Canada is the second largest country in the world – and its border with the USA is the longest in the world between two countries. It also has the world’s longest coastline – and one of the world’s lowest population densities. Although it’s famous for its Rocky Mountains (and of course it’s Royal Mounted Police, or Mounties) much of the skiing – particularly the heliskiing in Canada for which BC is famous - is on mountain ranges which are not technically in the Rockies at all, but to the west of them.
Perhaps surprisingly, skiing in Canada is possible in all 10 of Canada’s provinces. But of course the biggest and best known of Canadian ski resorts are in British Columbia, neighbouring Alberta, and Quebec in the east. Much of BC’s skiing is actually in sub-ranges of the Columbia Mountains like the Monashees, Cariboos, Purcells and Bugaboos. Whistler, Canada’s most famous resort, is in the Coast Range, while Quebec’s mountain’s, like Tremblant, are in the ancient Laurentian range. Some 90 minutes from Vancouver, BC, the Olympic resort of Whistler (including its close neighbour Blackcomb), likes to style itself the most popular resort in all of North America. Its biggest rival is Alberta’s Banff-Lake Louise, where the so-called ‘Big 3’ ski areas include Sunshine and Banff’s local ‘hill’, Mt Norquay. In Quebec, Tremblant – like Whistler with Vancouver – can be combined with a city add-on in Montreal.
They say comparisons are odious, but how do ski resorts in Canada differ from those in the USA? They don’t hugely, but there are a few differences. Canada’s mountains are in general much more dramatic and Alpine in appearance than those in the American Rockies (the awe-inspiring Bow Valley mountains you see from the upper slopes of Lake Louise are a good example). But this is odd because America’s mountains are generally higher. The reason for this phenomenon is that Canada’s mountains tend to start at a lower altitude, so the vertical drop is often bigger. And looks bigger. Because Denver is already perched almost exactly a mile high at 5,280 feet, many Colorado mountains don’t appear to be as high as their Canadian counterparts. And of course being further north than the USA, good snow conditions are pretty much assured, regardless of altitude..
Resort culture can differ too: for example if a run is marked ‘closed’ in Canada, it’s not quite such a heinous offence to ski it as it is in America, although over the years, the Canadians have tightened up on this procedure. Time was when they simply regarded closure signs as strong guidance - but left skiers and boarders to decide for themselves whether to risk it without fear of being arrested! But these days skiing a closed run will probably get you into almost as much trouble in Canada is it would do in the USA!
Apart from having some of the best ski resorts in Canada, such as Fernie and Kimberley, British Columbia is the heliskiing capital of the world. Although Alberta (with excellent resorts such as Lake Louise, Sunshine, Mt Norquay and Jasper’s Marmot Basin) has a number of cat-skiing operations (a little like heliskiing except you’re taken to the untracked powder fields by a snowcat converted for passengers, a rather slower method of uphill transport) all the heliskiing happens in BC – most famously with Canadian Mountain Holidays (CMH) and Mike Wiegele.
What Quebecois resorts like Tremblant may lack in vertical feet and powder they make up for in ambience and cuisine. The French Canadians combine American politeness (not always found in France!) with French cooking so that you get the best of both worlds. And a side visit to Montreal – just like Vancouver in BC - is a huge extra attraction.