Vancouver’s local mountains

What better place to start for some local insight than by introducing Vancouver’s local mountains? Vancouver is one of the few cities I have been in the world where the city’s somewhat striking skyline is further graced by a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Enhance this vision by inserting a body of water in the foreground (either the Burrard Inlet or False Creek, depending where you are in the city) and the greenery of Stanley Park and you have yourself one of my favourite city views in the entire world.

When people refer to the ‘local mountains’ they are in fact referring to three main mountains. These are Cypress, Seymour and Grouse. Grouse is the most identifiable from downtown Vancouver, because it is the ‘one in the middle’ and it also has a windmill at the top. Cypress sits to the left of Grouse and Seymour is off to the right, when you are viewing the mountains from the city. At night, the mountains are easily located by the massive floodlights installed for night-skiing. During the day the only reason the mountains won’t be seen is if they are shrouded in cloud, which is unfortunately a relatively common occurrence.

Getting to the mountains is remarkably simple. Shuttles run to each of the mountains, but otherwise it is a case of driving across either the Second Narrows bridge or the Lions Gate Bridge, depending on the mountain of choice. Living in the West End, we are exceptionally close to the Lions Gate Bridge (only separated by Stanley Park) so crossing the bridge and getting up the mountain is quicker for us than it is for most, as we don’t have to drive through the city at all. Cypress is the closest mountain to us which is fortunate, as it also has the best skiing.

It is possible to ski and board at each of the three mountains, all of which offer something different. I have a season pass at Cypress as I was told early on that it had the largest and most varied terrain, so I haven’t actually skied at the other mountains. Grouse tends to be known as the most touristy and Seymour is meant to be good for beginners. Despite this, all three of the mountains are popular and they all offer far more than just skiing – especially during the summer. A bit more about each of the mountains is provided below, as well as my unnecessary but still important impressions about how each resort is handling the pandemic.

Cypress Provincial Park

Due to having a season pass, I have spent by far the most time up Cypress. The road up to Cypress is a pretty easy drive, even for those slightly less confident on mountain roads. There is a magnificent lookout about 20% of the way up, with views across downtown and Howe Sound. On a clear day it is possible to see all the way to the USA and Vancouver Island. This lookout is a destination in itself; lots of people don’t even continue up the mountain from here.

While there is Nordic skiing available on Cypress, I am yet to try it. My journey therefore continues all the way up the mountain, always hoping for a car park as close to the lodge as possible. Last season I really enjoyed spending time in the lodge – it has a big chalet style dining area with a bar next door. It was cozy, ambient and most importantly, warm. Due to Covid-19, I actually haven’t set foot up there  this whole season.

Cypress has two main chairs that each start near the lodge and head up opposite mountain faces. These are called the Lions Chair and the Eagle Express, for the reason that the Lions faces the two prominent peaks of the same name, and the Eagle heads up towards Eagle Bluff (another peak, more commonly climbed in summer). The majority of the runs stem down from these two chairs,  with the slopes basically facing each other.  This makes it easy to keep an eye on crowds and visibility on the other mountain, switching across when the other looks better. For intermediate to advanced skiers there is an additional chair branching off from each of the Lions and Eagle (called the Sky Chair and the Raven respectively). Lastly, there are also two chairlifts for beginner skiers.

For a ‘local mountain’ there is certainly a lot of terrain,  with lots of groomed runs, alpine skiing and tree skiing available. While it is incredibly convenient (it is entirely possible to be on the slopes a little after an hour of finishing work for the day) and comparable to the mountains we have back at home, I can see how avid skiers eventually end up buying season passes for Whistler – which is probably triple the size of Cypress and with a whole lot more powder!  Whistler is two hours’ drive from Vancouver; meaning that although it can still be considered local (it is still within our health authority for the purposes of Covid-19) it isn’t quite as convenient, especially for those without a car.

