Monday, June 24, 2019

VIDEO of the Canada Road Trip (2019)

Here is a video of my latest road trip through Canada, which is described in my latest 10 or so blog entries.   You can now see it all in this video:

Monday, February 11, 2019

Baldy Mountain was the best on this trip

Baldy Mountain is great.  The name can be confusing, because there are several Baldies in North America.  There is a Mt Baldy in Southern California.  The main mountain at Sun Valley is also called Mt. Baldy.   So, note that this Baldy Mountain ski area is in British Columbia, located about an hour's drive east of Osoyoos, a short detour off of Highway 3 in Canada.

View of the bigger mountain as seen from the parking lot.  Where is everyone?  Not on the slopes! This was a Sunday!

There are two hills here.  The main hill offers 1,400' vertical.  Next to it is a smaller hill with just 800' vertical.  The smaller hill begs a comparison with Phoenix Mountain, which also has 800' vertical.  But while at Phoenix Mountain the uphill transportation is a T-bar, here at Baldy, there is a fixed quad with plush padded chairs.

I skied here on a wonderfully sunny bluebird day. It was Sunday.  And yet there were no crowds anywhere.  When I first arrived, I wondered if the ski area is even open, because it was so quiet here, and I couldn't see any skiers on the slopes.  Judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, there must have been at least 200 people here, but they were dispersed all over the mountain.

The bigger hill is served by an older double chair.  It was surprising to see how much terrain it serves. There is a huge field of perfectly skiable trees there. Just traverse along a road at the top, and you will be able t choose from dozens of different powder runs.  In some way, this is similar to Cy's Glades at 49 Degrees North (You know, the 7 Deadly Sins; pick your sin and ski it!)

This is only a very small sliver of the large chunk of Baldy that offers tree skiing.
 Compared to some other ski areas on this trip, such as Marmot Basin, Nakiska, and Castle Mountain, where even the groomed trails can be scary steep, at Baldy Mountain, though there are plenty of advanced, black runs, none of them seemed too scary.  The blue trails are truly blue.  Everything is on a human scale, manageable and enjoyable.

There are more skiable options here than one could cover in a single day.  The groomers are not straight clear-cuts.  Instead, they pleasantly meander through the forest.

Some of the trail names are creative, such as the trail called "Chix Dig It".

Overall, I had a good time here and would definitely like to return some day.  It's not far from the US border, if you travel north of Wenatchee along highway 97.   Several other ski areas are located not far from highway 97 including:

Apex - near Penticton
Big White - near Kelowna
Silver Star - near Vernon
... and north of Vernon, the road splits. If you go left, that goes to Sun Peaks, near Kamloops.
If you to right, that will take you to Revelstoke.

So, if you are driving in that direction, Baldy Mountain is just an hour's detour east from highway 97 as soon as you enter Canada. Give it a try.  You'll like it.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Phoenix Mountain ski area is not so small

Phoenix Mountain was a pleasant surprise. It is just 16 miles west of the town of Grand Forks, BC.  In fact, you turn off of highway 3 (Crowsnest highway) just 11 miles west of Grand Forks, and then you follow the access road for another 5 miles.

Phoenix Mountain offers 800' vertical, but it sure feels like more.  This is a little less vertical than at Anthony Lakes, but the pitch is more consistent.  There is no long flat runout at the bottom.  And Phoenix has more black trails than Anthony Lakes.

Phoenix Mountain ski area. There is much more out of the picture to the left.  The T-bar is behind me (in the distance).
The forest where the little kid took me is partially visible near the upper right edge of this picture.
A sign on the outside of the day lodge describes Phoenix Mountain as "the Greatest little ski area in British Columbia".  This year, they are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ski area.

There is plenty of powder skiing and tree skiing too. I am now tired after more than a week of skiing, but I couldn't resist exploring the trees a bit.

On my very first run there, a little tyke of a kid, maybe just 8 or 9 years old, said something to me, but I didn’t quite understand him. His voice was muffled by a neck-warmer he wore over his whole face. Also, he was actually quite far from me. But he was obviously talking to me and pointing at something ahead of us but to the left. Even as he skied away in that direction, he kept saying something. I was pretty sure he wanted me to follow him so he could show me something. You know, he was at that age when they want to tell you things and explain things, because suddenly they are full of knowledge that they want to share.

