In Revelstoke, the snow business is booming

April 3, 2009

revelstoke

The dollars poured into Revelstoke's resort have paid off in terrain that's a magnet for snowboarders.

Want to live in Prince Rupert? Better enjoy rain. Thinking of putting down roots in Revelstoke? Better appreciate snow. Lots of snow. So says ski instructor Lisa Longinotto, who ought to know. The Calgary native spent the first 18 years of her professional life awash in the white world of Banff. For most of us, that would constitute a lifetime of adventuring in the mountains. When she moved west to Revelstoke’s Mt. Mackenzie in 1990, Longinotto was just getting started.

After a decade as a “tail gunner” shepherding snowcat skiers and boarders around Mt. Mackenzie’s south-facing powder bowls, she welcomed the development of the downhill alpine runs on the west and north faces as well. While riding a chairlift earlier this month, Longinotto related that with the encouragement of the Mt. Mackenzie Alpine Sports Society—a municipal group that managed a much smaller facility at the foot of the 2,456-metre, pyramid-shaped peak—Denver businessman Don Simpson led an investment partnership that poured millions of dollars into an ambitious recreation and real-estate plan.

It worked, and Lisa is Exhibit A. She currently teaches at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, where ski schools have doubled to 19 this year. That may not sound like much, but it beats the layoff notices handed out at resorts elsewhere in B.C. as a result of plummeting U.S. visitor numbers.

The blizzard of international publicity generated by Revelstoke Mountain Resort’s creation of the longest lift-serviced vertical descent in North America would be enough to overwhelm a lesser town. Not here in the Selkirk Mountains beside the Columbia River. One glance at the state-of-the-art, extra-wide skis sported by those headed into the mountains from this railway town of 8,000 would be enough to signal that these folks are serious about enjoying their snowy surroundings.

This winter, Revelstoke boasts the highest snow banks on either side of the Rockies and points west. The Kootenay town just welcomed more heavy snowfalls in March. Fluffy powder, extended daylight hours, and the magnetism of unexplored terrain were more than enough to entice skiers, boarders, and snowmobilers of all stripes and nationalities to seek out local trails for themselves. According to Longinotto, many visitors from outside Canada come to Revelstoke as part of a circle tour. “They fly into Kamloops to try Sun Peaks, then come to us, then east to Kicking Horse in Golden, down the Columbia Valley to Fernie, and finish up in Kimberley, where they can fly out of the new international airport in Cranbrook.” On a silver-lining note that reflected the current chilly economic climate, she added: “More people have time on their hands this winter. A lot are treating themselves to an extended vacation.”

At first glance, the changes wrought by the advent of the new mountain resort on this still-sedate town aren’t all that evident. Revelstoke exudes as peaceful an ambience as any of B.C.’s smaller mountain towns. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a surging real-estate market with soaring house prices that test the limits of affordability, especially for young resort employees who arrived within the past year, like Katie Bilodeau. It’s a good thing the Montrealer likes camping. A tent served her well throughout the warmer months. By chance, a local family offered her a room where she contentedly settled in for the winter.

A familiar tale of those who arrived before the boom is that of Greg “Million Foot Man” Hill. When contacted at home, the 33-year-old ski guide, who racked up an astounding one million feet of vertical while alpine touring two winters ago, said that he moved here in 2000 because “it was the last affordable ski town in B.C.” Hill said that reputation ended six months before the new resort opened. “Things got out of control in 2007 but have settled down somewhat now.” Longinotto agreed: “Houses that suddenly tripled in value are only worth double what they cost last year.”

With two preschool children, Hill and his wife, Tracey, typify Revelstoke’s changing profile, one depicted by Longinotto as newly arrived “toques and mutts” types like Bilodeau who settle in and soon add “strollers” to that moniker. The town has a pronounced railway flair and a magnificent blue-domed, Edwardian courthouse presiding over streets of modest, pitch-roofed homes, and Hill observed: “It’s not like everyone here is rocking the gear. This is still a blue-collar town. The ski hill is good for the local economy as forestry collapses.”

Mountains of dreams are riding on the success of the new resort, the first of its kind to offer both inbounds downhill action as well as snowcat and heli-skiing under one ownership. As Longinotto pointed out, no matter what happens, there’s a new momentum on Mt. Mackenzie that won’t be extinguished any time soon, at least as long as the blessed snow keeps falling.

Access: Revelstoke lies 560 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway 1. For tourism information, call 1-800-487-1493 or visit www.seerevelstoke.com/. Revelstoke Mountain Resort features spring skiing through mid-April. For details, call 1-250-814-0087. Revelstoke features a variety of accommodation options, from budget rooms with kitchens at Revelstoke Gateway Inn (1-877-837-8337) to the upscale heritage of the Regent Inn (1-250-837-2107).