In a world of mega ski resorts, be like Whitewater in Canada

kari medig
Whitewater, British Colmbia. Pic by Kari Medig for DBC.

Nobody wants Whitewater Ski Resort, not the big corporate boys anyway. Everything that makes it great makes it unattractive to the business models of Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company. There is no on mountain lodging (yet), no wifi or cell reception (send cliffs not emails) and an already established (kick ass) food reputation with cafeteria or table service cuisine that is good enough for non skiers and boarders to come from miles away just for lunch. Serve up Starbucks here at your peril.

The gem of a mountain resort twenty minutes from the lakeside ‘hippy’ town of Nelson in British Columbia has terrain to make you weep in a good way, with steep pitches and 2367 accessible acres of lift serviced terrain. Add no lift lines and a base lodge where you can leave your gear unattended and come back to it still there.

Originally founded and built by a group of volunteers who salivated over the fall line skiing and riding and the 12 metres plus of interior BC blower smoke powder, Whitewater is fiercely guarded by those who have been and don’t want anyone else to go (or journalists, like me, to tell others).

They, however, are not the locals. If you’ve experienced the laid back rustic joy of New Zealand’s club fields where nutcracker rope tows powered by stationary tractors drag you up a steep pitch, then you’ll love the vibe of Whitewater. Gone is the original founding Silver King Ski Club rope tow of 1934 driven by the rear axle of a Model T Ford, replaced by three chairlifts in an all new valley but the vibe remains, this is a local’s mountain and if you’ve also spent time in the hills of British Columbia you’ll know these locals are more than friendly.

This is a mountain club built on decades of potluck dinners, working bees, boot packing, side slipping and numerous ski club locations from the north to the south of Nelson until together they discovered the Whitewater Valley in 1974. ‘Development’ went against the commercial grain, keeping tree runs in tact and working with, not against, the natural terrain. The resort HQ as early as 1989 was even still a goat shed on a nearby farm.

In 1997 Mike and Shelly Adams purchased the ‘resort’ from the ski club and put Whitewater on the map, not least for the terrain but mostly for the fresh, home cooked food (Shelly in her former life was a Hollywood caterer) that became the inspiration for the Whitewater Cooks book series that is a national best seller. Good skiing fueled by good food served by good locals.

But I’m not here for the food, that comes later. It’s a famed Whitewater powder day, a surprise dump in an unseasonably dry winter.

Despite the promise of face shots, the car park still has spaces and we’re greeted by that Whitewater vibe with have-a-chat regulars.

Anywhere else and you’d think they put Prozac in the water – though one smooth assed powder run later, through perfect pitched trees on a fall line straight to the valley, and we know pharmaceuticals are not required.

The drive in to Whitewater is lined on either side with mountain faces that just scream joy and leave you picking lines left and right before you’ve even hit the resort. Then Glory Ridge chairlift appears on your right as you drive in and you know you won’t need to earn some of the best turns of your skiing life.

The chairlift was installed in 2010 giving easy access to 749 acres formerly known as the backside. Before the chair, locals would take the Summit chair to the top, ski the backside then hitch a ride back to the lodge to do it all again. 

Today the resort is split between three lifts. Vertical here isn’t huge, 623 metres, but it’s about the steep pitch and the terrain offerings from trees to chutes to open bowls that serve up a playground of seriously fun skiing and boarding. 

The Silver King chair accesses mainly green and blue greens and a few black single diamond runs. It’s a good place to get your ski legs and ride the old school lift. Our Aussie impromptu guide, Jack Daskey from Hotham, shouts snippets of Whitewater trivia to us from the chair behind ours.

“Did you know that 5 out of the 7 Canadian kids at the Junior Freeride Championships were from Whitewater?”

He’s joined British snowboard instructor George Madeley who is showing me the best of his adopted home mountain. Our first run is straight into the trees, powder over our thighs and lots and lots of smiling. It’s good to know when you get to a mountain that the hype is real because often in this world of over the top marketing, it’s not.

The Summit Chair on the opposite side of the valley to the Silver King accesses mainly black, some blue and a handful of double diamond runs and a traverse out to Powder Keg bowl and Catch Basin for those looking for open alpine style before dropping into trees. The Glory Ridge backside gives those in need of powder and tree skiing experience some great blue terrain to practice before hitting up the blacks then the double blacks of Knee Deep Glades and Giddyup Gully.

We haven’t even talked about the spectacular Whitewater back country accessed from Silver King and Summit Chairs including the Prospector Chutes for those who like to show off their style to those dining in the lodge and Ymir Peak that looks over Whitewater 24/7. Of course we recommend taking a guide and the resort has three guiding groups they work with. 

Come lunch time I’m dreaming about the renowned Glory Bowls, Fancy Pants Burger, Pho Wrap and Ski Bum Burritos at Coal Oil Johnny’s Pub, served up amongst powder frenzied skiers and boarders with rosy cheeks. Some say the food isn’t the same since Mike and Shelly sold to the skiing trio behind Knee Deep Development in 2008 but I have no point of reference and the food is ridiculously good, maybe because I’m famished. 

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With the new owners has come a new Masterplan, approved by the Ministry of Tourism in 2010. Whitewater had the first terrain expansion in 34 years when the Glory Ridge chair was installed under Knee Deep management. But some regulars fear the resort will lose “the feels” for which it’s known.

The masterplan does include a new base village with ski in ski out accommodation but it also includes a vision to embrace extreme skiing, accommodate backcountry skiing, increase intermediate offerings and grading, a vision to remain ‘fixed grip’ to retain the old school vibe of ‘less is more.’ 

Now is clearly the time to go, though many say a decade ago when there was no master plan was the time to go or the decade before that when the only accents were Canadian or the decade before that. In another decade’s time they may be saying “I remember 2019 when you could still get a car park on a powder day”.

So go. Sooner. Not later. And tell them we sent you. Or not, because we expect hate mail for writing this piece – just not from the locals. They’re too nice for such negative vibes. 

In a world of mega resorts, it’s good to be like Whitewater.

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The author was a guest of Destination British Columbia

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.