Many of us claim to dream about skiing. But how many of us regularly dream—by that I mean have visions during deep REM sleep—about skiing? I’ll be the ? rst to admit that although I daydream endlessly about future days on the hill, set lofty goals and aspirations for the upcoming season, and generally structure my life around skiing, it isn’t often that skiing in? ltrates my deep sleep visions. In fact, more often than not, when my head hits the pillow I dream about completely ridiculous situations that make as little sense as choosing ski boards on a deep snow day.
Rossignol athlete Mathieu “Matty” Richard, on the other hand, regularly dreams and, indeed, talks about skiing in his sleep. I discovered this last February while on a trip to Mount Cain on North Vancouver Island.
Having arrived after dark late Friday evening, with Matty and photographer Gill Morgan in tow, and settling into one of the privately owned cabins that ? ank the ski area, I awoke suddenly to the loud, well-enunciated instructions, “Let’s go skiing! Let’s go skiing!” Slightly disoriented from waking up in unfamiliar surroundings, my ? rst thought was that I had overslept and was costing the crew precious moments in the morning race for good turns. Thankfully, however, after only a few short moments of panic, just long enough to peer out the closest window and bring the starry sky into focus, I realized that I still had some quality sleep ahead of me and shut my eyes without giving the racket another moment’s consideration.
I learned two critical facts later that morning: ? rst, Matty Richard regularly talks about skiing in his sleep; and second, there’s no such thing as a morning race for good turns at Mount Cain. There are plenty of good turns— there’s just no need to race for them.
I ?rst heard about Mount Cain six years ago when a pro patrol friend of mine from Blackcomb asked me if I wanted to join a crew from Whistler on their annual weekend trip to Cain. I didn’t make it on that trip, but last winter, after making more inquiries about the T-bar-only operation on Vancouver Island with massive terrain, I decided it was time for a visit.
Although it would be an overstatement to say that getting there is half the fun, the journey to Mount Cain is a somewhat unique experience in itself. If you are travelling from the mainland as we were, the ? rst part of the journey involves a ferry ride between Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo. While there isn’t anything unique about a ferry ride to Vancouver Island, there’s something very satisfying about sprawling out on the top deck on a sunny February afternoon as if it were mid-July, surrounded by skis, boots and packs.
There’s also something almost paradoxical about driving north past Campbell River (which is well past big sister Mount Washington) into the Nimpkish Valley and being surrounded by mountains that would seem more at home in the B.C. Interior than on the 500-km-long island known more for its sur? ng (or retirees) than for its mountains. If that isn’t enough of a juxtaposition, the 16-km gravel road that links Cain’s base area to Hwy 19 might make you question your destination. This narrow, rough and at times steep switchback, which gains roughly 1,000 metres in elevation, is nothing like your typical weekend drive to the local ski resort. It is, however, a great introduction to the Cain experience.
Since Cain is open only on weekends, you’ll likely be making this journey on a Friday evening. If you arrive after dark, don’t be surprised to see a number of camp? res burning along the access road. The lower ? at sections of this road are prime camping spots for skiers on a budget—or those who couldn’t ? nd anywhere else.
Accommodation at Cain is fairly limited. Although there are close to 50 privately owned cabins on the west side of the ski hill, only a few are ever rented. There are two selfcontained cabins available for rent and eight small alcove-type rooms providing hostel-style accommodation for 16 above the base lodge. Both of these options ? ll up quickly. So if you haven’t booked ahead, unless you want to stay in the Rugged Mountain Motel ?ve minutes north of the access road in Woss, the only other option is to pitch a tent or sleep in your vehicle. The fact that many Cain regulars refer to the town of Woss, which boasts a hotel, pub, general store and population of 401, as “Woss Vegas” is a telling indication of the fast pace at Cain.
Mount Cain was created and is still run by a non-pro?t society. There aren’t any mountain hosts or Kleenex dispensers on hand to improve your lift-line experience. Then again, there aren’t any lift lines. With two T-bars, a rope tow, a small lodge and a few trailers, it’s fair to describe the amenities as rustic. Charmingly rustic nonetheless.