So, I followed him, at a respectable distance. He looked back a couple of times. Once or twice he stopped, like he was waiting for me. But before I could ski down to him, he skied on. Eventually, he took a narrow path through some trees. It was just a shortcut that connected with another trail. My initial plan was to explore the ski area systematically by starting from the left-most trail and working my way to the right. This kid was definitely leading me along the edge of the ski area on the left side. But, after that narrow passage through the forest, I started suspecting that he is actually taking me a little out of bounds, to show me his secret stash of powder or his favorite place to ski.

To some extent, that was true. This forest is a bit remote and hidden. But I later found out that this was not really out of bounds, only a bit hidden from view. Still, I would never have gone there if the kid hadn’t encouraged me to follow him. So, he showed me a part of this mountain that I would not have discovered on my own. It helps to “make friends”. The kid eventually just disappeared somewhere. Still, it was a memorable experience.
These trees are just a small part of where the kid took me to.  It really feels out of bounds, though it's not really..
The main part of the ski area is that white hill in the middle of the picture.

Later, at lunchtime in the lodge, a man of approximately my age, with a gray beard, befriended me in a similar way. He ordered the same thing as I did, smoked sausage with sauerkraut, and eventually we sat down together in a crowded cafeteria and chatted. He told me he was born in 1951. He had several children, and now he came here with two of his grandsons who were participating in a kids’ ski race. He himself doesn’t ski. He tried it a long time ago, got hurt, and decided not to try it again. But his little grandkids were about the same age as the kid that took me into the forest earlier in the day.

Friendly folks, both kids and adults! I love these smaller, less well known ski areas. Nobody is in a big hurry. Everybody is relaxed and having fun. People are willing to lend a hand it you need some help. There was plenty of fresh powder here today, but none of that attitude of "No friends on powder days."

Phoenix Mountain is served by just one T-bar, but it offers some excellent terrain. And the prices are reasonable. Adults can ski here all day for $39. Seniors pay only $30. So, why would anyone want to go to places that charge $150 per day. Is the experience really 5 times better? Not for me.

Oh, by the way, those popular expensive places are also quite crowded. Meanwhile, here at Phoenix Mountain, I was here on one of the busiest Saturdays ever. Their parking lot was completely full. No room for even one additional car. Every spot was filled. And yet, I had to wait for 10 minutes or more just to catch a glimpse of someone skiing near me in order to try to get a picture of them. Most of the kids were on the race course. The rest of the mountain was as uncrowded as it gets! It really felt like I had the mountain to myself.

Here's a couple of shots of the inside of the day lodge cafeteria. Cozy and warm.
Notice the "Ticket Sales" sign in the upper left corner of the picture. 
They sell tickets at the same counter where they sell food and drinks

This is pretty much the whole cafeteria.. About 4 or 5 long tables.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Red Mountain - a growing powder giant with kinks

Red Mountain ski area is big and growing. It has 2,919 vertical feet, spread out over 3 mountains:
  1. Red Mountain - the original one, approximately 1,400' vertical. Not as small as it might look. It offers several black trails, plus a couple of blue ones.
  2. Granite Mountain - the larger one, about twice the size of Red Mt.  In the upper part of Granite Mountain is an area called "Paradise", served by its own lift. The mid-mountain lodge is in that area.
  3. Gray Mountain - the newest one, opened in 2013 via snowcat only, and with a new lift installed in 2014. Our last club trip to Red. Mt. and Whitewater was in March 2013.  It was a well attended carpooling trip. Some of us took the snowcat to the top of Gray Mountain.  This year, I wanted to take a few rides on the Gray Mountain's lift. 

The whole ski area seems to be geared toward powder and tree skiing.  About a third of the terrain is intermediate, but about 50% is for advanced and expert skiers.

This is me on an earlier visit.  This trail on the back side of the original Red Mountain descends directly toward Rossland.

