Get back. Yearn to earn your turns? Welcome to winter in the incomparable West Kootenay backcountry. From slack country lift-accessed loops that end in the pub an hour later, to bold multi-day traverses sure to bolster your best-ever list, this part of the world is inarguably amongst the best places ever to skin up and get down.
There are, give or take, eight touring zones throughout the Rossland Range, Southern Selkirks and the west slopes of the Purcells. Professional touring guides are available for hire to get you out there. Volumes of comprehensive web copy and books have been written for those who’s groups want to go into the backcountry. Plus, we’ve got the best avalanche, weather and road reporting in the world — and knowledgeable staff at outdoor shops on every main street. For overnights and extended holidays, the West Kootenay has six beautiful privately run backcountry lodge outfitters and three splendid provincial park cabins, stewarded by the venerable Alpine Club of Canada.
So, where to start?
With vital advice.
Backcountry touring is inherently dangerous. Visitors and locals alike are hungry to get at it from November to May. That eagerness can lead to recklessness, lost ways and situations none of us want to be in. There have been countless search and rescue call outs, severe injuries and heartbreaking fatalities in the Kootenay wilderness over the last few decades due to accidents and avalanches.
Backcountry touring has grown immensely in popularity. It’s busy out there. So, Know before you go. It’s a prerequisite that you have all the right equipment, info, courses, experience and equally well-prepared company for your trip. Go-to sites are Avalanche Canada and DriveBC.
Here’s the highlight reel.
Red Mountain and the Rossland Range
Just beyond the legendary alpine city scene of Rossland and Red Mountain’s in-bound bounty, five peaks beckon those who love to earn their turns, all within walking distance of the resort’s boundaries. Favourites are Record Ridge and Mount Roberts’ vertigo-inducing fall lines (former site of the Canadian Open Freeskiing Championships back in the day). Not far up the highway, there’s Strawberry Pass. Nicely off-radar compared to nearby Whitewater’s vortex of pow-popularity, the Red zone’s rad topography even allows for powder commuting. That’s right. You can jump out of the car, shred a line, and have someone pick you up on the other end. Rip and repeat. Best place for info: Tourism Rossland, Red’s Get Lost Adventure Centre and the local yokels at Kootenay Gateway.
Castlegar, the Valhallas and Beyond
If you’re flying into the West Kootenay for your backcountry getaway, you’ll be landing in Castlegar at the West Kootenay Regional Airport. The city is smack-dab driving distance between four touring hot spots — the Rossland Range, Kootenay Pass, Whitewater and, loaded with lore — the Valhallas. The Valhallas and nearby Valkyr ranges are not for the uninitiated. Backcountry travel is advanced and isolated. But. There are four great lodges you can book into for a proper guided touring trip. Valhalla Mountain Lodge, Ice Creek Lodge, Valhalla Mountain Touring and Valkyr Adventures. We’re talking five-star West Kootenay winter adventure. Try Arrow Slocan for intros.
When this 1,775-metre high (5,823 ft) roadway was punched over the Southern Selkirks in 1963, transportation power-brokers were looking for a fast way to get people and products from Alberta to the coast. Turns out The Pass — the second highest year-round highway in Canada — paved a way to Planet Pow. Once quite quiet, now busy-busy, the zone is a highway-side go-to for excellent early and late season skiing, for intermediate to expert levels. Salmo is 30 minutes one way, Creston’s the other, and the US border into Idaho is just to the south. While you’ll likely stay in Salmo, Ymir or Nelson, there are two overnight cabin options — Lightning Strike and Ripple Ridge, managed by the Ripple Ridge Recreation Association in Creston.
Whitewater and nearby Nelson
Ymir Bowl, Five Mile, White Queen, Evening Ridge…
The legendary locales of Whitewater’s stellar slack n’ back-country have secured their place in the lexicon of bro-brah banter world wide. Whitewater hangs its toque on touring, providing unparalleled access to terrain of all sorts, and a gateway to core backcountry culture. Whitewater’s whole enchanting enchilada — the annual Coldsmoke Powder Fest, its up-track troops of guided tours and giddy foreign speaking gaggles, and the season-long calendar of avalanche and backcountry safety courses for skiers and split boarders alike — speak truth to the resort’s reign as a holy land for self-propelled souls. Start here: Whitewater Ski Resort, Summit Mountain Guides and Kootenay Backcountry Guides.
Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park
In his seminal touring tome Summits and Icefields, Canadian dirtbag ski icon Chic Scott called Kokanee “one of the best destinations for powder skiing in Western Canada, with everything you’d want.”
A jewel in the West Kootenay backcountry crown, with endless amounts of terrain, lodging options in the park are by wilderness hang-out standards, luxurious, thanks to the 2002 construction of the three-storey, post and beam Kokanee Glacier Cabin. Kokanee trips are highly coveted. You need to enter a lottery that runs between August and September for a chance to land a heli-in, heli-out seven day stint. Or know a lucky winner. Get in the draw at alpineclubofcanada.ca.
Kaslo, New Denver and Western Purcells
If you’re an advanced-to-expert tourer or ski mountaineer, welcome, winter warrior.
Located an hour-and-a-half north of Nelson, the backcountry accessed from the historic Highway 31A pass between Kaslo and New Denver is way bigger than other West Kootenay high country haunts. Mount Brennan teeters above the highway, at a height of 2,860 metres or 9,385 feet. Most tours are sled accessed. And they’re massive walks. London Ridge, home of the proposed Zincton Resort, is a more manageable walk, but still tough. Mount Carlyle Backcountry Lodge is the place for multi-day stays and guided tours. Across the lake, in behind Kootenay Lake’s East Shore, Powder Creek Lodge is a playground in the Purcells. And new as of 2022/23 — Meadow Creek’s White Grizzly Cat Skiing will have ski tour service towards the shadows and slopes of the massive Goat Range zone.
Get out and enjoy what has been gifted us – snow, slopes and mild temperatures – but safety first, then epic days in the outdoors.
Want to learn more about backcountry skiing in the area? Visit the local tourism websites.
Enjoy the #WestKootRoute