November 15, 2020

A New Chapter

Mountain-town life has finally happened.

1:45 PM, February 24, 2018
Dome Col, Rogers Pass, British Columbia

“Revelstoke, eh? Sounds nice. What do you do there?”

I had just reached the top of Dome Col, the high point of the Lily-Dome traverse, a day tour in Rogers Pass. My group of three had been skinning uphill for a few hours, then packed skis onto our backpacks for the final boot-pack up to the col. The traverse starts and ends at different parking lots and is thus best done with two vehicles, or you can take your chances with hitchhiking (our “plan” for the day).

As I topped out, another party was approaching from the other side. Their ascent route was to be our descent route. We discussed conditions: our ascent involved crusty, wind-hammered snow, so we recommended that they go back down the way they had come as their ascent apparently involved much nicer snow. After this exchange, I continued with the inevitable where-are-you-from/what-do-you-do series of questions. Small talk is normally anathema to me; however, the answer to my above question was unusually intriguing:

“I’m a web developer with Avalanche Canada.”

Now that sounds like a sweet gig, I thought. We shortly parted ways with the other group and skied down in variable visibility—what I have come to call a “Rogers bluebird” day. At the second parking lot, we caught a ride back to our vehicle. Hitchhiking is always so much easier with girls in your group.

At the time, I was in grad school and spending more time skiing than was perhaps responsible. This encounter did not cross my mind again for a few years—but a seed had been planted.


A Change of Scenery

For quite some time now, I’ve been wanting to leave the city. Three years ago I wrote:

My entire life has thus far been spent in major cities, and I can’t help but feel that there is a better option for me. There is a time coming soon in which I will leave the city, perhaps forever. … Even if this turns out to be a failed experiment, at least I will have tried, and the perspective gained from trying such things really is invaluable.

In order to make this dream more probable, a career change was necessary. (I was formerly a structural engineer-in-training in Alberta’s waning oil and gas industry). The opportunity of remote work seemed to be the fastest way to get out of the city while maintaining employment. After some heavy soul-searching and exploring many different career paths, all signs started to point toward software development. The technical component of writing code, the artistic side of designing apps, and the sheer quantity of opportunities in software development made it the logical next step in my career. I left my engineering career of twelve years and retrained in software development at my own expense at a Lighthouse Labs bootcamp.

Eventually, I was interviewed and hired by Avalanche Canada. In summer 2020, I packed my bags as if off to summer camp and moved to Revelstoke. The mountain-town dream had become a reality.

Within an hour of arriving in town, I proceeded to ride Frisby ridge, leaving all my boxes unpacked. Unlike the summer camps I attended as a kid, at Camp Revy, there are no adults telling you what to do.

Many of my city-dwelling outdoor friends—myself included—have experienced a strong desire to move to the mountains. The simplified train of thought is that if we spend most of our free time in the mountains, wouldn’t it be nice to actually live in the mountains? It would be naïve to assume, however, that everything about mountain life is necessarily better in comparison to city life. Realistically, certain elements are better, others about the same, and some worse. I cannot understate the importance of perspective as a tool in managing what-if regret and FOMO, so the aim of this essay is to illuminate some of the benefits and pitfalls of living in a ski town after leaving a city of over a million people.

Necessarily, the first benefit of living in a mountain town is—you guessed it—mountains! Most rock-climbing crags are only a few minutes away. Approaches are generally in the three-to-five minute range, and the rock does not explode when you touch it (unlike Rockies choss). Sweet! The mountain biking is world class (how else to describe it), the ski touring is phenomenal (I can see the MacPherson fingers from my front door!), there are endless trails to hike and run, hunting and fishing opportunities abound, and water-sports are probably great (not my jam). This is me being effusive—seriously, Revy has great outdoor access for just about everything. Interestingly, due to the lack of an indoor climbing facility, most rock climbers are basically starting anew each spring, so there is a common ceiling in climbing ability around the 5.11 range among many locals (there are lots of routes with actual ceilings as well).

With such proximity to mountains, my vehicle mileage has dropped. In Calgary, the shortest commute to any mountain destination was 45 minutes from my back door to the mountain-biking trails at Bragg Creek. Climbing crags were an hour or more and rarely had less than a 15–30 minute approach. Ski touring was frequently a 2.5 hour drive each way to the Icefields Parkway, necessitating at least a five-hour ski day to be spending more time outside than commuting. While such commutes seem insubstantial compared to those undertaken by die-hards who live even further away, I often longed to be ending the drive home after a big day in the mountains in Banff or Canmore. In Revelstoke, locals have keen known to balk at the “long” (45 minute) drive to Rogers Pass, instead opting for closer ski-touring objectives. It is oh so lovely not to have a one-to-five hour drive back to the city after a weekend of outdoor fun. Nothing signals the end of a weekend and return to work-life reality than a lengthy commute back to the city—something I do not miss in the slightest. Nor do I miss fighting for trailhead parking spots in the increasingly crowded eastern Rockies.

Other aspects of transportation are not so favorable: expect to pay more for your car insurance in BC. As in up to 50% more despite having a clean driver’s record. And you will almost certainly need a new windshield to pass the out-of-province inspection. Fortunately, my vehicle remained unscathed from vandalism while awaiting its inspection and BC plates.