Gray Mountain seems to be mostly full of steep ungroomed slopes, with just maybe 2 or 3 groomed trails.  For my last run of the day, I usually like to pick an easy cruiser trail, because I am tired.  So, on Gray Mountain, I picked what seemed to be the easiest trail called "Get  Up - Stand Up".  On the trail map, it is shown as a blue trail.  Great!  No problem.  The only problem is that this trail begins as a large field of moguls that are moderate at first and then get bigger and steeper.  If you survive that, then you can relax on a blue trail the rest of the way.

Someone told me there is a way to bypass those moguls, but this was not made obvious because there was no trail sign pointing at an easier way down.

It was a rather gray day on Gray Mountain.  This is the easier part of the "Get Up - Stand Up" trail, after the mogul field.
Maybe it's just my luck, but there is always something not quite right with Red Mountain. I have skied there at least 4 times.  A couple of times by myself.  Once with Bob Voss at the tail end of one of our Canada Ski Safaris. And once with the club trip in March 2013.  It seems like every time there was some kind of an issue.  For example:

1. On my first visit, some 10 years ago (or more), I had fun on Granite Mountain.  At the end of the day, feeling tired, I decided to try a few runs on what I though would be the easier hill, the smaller, original Red Mt.  But, that lift closed at 2 pm in those days, and I didn't know it.  I was disappointed at not being able to ski Red at least once.

2.  On another visit, the one with Bob Voss, the whole of Granite Mountain was closed.  So, this time, we were forced to ski only at the smaller Red Mt. hill.

3. Another time, I was caught at the bottom of the Paradise lift when that lift broke down.  No easy was of skiing out of that hollow.  Everyone had to climb up a ways before catching a road that took us around the mountain to the bottom of the Granite Mt. main lift.

Just today (Feb. 9, 2019) there is a notice on Red Mountain's website that "Paradise Chair is currently on wind hold."   Always something!

Three significant news about Red Mountain:

1.  The lifts now ALL close at 3 pm.  This is a mix of good and bad news:
     a)  I had complained for a couple of years about Red. Mt. closing at 2 pm. So, 3 pm is good.
     b)  All ski areas in the US close at 4 pm.  Many in Canada close at 3:30 pm.  Silver Star closes access to the lifts by 3:15 pm, which always irked me.  But closing at 3 pm?  Nobody else but Red does that.  Well, maybe it could be said that Red is such a vast mountain with 3 separate hills that it takes a long time to sweep it, to make sure that nobody was left injured up there.

2. Their lodging options expanded just a few months ago with the addition of "Josie's" a beautiful, modern but expensive hotel right next to the first chairlift at the base area. Probably only 50 or 60 yards from the lift.  Great for ski-in/ski-out, but it is expensive.  Even with group discounts, a room with 2 beds costs around $211 plus tax.   If you can afford it, it's the best place to stay on the mountain.

3.  The main connector lift starting from the base area has been removed.  It was a relatively short lift whose job was just to take you up over a hump in the terrain, so you could connect with the main Granite Mountain lift.  It was a slow chair, but it was tolerable because it was short. It went n a straight line straight toward the longer main Granite Mt. lift.  Some time within the past 3 or 4 years, this lift was replaced with a much longer fixed quad that takes you off to the right and away from the Granite Mt. lift.  This lift now serves two purposes:
  • It takes beginners and lower intermediates to some easy slopes.  And ...
  • It serves as a connector for everyone else who wants to get to the Granite chair.  The problem is that they now have to sit on this connector lift at least twice as long as on the older lift that has been removed. 
The main Grainte Mt. lift is barely visible in the fog straight up near the middle of this photo.
The old connector lift followed the same line through the clearing in the center of the picture..
The new connector lift takes off at an angle to the right, antd it is much longer than the old lift.

Finding out about lodging options on the mountain is also an issue.  There is no "Central Reservations".  There is no one brochure that would list all the lodging options.  You literally have to go to each hotel, motel, or condo and inquire separately about prices, availability, etc.

Some of the lodging options are a total mystery.
Morningstar, apparently a large condo building on the other side of the parking lot is like a locked down fortress. Thee is no receptionists.  The front entrance is always locked.  Access is possible only if you have a key.  But where do you get a key?  Where can you even ask about it?

