowds. All that snow and so few people translate into what’s known locally as Powder Per Person, or PPP. "You get up there and it’s like you’re the only person on the mountain," says Kylie Lakevold of Rossland Tourism. "You can always find something that hasn’t been skied yet."
Great terrain. The resort spans 3,850 skiable acres with eight lifts. The breakdown? Seventeen percent beginner, 34 percent intermediate, 23 percent advanced and 26 percent expert. I peeked over the edge of some of the gnarliest couloirs I’ve ever seen — and then backed carefully away.
The wooden, barrel-shaped saunas located on the back steps of the fabulous Josie Hotel. After a day of skiing, change into a swimsuit, wrap yourself in a robe (provided), and slip inside one of these cozy, steam-filled cocoons, where you can heat up your sore muscles and look out a round, bubble-shaped window at the mountain. Free to hotel guests.
The glades! Red is known for its glade skiing, and in some areas the lower branches have been trimmed off the trees. That makes it easy to slice and dice your way through zippy little tree-packed swathes without getting hung up on twigs and berries.
The Winter Carnival. Under normal circumstances, the longest-running winter carnival in Canada (and there are lots of them) takes place here each January. A highlight is the bobsled race, in which locals make homemade bobsleds out of everything from canoes and cardboard boxes to old snowmobiles, then race them down the steepest street in town.
The town of Rossland, a 7-minute drive from the mountain, which started as an actual mining town, so it’s got real grit and character. (Plus an amazing chocolate shop, a great restaurant called the Flying Steamshovel, and a wonderful little museum.)
The access. From Austin, I flew through Salt Lake City and on to Spokane, Washington. From there, I caught the Kootenay Gateway Shuttle for the three-hour drive to Red Mountain.
The exchange rate! A Canadian dollar is worth about 75 cents to the American dollar. It’s like getting everything on sale!
Red Mountain Resort is taking steps to ensure the safety and health of its guests for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19. Learn more at redresort.com.