GET ON SLOPE | CRAIG MCMORRIS
This is episode two of Craig McMorris’s YouTube series. In it, Craig and Mikey Ciccarelli venture into the Whistler backcountry to get...
For those who don’t know, let’s quickly get you up to speed. The Powder Highway connects eight legendary alpine resorts, over a dozen snowcat and heli ops, and has more snowmobile-accessible backcountry than any other stretch of highway in the world… So there’s that. The towns connecting this loop are as rich with personality as they are in history. Quintessential, quirky mountain towns where snowboarding isn’t just something people do, it consumes their daily life.
“Powder Highway is consistently a good trip. The areas are great, it seems to stay cold and never stops snowing. As far as riding powder goes, it’s the place to be.” —Mikey Rencz
Convincing four of the most talented and entertaining snowboarders to hit the road on the northern corner of the renowned highway route, we set off on a 14-day adventure fueled by the anticipation of prime backcountry terrain, deep snow, a few perfect turns and a bag of memories we could save as souvenirs. Our homes away from home would be a Toyota Tundra, Tacoma, and the welcoming resorts of Revelstoke, Golden, and the wild backcountry camping scene of postseason operations at Chatter Creek.
For two weeks we would live off weather forecasts, two-stroke exhaust, GPS navigation, inside jokes and campfires. Maybe, at one point, The Powder Highway was merely a sharp title crafted in a BC tourism marketing roundtable, but we were about to discover it was more than a clever name.
It’s the end of March. As a last-ditch effort to get buried in winter, we gather in Whistler. Scattered about in the driveway of Matt Belzile and Jody Wachniak, we drive snowmobiles on dry pavement loading the 600-pound sleds onto trailers, fasten trailers to trucks, and cram bags, tents, sleeping bags, snacks, foam rollers, jerry cans, and every piece of warm clothing we own into the cubic inches of available vehicle space. We exchange high fives, low fives, side hugs, and catch up on what each other have been doing all winter. We talk about the track pants we’re wearing and soak up the lingering vibe that subtly screams, “Here goes nothing!” Everyone is aware of the plan, but no one is sure how loose it will get.
You can easily drive from Whistler to our first stop Revelstoke in six hours, we did it in 12. With dry roads and clear skies, who’s in a rush? Not us, obviously. Just north of Whistler, the Duffy Lake Road climbs over 1,200 metres at its summit. Even in spring, the snow banks dwarf our vehicles. In winter it can be a nightmare of a drive. But we cruise down its backside into the best part of the dive.
Driving into Lillooet is a head-on collision into summer. Within three hours from the heart of Whistler’s lingering winter, we’re in Canada’s consistent hotspot. Its scenery looks like a living trainset. The elaborate ping-pong-table-sized ones you’d find in your reclusive great uncle’s basement. Real mountain valleys of cactus-like conditions meet weaving rivers all while trains pop in and out of the mountainside. In its gold rush prime, Lillooet was the second-largest community west of Chicago. The 1860 Lillooet must have been a wild scene. Now it boasts one killer gas stop and only 2,300 people call it home.
We plough along highway 99 onto Cache Creek with Hungry Herbies on deck. Oh, buddy. Hungry Herbies. With Yelp reviews that read “Can’t Miss!” directly above “Don’t be fooled!” it’s an acquired taste but no one on our squad was disappointed. Full of burgers and poutine, we give it a solid four stars and carry on.
The rest of the drive is a blur of turns and towns, with plenty of unnecessary stops. It’s late when we arrive at our oasis for the first leg of the trip. The Sutton Place Lodge located at the base of Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The accommodations—plush. The location—prime. And here we are, The Powder Highway begins.
Is Revelstoke really that good? I once saw a train pulling into town. The door of an empty freight car slid open, out of the gap flew a snowboard, then another, then two backpacks. A couple jumped out behind their gear and hit the ground running as the train was still at a clip. Where had they come from? Who knows. And with potential $10,000 fines and over 50 train hopping-related deaths in the country annually, it’s maybe not the smartest way to travel. But when it comes to riding Revelstoke, the juice is worth the squeeze.
“Revelstoke Mountain Resort is super awesome. The locals are really proud of that mountain, everyone is keen to show you around.”