Red Mountain Village Lodgings is a large complex of condos.  They at least seem to have an office. But there is nobody there.  A sign on the door says: " Our office is closed.  We can be reached at (phone number) or (website)."  Well, at least there is a way to reach them, as opposed to Morningstar.

Like I said, there's always something about Red Mountain that spoils the overall experience.  But, overall, it is still a good place to go if you are into skiing powder and trees.

Night skiing at Pass Powderkeg

Pass Powderkeg is a relatively small ski area at the edge of the town of Blairmore, AB.  It is visible from highway 3 as you drive by. It is not far from the town of Crowsnest Pass.  Note also that the whole of highway 3 is called the Crowsnest highway.

Small is a relative thing. It offers 980 feet of vertical served by 2 T-bars, one above the other. Some of the blue (intermediate) trails are steeper than expected, just like at Castle Mountain.

Pass Powderkeg is less than an hour away from Castle Mountain. After skiing at Castle Mt. till about 4 pm, I arrived at Pass Powderkeg by about 5 pm.  I thought that night skiing here starts at 5:30 pm.  But I confused that with Salmo, where night skiing does indeed start at 5:30 pm.  But at Pass Powderkeg, night skiing starts at 4 pm.  If I had known that, I could have come here a bit earlier.

Still, I got here early enough to be able to see the whole hill before dark.

Unfortunately, only a few runs were open for night skiing.  Both T-bars were running, thus serving the complete vertical available, top to bottom.

As it got darker, I noticed the crescent of a new moon.  Also, from the top of the hill, there was a beautiful view of the town of Blairmore down below.

Notice the crescent moon in the upper right of the picture
There were not many people on this Thursday evening, but here was a ski patroler riding up the T-bar with a kid.

Castle Mountain is full of surprises

I skied for free at Castle Mountain, because it is part of the Powder Alliance.  And I found something interesting.  Everyone who has any kind of Powder Alliance Pass, including our Fusion Pass, is in a database available to all the Powder Alliance ski areas.

I showed the lady at Guest Services my Fusion Pass, and she yelled to another woman at a desk across the room.  She said,  "Look for 'Emilio Trampuz' -- There must be only one like that!"  And, sure enough, within 10 seconds or less, the other woman responded that she found me on the list, and I was good to go!

Second surprise:  Castle Mountain is BIG!   And its size surprised me twice.  First, as soon as I drove to the parking lot, I looked up and couldn't believe how steep and how long that first chairlift is. It might not have the same impact in a photo, but the top part of the slope under the lift looked insanely steep.  It turned out to be a bit of an optical illusion, but still, it was steeper than I ever expected.

In fact, most of the slopes here are very steep. Their blue trails would be called black everywhere else.  If those trails weren't groomed, they would deserve a double-black classification.  A whole bunch of basically steep black trails are groomed to perfection and then labeled blue.  Not to worry.  There are easier ways down the mountain too.  But the fact that almost all the trails are classified a whole category lower than they really are is something I have found only in one other place so far, and that is at Sun Valley.

Third surprise.  I got to the top of that first steep lift.  I thought the one lift covered the whole ski area. But then I spotted a second lift taking people even higher.  This was the Tamarack lift. At first, it looked like that lift was a short one, just long enough to take people to the top of a small hill above the first lift.   I hopped onto it.  After the lift took me to the top of the hill I saw, it didn't stop there. A whole gigantic bowl exploded into view. The lift is a truly long one, taking you to the top of that bowl.

Castle Mountain does a fantastic job grooming such steep slopes.  They must be using some kind of winch cat.  But a comparison with Nakiska ski area is inevitable. At Nakiska, everything is groomed to perfection too.  But while at Nakiska everyone who can skis at maximum speed, here at Castle Mountain, people ski more carefully, picking their way down both groomed trails and ungroomed powder.

Castle Mountain offers everything that Nakiska lacks.  At Castle Mountain, you will find an endless supply of powder and tree skiing.  Including some relatively easy miniature trees.  I love using small trees as slalom gates.  So I left my mark among some of them.  But there is so much tree skiing here that you couldn't cover all the available lines even in several days of skiing here.

