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A rare (and exhilarating) day for Toronto powder hounds

Deep-powder downhill skiing has always been an iffy thing in downtown Toronto. The absence of hills is a challenge, and so is the absence of snow (especially powder).

Until Tuesday night, the El Nino-nuanced winter of 2015-16 had been especially dispiriting. As of mid-February, Toronto the Mild had received a paltry 85.6 centimetres of snow. The record for this time of year, set in 1937-38, is, OMG, 207.4 cm.

Then Tuesday night happened. It wasn't a record one-day snowfall, which was set on Feb. 25, 1965, when 39.9 cm fell in a single swoosh. The blanket was a mere 14.9 cm.

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But that's plenty for a powder hound.

It was a day for rejoicing, but not for too long. Toronto has upped its snow-clearing game since 1999, when former mayor and long-time hair-plug advocate Mel Lastman rendered the city an international laughingstock by calling out the army to deal with a piddling 118.4 cm of snow. On Wednesday, by contrast, downtown Toronto's streets and sidewalks had been cleared by 11 a.m.

But the city's downhill pitches were another, snowier story.

There are two secrets to finding untramelled pow in downtown Hogtown: Get up early, and have your gear at hand. Your correspondent decided to go with plastic Scarpa T3s, a lightweight plastic urban telemark boot and a pair of 184-cm G3 Aces, a light touring ski with a telemark binding manufactured by 7tm, a company whose slogan is: "No friends on powder days."

He packed the skis and the boots into the back of his car, aiming to don both at hilltop, once he found an effing parking space.

(Parking is to big-city powder skiing as avalanches are to the Rocky Mountain variety – an unavoidable concern, especially in deepest downtown Toronto, where most residents are apparently too busy, too self-involved or too weak to actually dig a parking spot out of a large curbside snowbank on their street.)

There are three main slopes long and steep enough to qualify as both turnable and skiable in Toronto's downtown core.

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There's a hill in High Park in the city's west end. It boasts a peak of 50 metres and drops to 13 metres at the edge of Grenadier Pond – a plunge that represents a quarter of all the elevation across the city. It's a gorgeous piste dotted with hardwoods, but, alas, is about as steep as the price of a small black coffee from Tim Hortons. You can experience more excitement turning left on a yellow.

There is, or was, a second, much steeper hill running down the side of the underground reservoir at Sir Winston Churchill Park, just south of tony Forest Hill, but the city has planted the top two-thirds with trees, to prevent tobogganers and skiers from experiencing any physical pleasure whatsoever.

And, of course, there is the former city garbage dump called Earl Bales Park, which can be a decent place to learn to ski when there's snow, which there hasn't been much of, so there. Also, it's in North York, and some people just don't like to go there.

That leaves Riverdale Park. It, too, was once a garbage dump. Its 104 acres straddle the Lower Don River below Bloor Street in Toronto. It was the original proposed site for the SkyDome. The decision to build the stadium elsewhere turned out to be good news for downtown downhill.

Your correspondent's plan was to ski the eastern slope of the riverbank that marks the edge of the park. But on the way there, he noticed the western slope of the park – tucked in next to the Toronto Necropolis, a cemetery, and Riverdale Farm, an educational barnyard where downtown children can see what animals moo shu pork comes from. The western slope was north-facing, and therefore less sun-crusted.

It was also trackless and pristine, even though it was already 10 o'clock in the morning. Even challenging runs at hot spots such as Vail and Whistler have been skied out by 10 a.m. on a powder day. But not in the downtown core, not on the morning after a fresh dump of snow.

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Your correspondent parked his car on Spruce Street, 50 metres from the top of the ravine. He changed into his ski boots and slapped on his boards. The only other people on the slope were four children under the age of 6 – the kind of snow tourists who usually destroy a pristine slope. But they were preoccupied with sucking their mitts.

The snow was perfect. It wasn't what anyone would call deep pow – maybe four inches, max – but it was pow nonetheless. It was very, very skiable. The run was long enough for 13 tight telemark turns – not exactly Chamonix, but fantastic for Riverdale. Walking up the hill again – the gondola situation in downtown Toronto is appalling – took four minutes.

Your correspondent took 10 runs, for a total of 130 turns. The only dangers were two dogs, a long-haired greyhound and a bouncing poodle-Labrador cross, neither of which was smart enough not to try to bite his ski poles. But they were soon bored.

Your correspondent was back in his office, downtown, within the hour.

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