Passing Through: Nelson

Welcome to the nexus of epic strangeness and otherworldly turns

SKIER: Chris Rubens | PHOTO: Garrett Grove

“Did that guy just have a bird in his jacket?” This might seem a far-fetched question in a ski resort lift line, but yes, it’s a cockatiel and he feeds it between runs. Welcome to the Kootenays! This is Whitewater Resort, a nexus of epic strangeness and otherworldly deep turns.

Situated in the southern reach of British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains, Nelson isn’t your average logging-town-turned-tourist-trap. The Queen City of the Kootenays is a historic home to American draft dodgers, dissident Russian Dhoukabors and societal misfits of all kinds. The place has a counter-culture vibe that’s gone on to attract artists, hippies, weirdos, and hipsters alike to produce the most prolific arts-and-culture scene in all of small-town BC.

Galleries and restaurants line downtown’s Baker Street while old-growth forest and the spirit of the ’70s still reign supreme at the beloved local ski hill. Whitewater is everything you want in big skiing packaged as small as you can get it. There is no real estate, no WIFI and no cell service; just amazing home-cooked food (they actually have a best-selling cookbook) and the basic amenities to get you shredding. A range of hotels, hostels and B&Bs welcome you in town, but there’s no option to stay on hill. This is a community resort, and that community is Nelson.

Starting on the Summit-lift side of the mountain, your best run is actually right underneath you as you ride the old double chair that at times is close enough to the top of the snowpack skiers have to watch their heads. This pillowy showboat line has plenty of knobs and perches to boost off of, so watch for local kids doing flippy-spiny things.

As testament to the young energy at this retro resort, its junior freeride team currently dominates the IFSA Junior Freeride Series. This probably has to do with growing up in steep, tree-ladden fall line that gets an average of 40 feet of snow person season, but who’s to say.

Next you’ll want to move over to Sleeper, on the skier’s right of the lift. Here you’ll find hucks among the trees as you eventually funnel back down to speedy groomers. Even farther to your right is the more open terrain as you traverse towards Prospector Peak, first skirting below the Powderkeg cliffs—accessible by a quick bootpack to ridge top—and then into Catch Basin. There are day’s worth of laps to be had just in these 1,300 feet of soulful back-to-your-roots skiing.

The backcountry here is right in your face and very enticing. So if earning your turns is your move, you’re better off jumping over to the other side of the mountain and taking the Silverking lift, where you’ll be within a few-minutes skin to the shoulder of Ymir Peak. Check with patrol first, but this ridge leads gently up and offers multiple opportunities to drop front or back on your way to the buttressed summit—which eventually requires a bootpack.

Should you be craving a little more vertical and want to keep within the ropes, from the top of the Summit lift you can drop the “backside.” Previous to 2010, this was the locals’ main stash, a 2,000-foot tree run that leads back down to the access road—and now a quad chair. With the addition of the Glory Ridge lift, this previously elite zone now belongs to the commons.

One of the best times to visit Whitewater is during the Kootenay Cold Smoke Powder Fest in late February, because if there’s one thing this part of the world loves, it’s parties. Nelson is also home to the infamous Shambalah electronic-music festival, after all. It’s a shindig that hosts 15,000 people every summer. But you can now partake in that scene year round as the organizer also runs a nightclub called Bloom right downtown. And as another one-up on other ski towns, Nelson’s girl-to-guy ratio is actually excellent.

Before you go dancing though, you’ll want to take in some food. A booming underground economy (read: one the likes of which is now legal in Colorado and Washington) has left the quaint town overwhelmingly rich with dining options. For the dirtbag or the rushed, El Taco is your best takeout. If you want a pricey-but-delicious margarita with your Mexican food, and a bit more of a sit down, move over instead to Cantina Del Centro.

For your down-to-earth working-stiff types, there’s Jackson’s Hole or Mike’s Bar, the latter hosting dynamite Bingo every Tuesday evening. From here it’s easy to migrate to Spirit Bar, right downstairs. This is the best live venue in town and frequently hosts big-city acts ranging from rock to rap. Nelson is on most savvy touring artists’ Western Canadian circuit—as should it be any self-respecting powder hound with a bit of artistic flare.