What do two Olympic ski racing medalists do when they’re stuck on a mountain, waiting for a snowcat to haul them up the next backcountry powder run? They race, of course. In British Columbia’s Selkirk Mountains, Phil and Steve Mahre gather ski poles for an impromptu slalom course on a flat patch between evergreens crusted with snow—and then they race. As a dozen skiers whoop and cheer, they ski with matching grins. I’ve been invited to tag along on their vacation, but there’s no mistaking that, goofiness aside, the Mahre brothers are actually competing.
Phil and Steve, twins whose father managed White Pass ski area on Highway 12, nabbed the gold and silver in slalom at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo. Now in their 50s, they’ve traveled north with a bevy of sons and nephews, pro skiers and snowboarders all, to try cat skiing in the Canadian wilderness.
Cat skiing is supersize backcountry skiing, cheaper than chartering a helicopter but immeasurably more effective than schlepping into the mountains on foot; picture a school bus version of a snowmobile. During one of the worst snow years in recent memory, we easily find untouched powder above Rossland, BC, in the province’s southeast corner.
Big Red Cats is the largest cat skiing operation in the world, running five snowcats over about 19,000 acres of terrain. The company creates glades by thinning the forests in its territory in summer, leading to airy tree skiing for intermediates and above. Nearby Red Mountain Resort even offers training wheels for would-be backcountry skiers with an inbounds cat operation: $10 rides up the resort’s backside, which is not serviced by chairlifts.
In search of more epic slopes we leave cozy Rossland, a charming few blocks of grocery stores and relaxed eateries that can hardly be referred to as après ski, and follow a route hailed as the Powder Highway. We’re closer to the bigger Nelson some 50 miles to the northeast. During the Vietnam War, 125,000 American draft dodgers flocked to Canada to escape enlistment, almost a tenth of them settling in Nelson. In 2004 a group proposed a monument to the conscientious objectors who helped shape the mountain town’s bohemian vibe, but an outcry—and fears of lost American tourism dollars to the ski slopes and Victorian downtown blocks—killed the plan.
Like Rossland, Nelson has a modest local ski mountain with a taste of backcountry; Whitewater Ski Resort offers single-ride chairlift tickets for skiers hoping to ride up and hike out of bounds. We head outside of town to Valhalla Powdercats to get a more intense ride into the snow, a black school bus retrofitted with jets that shoot flames on either side during the early morning trek to the snowcat base. Like the Mahres, Valhalla never forgets that skiing is supposed to be fun.
But playing outside resort boundaries means training with an avalanche beacon and carrying the sticklike probe and shovel for digging out buried friends. Avalanche is a constant specter over backcountry skiing; when we pause midday so the Mahre twins can set up a particularly gnarly jump, our Valhalla guide whips out equipment to take a snow sample, viewing single flakes through the kind of magnifying eyepiece worn by a jeweler. By measuring the size of the snow, he can guess which patches of snow are forming a loose layer that wants to slide.
Out on the slopes, the Mahre brothers can’t stop competing. Wearing coordinating green and red jackets, they tend to stop with their skis in the same direction, the same hip cocked at the same angle with poles arranged in parallel lines. They race toward untracked powder, flying off the same rock ledges as the next generation—and gallantly save gentle slopes of snow for their tagalongs that isn’t quite Olympic caliber. As they race to the bottom of a cat run, one Mahre brother complains about the other: “Asshole cut me off!”
We could continue up the Powder Highway, further up the Kootenay Rockies, to ski the steeps of Revelstoke and Kicking Horse, or board a helicopter to reach even more distant mountains and powder. But here the slopes on the route’s southern end, just a few hours from Spokane, are epic enough for a few Olympic medalists, and that’s definitely epic enough for me.
Updated October 16, 2015: The original version of this article originally misidentified Whitewater Ski Resort as Big White Ski Resort.