Next up is housing. It seems that with everyone’s school and work going online there has been an exodus from cities this year. Despite closed international borders, Revelstoke’s housing market is every bit as pinched as in previous seasons. A colleague’s post for an available basement suite on the RevyRentals Facebook group elicited 43 responses overnight. There is simply not enough space for everyone who wants to live here. I was ever so fortunate to land a room in a shared house. Without going into details out of privacy concerns, understand that I won the rental lottery by finding a room in a gigantic, shared house on a quiet street, complete with certain specific luxuries more likely to be found in a New York mansion than a mountain-town rental. Too many others are paying scandalously more for cramped, dark basement suites without dishwashers or laundry machines. I now have a waiting list of friends who would like to move to Revy but cannot find a place to rent. The affordable-housing crisis in Revy and similar mountain towns is very real.

Rental scarcity notwithstanding, tenants must find the means to afford their houses—another surprisingly tricky task in Revelstoke. Many in town are unemployed, under-employed, or seasonally employed. Stable, full-time jobs seems to be the exception rather than the norm here. To arrive without work and to then find it locally is exceedingly difficult and rare. Working remotely and moving here is certainly a possibility (Revelstoke actually had Canada’s first fibre-optic internet, in an effort to promote tech work in town), though 100 000 other city dwellers unfortunately have similar aspirations. And a quick word of caution to such remote workers: while you are likely better able to afford your rent than those making typical ski-town wages, it can sometimes be hard to connect with others as you miss out on the social aspects of an in-town job.

Close proximity to outdoor activities is great, but with this unfortunately comes injuries. Despite plenty of family doctors in town, the closest surgeons are a few hours away. This is an added challenge in the case of immobilizing injuries. (There are some details being omitted here.) It is tough to be on the IR list while others continue to have outdoor fun, especially without the support of nearby family.

Illnesses are not limited to the physical variety, either. It may initially seem romantic or courageous to ditch a stable office job in the city in exchange for a lower paying but more satisfying job in the outdoor industry (guiding, ski patrol, search and rescue, etc.), but realize that the increased risk, stress, and trauma associated with such work can lead to burnout and even PTSD. People a decade or more into their outdoor careers have been known to quit them altogether after too long in the pressure cooker.

Looking beyond superficial differences in commute times, housing availability, and healthcare access, is there more to living in a mountain town compared to the city?

For one, there can be a strong sense of community. With a smaller population, you will often run into people that you know. Ever feel that Hollywood movies are a bit too convenient in their coincidences? Try living in a small town for even a few months. You cannot go to the grocery store without seeing someone you know. Chatting with familiar faces in parking lots and on the trails can foster a larger sense of community beyond your immediate social circle. Building such an initial circle does require putting yourself out there: be patient, and make the effort to find others with shared passions. Networking has historically been a struggle for me, but I have been fortunate to meet people through my work, roommates, and church. There is a strong Christian community in town, with good representation even among the typically skeptical millennial outdoor crowd.

Another benefit can be enhanced personal and professional motivation. Many that live in town are keen to challenge themselves and further develop their outdoor skill sets, which, anecdotally, I find to be much more rewarding than coasting in cushy, corporate, city careers. (MINOR SPOILER ALERT: Watch the movie Snowman or perhaps skip the next bit.) In the excellent Snowman, Kevin Fogolin, growing up in Campbell River, Vancouver Island, dreams of living and working in the mountains. He attempts to make it as a skier in Whistler after high school; however, reality sets in, and he gets a forestry degree, returns to Campbell river, secures a stable job, and starts raising a family. This eventually proves unsatisfying, however, so he uproots his family, and they move to Whistler, where Kevin works in avalanche safety. His childhood friend turned pro skier and filmmaker Mike Douglas comments that, after returning to Whistler, “a part of [Kevin] came alive again that I had not seen in years.” Such a change in attitude and motivation is perhaps the single most powerful benefit of moving to a mountain town. (I won’t give away any more of the story, but if you have made it this far into my essay, you will most likely enjoy Snowman as well.)

A New Perspective

It’s often fascinating how perspective can vary among different populations. From Vancouver urbanites, Revelstoke has been described as a small highway town in the far east of the province, removed from the opportunity of the lower mainland. Contrastingly, among my Calgary outdoor brethren, there is a certain cachet to “living the dream” in small mountain towns, being more immersed in the mountain culture that has so strongly called us on weekends and vacations.

One of the topics that I keep returning to in my writing is the notion that success does not necessarily equate to happiness (see here and here). A realist to a fault, I contend that becoming successful—in my case, landing a good job in a desirable mountain town—is no guarantee of lasting happiness. In the short term, Camp Revy has been great, and for the long term, living in Revy has illuminated many nuances between city and ski-town life that would otherwise have remained mysterious. This perspective alone is entirely irreplaceable, and I am ever so grateful for it.

Moving to Revy has many parallels to the summer camps of my youth: being close to nature and outdoor fun, making lots of new friends, and—given that I almost exclusively attended Bible camps as a kid—the faith component is a strong analogue as well. Expectedly, there are upsides and downsides to living in a mountain town like Revelstoke, and the question necessarily becomes a matter of individual preference: do the pros exceed the cons of living here according to your specific priorities? And even if they do, it is important to keep in mind that the grass is not always greener on the other or unknown side. Overall, though, the grass is pretty green here—which makes sense, given how much it rains.