In terms of the pandemic, Cypress has been the recipient of some pretty harsh criticism. Season pass holders are not required to book a time/day for skiing/boarding, meaning that it is impossible to predict how busy the mountain will be at any given time. This has led to accusations that the mountain is over-selling tickets, resulting in huge lift lines. Although I can’t speak to the actual capacity of the mountain, my main observation is that while car parks have been fuller than I remember and lift lines are longer than usual, it is at least partly attributable to the fact that ride sharing is discouraged (so there are lots of individuals driving up) and the chairs are restricted to one ‘bubble’ per chair, or two singles. It is common to wait about  15 minutes for a lift line – so far I have been twice where we had to wait longer than 15 minutes, but other times the line is negligible – so it could be worse! Face masks are supposed to be mandatory in the lift lines, and the sheer number of people who seem to blatantly  disregard this rule bothers me immensely. I feel sorry for the staff,  yet I wish that they would more strongly enforce that policy.

Grouse Mountain

Yes, the one with the windmill. As mentioned earlier, Grouse is extremely recognizable and is by far the most touristy of the three mountains, for good reason. The only way up Grouse is to park at the bottom and catch the gondola, or in summer time, walk. The car park sits within the EVO home zone (a car-sharing arrangement where you book cars through an app) meaning that it’s possible to drive yourself there and not have to pay for a car for the entire day, which is the case at the other local mountains if you don’t have your own.

The Grouse Grind is a notoriously popular hike; aptly named, it is essentially a gazillion steps that people race up to get to the top. There is a leader board and everything; I think the record sits at about 23 minutes. I went at a far more leisurely pace (to go any faster would have  been frankly unenjoyable) and it took me about an hour and a quarter. It’s not easy, but it is definitely doable. There are markers at 25%, 50% and 75% of the way – this definitely helps with the motivation levels!

Taking the gondola is a fun activity in itself, but at the top there is a plethora of family friendly activities, probably explaining why the mountain is so popular. That, and the views. It is pretty hard to beat the downtown views of Vancouver that Grouse provides. The city is so close, it is even possible to make out particular streets and specific buildings down town. On a clear day, the view stretches as far as the eye can see, definitely as far as the USA. From Cypress, the view of downtown is spectacular, but you are looking across at the city; the view from Grouse is directly down and as a result, it is essentially magnified.

The activities at the top of Grouse seem endless. First and foremost, meet Coola and Grinder, Grouse’s resident grizzly bears. In winter time these not-so-cuddly bears hibernate in their den (although web cams mean we can still watch ’em snooze), but in summer time they come out to play. They have a decent sized enclosure (obviously nothing like no enclosure) and they were rescue bears, so probably wouldn’t have survived without human intervention. This makes me feel better about the fact that they are in captivity. I could watch them for hours! They are enormous and a cross between cute and positively terrifying. There is also an owl demonstration as well as a lumberjack show. Naturally, there is an abundance of hiking to be had, but after doing the Grouse Grind I was pretty content to just relax!

In winter time, Grouse offers an ice skating rink, a lights walk, tubing and snow shoeing, in addition to skiing and snow boarding. Recently Andy and I tried snow shoeing for the first time up Grouse, followed by a spot of ice skating. The last time I went skating was approximately 10 years ago and I fell over and split my lip with my tooth. Forever etched in my mind is how vibrant my blood looked against the ice! Fortunately this time round there were no accidents, although it took me awhile to get my confidence up, especially because unlike indoor rinks, there were no barriers acting as safety nets! We marveled at the small children ripping around the ice, reminding us that we are indeed in an (ice) hockey country.

Catching the gondola up to Grouse in Covid times reinforced why I was so glad that I didn’t have a season  pass for Grouse. Everywhere across the resort, Grouse has social distancing signs reminding everyone to keep 2 metres from others, using cartoon sketches of Grinder and Coola as a measure. Apparently this rule goes out the window when it comes to packing their gondola. We were told to stand on marked dots that were no way near 2 metres apart, and then extra people were even crammed into our gondola as we boarded. It felt exactly like an incubator for the virus and I have zero intention of returning this winter. Thankfully Andy and I snared a spot by the (open) window on both journeys and tried to keep our breathing to a minimum. Grinder and Coola definitely would not have approved.

Mt Seymour

Mt Seymour is the least convenient mountain for me and subsequently, I have spent the least time there. I have done a few hikes from Mt Seymour, but have not, and probably will not, ski there this season.

