If you’re in Vancouver and don’t know your way around, everyone will tell you, “The mountains are always north.” They’re the city’s defining feature, and can be seen from almost anywhere. Vancouver is also sealed in by the Pacific Ocean, and for much of the year, is held under siege by infamous rain at sea level. But every winter, after a few weeks of downpour, the clouds quietly disappear overnight, and the city wakes up to a boundless blue sky and the glittering snow-capped mountains of the North Shore. For most people it’s a miracle. As a skier, the feeling is transcendent.
In this part of the world, the gravity of nearby Whistler and Mount Baker is undeniable. They are binary stars, Vancouver-based skier’s Mecca and Medina. Halfway between, the North Shore is easily overlooked. Its three ski areas, which receive more than six metres of snow each winter, are perched above the Burrard Inlet at the foot of British Columbia’s vast Coast Mountains. These local hills may be small in comparison to their backdrop, but for nearly 2.5 million residents they hold a clear advantage: accessibility.
Long walks near the beach. Jarrad McCarl at Mount Seymour. Photo by Ilanna Barkusy
From most parts of the city, you can be at Cypress Mountain Resort, Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour in under 30 minutes, with each hill serviced either by shuttles or public transit. In a pastime that lends itself to expensive trips, the trio of mountains known as “the locals” is a rare affordable option, at half the price of Whistler, and twice the operating hours—with night skiing at further reduced rates. They play host to a vibrant community that loves snow, and more often than not, a few people seeing it for the first time.
Howe Sound is your sound. Dana Flahr at Cypress Mountain. Photo by Reuben Krabbe
Cypress sits farther to the west, a brief drive above some of the city’s most valuable homes. A series of well-plowed switchbacks leads into a sub-alpine bowl flanked by three peaks, and from a spacious timber lodge, quad chairs climb Black Mountain to the south and Mount Strachan to the north. Neighbouring Hollyburn Peak, peppered with cabins, is a popular destination for the earn-your-turns crowd. Set in a natural amphitheatre, and thanks to the benefits of hosting the Olympic freestyle events in 2010, Cypress handles busy days well. Those who favour its slopes usually cite the sizeable vertical and terrain—by the official numbers, the most on the North Shore. Its highest lift is the aptly named Sky Chair, which climbs a steep slope to Strachan’s 1,440-metre peak, and crests with a spectacular panorama of Howe Sound, North America’s southernmost fjord.
Big air in the big smoke. Jake Carney at Grouse Mountain. Photo by Ilanna Barkusy
A few kilometres east, across the Capilano Valley, is Grouse Mountain. A Jackson Hole-style aerial tram departs the parking lot at its base every 10 minutes, swiftly rising more than a vertical kilometre to deposit its eager cargo in the crisp mountain air. From its humble roots as a turn-of-the-century ski club, Grouse has transformed into a diverse four-season destination and one of the city’s top tourist attractions. Once you’ve experienced it, especially at night, it’s easy to understand why. From the broad gentle slope of its landmark run The Cut, to the steep, fall-line skiing surrounding its peak, Grouse offers stunning views typically reserved for those arriving in the city by air.
A world apart. Jenna Anderson at Mount Seymour. Photo by Ilanna Barkusy
Mount Seymour may be the smallest of the three North Shore hills, but it carries the most cultural weight. Its distinctive rolling terrain is beloved by skiers and snowboarders who understand riding as a spontaneous art form, and its signature backcountry spots have appeared in countless magazines and movies. Seymour is an authentic, down-to-earth operation that puts the outdoor experience first. While it falls a bit short of Cypress and Grouse in terms of pure vertical, the mountain emphasizes its strengths with multiple terrain parks, which are built and maintained with exceptional skill. At some mountains, if you don’t start the day with your friends, you probably won’t see them. At Seymour, that’s never a problem, as the mountain’s compact nature incubates close ties. From cliff sessions on the upper Brockton Chair to steep tree laps down to Mystery Lake, Seymour is what you make it. If you’re willing to get creative, there’s never a shortage of raw material.
Urban refugees take flight. Jake Carney at Mount Seymour. Photo by Ilanna Barkusy
Despite the differences, all three North Shore mountains share a simple essence. Since their earliest days, they have been a second home for city-dwellers who love the mountains. They’re a small-scale version of Salt Lake City’s legendary Wasatch Range, mixed with a dash of Sapporo, Japan, and according to a sizeable Persian community, the Alborz Mountains on the edge of Tehran, Iran. During the day, you’ll find kids skipping school and spry retirees out for a few leisure laps. At night, the uncommon joy of an after-work shred brings together people from all walks of life.
Up in the mountains, the details of the shimmering city become small, and so do its concerns. Immersed in ghostly clouds, they can disappear altogether. The opportunity to leave the city behind on any day of the week is what makes the North Shore special. Its emerald slopes may not hold the antidote to everything that ails you, but if you give them a chance, it won’t be long before you catch yourself thinking, “There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”