Your New Fave Ski Destination: Kimberley, B.C.
Because the local community character is just as good as the mountain terrain.
I count a sum total of 10 skiers carving the corduroy beneath us as we ride to the top of the North Star Express on a brilliantly blue-sky March morning. No crowds. Reason number…to be honest, I’ve lost count…to visit Kimberley Alpine Resort. In the past I’ve given this lesser-known member of the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies family a miss when planning my skiing-holiday forays to the B.C. Interior’s embarrassment of winter vacation riches. Tucked into a fold of the Purcell Mountains northwest of Cranbrook, the resort, despite having the word “alpine” in its name, lacks the sort of above-treeline bowls, chutes and alpine faces that command my attention as a travelling skier. But shallow first impressions can be deceiving. And besides, I like ski hills that come with a big slice of local community character, and Kimberley has that more than covered. It’s partly what prompted Toronto-born author, Globe and Mail columnist, adventurer and professional guest speaker Bruce Kirkby to plunk down roots in this East Kootenays community a decade or so ago—that, and the proximity to a ski hill and an airport with international connections in Cranbrook, he tells me as we top out on the North Star.
We pause to take in a sweeping view of the Rocky Mountain Trench and the prominent spire of Fisher Peak, a well-known landmark up which local hero Scott Niedermayer hauled the Stanley Cup after winning it with the New Jersey Devils. After tightening buckles on boots, we double-pole across the flats then plunge into a warm-up ripper on a black diamond so buff you’d think it was groomed with toothbrushes. The run delivers us rapidly to the bottom station of the Easter fixed-grip triple.
Minutes later we’re traversing along the cat track above the precipitous Black Forest Glades, a testing ground of steep bumps and trees. It’s terrain like this, as well as the bountiful top-to-bottom groomers, that has cultivated a rich crop of local skiing talent over the years, like former World Cup racer Gerry Sorensen, ski cross specialist Stan Hayer, telemark skier extraordinaire Monte Paynter and Paralympian Josh Dueck. I follow Kirkby into the Vortex, a steep slice through the trees that funnels into a natural half-pipe. Here and there pockets of well-preserved powder linger from a brief storm a few days earlier, so we opt to session the Black Forest for a few more laps. The Easter chair carries us above slopes also devoid of people, making me wonder if we missed an emergency evacuation order.
I’m starting to grow fond of this resort and its ample elbow room. However, in my book a ski resort without a cool town in which to kick back and enjoy a few ales, some good eats and people watching is like cake without icing. Kimberley is a curious place. Decades ago, anticipating the imminent closure of the Sullivan mine (the underground lead, zinc and silver mine shut down for good in 2001 after more than 90 years of operation), the city patriarchs decided the town needed a tourism-ready makeover. Someone suggested that a faux Bavarian theme would suit Kimberley’s mountain heritage (at 1,120 metres, it’s Canada’s highest city). The town thoroughly embraced the concept, even in the absence of any authentic German culture, and set about recasting its downtown as a white stucco and timber-framed Bavarian village, complete with cuckoo clock. For years Kimberley remained frozen in a kitschy Bavarian time warp, and the summertime accordion festival ballooned into an annual jamboree of old codgers in motor homes.
These days the Bavarian theme is waning, though the Old Bauernhaus Restaurant tucked into the woods between the ski hill and the town remains a favourite for a sprawling feast of schnitzel, jäger geschnetzeltes, spaetzle and other hearty Germanic fare. And while Kimberley’s new motto—A Good Place to Be—is not particularly inspiring, it nonetheless signals a contemporary change of course for the community. Gone is the accordion festival and the overarching focus on Bavaria, replaced by an outdoor hipster vibe that has the quaint three-square-block town centre buzzing. New businesses and cafés, like Stonefire Pizzeria and Pedal and Tap, have been joined by the Shed, a taphouse with a tasty menu, and the Over Time Beer Works brewery. Add to that the Spirit Rock Climbing Centre, the perfect place for some post-skiing activity, and a visitor like me will find plenty of off-hill distractions contained within an easily walkable town minutes from the slopes. Locals, I discover, are immensely proud of their town, but the lingering Bavarian motif is now more ironic than serious. They’re even proud of one of their gas stations—Centex, with its compact little food market where you can stock up on organic nuts, chocolate, smoothies, fresh-made deli sandwiches, espresso and kombucha available by the growlerful.
In the evening, after noshing on a double bacon at Stonefire Pizzeria, I return to the ski hill to catch the second half of the legendary Dirtbag Film Festival, held at the slopeside Kimberley Conference and Athlete Training Centre. This event was launched by Kirkby and Kevin Shepit years ago as a fun way to showcase photographic, filmmaking and storytelling talent drawn from a pool of luminaries like Invermere’s Pat Morrow, who was the first person to climb the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the continents) and is a well-known photographer and cinematographer.
The following morning, I draw open the curtains of my second-floor suite at Mountain Spirit Resort. The sky is a deep blue. A lone skier has etched a single track into the pristine corduroy below the North Star Express. There is plenty of room to roam in Kimberley, and it’s time once again for me to click into the carvers and make my mark on these deserted slopes.