Visiting Nelson for the first time is like returning home. The place accepts you with open arms and one can feel at ease. In the same way, returning to Nelson is much like visiting for the first time—the energy of the place hits you in an epiphany and the people are refreshingly laid back. For myself returning after five years to ski the place where I truly learnt to “ski the trees”, a lot has changed. The cult ski resort of Whitewater has expanded much to the initial chagrin of some locals, but you would be hard pressed to find someone adhering to that sentiment these days. Whitewater simply just got better.
Famed for it's Kootenay coldsmoke powder and family values, Whitewater underwent what could be deemed a major renovation in 2009 when a new chairlift was added to the existing Summit and Silverking lifts. The new Glory Chair opened up a 303 acres of long tree skiing, almost doubling the lift accessed terrain. It alleviated long lift lines on a powder day, but granted more immediate access to some of the best kept local stashes famously known as “Backsides”.
Circa 2010, one could traverse left from the Summit Chair, side step around a certain knoll or boot pack a short pitch before dropping in on 600 vertical meters of steep and deep trees. Upon reaching the road below, you simply hung out a thumb and hitch hiked up the road and back to the lift before repeating. It was a social affair, a slow food approach to skiing and it kept people away from the best skiing after noon on a powder day.
The Glory Chair, however, changed only some of that. The same side step around a certain knoll or short boot pack still applies, but instead of having to hitch, one needs only to skate down the cat track beside the road to the lift. From the top, once you have dropped in, nothing is different at all.
Proof comes with 15cms falling over night and despite a late start on Christmas Eve, the zone I once knew so well is still fresh and the silence makes it seem as though we are completely in the backcountry. The forests inhales us down the fall line as we ricochet off pillows and career through the trees with blind faith that our line goes. Backsides, then and now, may well have the best snow-all-up-in-your-face moments for your buck anywhere.
Thankfully, secret stashes are still somewhat secret since the new lift doesn't offer them up on a platter. The new chair may have converted the Backside into perhaps a quasi assembly line for faceshots, but the upside is fewer beat up, old pickups stuck in the snow bank from people driving in ski boots. Not to mention the water station at the base of the Glory Chair that consists of diesel jerry cans that you decant yourself into cups made from recycled post consumer paper products. It's quirky, it's functional, and it's unpretentious. And it is in these details that Whitewater hasn't changed at all. The subtle touches of hospitality, but in a completely backwoods manner that is typical of the Kootenays are what makes Whitewater so endearing.
The lodge is still a menagerie of kids clomping around with hair matted in clumps of ice, people in faded old GoreTex, collectively all smiling or laughing. The Fresh Tracks Cafe still serves up hearty and wholesome snacks to refuel the legs for a show-boat lap down Blast under the Summit Chair. No cell phone reception or internet access means people come to ski and converse. The warm, family atmosphere isn't a gimmick, it's for real.
Later the same day, traversing out to the other stashes of Catch and Hummer Trees, laughing with old and new friends alike, I feel I'm in a time warp. It's as though I never left Nelson. Pushing off for the last lap of the day, with snow billowing around my collar, the feeling is nothing but timeless.
Thanks to Rebeckah Hornung at Whitewater for hooking it up.