For the past week, I was in the Kootenays, skiing at Panorama Mountain Resort, a place I have wanted to ski at for a very, very long time. (That is true of many ski resorts in North America, however.) I cannot say enough positive things about the resort and I would strongly encourage you to go there if you are a skier.
Saturday February 3, 2018
We took the train to the airport as we normally do now, since it is the best combination of convenience and cost in traveling to Pearson. I would just like to say publicly something which I think every time I take the UP: that we really need a tunnel between Dundas West and the UP. But you knew that. (It is a testament to Toronto’s inability to plan anything that a tunnel was not built as part of the GO station being built at Dundas and Bloor, whenever the hell that was built. There’s literally no reason beyond budget that I can imagine it was not built.)
It was an early afternoon flight so we had to eat at the airport. I had a “shwarma” which was much closer to a chicken caesar.
The flight was fine but when we landed in Calgary, curing a massive snow storm, we got worried. We heard that Deerfoot Trail (i.e. the main north-south highway) was closed and other roads as well. We would later learn that there hundreds of traffic accidents that day, possibly a record for the most in a single day in the history of Calgary. So, it was bad.
My step-father drove through what seemed like the worst of it: squalls and white-outs in and around Calgary. It had taken us some time to get the car and some time to get out of the city (in the snow) so it was pretty dark by the time we got to Canmore, to get groceries and eat dinner.
I took over at Canmore. Initially, I was relieved to see the storm had stopped. Driving between Canmore and Banff was as pleasant as winter driving in the mountains at night can be. But have you ever crossed the Rockies in white out conditions in the dark? Because I have! The Kootenay Highway (known by other names as well) is probably not something you should drive during a snow storm, or high winds, at night without snow tires. But we did! And we made it. To be honest, it wasn’t as stressful as driving in Montenegro, in part simply because the road is incredibly wide and we were the only car heading southwest on it that we saw for the entire 100K-ish stretch. But probably drive this during the day. When it’s open…
By the time we switched driver’s again, we were almost out of the park and the temperature had risen a huge amount. (It was -20 something in Alberta, -5 in BC.) The rest of the drive looked easy. But we still got to Panorama after 10PM Alberta time. (It turns out the Columbia River valley is the only part of southern BC which is on Alberta time. I had mistakenly assumed the time would jump back an hour.)
We stayed at an incredible two bedroom condo right next to the village gondola, the kind I couldn’t have possibly afforded on my own. The place was massive and it’s hard to convey the convenience of the place, even if I direct you to this map and say that it was in the building 25-32 by the river. A large, comfy apartment with a full kitchen, two bathrooms, three TVs, and a patio with a BBQ, it was steps away from the gondola to the lifts. It was both really close to everything and far enough away from the main resort area as to be very, very quiet. In a word, it was ideal.
Even with the time change, we quickly fell asleep.
Note: I am doing a single blog entry because, at this point, I stopped taking notes, the notes I usually take on my vacation. I did this for the simple reason that I was very, very tired all the time, as may become apparent.
Sunday February 4, 2018
We all woke up early because of the time change. We bought groceries the night before so that we could make our own breakfasts, which proved to be a very good idea, since none of the restaurants would be open at the time we regularly woke up.
We eventually headed up the gondola to the main resort (or “upper village”) and got our tickets and rental equipment. The tickets at Panorama are RFID cards you keep in your pocket, a kind of brilliant idea which mostly works. No more folding your sticky ticket over a metal ring; no more attaching your ticket to a plastic tie in a position the liftie can scan. Instead, you walk through a scanner. It works most of the time, though I sometimes had to take it out of my pocket.
I went up the hill and realized that, for the first time in my life, I would my glasses to ski. Yes, I am getting old(er). I don’t own goggles that go over glasses and the store was sold out, so I had to make do. Fortunately, it was not a cold week, so it was okay that I had ill-fitting equipment. (I bought a new coat during Boxing Week and my gloves don’t quite fit under the sleeves. No matter.)