In late spring a group of us hiked up Dog Mountain, which gave unreal panoramic views towards Vancouver’s interior – including over Deep Cove and up the Burrard Inlet. It was a perspective I had not seen before and I would love to do it again now that I’m  familiar with more landmarks in the area.  We had left our bear spray in the car, and being my first ‘proper’ hike in Canada, I was pretty nervous for the bear encounter we were obviously going to have. The trail was very well trafficked, meaning that I  had almost no reason to worry, and thankfully no bears were to be seen. (Later that season, the lower trails near Seymour had to be closed because a young black bear bit a child on the leg, so my concern was valid) For late spring, there was a surprising amount of snow and the subtle change in altitude meant that it was actually extremely chilly up there.

The other hike that I did up Seymour was to Mystery Lake, in late June. The hike was steep, but relatively short. Our destination was the lake, and although I didn’t work out what was mysterious about it, I was impressed by the small icebergs that were still present and floating. It created a beautiful sight, one that was enjoyed by us as we leisurely ate our picnic lunch. The sight is one that would eventually be overshadowed by more majestic lakes and sights in months to come, so I am thankful I ticked it off early. It is still a cool local spot though. I was even more impressed when our friend Nick, dived headfirst into the lake. My toes were numb after merely dipping them in the shallows!

My favourite thing about visiting Mt Seymour is the now traditional trip we seem to take to Honey’s Doughnuts afterwards. Honey’s is located in Deep Cove and sells some of the ooziest, most indulgent, delicious doughnuts I have ever tasted. Of course, the best flavour is honey, but they all go down all right! It’s only a few minutes from the turnoff to Mt Seymour and is a perfect post hike reward. Deep Cove is a wonderful spot in itself, and hopefully after next summer I will have spent more time there and enjoyed it for other than just its doughnut offerings.

The reason I probably won’t ski at Seymour this season is because similar to Cypress, there have been issues with the number of cars heading up and subsequently car parks are scarce. You also have to book a time spot in advance, valid for 4 hours at a time. This helps them cap numbers on the mountain, but if I’m going to hire a car for a day, I may as well take it to Cypress where a) I don’t have to pay and b) I can ski for as long as I want. I have heard less grumblings about Seymour’s management of the pandemic, but my exposure to any complaints is less, as I’m not part of the Facebook community groups. Bribe me with doughnuts though, and who knows?!

A note on Whistler Blackcomb

Whistler is 2 hours away from Vancouver. It is reached by driving the Sea to Sky Highway, which I believe to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the entire world. Squamish marks the half way point, but it is also a destination in itself, especially during summer. Whistler Blackcomb ski resort is absolutely huge. It is made up of two separate mountains/resorts, which are connected via the Peak to Peak Gondola. It is owned by Vail (one of the main ski resort companies in the USA) and this has its pros and cons. The price of skiing (and staying and eating and probably breathing) at Whistler is absurdly high. It approximates to about $200 NZD per day. However, due to the pandemic, there are no international tourists this year and so prices in Whistler must be at an all time low. We bought Epic Cards at the start of the season (meaning cheaper skiing) and we have a number of friends with season passes, which actually also gives us access to cheaper skiing. One day soon, I’ll give Whistler its own write up 😉

Whistler’s handling of the pandemic has been pretty exceptional. Days must be booked in advance, only one bubble is permitted per gondola and staff are much more strict about enforcing mask wearing and social distancing in the queues. The size of the mountain has the added benefit of naturally dispersing crowds as well as the chairs being faster and in some cases, bigger. My favourite part of the whole experience is that to eat lunch, you need to book a table online in advance. Each time slot lasts 45 minutes, which is more than enough time to grab a bite and relax. My memories of ski fields in the past is that lunch is always a stressful experience, hovering like seagulls to snatch a table when it frees up and then feeling rushed as others then hover over you. Now, lunch can be eaten in peace.

I am so grateful that we have been able to ski this winter. Although we have not been able to travel too far, we are lucky that we have such high class skiing nearby. British Columbia offers lots of incredible skiing options, including Revelstoke, Fernie and Big White – my fingers and toes are crossed that I will get to ski at some of these before long!

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