by Tom Gierasimczuk
“Get there for sunset,” was my friend Jill’s curt, local knowledge text as we loaded up our car for the three-hour drive along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island from our home in Victoria to Mt. Washington Alpine Resort. Jill would know, given her pro snowboard career and current residency in Cumberland, a ski and mountain-bike town 25-minutes from Vancouver Island’s largest ski resort.
And so instead of pulling in and enjoying a cozy fire and the growler of resiny Finally IPA that I picked up at the Cumberland Brewing Co. after a three-hour drive from the British Columbia capital, we suited up for night skiing in the Bear Lodge parking lot before even checking into our slope-side unit.
The late afternoon was clear and crisp and the sky was quickly turning from yellowish blue to radiant orange as we scrambled through the grid of two- and three-story chalets that make up Mt. Washington’s tiny base village toward the teaching carpet and Whiskey Jack, the sole night-skiing lift. It was only late December, but the resort’s more than 30 feet of annual snowfall decided to start early, and pearly canyons of cleared snow made a shortcut to the ticket window impossible. Within five minutes of climbing on the Whiskey Jack lift, we understood Jill’s insistence that we fully embrace a clear night in Mt. Washington.
The coastal alpine terrain—often cited as the most spectacular in North America—stretched out behind us, radiating in warm hues and reliefs that revealed every alpine lake, saw-tooth peak and sheer face of the Beaufort Mountain Range and the 500,000-acre Strathcona Park in which it sits, protected for decades as B.C.’s oldest Provincial Park. We could see across the width of Vancouver Island, with our son swearing he saw the open Pacific beyond the mountainous spine. (It must’ve been the $250 goggles he got for Christmas a few days before.)
What lay obscured by Mt. Washington was even more mind-blowing: the visual bounty of the eastern terrain visible from the top of the Eagle Express Chair and the Boomerang Quad chair that only run during day skiing—the cities of the Comox Valley just below, the Strait of Georgia and the Salish Sea with the jagged peaks of the Coast Mountains on the horizon. Fortunately, tomorrow’s forecast was equally clear.
That evening we feasted on the plentiful pockets of untouched powder that had accumulated all month and remained in the Whiskey Jack Glades a couple of days later. Once we got our legs, we embarrassed our son by attempting middle-aged arial maneuvers in the mostly empty terrain park and the more forgiving landings of the Park Glades. As far as night riding goes, Mt. Washington delivers with the kind of variety rarely offered by one chair and just over a mile of flood-lit slopes.
After almost three hours, we were grateful for the slope-side accommodations. While we opted for the Bear Lodge, guests have the option of the Deer Lodge condo units, the Airbnb bounty available in the Ptarmigan condos, and, for larger or multi-family options, the chalets closest to the lifts. More options exist in the three cities of the Comox Valley, with Cumberland, the smallest and most historic of the trio, the closest at 25 minutes down the Mt. Washington Highway.
The next two days were as varied as Mt. Washington’s 1,600 acres and nearly 1,700 vertical feet. A second blue-bird day allowed us to take in those famous mainland views at the summit before we tempted double-black fate through Harry’s Trees, followed up by Top of the World Chutes, down the steeps of the West Basin to the high-speed Boomerang Quad and the newest advanced terrain in the park: the 400-acre Outback. We managed to hold on for dear life in the exclusively double-black terrain of deep bowls, thick glades and big drops before the wind picked up just before lunch and this gift to Island backcountry powder hounds was closed for the day. That night some of the 30 annual feet of snowfall returned… and didn’t stop for the next three days. After a morning of epic face shots and powder riding, we decided to call it an early day to avoid the fate of those who stayed later: hours and hours to make the normally 20-minute trip back downhill to the Trans-Canada highway because of the epic dump—one of many over the course of 43 legendary years in this Vancouver Island winter wonderland.
Plan your ski vacation to Mt. Washington Alpine Resort at mountwashington.ca. Learn more about travel to Vancouver Island at vancouverisland.travel.