Out There is a column for the Telegraph that focuses on adventures outside of the Mountain Kingdom [editor's note: is there anything beyond Wedding Cake corner and the Nancy Green Junction? We've all heard the rumours, but I thought they were just rural myths...] Without sounding too Star Trek-like, our mission is to seek out new life and boldly go where probably lots of people have gone before, and maybe a few spots where they haven’t. This week Andrew Zwicker explores the Rocky Mountain Trench. For more photos click here
What a difference a decade and a second look can make to one’s impressions. If you had asked me a month ago what I thought about the likes of Panorama Resort, Radium or the Rocky Mountain Trench, my response wouldn’t have been overly positive. I’ve often said that Panorama was probably the most boring ski resort in the west with nothing but endlessly long hard pack groomers and not much snow. Kind of like a super-sized Quebec ski resort. I’d probably tell you that Radium was nothing more than a roadside strip mall of kitschy tourist traps and the Rocky Mountain Trench itself a long straight road to nowhere.
Just prior to Christmas this year, in a rare break from work, I got the chance to rediscover the trench for the first time in ten years. Needless to say, from now on my answer to what my impressions of this east Kootenay wilderness will now be dramatically different.
Following a stormy drive through Kootenay Pass, we visited with old friends in Kimberley and had an outstanding opening day at the ski hill filled with better than knee deep powder on the virgin Vimy Ridge, Black Forest and Tamarack Ridge zones that had yet to see skis this winter. Kimberley is similar and yet opposite in many ways to Rossland; the most overwhelming difference seemed to be the in your face friendliness and welcoming spirit that was rampant throughout town. Facing similar challenges to those we face here in Rossland, Kimberley appears to have both embraced the resort development as well as kept a strong focus on the important things that make up a community. The pedestrian-only downtown “Platzl” and the charming Bavarian heritage feel of the downtown core showed a vibrant community full of locals and tourists alike enjoying one another’s company. The integration of resort and town in Kimberley, while still in progress, has achieved a relatively seamless transition. Driving from downtown to the base of the lifts, there was no stark change in architecture as the resort and town blended together into one cohesive unit.
Heading north from Kimberley, the highway up the trench is still as straight as ever. The views on the other hand are absolutely breathtaking and without a straight road one could easily be lured in by the magnificent Purcells to the west and Rockies to the east and find themselves in the ditch. While Radium still has a bit of a highway-side strip feel to it, we ventured further afield from the highway this time around. Between dodging and saying hello to the mule deer that happily walk the streets of town we found our way down a winding, tree-lined road through the Radium Springs Golf course to Big Horn Meadows Resort. Far from being a luxury traveller and often spending more time in tents and yurts than hotels and condos, I found Big Horn Meadows an absolutely stunning home base to explore the surrounding terrain from.
As was a theme of the trip, the hospitality was outstanding. Entering our enormous condo of granite counter tops, jet tubs and a shower as big as my Rossland living room, we found the owner had left us a welcome basket and bottle of champagne to toast our trip.
Truly the centre of it all, Radium as it turns out, is an adventure lovers' ideal base camp with two mountain ranges running up either side of the valley, providing a unique change of scenery from the Kootenays as well as skiing options of all kinds. Day two saw us grab a quick Denver scramble wrap along the downtown avenue before heading up to Panorama to rediscover the major facelift it’s undergone in the last decade. Having spent the majority of my life on one coast or the other, the light and dry snow that falls in the interior has been a pleasure since I relocated inland. The lightness and dryness of the snow in Radium, however, took things to another level best illustrated by the city workers clearing the sidewalks. Rather than shovels and tractors the walked in teams of two with leaf blowers clearing the sidewalk of 15 centimetres of fresh snow.
Up the Toby Creek Valley at Panorama, those 15 centimetres in town translated to a heaping 30 plus centimetres on the sunny summit. The former marathon haul of three chairs and a t-bar to the top of Panorama has since been shortened to a shockingly scenic two high speed quads and a fixed grip quad up the 4,000 plus vertical feet, dropping you off literally at the top of a top-of-the-world trail. Be sure to empty you memory card before a trip to Panorama on a sunny day. The 360 degree views of glaciers, jagged peaks and euro-style mountains are jaw-dropping indeed.
Not wanting to cruise one of the infamously long groomers of Pano, we made the easy 20 minute hike out along the ridge above Taynton Bowl. Formerly part of RK Heli-Skiing’s tenure a long ski back road to the base has brought the semi-alpine terrain in bounds providing a thousand acres plus of long steep powder shots, unrelenting over their 4,000 vertical feet of goodness with a consistent 30 to 40 degree plus slope.
Needing a break following a 40,000 feet of vertical skiing day, we checked out the head bangers and hot pools which was originally going to be the title of this article. Owning the road just beyond the near complete rock tunnel of Sinclair Canyon an extended family herd of twenty some off Big Horn Sheep marched down the centre of the road causing an only-in-the-Canadian-Rockies traffic jam. Coming so close to our car the sheep were almost within patting distance. We'd have done it, too, if not for fear that they’d ram our Jeep. The marvel of such a close encounter with 300 pound wild animals is awesome to say the least.
Traffic having cleared we spent the evening under the dramatically lit up snowy cliff face rising over the Radium Hot Springs. While the kitsch of a developed National Park Hot Spring pool grows on you quickly the novelty of swimming around on a night that dipped to minus twenty is always an interesting experience. Think frozen mohawks.
Opting for a more natural experience we forced ourselves out of the heavenly king sized beds of Big Horn Meadows and back down the valley towards Whiteswan Provincial Park the following morning. Literally getting off the beaten track, we turned up the logging road and rallied our way up the winding dirt road blasting through mid-tire snow so light it billowed up in a kilometre long rooster tail behind us. 18 kilometres up that road a parking lot that suggested this spot was significantly busier in summer months sat empty as we pulled in--double and triple parking just because we could. A quick look back in the direction we'd come revealed the Shark Tooth range jaggedly cutting into high clouds that allowed just enough light through to provide some fingers of God pointing the way down to the natural and inspiring Lussier Hot Springs.
The faint smell of sulphur drew us further down the banks of the canyon on a steam melted and refrozen pathway that needed some skill and balance to navigate while remaining upright. As the smell grew stronger the white-water of the Lussier River appeared rushing through the narrow valley. Alongside the river amid the icebergs thrown out of the river, steam rose from the bubbling pools. The developed hot springs of the National Parks are certainly worth visiting, but for a real hot springs experience there is nothing better than a naturally 112 degrees Fahrenheit bubbling source of relaxation and peacefulness in an environment filled with nothing but nature’s own voice. Floating freely in one of the three natural hot pools, we found the symphony of rushing river, bubbling pools, curious crows and big fat flakes coming in for a landing more relaxing than any day spa could ever dream of being.
Refreshed, re-invigorated and re-stoked on the simultaneous serenity and adventure that the Rocky Mountain trench affords, we headed back west looking forward to our next chance to become Radium-active.