The Vancouver Island Mountain Centre and Sports Society make Strathcona Park’s mountain terrain and experiences accessible to all.
Have you ever parked at Mount Washington’s Raven Lodge and wondered about the impressive, yet solitary, building overlooking the parking lot? I used to imagine that, due to its prime location, it must provide some sort of service to the elite sports community. I generally skied by in awe, admiring the beauty that surrounds the building and the people appreciating it. Sometimes it seemed to be a base camp for large groups of children building snow caves, or young people and adults practising beacon searches and digging snow pits, or a steady stream of snowshoers venturing onto the trails throughout Strathcona Park.
Finally, one gloomy-rainy day, I arrived at Raven Lodge for a morning skate ski with the Strathcona Nordic Ski Club masters group. Due to the rain, we bagged our planned ski in favour of a gym workout. That was the first time I’d ever set foot in the Vancouver Island Mountain Centre, and I immediately realized how much it has to offer and what an asset it is to the community.
The Centre provides low-cost access to the alpine for families, groups, and individuals who want to enjoy healthy outdoor activities, adventures, and/or educational field experiences on Vancouver Island. Its welcoming, comforting alpine setting provides a place for people to increase their environmental awareness and learn about safety and survival in mountain climates. And it offers incredible skiing, snowshoeing, biking, and hiking opportunities right outside the front door.
When you enter the building, the first thing you notice is the comforting fireplace and welcoming couches next to the front desk. The gym is just off the lobby, and a large staircase accesses an impressive loft. Upstairs, there are many dorm-style bunk rooms, a large eating area, a kitchen, and two multipurpose rooms which are the perfect place to gather and enjoy conversations and hearty meals.
You can see and feel the positive energy in the building, whether you are attending a winter camp with a group of children, celebrating a special occasion with family, participating in a sports club program, or using the gym facilities. But did you know that this is a non-profit facility? The people and groups flowing through the building generate funds that provide financial support for the development of individual athletes involved in training and competition in mountain biking, skiing, and snowboarding, to name a few.
The Mountain Centre has a rich story of how it came into being. The catalyst for its formation was the IOC announcement that Vancouver would be the host city for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. After the initial euphoria wore off, local leaders in sport pondered how best to get an athlete from Vancouver Island to the 2010 Games—and ideally onto the podium.
The formation of the Vancouver Island Mountain Sports Society in 2003 was the first step towards realizing this ambitious goal. Following the creation of the society, representatives from local alpine, Nordic, biathlon, freestyle ski, and snowboard clubs; the Vancouver Island Society for Adaptive Snowsports; Mount Washington Alpine Resort; BC Parks; the mountain biking community; PacificSport Vancouver Island; and members of the community worked together to make the dream of an on-mountain facility become a reality. Design and building began in 2009 and the grand opening of the sustainably operated Mountain Centre took place in 2011.
The Comox Valley has continually supported the Centre and the people who use it. This is evident from the photos, plaques, and words of thanks displayed throughout the building, and, less tangibly but just as crucially, in the memories its visitors take away of the experiences they had here.
Rick Morson, a founding board member, credits the funders “who believed in the Mountain Centre’s mission and provided funding when the Centre was just a dream.” Founding board members, funders, and the whole Comox Valley were proud to see many local athletes attend the 2016 Winter Olympics and one local athlete, Cassie Sharpe, stand atop the podium. Morson recalls “how amazing it was to see the Society’s dreams achieved.”
Many of the founding members are still part of the mission today, along with new folks like me who have stumbled across the Mountain Centre and become captivated by its potential. Over the past three years, I have had multiple experiences at the Centre with friends, family, and sports clubs that have led me to become a Vancouver Island Mountain Sports Society board member.
For me, the best thing about the Mountain Centre is the total feeling of connection it gives to the snowcapped mountain views of Strathcona Park, not to mention the amazing mountain environment, terrain, and trails that surround it. From here, you enter another world, a mile high above the coast, that fills the soul.
In addition to providing access to everyone, one of the Society’s founding missions is to provide yearly grants to mountain-sport athletes from Vancouver Island to help facilitate their training. The Society has also overseen and contributed to significant infrastructure projects, including the BC Parks trail expansion, trail access to Strathcona Park, and, of course, the Vancouver Island Mountain Centre.
Don’t just wonder about the Centre—stop in and check it out. By using the facility, you’ll be helping to support the future of mountain sports on Vancouver Island. I stayed here for a few days last winter, during the storm of the year. It felt like visiting a good friend whose house just happened to be nestled on the snowy slopes of Mount Washington.
This is a beautiful place to disconnect from the pace of our Valley lives and enjoy time with family and friends, and—my favourite activity—watching the sun rise over Mount Albert Edward with a warm coffee, familiar faces, and ambitious mountain plans for the day.