I do not know where to start with Panorama: not only is it the 6th highest lift-served resort in North America (!!!), it is also one of the 20 largest. (I would like to point out that I have now skied at 3 of the Top 10 tallest resorts in North America and 2 of the Top 3.) But that wouldn’t necessarily matter if there were crowds, like at Whistler, or even at Jackson Hole. I mean, size is great, but if you spend a lot of time in lift lines, it’s less great. (I keep hearing rumours Whistler is just awful now for lines.)
Well, Panorama is empty. We started skiing on a Sunday and it was empty. We were told it would be emptier and Monday, and though it wasn’t as empty as we were led to believe, it was still unbelievably fucking empty. They got 1,200+ skiers on Sunday, at a resort that is roughly 2,800 acres. That was a busy day. Think about that for a second. That’s over 2 acres per person if everyone was evenly distributed. Given that many of these people are mostly on the baby runs and the lower blue squares, and nearly none of them make it up to the Summit Chair, this amounts to an empty resort, where you and your friends are often the only people on a run, especially if you walk into the Taynton Bowl. I cannot convey in words how empty this place is, or the incredible feeling of essentially skiing by yourself. I think I waited a total of 5-7 minutes in line over the entire four days.
For lunch, we decided not to eat in the lodge because, even though the mountain was empty, the lodge was not. (We were eating at 12 because of my girlfriend’s lesson. Normally I would eat later to avoid crowds, though during the week at Panorama it’s not necessary.) We then went to the other lunch place, and it was busy enough that we went to the bar. The bar would become our recurring lunch place because it wasn’t that expensive or busy, and the food was better.
One of the side effects of never waiting in line for lifts is you do a lot of runs. So we didn’t make it all the way until the lifts closed and we would never. Though I trained for this for the previous 3 weeks, every day would make me regret not training for 3 months. I was very, very sore (though very happy).
It turns out that there is a sort of mock hot spring at Panorama, that you can use if you’re a guest of the resort. So this and every night save one, we headed up to the outdoor hot pools to try to recover.
For dinner, we headed to the restaurant at the heli skiing building. Like another restaurant here, it was hard to find. But once we found it, we had an excellent meal. In addition to there being no people the restaurants at the resort are consistently good and not outrageous (as long as you are used to prices in Toronto or Vancouver).
I barely made it past 10 due to the time change but mostly due to tiredness. I did try some local beers (and would all week) which probably helped me fall asleep earlier.
Monday February 5, 2018
I woke up super early again, so that meant we got up on the runs earlier. The result was that we did more today. (My brother’s app calculated an extra 10 or 12 k, but that includes lifts.) I will mention that all week I felt kind of beat up: I felt my age and the fact that I hadn’t skied out west in 5 years (and skied at all in 3). Though I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I felt out-classed more than I expected. I am thinking I may take a lesson next time I find myself on such a big mountain as, the older I get, the harder I am finding it to just power through the powder without actual technique. (Learning to ski in Ontario, you do not learn how to ski powder. Ever.)
For lunch we went to the main lodge and, though the food was better than normal for a ski lodge, they inexplicably have more chairs than they need for tables, so it’s quite cramped even when it’s half full. We resolved not to eat there again because we had options.
Skied more in the afternoon and got more tired. I believe this was the best day, if I remember correctly, with lots of fresh snow. After we went to the pools.
For dinner, we drove to the Golf Course. The three people who had recommended it to use neglected to inform us that it was closed Mondays and Tuesdays. So we got lost in a place you can’t really get lost in, and eventually returned to the village. Instead, we went to the main restaurant and had a nice meal for a reasonable amount of money for a resort.
After dinner, my girlfriend and I went to the bar and tried a few more of the local brews. (There is a brewery in Invermere, which is a 20 minute drive away, as well as another in Fernie.)
I think I made it to 10:30 tonight.
Tuesday February 6, 2018
We got up early again. I felt my age right before lunch, worrying about a knee that might have been twisted. Fortunately, after lunch in the bar, it wasn’t bothering me.
After skiing, there were the hot pools yet again. And a trip to the same restaurant as the night before, simply because everything else was either closed or we’d already been there. (Take Out pizza was apparently out of the question.)