The scenery is fantastic. There are tall peaks everywhere around you. One particular mountain with a flat top reminds me of a fortress, so I asked some locals if that was the real Castle Mountain.  They rattled off the names of all the surrounding mountains and not one of them was Castle Mt.  The ski areas actually got its name from Castle River that flows nearby.  And apparently there is a real Castle Mountain, but somewhere farther away.

The flat-top fortress-like mountain is called Mt. Tombstone.  The smaller hill at the ski area is called Gravenstafel.  The snowcat skiing is on Mt. Eloi -- well on one of the St. Elois -- there are apparently 3 of them.  To the north is Syncline Mountain.  To the south are Mt. Haig and the Rainy Ridge.

At the top of the highest lift, I got a little scared, mainly because of the steepness and the strong wind.  The gusts of wind were picking up a lot of very fine powdery snow and whipping it high into the air.  This wind-blown snow particles made it look like there was some fog in the air, so visibility wasn't good at times.

While still sitting on chairlift, the wind was buffeting my skis.  I had my new fat skis on, and they felt like sails.  I was concerned that I might lose a ski to the wind.

Some of the terrain near the top is also insanely steep, not quite like a cliff, but close enough. Some of it must have been 70 or 80 degrees.  Combine that with low visibility (a kind of foggy whiteout), and almost everybody took a road traversing the slopes to the other end of the big bowl.  I stopped near the edge of the road to take a picture.  But then I was concerned that the wind gusts might blow me over the edge.

My first reaction was: "I am not getting on this upper lift again (the Tamarack lift)."  But by the time I skied the whole way from the top of the highest chair to the base area, the sun came out, the wind died down, and suddenly everything felt a lot more friendly.  So, I went to the top again.  And I am glad I did.  That's when I discovered a whole field of small trees and skied it.

Fourth surprise.  After lunch, I decided to explore a somewhat smaller nearby hill.  That hill was full of surprises too.  On the trail map, it looked like it was all blue and green trails.  But, the blues were more challenging than your average intermediate trail.  And there were lots of hidden nooks and crannies. On the chairlift ride up, I spotted a particular trail that had some untouched powder left on it.  I wanted to ski that.  Usually, I am pretty good at orienteering, but somehow, I ended u on a different trail and missed that powder spot.  The trials here split and re-combine, and it's a bit hard to figure out where you are.   This smaller hill turned out to be more challenging than expected.

Fifth surprise.  At the top of the smaller hill, there was a snowcat taking people snowcat skiing onto another bigger adjacent mountain.

Sixth surprise.   At lunch, in the cafeteria, the y had a bunch of different sausages, all with creative names.  One was called "The Americano" and had some jalapeno peppers in it.  I opted for the "Das Ski Boot" (if I remember the name correctly),  and that one came with sauerkraut and caramelized onions, and a bunch of other ingredients.  It was the messiest sausage I have ever eaten.  It lookedgreat and tasted good, but I ended up with sauerkraut and caramelized onions all over my fingers. It is impossible to eat that sausage without getting some juicy stuff all over your hands and fingers.  I should have eaten it with a knife and fork.

Seventh surprise.  Condos.  After driving for hours through rural, cowboy country, with several tiny towns with just a few houses, I was surprised to see lots of condos at the base of Castle Mountain.

Overall, Castle Mountain offers a lot of terrain, more than one could explore in a single day. Their slogan for Castle Mountain is:  "Closer to Heaven. Down to Earth."

The only negative thing about Castle Mountain is that it is remote.  Very remote.  But, hey, that's good, because it means no crowds.

Castle Mountain ski area is actually within maybe about 20 miles from Montana, as the crow flies.  But there is no way to get to Montana from there.  The road pretty much dead ends at the ski area.   To get back to the US from there, you have to drive up north first, to Crowsnest, past Pass Powderkeg ski area, past Fernie, and after almost 2 hours of driving, you have completed a semi-circle at Elko, BC.   From there, it takes another half an hour to get to the Roosville border crossing on the road to Whitefish, Montana.

Alternatively, you can stay on Canada's highway 3, which roughly parallels the US border, not in a straight line but rather zig-zaging up and down and then you can turn south into the US at a number of places including:
a)  On highway 95, south of Cranbrook, toward Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  Or ...
b)  Highway 6 south of Nelson and Salmo, toward Spokane, WA, ... Or ...
c)  Highway 97, south of Oliver and Osoyoos, toward Wenatchee, WA.

