Courtenay (BC), Canada – It has cruisers,
it has steeps, it has trees, it has snow … tons of snow. It has pubs, it
has cross-country trails, it has lift- and car-accessed backcountry turns.
It has mountain views, and it has ocean views. It has a tube park, it has
events and it even has a natural luge track.
This seemingly monstrous mountain with something for snow riders
and non-snow riders, for hyper actives and mellows, for sun lovers and exercisers,
is not monstrous at all. Its statistics are tiny, but the mountain has a lot
to offer in a small package.
The mountain is Mt. Washington. Its name even foreshadows its
hidden attractions. New Hampshire¹s Mt. Washington has a reputation for being
a big, serious mountain in a comparatively small package. Well, Vancouver
Island, British Columbia’s Mt. Washington is the same.
The weather here is intense. It snows an average of 30 feet
a winter; some winters are much deeper. Sometimes the snow gets so deep people
living on the second floor of the on-hill chalets ski out their balconies.
The wind can kick up and throw snow around so that it is twice as deep on
one side of the mountain as it is on the other.
The mountain tops out at 5,200 feet, lower than its eastern
counter part, but it has 1,700 vertical feet of lift-served skiing. The acres
of cut runs spread across the entire southern and western side of the mountain.
In between, the trees are open, so almost the entire in-bounds area can be
skied. Locals can find powder days after a storm, and that is usually as long
as they have to wait because the storms are frequent.
Mt. Washington’s views stretch south to the Strait
Click on the image to open a full-size trail map
There is terrain for every taste. Down the middle of the hill
are some of the smoothest groomers around. The blue runs fall down nicely
pitched cuts. Coaster, lower East Bull and under the Yellow Chair are hidden
groomers that are quiet and manicured. Off the Sunrise area, Rainbow and
Fantastic have solid pitches but nothing scary. At the western flank, green
runs off by themselves become the perfect secluded learning areas.
For advanced and expert skiers, the eastern edge and the whole
west side have tons of nicely pitched runs. Some lines fall straight down
the fall line, while others have double fall lines. When it snows, most of
the difficult runs get blown-in snow, making it seem much deeper. When it
doesn’t snow, some get big moguls, while others get none. When it’s sunny,
the mountain’s southerly aspect can corn up early in the morning and westerly
aspects don’t melt until the afternoon, if at all.
On the west side is a basin that hardly shows up on the terrain
map, but the area is immense. There are extremely steep lines to be skied
here, through rocks and trees. The West Basin is a powder catcher and a popular
destination right after a storm.
The only draw back to the west side used to be the long and
slow traverse out from the bottom of the bowl back to the Eagle Chair, but
next year the mountain will install the first six-person chair in western
Canada to alleviate that problem. Announced in January, the new Garaventa
CTEC lift will begin at the very bottom of the hill, replacing the old Red
Chair, and rise to the top of Hawk run. The Hawk Chair will allow West Basin
2,400 riders per hour to ski to the bottom and get back up high quickly to
an additional 200 acres of in-bounds terrain, beginning in December 2002.
There are mixed feelings on the mountain about the expansion
news. On one hand, the new lift will free up a major traffic choke point.
The 22-year-old Red Chair was the only lift that accessed a large variety
of blue and green runs. On weekends, the lineups here could be huge.
"We will be solving the biggest bottleneck on the mountain,
the Red load area,” admitted resort president Peter Gibson in announcing the
new lift. “As well, The Hawk will be located adjacent to the Green Chair to
allow for more loading area straight in versus the curved pattern that the
soon-to-be-replaced Red Chair currently employs," Gibson continued.
Mt. Washington’s steep Powder Face
Skiing and riding in the trees is widely practiced
Above the clouds on the Eagle Express Quad
On the other hand, the top of the lift will be in the heart
of the best powder skiing on the mountain. The trees and runs around Hawk
are the destination of many a powder hound. Their anger is tempered by the
mountain’s plan to open a lift over the backside of the mountain in the not
too distant future that will open a huge backcountry ski area, referred to
by the resort as the “West Side Adventure Centre.” The bowls and trees back
there are easily accessible from the ski hill. Their northerly orientation
keeps the snow dry and cold long after the on-piste runs have softened and
crusted in the direct sunlight.
At the moment people heading for the backside have to take their
avalanche gear and know how to use it. The terrain is steep and open. It
is easily accessed from several boundary lines and can be departed with a
bit of poling. A logging road hooks up with all the backside drainages and
leads them back to the Mt. Washington access road. A thumb up will have a
ride back to the hill in no time. Beware, however, for Mt. Washington has
established a policy of charging the unprepared for out-of-bounds rescue services.
Farther down the road from the ski area is the Raven Lodge,
the new wood-framed cross-country lodge. At 10:00 a.m. and again at 1:00 p.m.
each day, luge lessons slide down the hill. The natural luge track is new
to the hill this winter. It is a groomed, unbanked, twisting, fenced course.
Lugers jump on a sled and slide down a hill on their backs using their feet
and hands to turn around the course. It is fast and fun.
The cross-country trails that wander through Strathcona Provincial
Park’s Paradise Meadows also leave from the Raven Lodge. Open old growth,
snow covered meadows and lakes provide views of the peaks of the park. The
trails are sufficiently challenging that the Canadian Junior National Cross-country
Ski team visited the trails last spring.
After a long day of riding, luging and skate skiing, Fat Teddy’s
in the ski area day lodge refreshes. When the stars appear, the Ozone begins
to happen. A short walk from the day lodge is the Ozone Tube Park, complete
with music, a bonfire, lights and a rope tow.
Accommodation choices at Mt. Washington include luxury condominiums
with fireplaces, full kitchens, living rooms and underground parking, available
through the resort’s centralized lodging service. On-hill chalets are available
to rent in the resort’s Alpine Village, or people stay in the Comox Valley,
just 25 minutes from the hill and served by a daily shuttle to the ski hill.
Rooms available in town include the Coast
Westerly Hotel, Crown
Isle Villas, the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort
& Spa, and the Best Western Collingwood Inn.
Mt. Washington Alpine Resort is compact enough to do all in
one day, yet there is enough to explore to satisfy for a week. In short,
Mt. Washington is a perfect destination.