Mount Washington What?

How the island ski resort in British Columbia came out of nowhere on a winning streak to the Ski Town Throwdown finals

I travel a lot. When I tell people I meet that my local ski hill is Mount Washington they say one of two things: What’s the skiing like in New Hampshire? Or, where the hell is it?

Even to a lot of Canadians, Mount Washington Alpine Resort is a mystery. You ski on an Island in the Pacific? Yet the hill on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island routinely receives the most snow in Canada, and sometimes North America, and it is among the top five busiest resorts in B.C.

A month ago, Mount Washington was one of nine resorts vying for the last play-in slot in the Great White North division for the Ski Town Throwdown III. This week, the island ski resort is going up against Aspen in the finals. Along the way, Washington took down a quartet of ski town meccas: Revelstoke, Nelson, Rossland, and Schweitzer. On paper, the resort is a more sleepy hill than other Western powerhouses, so their run to get into the finals surprised a lot of people. Understandably. But before you chock this battle up as classic David and Goliath, there are a few things you should know about Mount Washington. We’re not as small an underdog as you might think.

Tony Radomi finds a good thing at Mount Washington. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington
Tony Radomi finds a good thing at Mount Washington. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington

The vertical at Mount Washington could use some Viagra. The alpine village, a bunch of chalets and a couple of condos, is small and sleepy. There’s no open, alpine terrain. Being so close to the ocean—you stare at it from most runs—and at a fairly low elevation—between 3,300 feet and 5,600 feet—Washington gets wet. But when the elements align, Washington gets a ton of snow in regular dumps and its secrets are in the open old growth, chest-sized hemlock and yellow cedars that cover most of the mountain. Many winters it will snow everyday for a month straight. And while the flakes trend toward moist, they stick to everything. Core shots are a rarity; several runs push 50 degrees. I grew up skiing in the Canadian Rockies—I’ll take quantity over quality any day.

All good stuff, but what really explains Mount Washington’s Ski Town Throwdown success is geography. “It’s not one ski town, it’s an island of skiers,” says Brent Curtain, the hill’s public relations director. To understand what he means let me give you a geography lesson. Vancouver Island is the largest island on North America’s Pacific shore, stretching 290 mountainous miles, south to north. Running along the eastern shore, in the afternoon shadow of the Vancouver Island Alps, is a string of towns and small cities with a combined population pushing 760,000 people. The only other ski hill is remote, two T-bar, only-open-on-weekends Mount Cain, where a busy day is 300 riders.

“Mount Washington’s ski town is almost everyone on the island,” says Curtain. That’s about 100 times as many people as Revelstoke.

Love that maritime snowpack. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington
Love that maritime snowpack. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington

Washington skiers are as diverse and eclectic as the Island’s population. The mild weather attracts a huge number of retirees, while Vancouver’s sky-high real estate prices push a lot of entrepreneurs, home businesses, and young families to the Island’s relatively affordable lifestyle. Washington skiers share chair rides with oil patch commuters (who live on the island but work in the oil sands), seasonal workers (think: loggers, fishermen, tree planters), and, of course, hippies. Home-grown weed seems to be the mountain’s air freshener.

The happy Canadian is already a stereotype. But the skiers at Mount Washington are above and beyond the normal levels of nice. Perhaps that happy-go-lucky attitude is because most people live on Vancouver Island by choice, and they know they have a good thing here. That shakes down to the skiing, too. It may not the best for any one thing, but it’s an accumulation of good that makes it great. Friendly people, fun terrain, lots of snow, easy access, no lines, and no attitude. That’s the kind of place people fall in love with.

So, yeah, everyone knows where Aspen is, but if there’s one thing Vancouver Islanders (and all Canadians) love more than anything, it’s beating an American rival, especially when we’re the underdog. Don’t think the Washington loyal community will let this opportunity slip by.

An unknown skier finds those perfectly spaced glades. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington
An unknown skier finds those perfectly spaced glades. PHOTO: Courtesy of Mount Washington