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Mountain Report: Which BC ski destination is right for you?

Winter in Vancouver can be absolutely miserable, especially if you're one of the many transplanted Vancouverites still adjusting to the seasonal lack of Vitamin D here in your adopted home.
Whistler Blackcomb

Winter in Vancouver can be absolutely miserable, especially if you're one of the many transplanted Vancouverites still adjusting to the seasonal lack of Vitamin D here in your adopted home.

But when there's rain in the streets, there's snow on the mountains, so embrace the season and head for the hills!

Here in Vancouver, we are spoiled for choice with dozens of world class ski and snowboard destinations less than a day's drive away. 

But which resort is right for you? 

Maybe you're looking for a relaxing weekend in a chalet on aquiet hill. Maybe you get your jollies launching off kickers in the backcountry. Or maybe you're just looking for a mountain with a decent bar for some après-ski.

Whatever you are looking for, Westender has you covered like that one-piece snow suit your mom bought you when you were six that went zip-zop-zip-zop-zip-zop when you walked. 

The Locals: Cypress, Grouse, and Seymour

Lets start with the obvious.

While the local hills might not offer the variety of terrain or quality of snow many of the bigger mountains can boast, they are nothing if not convenient. Just look out the window! They're right there.

No other major metropolitan cityin the world has three ski resorts accessible by public transit. But each has a distinct personality.

Moving east to west, we start with Mt. Seymour. Run by the Wood family since 1984, Mt. Seymour has always had a decidedly family vibe, and its gentle slopes are a great place for beginners. While there's tubing, tobogganing, and snowshoeing for the little ones, the precocious North Shore teens known as the "Seymour Kids" (who might as well have born with a board strapped to their feet) dominate the runs. The mountain might not have much in the way of vertical or variety, but they've gone all out to cater to snowboarders with four massive floodlit terrain parks featuring more than 30 park elements for all skill levels. It's also the most affordable of the local hills with lift tickets at $54.

Moving along, we have the venerable Grouse Mountain. Vancouver's oldest ski area, the first lodges on the mountain were built back in the 1920s by a group of clearly mentally ill Scandinavians who hauled planks and building materials all the way up the treacherously steep trail that would eventually become the Grouse Grind. While Grouse might strictly be for the tourists these days, it's by no means a tourist trap. 

Sure, there's outdoor ice skating, zip lines, the Theatre in the Sky, the Eye of the Wind observation deck, a Christmas village, and sleigh rides. But on a sunny day (or a clear night), The Cut is still absolutely one of the best downhill runs anywhere in the world for its stunning views of Vancouver and beyond.

Lets be honest, though. If you want to get serious and put in a proper day on the North Shore slopes, nothing can compete with Cypress Mountain. It has more than double the runs of either Grouse or Seymour, twice the vertical, and triple the skiable terrain.

It was no surprise the 2010 Winter Olympics chose Cypress as the local venue for its freestyle skiing and snowboarding events. The Olympics were good for Cypress too, resulting in new lifts and facilities, further setting it apart from its North Shore competition.

The Crazy Raven is a must for après ski bevvies, but as with any bar you plan on driving home from, drink responsibly. Because there WILL be a roadblock at the bottom of the hill.

The Valley: Hemlock, Mt. Baker, and Manning

When it comes to local skiing many Vancouverites might not realize that there are more options than just the Big Three. Head down the Trans Canada into the heart of the Fraser Valley, and you'll find a trio of oft overlooked resorts.

Just 90 minutes from Vancouver, Hemlock Valley offers a secluded winter escape with affordable chalets and apartments. And what it lacks in size, it makes up for with wide-open, empty runs, free from the throngs of tourists. You'll have no problem making fresh tracks all day long.

Further east along the Hope-Princeton Highway is Manning Park Resort. The resort has had some rough years as of late, but the future seems bright for the small, family-run ski hill. The operation went into receivership back in 2009 and in 2013 it looked like the resort might shut for good unless a buyer was found. Thankfully the Demers family, owners of the Sunshine Valley RV Resort just a few clicks down the highway, stepped in to purchase the resort last year.

Manning features wide-open runs, one of the longest seasons of any of the southwest BC ski resorts, and if downhill isn't your thing, there's more than 60 km of groomed cross-country trails, as well as 160 km of backcountry trails.

A few minutes south of the border stands the mighty Mt. Baker, an active volcano rising a full 3,300 metres above the surrounding foothills and farmland. Located between the peaks of Mt. Baker and nearby Mt. Shuksan on the Panorama Dome, the Mt. Baker alpine resort offers challenging terrain and a whole lotta snow. Just how much snow, you ask? How about the most snow anywhere in the entire world: The 1998/99 ski season saw close to 30 metres of snow fall on Mt. Baker, setting an as-yet unbeaten world record. 

After you're done plowing through Baker's endless powder, be sure to take the long way home and stop in for a British-style ale and a pizza at the North Fork Beer Shrine in Deming. 

The Interior: Apex, Big White, Silver Star, and Sun Peaks

It's all about the snow, man. And while the coast might have the market cornered on quantity, for quality, nothing can compare with the Interior.