I will be taking this third option, since I want to ski at Red Mountain, Phoenix Mountain, and at Baldy Mountain, all along Highway 3. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Nakiska opened today - My impressions

Nakiska is one of the 4 RCR resorts in Western Canada. That is Resorts of the Canadian Rockies.  The other 3 are: Fernie, Kimberley, and Kicking Horse, .... all three clustered around highway 95, which runs north-south from Coeur d'Alene (Idaho) to Golden (British Columbia).  Well, technically, Fernie is almost an hour's drive away from highway 95.  But Nakiska is many, many hours farther out east, in Alberta.  In fact, Nakiska is the closest ski area to Calgary, so it gets very crowded on weekends.

Nakiska was one of the venues for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, and it might host the Olympics again in 2026.

So, ski racing is a big part of the local ski culture here. Today, half of the people on the slopes were young racers in training.  They had their own race course set up on a trail that was closed o the public.  But, after they were done with the race course, they came out onto the public slopes and continued practicing their carving technique.

A jumbo jet could land here.  Wide trails with lots of corduroy everywhere.
This setup invites speeding, because there is nothing else to do.

In a way, most of the groomed trails at Nakiska seem to have been designed for racing, or at least high speed skiing.  The trails are very wide, like airport runways.  That makes them kind of boring, and also makes them all look very much alike.  Since there is nothing else to occupy your attention, the wide open trails practically invite high speed skiing, since it is the only available entertainment.

Some time very recently, Nakiska added some "gladed" terrain. They call it the "Monster Glades". Aha! Some nice tree skiing, I thought.  But this is not the kind of tree skiing I was expecting.  It's not a forest that was thinned so you could use the trees as slalom gates.  No, the trees have not been thinned. Instead, they were like clear-cut along some long lines, so that there are now relatively wide passages within the forest.  You are not skiing through the trees. You are skiing through these spaces cut in the forest. And these spaces develop big moguls.  So, you are really just skiing ungroomed bump runs that happen to be surrounded by trees.

Everywhere else, outside of these Monster Glades, the trees are always extremely tight and with lots of brush and fallen branches and trees, so it's like an impenetrable jungle.  The only place where you can ski is the very wide trails.  And those wide trails invite speeding.

I was impressed by the amount of vertical available.  The statistics say it is 2,400 vertical feet, but somehow it feels like it's more.

There are 3 high-speed quads here.  But one of those three serves only as a backup on weekends. During mid-week, only 2 high speed quads are operating.  One serves the lower mountain, and the other goes much higher up.

From the top of the highest chairlift, there is also a platter lift that could take you up to the very top of the mountain on a very steep slope.  But this lift wasn't operating today. In fact, I don't think it has operated at all this winter, because the snow would have to be groomed differently to allow access to those higher slopes. Right now, there is just a big wall of snow that makes it impossible for someone to ride the platter lift.   Also, those upper slopes need more snow to cover up the small trees growing there.  The snow probably gets blown away from that relatively bald top of the mountain.

Overall, for me, it was a so-so day.  I wish the slopes were a bit more varied.  I wish there was at least some more accessible powder skiing available.  And I wish that I didn't have to constantly watch over my shoulder for some unexpected high-speed kamikaze carving down the slope at top speed.

Tomorrow (Thursday) I will not be able to post another entry in this blog.  It will be a long day with lots of skiing and lots of driving, and I probably won't get to the next motel until late at night.  At that point, I'll be too tired, so I'll just go to sleep right away.

I will hit two ski areas tomorrow.  First: Castle Mountain.  This is one of the newest Powder Alliance ski areas and I am looking forward to seeing it.

After skiing at Castle, I will drive for about an hour, and then I'll do some night skiing at Pass Powderkeg ski area, starting around 5:30 pm.  This is a small ski area, but I want to give it a try.  After that, I'll have a 4-hour long drive to Salmo, British Columbia.  During this drive, I will cross from Alberta into British Columbia.

Starting shortly after I leave Castle Mountain tomorrow, and for the next 3 days, I will be following highway 3 that goes east-west just a little above the US border.

The next update in this blog will be in a couple of days.