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Ski-bums at large in Canada’s resorts


There are very few corners of the globe left that have not already been colonized by brazen Brits seeking the good life. Whether they’re after sunshine, year-round bbqs and golf, escape from 9-5s, or stupendous skiing, they proliferate the resorts, coasts and mountains of the world with their hedonistic joie de vivre – not to mention bragging blogs to those left behind.

In the world of Canadian skiing, Whistler and Banff have long been beacons for British ski bums, but some more intrepid expats have permeated the hinterlands of the Kootenay Rockies in British Columbia to find sensational skiing and laid-back lifestyles at more out-of-the-way resorts.

Fernie (www.skifernie.com):

When I caught up with Scots lass, Aileen Thom, she had only been working at Fernie Alpine Resort for three weeks. She was finding it a tad expensive: “I’m waiting for my first pay check before I can even think of going out for dinner,” she lamented. “But I have got to The Northern bar for drinks,” she said. She was having to stretch her basic wage from her job as hotel receptionist at The Wolf’s Den to afford expensive groceries. “A lot of people in Britain think that Canada and the US are cheaper but it’s on a par really,” she said.

But the 24-year-old was happy with her free season ski pass and blown away by the amount of snow at Fernie. “Fernie has an excess of snow compared to Scotland and it is steeper than where I skied in Europe,” she commented. Despite meagre hostel accommodation over the Grand Central – a noisy nightclub which makes the building shake at weekends – Thom is really happy with her choice of Fernie for a year off from her work as a physiotherapist in Inverness.

Living with her boyfriend in town – about a ten minute drive from the hill – she is reliant on shuttle buses to get to and from work and skiing. “The first two weeks they weren’t running which was difficult for us as we don’t have a car,” she said. “There’s a discounted rate for workers – $2 each way.” The couple are hoping to get their own vehicle later in the season in order to see more of Canada. “I think we will feel a wee bit trapped if we stayed here with no transport,” she said. “Because we’ve come from our own home and cars, it has been driving me insane having to be dependent on other people. But we do hitchhike, too, which is acceptable here and it really shows how friendly everyone is.”

Leaving a career in the National Health was a no-brainer for 43-year-old Liz Billam two years ago. She spent three years applying for permanent residency in Canada after falling in love with Whistler. During that waiting period, she spent several holidays there and finally happened upon Fernie when she took the Master of the Mountain powder and backcountry ski course with Non Stop Ski (http://www.nonstopsnow.com/). “During the whole six weeks of the course we only had one day with 9cm of snowfall and that was it. So I had to come back and see Fernie when it got powder,” she said. On obtaining her PR card, she got a job as supervisor at Guest Services, enabling three free ski days per week.

She is a real Fernie fan with her favourite runs in Easter Bowl: “Fernie is great for the lifestyle, the outdoors, and skiing is my passion. I’ve always wanted to ski all season and see snowcapped mountains every day when I wake up. I have a big smile on my face every time I get in my car to go skiing. In the summer it is fantastic, too, with all the biking and hiking and outdoor pursuits: that is what I love about Canada.”

When I left her, Billam was looking forward to the opening of Polar Peak which is being vaunted as the longest vertical in Canada (an accolade all the best Alberta and BC resorts aspire to). “Most of the territory it opens up will be black and double blacks which is what I want,” she said. “ I hiked it this summer and saw the amazing views from the top. It’s above the trees and pretty wide open.” For wannabee workers at Fernie, Billam advises attending the job fair in October or sending in a video application. “They are looking for the right personalities. Because customer service is the number one priority at Fernie, they want people who are going to be able to provide happy, outgoing personality with good communication skills.”

Panorama (http://www.panoramaresort.com/):

Debuting on snow at Panorama, Jos Bell went from scratch to bruised while learning to snowboard over the Christmas holidays. Originally from Oxford, he works in construction on Vancouver Island where he intends to weekend at Mount Washington now he’s a snow pro. “They always have a wicked base at Mt Washington, like silky drawers, which is a new snowboard term I learnt at Panorama,” he joked.

After three days snowboarding, he was also anxious to throw “gnarly” and “puking” casually into his conversation. “You can achieve a lot in just three days especially when it’s been puking down,” he said. “From not being able to stand up at first, I got to the point of going down a gnarly green run and being able to turn in both directions. And the second day it really clicked.”

It was peer pressure that led Bell to choose snowboarding over skiing: “I think the more daring, fun and exciting people like to snowboard – all my family are skiers but my friends are snowboarders,” he explained. Preferring Panorama’s size and variety to Mt Washington’s more limited terrain, Bell was keen to return there next winter and also try Lake Louise and Sunshine in Alberta. His advice to bootless Brits coming out for a season was to buy all the gear secondhand: “A ski bum friend moving back to New Zealand sold me his whole kit for $150 – snowboard, boots, bindings, helmets, goggles and bag.”

But it’s not all youngsters who are drawn to British Columbia. Over a very English cup of tea, I chatted with Bell’s uncle – a skier of course – who now lives in Brisco, near Panorama. At 59, Paul Bell is a downhill and Nordic enthusiast and does rock climbing, mountaineering, trekking and kayaking in the summer. He came to BC initially for the wide open spaces and an enhanced quality of life for his family. “I love the fact that most of the time at Panorama the ski hill is empty,” he said. “I was very puzzled by this until someone explained to me that they make their money on real estate sales rather than ski tickets.”