The dry champagne powder of the Thompson Okanagan is softer and lighter than the wet, heavy stuff typically found on the coast. That means boarders won't be getting stuck on the flats and the two-plankers won't lose their skis when they drop into the deep stuff.

Starting from the south and working north, we have Apex Mountain Resort, a hidden, high-mountain gem 30 minutes west of Penticton. With just a pair of chairlifts servicing 450 hectares of terrain, Apex often gets overlooked for its big Okanagan brothers; Big White and Silver Star. But the mountain is worth a visit. It features some challenging terrain, uncrowded runs, and is home to the best ski bar in BC (or anywhere else, for that matter), the legendary Gunbarrel Saloon.

If Kelowna's Big White Ski Resort and Vernon's Silver Star Mountain Resort seem similar, the two resorts come by it honestly. Australian Desmond Schumann bought Big White back in 1985 before purchasing Silver Star in 2001, turning both into world-class family-focused alpine destinations.

Schumann died in 2012, but the business stayed in the family with his son Peter taking the reins at Big White, and his daughter Jane Cann staying on to run Silver Star.

Located just 120 km apart, Big White and Silver Star are almost identical in size, with comparable skiable terrain, vertical, and number of runs. Both offer a wide variety of family-friendly activities, so if you're not interested in hitting the slopes, you won't be left out in the cold.

Of course, there are differences. Big White has a decidedly European feel with its Bavarian-style architecture, whereas Silver Star's colourful clapboard buildings are reminiscent of a historic frontier town.  

Big White also sits almost half a kilometre higher than Silver Star, giving it a wide variety of terrain above the treeline. 

But if there's a knock against Big White, it's this: The mountain can be a victim of its own popularity. Often, on weekends, many of the runs can resemble a Vancouver traffic jam, especially near the village. You'll definitely find fewer crowds up at Silver Star.

Moving further north lies the constantly growing Sun Peaks resort, just 45 minutes past Kamloops. With more than 1,700 hectares of terrain, the mountain (well, three actually: Tod Mountain, Sundance Mountain, and Mt. Morrisey) is the second largest ski resort in Canada, behind only Whistler Blackcomb (obviously). While Sun Peaks tries to market itself as a four-season resort, it's that dry champagne powder and crystal clear blue skies that pay the bills. Sun Peaks doesn't have a ton of beginner terrain, but it's perfect for intermediate skiers and riders thanks to its dozens of gladed areas and bowls. Advanced powder hogs will love the out-of-the-way hike-in areas, like Gil's on Tod Mountain.

The Undiscovered Gems: Revelstoke and Mt. Washington

With the closure of Mt. Arrowsmith and Forbidden Plateau, Mt. Washington Alpine Resort is pretty much the only game in town if you want to hit the slopes on Vancouver Island (as nice as Mt. Cain's powder is, lets be honest, you're not going to drive 350 km up island for a couple of T-bars).

But while Mt. Washington is the first hill of choice for most Islanders, few Mainlanders have ever had the pleasure. And with a dozen daily flights connecting Calgary and Edmonton to the Comox Valley, you're more likely to run into vacationing Albertans on the slopes than fellow Vancouverites.

But here's the thing, Mt. Washington is pretty amazing. The mountain gets an insane amount of snow (almost 12 metres annually!), offers great views and an easy-going vibe, and is a lot closer than you think (only a 90-minute drive from Nanaimo or a 50-minute seaplane trip from Downtown Vancouver).

Last year Mt. Washington was forced to close early due to a lack of snow, but don't let that put you off. The mountain is normally home to some of the largest snow falls of any resort in North America. Back in 2010, the mountain had the opposite issue, when 500 cm of snow fell in December alone, almost burying the chairlifts.

This year Mt. Washington features an all-new terrain park, and remains one of the few winter resorts where you can hit the slopes and the links in the same day.

Don't forget to stop off at The Waverley Hotel Pub in historic Cumberland for some gourmet pub grub and the best live music north of Victoria.

Heading in the opposite direction, a six-hour drive east from Vancouver is the reborn and revamped Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The site on Mount Mackenzie was formerly the home of the Powder Springs Resort, and was a popular heliskiing and Sno-Cat destination. In 2005, construction began on the first phase of the billion-dollar development, and, when finally completed, Revelstoke is expected to be the biggest winter resort in North America, with more than 2,000 hectares of skiable terrain serviced by 21 lifts. 

But Revy ain't there yet. The first phase of the resort was completed in 2007, and in 2008, with the extension of the Revelation Gondola to the lower village, Revelstoke claimed title of most vertical in North America, stealing it away from Whistler Blackcomb. 

Revelstoke has a lot going for it: Huge, consistent snowpacks; ridiculous vertical drop; easy access via the TransCanada Highway and Revelstoke's nearby airport; and a convenient location a few minutes from the Revelstoke townsite.

The terrain is varied and challenging, and since the secret's not out yet, the runs are blissfully empty. But don't expect Revelstoke to stay a secret for long.