We spend a day at the resort. Ripping runs of slashes, side hits, and park laps. The type of boarding that keeps a smile on your face and your head on a swivel to see what your friends are hitting. We roll deep with cameras and crew, and when we stop to shape out some of the tastier side hits, we attract the attention of a ski patroller. It’s a lifelong confrontation we know all too well. The gist of his reprimand is, “Jump all you want, just don’t be building jumps where we can see you.” Seems reasonable. We love it here.
“Revelstoke is kinda a backcountry mecca; there are so many surrounding mountains including the resort. It’s a really important spot for BC snowboarding.” —Matt Belzile
The next few days are spent trying to find the perfect combination of snow, sun and terrain in the Revelstoke backcountry. Sled days start at first light and finish at sunset. For anyone who knows how backcountry snowboarding by snowmobile works, they understand, without perfect conditions, the struggle can be real. It’s work, it’s constantly chipping away at variables and breaking into new territory to find the features we have in mind.
“Long drives to a 30-kilometre sled ride into the alpine. The road in was bulletproof ice, it seemed like a Zamboni had gone over it. It can be a long-but-rewarding mission to get into those zones.” —Beau Bishop
On the afternoon of the last day, our efforts were rewarded. Building a couple of step-down platforms on top of a few steep pitches, the clouds opened up to blue skies and a mountain face that show up like a paint by numbers canvas. Perfect tandamable terrain for drops, slashes, and airs. We watched the boys get after it like kids in a playground at recess. Sessioning everything in sight. Candyland. It’s a really cool thing to watch the way four different riders read and interpret terrain. Putting their personal touch on lines and style. What’s even better is the way the crew feeds off one another’s riding and energy.
We’re exhausted and satisfied, hyped with the riding the final day had to offer. It’s dark as we load up our sleds and gear. We say sayonara to Revy and in the morning we’ll kick the trucks north to Kicking Horse, hopeful we get just as lucky there.
“Kicking Horse is super steep. Long runs, the powder can go untouched for a while. You’re in the Rockies and it’s a pretty picturesque place to be.” —Mikey Rencz
Mikey points to a sign, “What’s this about?” On the way out of Revelstoke, inside a Subway restaurant, Mikey is grabbing a snack for the road, the sign reads, “Let us know if you’re headed to Golden.” Turns out there’s a free 6-inch sub waiting for him in Golden if he’s willing to mule a few litres of Southwest sauce 150 kilometres east along the TransCanada. No brainer, right? He comes walking out with two industrial-sized condiment bags full of spicy orange gold. The sauce sits shotgun in a luxury leather heated seat of the Tacoma TRD Pro, through beautiful Glacier National park over Rogers Pass and down into Golden. The second leg of our journey starts with a good deed.
If the sandwich wasn’t enough reward, we woke up in Golden to blue skies and staring straight up the face of over 1,200 vertical metres of rippable terrain. Kicking Horse boasts the fourth highest resort vertical in all of North America. The terrain is littered with some of the most challenging and daring lines, spines and chutes. Or your run can be as tame as a Sunday drive with rolling groomers and cruisy hit lines. At Kicking Horse peak it’s hard not to stop and stare into the dominating views where mountain ranges roll endlessly. We take advantage of all the resort riding our legs can handle but realizing it’s now April, we know we must go further to get the proper powder we’re craving.
“Golden really gets into the BC Rockies. The terrain is steep and the snow is light. Kicking Horse Resort is great, but if you want guaranteed powder with no one around, you need a snowmobile.”—Matt Belzile
The locals along the Powder Highway are friendly. Helpful almost always. Until it comes time to talk about where they track their untouched turns. Powder is a commodity in these towns and if you can’t see it from the chairlift, it’s unlikely many locals are going to point you in the right direction. Hoarders. But our crew makes some calls and gathers enough crumbs from friends to sniff out the zones we needed to be in.
It’s insane that we’ve found Plinko stacks of untouched pillows and open fields of powder this time of year. Perfect zones for tagging turns and spraying friends. The boys take to a sizable hip jump and Jody and Belzile get to work displaying slow spins and soft touchdown landings. The snow produced on this side of the Rockies is different from its Revelstoke counterpart. It’s lighter and happens to be deeper here. The terrain is a little rockier but equally as satisfying.
We pocket some video clips and images in unassuming mid-winter conditions during our short stint in Golden. Kicking Horse has been kind to us and gave us everything we needed. But the next leg awaits and we know it’s going to be a big one.