Retired from a career in leadership consultancy, Bell the elder is adamant about not returning to Blighty: “It’s too expensive and too crowded. And I don’t like the current cynical and depressed climate about economic conditions. We haven’t got that here at all – Canada is riding out the depression quite well.” Mind you, he has noticed an increase in the cost of season tickets at ski hills over his 11 years living in BC. But, having bought his house on 55 acres of land for less than the price of a small terraced home in Brighton, he is happy to cross-country ski around his domain with occasional day visits to Panorama, Kicking Horse and Revelstoke. “We went ice skating for a friend’s birthday recently on a lake with clear glass-like ice, 10 miles long and a mile wide – it was wonderful,” he said. “And we see so much wildlife here. A cougar strolled around my property for the first time the other day and we always get bears in summer.” On cue, as we finished the PG Tips that visitors are urged to bring him from Britain, deer started grazing in front of the house as snow gently decked the thousands of Douglas fir trees.

Kimberley (www.skikimberley.com):

After many seasons spent skiing and working in Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Austria and Vermont, Jean Miller has settled down in quaint Kimberley, BC. With her husband and three-year-old son, she nows lives in a lovely wood-paneled house in the cute, Tyrolian-themed town. “We first came to Kimberley when Andy was offered a job covering a maternity leave,” Miller explained. “We really liked it because it is so friendly, a smaller place, offering everything we wanted and access to the mountains but with longer term viability than Banff.” They bought their house in 2007 after a trial year of renting. With her husband working full-time at a media agency, Miller worked initially for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies at the Kimberley ski hill. She’s currently a stay-at-home mum, “renewing and refreshing” her options for when son Jack goes to school. Kimberley’s strong sense of community and firm family emphasis really mirrors where the Millers are in their life. “There are a lot of people here like us who have moved here for similar reasons so I feel understood by the community,” Miller said. The skiing really adds to her leisurely lifestyle: “I love the ski hill. It is really accessible, much more varied than first meets the eye. Even after four years, I still don’t really know all the nooks and crannies. When I ski with people who were brought up here, they are always showing me new runs and new lines.”

Andy and Jean Miller

Although she says they don’t have quite the same epic dumps as Fernie, the snow is very consistent throughout the five month season. And, furthermore, it is the better ski hill to teach a three-year-old on. “It’s a local’s hill, rather than a tourist hill. People come up all the time and say hello, just like Mt Norquay near Banff,” she said. A season pass holder for both alpine and cross-country, she also loves the floodlit Nordic ski center. Another advantage to living in Kimberley is the new airport at Cranbrook, just 20 minutes away which provides quick links to Calgary and back home to the UK. “I love it here,” she says. “But I am a long way away from my original home and family and I miss that network.”

Revelstoke (http://www.revelstokemountainresort.com/):

Lured to Revelstoke by the sensational snow reports, Michelle Vizer has traded in a career in teaching to work in retail at the new resort. The 27-year-old prefers the less stressful, less materialistic lifestyle in the Kootenay Rockies to Basingstoke where she grew up and Roehampton where she got a teaching degree. A non-skier when she arrived two years ago, Vizer quickly progressed from floundering on the bunny runs to hiking up into North Bowl and Greely where the powder is often waist-deep. “It’s hard to learn and you really have to get lessons, because ski pros know where to go,” she said. “There’s not much beginner terrain here, so you can get lost pretty easily and need direction as a beginner.” The beauty of learning at Revelstoke, though, is that ice is only evident in the drinks, the grooming is great due to so much natural snow and the plentiful powder makes for a cushioned landing. One of the bonuses of working in a resort is that lessons can be free if, like Vizer, you pal up with a ski instructor.

When I met her, the whole of Revelstoke was bursting at the seams for the New Year’s celebrations. However, Vizer said this was the only really busy time of the season: “It’s nothing like this usually; it’s super quiet. Just a week and a half ago, I went out for a ride break on a beautiful day, and there were just two people skiing the liftline and five chairs in front of me were completely empty. It’s like that most of the season.”

She chalks up about 50 downhill days per season and dabbles in cross-country, snowshoeing and even cat-skiing when she saves up enough dosh. “I went cat-skiing with my brother last year as a birthday present for him, which was really fun,” she said. Revelstoke is the only resort where you can ski the hill, go cat-skiing or go heli-skiing all from the central resort base. “It’s definitely worth going, only twelve of you out there plus the guides with fresh lines all day – it was awesome,” Vizer enthused, using the somewhat hackneyed North American adjective to express her approval.

Michelle Vizier

Although most of us can only dream of a whole season’s skiing, these resorts are definitely worth a try for a two-week vacation. One week is a bit of a push what with jetlag and long transfers from Calgary Airport. But, if you go low season (pre-Christmas, January, most of February, and March and April outside of Easter Break) you will have many of the slopes to yourself during the week with just a smattering of locals at weekends. The Kootenays has an enviable snow record and can be surprisingly mild for Canada. That being said it’s much cooler than Europe – hence the better snow – so make sure you take your face mask, heated boots and gloves (if you haven’t got them yet – try Therm-ic), warmest thermals and sturdiest ski jacket.

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