Andy spent last season (11/12) on our 11 week ski instructor program in Red Mountain. He completed his Level 1 CSIA exams, and has now returned home to the UK eager to get back to the snowy slopes of Western Canada.
Nobody said getting to Red was going to be easy, and in fact that’s half the selling point: it’s so inaccessible the slopes are supposed to be empty, the powder heavenly and the locals untouched by the commercialisation of Whistler. So, 60 hours after I left home and I finally arrived in my luxurious condo, which would be home for the next three months, the question was: is this a paradise lost in the middle of the mountains? Was the slog worth it?
Boy was it.
When I booked to go to a tiny town of 3,500 people in the middle of nowhere in Canada I was slightly hesitant about it being the best decision of my life, but Adam and Max at Nonstop had convinced me that it was the perfect resort for what I was looking for out of a season: steep and deep powder.
I first found out about Red Mountain through Nonstop and did a bit of research on the place: it was small, just four chair lifts; it was remote, four hours from the nearest reliable airport; it was gnarly, the Canadaian freeskiing championships are held there; and it was a ski bum mecca, “the closest thing to heli skiing you can get without getting in a chopper”.
Not 100% convinced that this place could be for real (or convinced it was a great idea…) I boarded a plane to Calgary at 6am one morning and headed away from coldish Britain to very cold Calgary. I opted to get myself most of the way to resort on my own, I recommend anyone else just book on the group flights to Cranbrook… When I finally did arrive I was met by another lone traveller on the course, and shortly afterwards Rupert (the MD of Nonstop) and Mark Impey (the course Director in Red and, as it turns out, an all-round ski legend in Canada), so at least I had someone to talk to for the first time in a while!
When I got to my Condo, where all my housemates had already arrived, it was a little like moving into a palace – hot tub, BBQ, balcony, huge living room and an enormous luxury kitchen. I was sharing with a group of twenty/thirty-somethings and they were all in the hot tub on our balcony enjoying a beer or five. Obviously being so jet lagged I decided my best bet was to join them.
After a day of getting to know Rossland and each other, the following day set the tone for the three months to come. The skiers split into two groups of similar ability level. The mornings would be spent ironing out the bad habits we’d all learnt in the previous years and years of skiing. After lunch, at the aptly named Paradise lodge, we had a chance to shred the mountain and see what our new skills had done for our ability to ski the harder terrain on offer – deep powder, gladed tree runs, cliffs, steeps and all round crazy things.
In all the hype about Red there was one thing I hadn’t understood – we’d been promised that you’d barely see another person on the slopes. I didn’t really get the big deal – I’d skied the likes of the Three Valleys and Whistler and had never really been that concerned about the people around me. Oh, how Red opens your eyes. There were days where you genuinely wouldn’t see another person on the hill apart from at the Lodge. After a powder dump you could still be skiing fresh lines the best part of a week later. There are just no other people at this hill during the week. Things change a little at the weekends, but only once was it busy enough to create Whistler-esque lift lines.
As it stands, Red has four main lifts you’ll use and they’re all quite old…but you’ll be grateful for the rest after skiing 800m of vertical through waist deep powder. Where in the big resorts I’d skied before I’d mostly stuck to the pistes and trees beside them, in Red you’re actively encouraged to go and find whatever terrain you can. Granted this meant I did once watch a bloke lose a ski down a 100m vertical cliff face (he was lifted out by ropes, his ski is a sacrifice to the snow gods I suspect…) Most of the time though it means you’re skiing untouched powder from first lift until you get to the bar at about 4 o’clock.
The town and resort are very laid back – if you’re looking for a 24/7 party town you’ll be better off in Banff. We’d head to the bar most evenings and would have a big night out about once or twice a week – that might be in Rafters when it was holding a club night, or in town if the Winter Festival was in full swing (think warm cider, mulled wine and a rail jam). We’d also go to Trail down the road to watch a movie, hit the ice rink for some Curling or marvel at how depressing Walmart really is.
Our spare time was also a chance to escape from our instructors if that’s what we wanted to do. As it was, we often found ourselves hanging out with them in the evenings, playing poker or watching a movie. They’re all great instructors (obviously) and they made sure we had the best time possible both on and off the mountain. We met their children and their wives, and they really made us feel a part of the community. Something you really notice in Red, especially when you’ve spent the last few months working in the City, is how friendly everyone is, no matter where you are people will stop and say hello, the trucks on the road stop if you get anywhere near the edge of the sidewalk to let you cross and the lady in the coffee shop remembers your order after just one visit.
After a couple of weeks in resort it’s time to start thinking about the Level 1 instructor exam. I actually didn’t end up sitting it because I had to return to the UK for a job interview, but everyone else passed with flying colours! We had 18 year olds hoping to teach in Australia the following summer, to retirees looking for a new career in the North Yukon.
By the time I was back in Canada I was skiing with 15 qualified instructors and you could tell the difference immediately – those who had been panicking about the exams (with absolutely no reason to) were suddenly skiing twice as well just because of the confidence boost they’d received. Admittedly this led to a few incidents involving epic bails but we’ll gloss over those.
We spent another five weeks skiing like this which was fantastic, especially as the snow only got better through the season! During the course we also got the chance to take an avalanche safety course, spend some time in the park with the instructors, go cat skiing, go ski touring or visit some of the other ski hills nearby. One of the highlights though, was how close you felt to the rest of the community in Rossland – the entire Nonstop group were invited along to lots of the seasonnaire parties and ski school socials. The best probably being a party held in a private mountain lodge half way up the mountain in fancy dress. We spent the day drinking fireball in fancy dress, and the evening was spent eating BBQ around a fire pit. Inevitably we made a kicker and got some awful quality shots of people (not so) successfully jumping the fire.
I decided to take my Level 1 exam in the final week of the course when others were taking Level 2 / AMP. Unlike the rest of the group, I would be taking my course with total strangers. Feeling confident after 10 weeks of instruction, I waltzed into the cafeteria to meet the other candidates and was met by a former World Champion and Olympic Skier (see him in action below…), two mountain guides for Cat skiing companies and, thankfully, a guy from London called Zack who was as, relatively, inept as me. You can imagine the glee we all took in teaching a World Champion to snow plough. A glorious day for all except him I imagine.
Four days later we had met a great bunch of new friends to ski with and all passed the exams comfortably. That just left four more days to enjoy the slopes before flying out of Canada. We had all set goals at the end of the first week, mine was to ski a particularly steep, long, gladed run called Cambodia without stopping, after having an awful encounter with it in the first week. After eleven weeks of hard training I managed, but still got a cramp in my leg at the end which goes to show how hard some the terrain in Red really is. That may be underselling the training I got though, as my skiing had transformed over the course of the 11 weeks – Cambodia is like nothing you’d ever see in Europe!
We had a farewell dinner, where the instructors gave us all some lovely gifts to remember them by, and we thanked them for all their hard work. Shortly afterwards, I’m afraid, it was time to head off. All of our Level 2 candidates had passed with ease thanks to the great training they’d received, so people headed back to their homes across the globe with a new enthusiasm for skiing, and lots of new qualifications between us!