Wednesday February 7, 2018
When my brother and I went to Jackson Hole five years ago, we ran out of steam. So we decided to take a break this time, giving ourselves a day off during the week. On this day off, we decided to go to Radium Hot Springs, not having realized that we would have hot pools at Panorama.
Because Radium doesn’t open until 1PM on weekdays during the winter, we had a really lazy morning. Then, we headed to Radium. I remembered seeing lots of buildings in the town and suggested we eat there instead of Invermere. That proved to be a mistake.
Though there is a major ski resort in the area, this part of the Columbia Valley is mostly a summer destination and that means that most of the restaurants are closed. We debated about where to eat among the open ones and eventually settled on a pizza place. The place was freezing – it was clear the heat was either not on very high to save money or was not sufficient to heat the space – and it was staffed by one person, who made both of our pizzas. I have no idea how long we waited to eat, but it was probably close to an hour. (Fortunately, the pizzas were fine.) Sometimes we in urban areas forget what the rest of the country is like. We’re used to everything being done as quickly as possible and lots of attention being paid to things other than food. Sometimes people don’t have that option. This guy is probably just trying to pay his rent by staying open when there aren’t many customers.
Next, we went to the hot springs. The hot pools at Panorama had spoiled us for hot water, and the slightly cooler main pool was disappointing to nearly everyone, all of whom have a higher tolerance for heat than me. Fortunately, there was a boiling hot hot tub for those people who wanted to be scalded. I put a leg in it.
For dinner, we went to the Golf Course and had an excellent meal. Also: flights! The beer wasn’t amazing but I will always take a flight over a pint, especially at $8.
Thursday February 8, 2018
Even with a break, the last day of skiing was pretty rough. Lots of fresh snow made it hard on my legs, even if it made the conditions better at the top. Unfortunately, it was pretty warm at the bottom, leading to wet snow and borderline ice. Also, it was super foggy at times. But I had a better afternoon, as everything dried up a bit.
In the evening, we went to the only independent restaurant we went to on the resort grounds. It was fine but surprisingly wasn’t up to the standards of the resort (though not every one of us felt that way).
Sometime during Thursday we all independently learned that the Kootenay Highway (AB/BC 93), which I drove through snow squalls on Saturday, was closed because of the snow this day. We began planning an alternate route, through Golden, BC, which someone told us was an extra two hours. (A quick Google showed it was, as expected, an additional hour.)
Friday February 9, 2018
We woke up early in anticipation of driving to Golden and then taking the Trans Canada via Golden to Banff. However, we soon discovered it was closed, both directions. The good news is that the BC Highway website was saying the Kootenay Highway had been opened around 6AM, just before we got up, so we decided on a plan:
- Leave as early as we can
- Check the Kootenay Highway situation in Radium
- If the Kootenay Highway is closed, we would drive to Golden and try to wait out the weather.
- If the Trans Can opened, we’d try to make it to our flight and, if not, we’d get as far as we could (hopefully Calgary) and then find a hotel as close to the airport as possible, because we’d likely be on standby.
- If it never opened, we’d have to find somewhere in Golden or Radium to stay, and then try to get to Calgary as early as possible on Saturday to figure out the flight situation.
But none of this was necessary: we got to Radium and the highway was closed! But not due to weather, due to an accident. Within 7 minutes we were slowly moving up the road and within maybe 25 minutes we were past the accident. We then had a pretty uneventful drive over the road that was barely passable on Saturday. This time we got to appreciate the view. (Also, what had appeared to be a high mountain road in the dark was much more of a valley road in reality.)
We switched drivers in Banff and made it to the airport with plenty of time. However, due to the accident it was a good thing we left as early as we did.
Just like our flight out, our light in was a little late due to weather at our destination and it was 11PM EST before we got home.
Panorama is empty because it is inaccessible. Unless you can get an expensive, relatively infrequent flight to the airport in Cranbrook, you have to fly to Calgary and the drive is a bit of an iffy proposition. That’s why this wonderful resort is far from busy. Highly recommended if you are willing to make the trek.