Chris DeRossa, Red Mountain, BC
Chris DeRossa, Red Mountain, BC

The Little Red Mountain That Could

In southern British Columbia, a community-first ski resort pursues the anti-corporate model

The clamoring sounds of open mic night steer my friend and me toward Rafters, the legendary bar at Red Mountain Resort where patroller Sparky Steeves is wailing on the guitar and half-empty pitchers of beer sit scattered atop a few amplifiers. A dog scurries along the worn wooden floorboards as an old ski bum, still in his ski pants at 10 p.m., staggers to a table with his fellow comrades. Locals filter in and out as the evening wanes, and I see a guy pull three nuggets out of his pocket, rolling a fat joint in plain view.

It's loose here.

We began our journey 12 hours ago in Salt Lake City. What looked like a final spring storm in a banner season had me slamming the gas pedal north to BC.

Red Mountain Resort has quietly evolved since its humble beginnings in 1947. Scandinavians who traveled to Rossland by way of the gold rush first introduced skiing to the area in the late 1800s—the first downhill race was held on Red Mountain in 1896. While the World Wars disrupted skiing's influence on the town, soon afterward ski clubs from nearby towns Trail and Rossland combined to form the Red Mountain Ski Club, which built a single chairlift from remnants of the old mines on Red Mountain.

Before even clicking into my bindings, it was perfectly clear: This is a skier's mountain.

In 2013, the ski area built its newest chairlift to access 1,000 acres of terrain on Grey Mountain, formerly a popular backcountry zone. A year later, the resort added Mount Kirkup, with inbounds cat skiing for $7.50 per ride—totaling the skiable acreage to 2,957 (more than Jackson Hole or Alta), on sustained vertical pitches with skiing in every direction. While expansion can often look like a corporate takeover—pushing the locals out with tourism and higher priced tickets—this isn't the case at Red.

In August, Red hosted a crowdfunding campaign to raise capital while paying homage to its community ski hill roots. Anyone could buy in for as little as $1,000 to help support resort improvements, like lodge upgrades, in exchange for shares in the ski hill as well as swag like season passes, custom skis, and access to a VIP clubhouse. As of press time, the ski resort had raised $4.7 million from more than 1,200 people, still short of its $10 million goal.

Even with a new hotel emerging at the base and new condominiums nearby, I was struck by the bare bones base area. We booked a room at a local inn for $98 a night, which included breakfast and enough leftovers to stash for lunch. With lift tickets running $89 a day, we had plenty of cash to eat and après. Red has no micro village, nor heated sidewalks. Just a dirt parking lot with a rowdy and friendly crew at Rafters—a timbered former bunkhouse turned watering hole that is now preserved within the base lodge. Before even clicking into my bindings, it was perfectly clear: This is a skier's mountain.

Red looks to preserve its sense of community for future generations. PHOTO: Steve Ogle

Patroller Steeves' mildly graying hair shags out near his neck buff. He is a little groggy from the evening prior as he sets the skin track toward Record Peak, a sub peak hidden from view until you reach the top of Granite Mountain via the Motherlode Chair. We spend the morning lapping a couple runs on the inbounds terrain off Granite, a 360-degree fall-line mountain with plenty of steeps, runs such as the Slides down the frontside, and chutes off the back—which were similar to the terrain on the backside of Grey. The spring snow varied upon aspect, leaving us searching out-of-bounds for untracked north-facing powder.

Thick moss contrasts the old trees and snowy ridgeline. Lichen dangles from branches as we extend our tour from Record Peak to the summit of 6,258-foot-tall Mount Roberts, an iconic face just outside the boundary of Red Mountain Resort. Its slide paths and 50-degree pitch off the summit are a mere 40-minute hike.

