The wolverine den is directly beneath the Motherlode chairlift. It's near the top of Granite Mountain, where the pitch gets steeper and snow-covered ledges make the run a favourite for skiers who like showing off under a lift.
For several years, visitors have spotted animal tracks in the snow, leaving the den and heading across the ski hill to the trees. Sometimes there's blood on the tracks. Locals assumed it was a lynx living in there, but a ski patroller set up a camera last month and discovered it was a wolverine.
This is an animal that chases wolves and bears off carrion. Pound-for-pound, the wolverine is the meanest set of claws and teeth on the planet. Which makes it a fitting mascot for Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, B.C., home to some of the toughest skiing in North America.
The question is, will Red maintain its wolverine spirit now that it has opened a slew of bunny runs?
The biggest news in ski circles this year is Red's expansion to adjacent Grey Mountain. The resort's two peaks, Granite and Red, have an abundance of steep tree skiing, but are sorely lacking in intermediate terrain. The Grey expansion will double the supply of cruisers.
Seven runs have been cut, with two more planned this summer. Until a lift is raised, skiers pay $10 a ride for a 10-minute snowcat shuttle to the top of Grey from Granite, to get a sense of what Red Mountain will become.
For the sake of habitat, the wolverine would probably prefer that Red stays the way it is: uncrowded and focused on tree skiing, not clearcut runs. Don Thompson, Red's vice-president of operations, says the new terrain on Grey was cut judiciously, with advice from biologists and close attention paid to riparian corridors along waterways.
I hopped on the snowcat for a trial run on Grey with some ski patrollers doing set-up days before the official opening in late December (the day after Red sent out a press release claiming 65 centimetres of snow in three days).
Despite its name, Grey sparkled. Sun on two feet of fresh snow put the whole expansion idea in a good light. Grey's pitch starts off in gentle green-beginner run territory near the saddle it shares with Granite, and gets gradually steeper the further east you traverse along the southern aspect out toward its nose. This puts most of the face in the blue-square sweet spot of trail maps. A series of gradual rolls keep the fall line undulating in interesting ways and the pitch will be steep enough for mildly ambitious skiers to play with the turning arc of shaped skis on groomed corduroy. (This week the grooming crew started their lonely night shifts to smooth out Grey.)
But getting to it before the crowds, I was glad to have swapped my shaped skis for wide powder boards. The same pitch that will make these runs moderate cruisers in packed snow conditions also happen to be just right for wide, sweeping, snow-spraying turns in two feet of fresh Kootenay crystals.
With Grey's opening, Red's skiable area jumps to 1,084 hectares from 681. It's a big moment in Red's long history. Ski-club volunteers built Western Canada's first chairlift here in 1947. It ran for 26 years, which is impressive for a rig of used mining equipment. The gear had come from inside the mountain, at one time the biggest gold mine in British Columbia.
The miners left two legacies. One is a smattering of abandoned shafts that tree skiers would do well to be mindful of. Most locals have a story about dropping into a powdery depression they think was once filled with gold (they've all managed to climb out). The other is the town of Rossland, which rubs up against the backside of Red Mountain itself.
Rossland is at once one of the highest (at 1,023 metres) and most down-to-earth cities in Canada. It occupies most of a bowl that geologists say is an ancient volcano crater, giving its topography a more mountainous feel than other B.C. ski towns such as Fernie or Golden (near Kicking Horse). It was laid out in Wild West style in the 1890s, which means the main street was plenty wide to accommodate the moose that ambled down it this week.
The ski resort is within walking distance for the ambitious, which may be one reason why Powder magazine named Rossland the best ski town in North America last month (in tandem with Nelson, 75 kilometres to the north). Another reason might be the hundreds of proud and protective skiers who have come from around the world to live here. Commerce and culture – just enough of each to sustain the 5,000 residents – are found exclusively along a few blocks of vibrant Columbia Avenue. If you want to cross the road to get from the hardware store to the knitting store, step off the sidewalk. The cars will stop. If you want to get to the hill, stick out your thumb.
The Grey Mountain quad chairlift presently sits stacked and coiled near Red's base. The plan, not yet officially guaranteed, is to raise it this summer, so that next season a 14-minute ride will gain 760 metres up a mountain that, like Granite, can be skied a full 360 degrees. Couloirs to the north, sunny groomed runs to the south.
The groomers happen to provide a good vantage of Granite's unforgiving north face. As I stopped to rest on my last run down Grey, I looked across the valley and tried to pick out some of Granite's notorious tree-skiing runs such as Needles and Cambodia. Those thin lines will continue to draw hard-core skiers. But with the expansion, more diversity will be on offer. Skiers wanting a full range of terrain will finally feel at home at Red Mountain. It's not just for wolverines any more.
IF YOU GO
Pacific Coastal Airlines flies from Vancouver to Trail, B.C., 20 minutes away from Rossland. Air Canada flies to Castlegar, only 40 minutes away, but poor weather regularly cancels these flights. The Kelowna airport is a reliable hub, but it's a four-hour drive away. To avoid diverted flights and winter-mountain driving, fly to Spokane, Wash., two hours from Rossland. Shuttles to Red Mountain Resort are available from all airports.
WHERE TO STAY
Prestige Mountain Resort Rossland claims prime real estate at the centre of this historic mining town. Amenities include a sauna, hot tub, lounge, café and, importantly, a masseuse-equipped spa. Rooms start at $159 a night. prestigehotelsandresorts.com
For top-end, ski-in, ski-out condo lodging look at Slalom Creek Lodge. One-bedroom units start at $213 a night and four-bedroom lofts at $653. redreservations.com
WHERE TO EAT
Drift Izakaya Drift Izakaya adds sizzle to the casual-dining scene. Izakaya-style restaurants are rambunctious, where empty tasting plates – and glasses – are replaced or replenished quickly. 2104 Columbia Ave., 250-362-2190
Ian Merringer is a contributing editor to Explore and Ski Canada magazines. He travelled courtesy of Tourism BC and Red Mountain Resorts. Neither approved or reviewed the story.