Red Alert

Canada’s Red Moun­tain Re­sort mixes spine-tin­gling ski slopes with old-school charm.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - CONTENTS - Words GLENN CULLEN

RED SUCKS. The two words em­bla­zoned across the T-shirt stand out like the per­fect cone­shaped moun­tains in south­east­ern Bri­tish Columbia to which they re­fer. In this post­truth and post-irony age, you wouldn't nor­mally bat an eye­lid at some­one diss­ing a ski re­sort like that — ex­cept for the fact that the per­son wear­ing the T-shirt is a mem­ber of staff at Red Moun­tain Re­sort and is don­ning of­fi­cial work at­tire. Twenty min­utes north of the US bor­der at Washington state, seven hours east of Van­cou­ver and about three decades be­hind the As­pens, Whistlers and Vails of this world, Red Moun­tain is in many ways the ski re­sort time for­got. There's a none-too-sub­tle re­minder of this on the Moth­er­lode chair­lift to the peak of Gran­ite Moun­tain, a ride that seems to of­fer enough time to get to know your lift com­pan­ion, read a novella and per­haps pre­pare a light lunch. It’s re­in­forced later that af­ter­noon when sit­ting in the be­yond-rus­tic 73-year-old Yodel Inn, owned by lo­cal leg­end Wake Wil­liams, who drinks red wine from a box and re­gales guests with the fan­tas­ti­cal tale of a show­down with a griz­zly bear at th­ese very premises.

As ski days be­come après nights, the quirk­i­ness con­tin­ues at Rafters Lounge, Red's only nightspot. Two dogs sleep on the bar like it’s their birthright, while a group of 20-some­things en­ter­tain them­selves by climb­ing a faux-moun­tain made from tables, scal­ing the Jenga-like con­struc­tion with all the earnest­ness of Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary. It’s that kind of place.

To dis­miss Red Moun­tain as some kind of anachro­nism would be a huge mis­take. It may be rough around the edges, but far from be­ing over­whelmed and out of its depth next to slicker, more mod­ern ski re­sorts else­where, it is an alpine cen­tre that has gar­nered al­most slav­ish de­vo­tion from many of those who have sam­pled its of­fer­ings.

Its tree ski­ing is re­garded as the best in Canada, of­fer­ing ev­ery­thing from the per­fectly spaced Dou­glas firs of the Par­adise area to plant mat­ter that seems to grow at 45-de­gree an­gles on the spine-tin­gling steeps of the Roots ski run. The reg­u­lar storms that sweep across the Koote­nays leave up­wards of eight me­tres of light snow each sea­son and, de­spite hav­ing just five chair­lifts, the re­sort of­fers nearly 1200 hectares of ter­rain, spread across three moun­tains (two of which can be rid­den in their en­tirety). It’s even fos­tered two Olympic ski­ing cham­pi­ons in Nancy Greene and Ker­rin Lee-Gart­ner.

PEO­PLE POWER

As ski re­sort own­er­ship across the globe moves into fewer and fewer hands, and ex­pe­ri­ences grow more generic, Red Moun­tain Re­sort stands out from the crowd. Its left-field ap­proach, how­ever, hasn’t al­ways been a suc­cess. Red sailed close to re­ceiver­ship dur­ing the late 1980s and was again hard hit in the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis of 2008, just four years af­ter the cur­rent man­age­ment duo of CEO Howard Katkov and

gen­eral man­ager Don Thomp­son took over as part of an in­vest­ment group. In the face of ad­ver­sity, the pair thought big. “They’ve got some real man­age­ment courage there,” says Wil­liams. “Do they put up a ‘for sale’ sign and get out? No, they open up another moun­tain. They had the co­jones to do it.”

That ‘other moun­tain’ they opened up is Grey. For­merly only reach­able by hik­ing to its trea­sures, the moun­tain was fit­ted with lifts in 2014, adding 60 per cent more ac­ces­si­ble ter­rain to the re­sort in one sin­gle hit — the largest ex­pan­sion of ski­able area in North Amer­ica in 45 years. The move meant that lit­tle ol’ Red sud­denly be­came one of the top 20 ski ar­eas by size on the con­ti­nent and, im­por­tantly, added some mellower ski­ing and snow­board­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to tem­per its rep­u­ta­tion as a moun­tain pri­mar­ily for the hardcore set. The ‘build it and they will come’ ethos worked — to a point.

Red’s out-of-the-way lo­ca­tion re­mains both a strength and weak­ness; it keeps the madding crowds away, en­sur­ing a more pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence for vis­i­tors, but makes it dif­fi­cult for the re­sort to com­pete with places that have an in­ter­na­tional air­port on their doorstep. Katkov, a ski-bum-turned-lawyer-turned-busi­ness-man, says he’s proud of the com­mu­nity and cul­ture at Red and neigh­bour­ing Ross­land, a vibe he be­moans as hav­ing largely dis­ap­peared from other ski ar­eas — many of which, he says, have be­come soul­less en­ter­tain­ment cen­tres. “I grew up as one of those hippy, dirt­bag skiers and th­ese are the peo­ple I don’t want to dis­en­fran­chise from this re­sort,” he says, not­ing most of Red’s staff can ac­tu­ally still af­ford to live in town. “But do we want guys com­ing in on their Lear­jets? Ab­so­lutely. And they can drop all the money they can with us; we just don’t want them brag­ging about what they do.”

Which brings Red Moun­tain Re­sort to the next chap­ter of its far-from-lin­ear de­vel­op­ment story. Katkov had some de­ci­sions to make about how to en­sure the re­sort con­tin­ued to grow and im­prove. He could sim­ply sell Red, or auc­tion off parcels for real es­tate, but in­stead he opted for a more cre­ative third op­tion: crowd­fund­ing the moun­tain.

He de­vised pack­ages rang­ing from C$1000 ($1005) to C$25,000 ($25,140), so peo­ple could pur­chase shares in Red, with tiered ben­e­fits such as lift passes, fam­ily sea­son passes, equip­ment and time-share ac­com­mo­da­tion. Money raised was then ear­marked for new moun­tain de­vel­op­ments, such as a club­house, restau­rant and sum­mer fa­cil­i­ties.

A test-the-waters cam­paign en­ti­tled ‘Fight The Man. Own The Moun­tain’ was launched in Au­gust 2016 and at­tracted more than 3400 peo­ple, re­sult­ing in fi­nan­cial reser­va­tions of over C$12 mil­lion ($12.1 mil­lion). The sec­ond phase is now un­der­way, with am­bi­tions of at least 50 per cent of pledges be­ing re­alised. A new 106-room ho­tel is be­ing built at the base of the moun­tain, slated to open for the 2017/18 sea­son, and a few mil­lion dol­lars from crowd­fund­ing may pay for some added crea­ture com­forts. “No one has ever done crowd­fund­ing in the his­tory of ski re­sorts, so I had no idea how it was go­ing to go,” says Katkov. “But it res­onated and we’re on our way.”

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