The Juggernaut: Whistler Blackcomb

Last but certainly not least is the king of the hills, the peak of perfection, the most massive of massifs: Whistler Blackcomb.

If there is one word to describe Whistler Blackcomb (and there isn't) it's this: Overwhelming.

The sheer scale of this mountain (well, two mountains, technically) is staggering. At just shy of 2,000 hectares of skiable terrain, Whistler Blackcomb is the largest downhill resort in North America: Roughly 25 times the size of Mt. Seymour for comparison. You could hit this behemoth every day for an entire season and still find surprises.

So if you are planning a Whistler trip, know that one day is not nearly enough to even begin to scratch the surface of all it has to offer. 

Due to its immense size and large vertical drop, conditions vary throughout the mountain. Raining in the village? Well, it's snowing mid-mountain. But maybe the visibility is low. Keep heading up the mountain until you're above the clouds and into the sunshine at the Symphony Bowl. Too many tourists? Take the Peak 2 Peak gondola over to Blackcomb and make fresh tracks down the Horstman Glacier.

Of course, no day on Whistler Blackcomb is complete without a leg-burning peak-to-village run to finish things off. Thankfully Whistler Village boasts close to 100 restaurants, cafés, pubs, bars, and nightclubs, so your après options are limitless. Whatever you are into, you'll find it in Whistler.

Given everything it has to offer, it should come as no surprise that Whistler Blackcomb is arguably the most expensive ski resort in the province. Thankfully there are a ton of deals available for Vancouverites, like the discount EDGE Card (http://www.whistlerblackcomb.com/tickets-and-passes/discount-cards/index.aspx), available only to Canadian and Washington State residents.  

By the numbers

Mt. Seymour

Runs: 23

Lifts: 5 (3 chairlifts, 2 magic carpets)

Skiable area: 81 hectares

Vertical: 330 m

Annual snowfall: 1,200 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $54

Cost of season pass: $819

 

Cypress Mountain

Runs: 53

Lifts: 9 (6 chairlifts, 2 surface lifts, 1 magic carpet)  

Skiable area: 242 hectares

Vertical: 610 m

Annual snowfall: 1,050 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $62

Cost of season pass: $749

 

Grouse Mountain

Runs: 26

Lifts: 5 (4 chairlifts, 1 magic carpet)

Skiable area: 86 hectares

Vertical: 365 m

Annual snowfall: 970 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $58

Cost of season pass: $825

 

Manning Park

Runs: 34

Lifts: 4 (2 chairlifts, 2 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 57 hectares

Vertical: 432 m

Annual snowfall: 546 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $52

Cost of season pass: $599

 

Hemlock Valley

Runs: 35

Lifts: 4 (3 chairlifts, 1 surface lift)

Skiable area: 121 hectares

Vertical: 396 m

Annual snowfall: 920 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $50

Cost of season pass: $599

 

Mt. Baker

Runs: 31 

Lifts: 10 (8 chairlifts, 2 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 400 hectares

Vertical: 484 m

Annual snowfall: 1,600 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $57 USD

Cost of season pass: $790 USD

 

Apex Mountain Resort

Runs: 67

Lifts: 4 (2 chairlifts, 2 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 450 hectares

Vertical: 610 m

Annual snowfall: 600 cm 

Cost of lift ticket: $71

Cost of season pass: $945

 

Silver Star

Runs: 115

Lifts: 12 (6 chairlifts, 1 surface lift, 3 magic carpets, 2 tube lifts)

Skiable area: 1,240 hectares

Vertical: 760 m

Annual snowfall: 700 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $81

Cost of season pass: $1,149

 

Big White

Runs: 118

Lifts: 16 (1 gondola, 10 chairlifts, 1 surface lift, 2 magic carpets)

Skiable area: 1,147 hectares

Vertical: 777 m

Annual snowfall: 750 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $84

Cost of season pass: $1,139

 

Sun Peaks

Runs: 133

Lifts: 11 (6 chairlifts, 5 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 1,728 hectares

Vertical: 882 m

Annual snowfall: 600 m

Cost of lift ticket: $84

Cost of season pass: $1,139

 

Revelstoke

Runs: 65

Lifts: 5 (1 gondola, 2 chairlifts, 2 magic carpets)

Skiable area: 1,263 hectares

Vertical: 1,713 m

Annual snowfall: 1,200 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $84

Cost of season pass: $1,129

 

Mt. Washington

Runs: 81

Lifts: 8 (5 chairlifts, 3 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 690 hectares

Vertical: 505 m

Annual snowfall: 1,150 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $78

Cost of season pass: $1,270

 

Whistler Blackcomb

Runs: 200+

Lifts: 39 (5 gondolas, 18 chairlifts, 16 surface lifts)

Skiable area: 1,925 hectares

Vertical: 1,565 m

Annual snowfall: 1,022 cm

Cost of lift ticket: $119

Cost of season pass: $1,999

* Quoted lift ticket and season pass prices are based on listed full price for adult alpine. Sales tax and fees may be applicable. Many resorts offer discounts, so be sure to check their website for the latest offers.