In this day of high-speed quads and arrival to the alpine by Sno-limo, it’s refreshing to sit in a base lodge and drink beer from a can without waiter service while chatting with a few of the employees or other riders you recognize from the hill earlier that day. The experience is reminiscent of that time in skiing’s past when a fellow skier was automatically an acquaintance simply by virtue of being a skier. At Cain you can hang your gloves by the ?re and stroll around the lodge perusing the trophies and plaques awarded at club events and championships or the volumes of albums documenting the 25-year history of the ski area without worry of losing your seat to a group who slept till 2:00 p.m. then put on their ski gear just to look the part at après hours.
Of course, for most of us the rustic amenities are much more enjoyable after a day on the hill. Thankfully, Cain has some great skiing to offer along with its rustic charm. The lower T-bar offers a handful of short groomers to warm up on as well as access to the upper T. Unless your preference is to cruise on the groomed runs, it makes sense to ride both lifts in sequence and ski the full 457 vertical metres on each lap. The upper T-bar is ? anked on both sides by a signi? cant amount of ungroomed yet fairly forgiving tree skiing. In total, the area offers 18 marked runs. But if you’re willing to traverse and hike a bit, there’s much more on offer in the adjacent backcountry.
By traversing to skiers’ right from the top T-bar you can gain access to West Bowl via runs like Death Chute, Chimney and many others. Hiking directly above the top Tbar will give you the option of a longer run through West Bowl or continuing up the ridge toward the Mount Cain summit, which tops out at 1,805 metres and offers numerous lines of varying dif? culty on the aspect below. Choosing a line close to the top of the Tbar allows you to exit back into the area boundary without any dif? culty. Venturing farther away toward Mount Abel on runs like Dream Chute require a short skin to get back into the boundary. Whatever you do, don’t continue down into the drainage between the base elevation and Mount Abel. Although it’s possible to bushwhack your way out, it’s much more likely that you’ll get lost or stuck below the base elevation.
Although Abel provides an even larger offering of burly lines than its brother peak, unless you’ve spent months or years exploring the lines off Cain I can’t see the need to venture over to Abel. With limited skiers, loads of terrain and fairly regular dumps of dry island powder, Cain offers more than a season’s worth of thrills. We didn’t even make it to Dream Chute—although I hope to get there on a return trip this winter.
Mount Cain is a small operation with massive surrounding terrain and an atmosphere so laid-back you could doze off if the skiing and scenery weren’t so exciting. Whether marked by God or not, Cain is protected from the crowds and commercialism of skiing. And as Mathieu Richard is sure to proclaim, should he fall asleep near you, Cain is one of those places that dreams are made of.
Although Mount Cain doesn’t call itself a club, its operation is similar to the club ?elds of New Zealand. The Mount Cain Alpine Park Society relies heavily on the volunteerism of its members to operate the ski area. An elected board of directors handles the business aspect of the area. In the off-season the society schedules weekend work parties where members come out to help prepare the area for the next season. During the ski season, a small skeleton staff is employed, but many of the jobs are done by volunteers from the society,
We were lucky enough to be hosted by one of the society’s directors, Marianne, and her husband, Jeff, during our stay at Cain. After breakfast each morning, Marianne went off to oversee the ski school, and the three young men she and Jeff host regularly at their cabin disappeared to work the lifts, teach lessons and do other necessary chores. I even found the society president manning the ticket of? ce when we popped in to pick up our tickets.
If you want to do some weekend work in the outdoors without “working for the man” at a major ski resort, join the Mount Cain Society and volunteer some time.
STATS & FACTS
LOCATION: Mount Cain is located near Woss on North Vancouver Island.
VERTICAL: 457 metres RUNS: 18 (plus backcountry)
AVERAGE ANNUAL SNOWFALL: 300 cm
LIFTS: 2 T-bars, 1 handle tow
OPEN: Saturday and Sunday, Christmas holidays and some Mondays
DAY TICKET: $33
MORE INFO: Mount Cain 888/668-6622Tags: backcountry skiing, British Columbia, downhill skiing, Mathieu Richard, Mount Cain, Mount Cain Society, Rossignol, Vancouver Island