Roberts is heavily corniced at the top, a result of the 300-inch snowfall for the year. We give the creeping giants a wide berth while navigating a safe entrance. I try to stand on my tip-toes while clicked into my skis to get a vantage of several blind rollovers beneath us. "It all goes," says Steeves. And with that, the three of us peel down several tree spines. Regrouping at another ramp of caked knobs that spill us onto the main face, we arc into the path, charge down the entire face in 10 inches of smooth, creamy snow. With no less than a 10-minute shuffle, we arrive back inbounds at the bottom of the Paradise lift—unreal considering the level of badass terrain we just skied. We're already late to meet with Wake Williams, a local who spends his winters in a cabin between Granite and Grey Mountain.

Dane Tudor gives Red a little ka-pow. PHOTO: Ryan Fleet

Eleven-foot-tall snowbanks ensconce the Yodel Inn. We kick off our skis and step inside a time warp. Outside of the small log cabin, Tibetan prayer flags are strewn around the dwelling. The warmth of the woodstove, chatter among friends, and salty smell of skiers fill the air.

"My father built the cabin in 1944, with four other men," says Williams. Known for inviting guests into his cabin to chat and visit, he pours me a glass of red wine. The 67-year-old has skied Red for 64 years, and for the past 15 has spent 200 nights a year in this simple abode. "It's my place of peace on earth, and I'm just going to carry on this lifestyle," he says.

"It's my place of peace on earth, and I'm just going to carry on this lifetsyle." —Wake Williams

During the days of Red Mountain Ski Club, the ski area couldn't function without volunteer labor. Red's owner, Howard Katkov, who bought the resort in 2004, thinks that community spirit is essential to the ski area's future. He has been responsible for the well-managed, step-by-step development and crowdfunding campaign that includes a share of the ski hill with even a small investment. Red announced the plan a few weeks after Vail Resorts dropped the bombshell that it would be purchasing Whistler/Blackcomb for $1.6 billion.

Mark Impey, who moved from Whistler in 1996, operates Canadian Ski Quest camps at Red. The terrain and laid-back atmosphere made an impression on him after he first skied the area in 1980. Impey quickly jumped on board the Kickstarter campaign. "At these bigger resorts, I feel the stress of meeting financial targets percolates down into the skiing experience," he says. "I never feel this at Red, which makes my skiing experience better and is why I decided to contribute."

The next morning, I catch up with volunteer patroller Reno Debasio. The 82-year-old has been a patroller at Red for over six decades. He gives us the grand tour of Red, skiing fast and with youthful exuberance, a complement to his Italian roots. His father moved from Northern Italy in 1926 to work at the smelter in nearby Trail. We arc runs all morning, from the steeper pitches off Granite to the rolling slopes of Grey, while Debasio points out areas where he helped with resort infrastructure. We finish the morning with lunch at the Paradise Lodge—a rustic on-mountain spot with photos of influential skiers and community members adorning the walls.

Debasio, who received a lifetime season pass at his 25th anniversary of patrol work, shows no signs of slowing down or leaving. "I just like patrolling, I enjoy doing the first aid work, and being on the mountain," he says. "Why travel when you have everything here?"

You can tell a lot about a ski resort by the inhabitants of its base area. PHOTO: Dave Heath

Details, Details

Road-tripping across the border to British Columbia, the author spent $745 for three days, including gas.

Most expensive item:
Gas and the bar tab. Lodging was $360, including breakfast. Discount your lunch by pretending to get some toast that morning, toss some napkins in your pocket for wrapping, make your toast and slap whatever is available onto the bread. Bam! Free sandwich.

Where to après:
Rafters. That's the only place to après.

Scariest Local Encounter:
While driving toward the town of Rossland, the author spotted a man blazing down Strawberry Pass on a bike on the wrong side of the road. It was dark and he had no headlamp.

How to cross the border:
Roll the dice at the town of Trail, BC. Be cool and don't fumble over your words, especially if you're bringing in too much booze. No drugs. Maintain eye contact.

What not to say to the customs agent:
a) Is it legal to smoke weed in Canada?
b) I'm moving here.
c) Why do they call them Mounties?
d) Don't be such a hoser.