“Seventy-five kilometres up a muddy logging road. No cell service, no wifi, no Instagram, no social media, just snowboarding.” —Jody Wachniak
Turning the trucks north, we stop and get a tow rope before leaving town. We’ve been warned it could save us as we drive into 75 kilometres of the world’s most rugged and muddy logging roads. Even when the mud bogs were knee deep and trenches swallowed the tires, our Toyota Tundra and Tacoma took it in stride while towing tents, snowmobiles and trailers. We thank ourselves for consciously keeping the receipt for the towrope as we arrive at the foot of world-renowned cat and heli-skiing operation, Chatter Creek. Chatter has shut down its cat operations for the year. Its lodge remains open but full of snowmobilers ready to trench the terrain to bits. There’s no room at the inn. We’re a few of many who knows their tenure is open to the public at this time of year and have followed the unruly road on the search for snow. We set up camp below the snowline and plan to snowmobile into the alpine to ride the most coveted terrain on the tour.
Winter camping here is no joke. There’re no conveniences within a two-hour drive and the mear logistics of packing in the supplies to survive four nights has been mind melting. What’s astounding is the number of other campers we see. All scattered throughout a maze of logging roads and access zones. It’s the Wild West wearing Gore-Tex. Set up like a modern-day gold rush, everyone is here to get powder rich. Setting up camp, we hear the scattered booming sound of playful gunfire in the distance, another camp is fired up. When you’re deep in the middle of nowhere—anything goes.
“The camping is real. We’re in the middle of nowhere so the prep is crucial. We’re in a dirt lot, the nights are cold, but we’re keeping each other warm with jokes. Everyone is in it together and that’s what makes it fun.” —Matt Belzile
In the alpine, the mountains are towering and humbling and the terrain offers everything we could dream of. We see a lot of snowboarders in the mornings here, men and women from all over, giddy and gearing up to head out. Once in the alpine, it’s easy to find our own plots of untouched snow. Our days are spent exploring the vast network of cat roads built
to access this powder playground. The snow is great, but the weather isn’t overly keen on cooperating. It’s impossible to ride above the treeline in the clouds. You’re blind. And that’s where we need to be. We get a few tastes but after a few days, we’re still missing the full Chatter meal.
Snowmobiles. While we ride these beasts to get onto our snowboards, people are here in numbers just to ride their machines. It’s a funny mix. The slednecks are an interesting lot. We get approached by a crew at a time where we’re waiting for the sun to shine. Practically passed out on our parked sleds, they roll up blasting everything from Neil Diamond to AC-DC from a custom in-sled stereo. They’re super friendly and way loud. Offering us drinks as we shoot the shit getting to know where our gangs were from and what brought us all here. All the while we die from laughter on the inside from how amazingly different their scene is. One of their posse says nothing the whole time, but he sports a smile and a laminated photo of a topless vixen riding a horse dangling from his keychain. And despite being from different worlds, we all roll into the backcountry for the same excitement.
“Sitting around a bonfire is the cherry on top of a nice day.” —Jody Wachniak
We soak up the end of every riding day enjoying sodas by the fire at night. Sharing stories till one by one we retreat into sleeping bags. And on the last day we get served another buzzer beater. Clear skies in the alpine lead to legit snowboard action. Beau waited in a cloud strapped in ready to hit a jump for 40 minutes. When the light hit, he stomps the biggest 540 of the trip and started the whole session off. Mikey scores clean lines with natural airs and perfect landings. Belzile stacks clips by hammering at every option in sight. Jody had all but given up till Beau’s clip got him fired up and had to get his too. With the inevitable end the trip in sight, we leave our last day on a high putting the cameras away and trade off ripping lines for ourselves. The sky is pink, the sun is fading and we’ve been rewarded.
“Road trips are sick because everything is better as a crew. Taking in new experiences together is something special. If you’re going into it not knowing what the outcome is going to be that’s when it’s interesting.” —Mikey Rencz
Spring showed up the morning of our Chatter Creek departure bringing warm temps that crushed the snow quality across every peak. The Powder Highway was good to us. Although we barely scratched the surface, we came away with more than any of us had hoped for. Road trips are good livin’ and snowboarding is a perfect excuse to get out and go. Epic times don’t just occur on their own. You gotta make it happen. Snowboarding is one of the best ways to see new places and explore mountains. The Powder Highway isn’t going anywhere this winter, are you?
“It’s just fun to go places with your friends. These are the trips we’re gonna look back on when we’re old and think, Ahhhh if I could just get back there and do that shit again.” —Beau Bishop