It's not every day that you get to ski with an Olympic champion. This is the thought that crosses my mind as I nervously take my place next to Nancy Greene on the chair-lift at Sun Peaks Resort in Canada. The sun is riding high in an electric-blue sky overhead, and minty fresh peaks are stretching out into a distant haze; all in all it looks like a perfect day to be on the mountain. But I'm worried.
Nancy is no ordinary Olympic champion; the 1968 gold medallist is a national hero in Canada. There are lakes and mountains named after her. Everyone here recognises her - even though she's trussed up in her winter woollies and hidden underneath a huge pair of goggles. If I wipe out there are so many people watching I'll never live it down.
To make matters worse, the odds of coming a cropper are pretty high: this is my first outing of the season, and I'm a little rusty. Nancy doesn't seem to mind, though. As we arrive at the top of the Sundance Express lift (and I do my best to avoid crashing into her as we dismount), she seems reassuringly relaxed. "What a beautiful day!" she declares, a big smile spreading across her face. "It doesn't get much better than this."
I have to agree. Casting an eye at the deserted slopes spread out before us, I'm reminded why an increasing number of British skiers are heading to North America every year. But it's not only because you get the pistes to yourself; another enticing factor is that lift queues are almost unheard of. On top of this, the cost of living in Canada is much cheaper than Europe; an on-slope burger at Sun Peaks costs around £4, compared to £7 for spag bol in Verbier, Switzerland.
And as if all this wasn't enough to tempt you across the pond, consider the fact that you're pretty much guaranteed to get amazing snow conditions as well. Especially if you come to Sun Peaks. Year after year, this place delivers white stuff by the bucketload.
Indeed, even in 2005, when Whistler, Banff and Canada's other major resorts suffered their worst season for 30 years, skiers at Sun Peaks were enjoying knee-deep powder all season long.
So why haven't we heard more about the place? This was the question I was busy pondering as I strapped into my bindings and prepared to follow Nancy down our first run of the day.
Thankfully it was a gentle, cruisy blue run that meandered its way through well-spaced pine trees - nothing too challenging yet. "There's no point rushing straight into the steep stuff," said Nancy as she disappeared off into the distance. My sentiments exactly.
Apart from the fact that I hadn't been out for the best part of a year, I was on a snowboard, while Nancy was on skis. Anyone who's had the (mis)fortune to go skiing with snowboarders will know that we tend to be a lot slower.
Normally, this results in lots of impatient sighing and tutting from so-called skiing "friends"; however, Nancy was refreshingly down-to-earth about my relative lack of pace. Besides, it gave her an opportunity to stop and point out the spectacular British Columbia countryside. The scenery is breathtaking. While there's plenty of tree-skiing to satisfy off-piste junkies, in contrast to resorts such as Red and Jasper, there's a lot more terrain that lies above the tree line. On the more exposed slopes, blizzards blast across ridges and whip through trees, creating "snow ghosts" - pines so heavily covered with snow that it looks like they're wearing huge snowy overcoats, their branches sticking out like spectral arms.
Sun Peaks is British Columbia's second-biggest resort, with 117 runs spread over three mountains - Tod, Sundance and Morrisey. Over the past decade, a huge amount has been invested in new lifts here; many of the runs are now serviced by high-speed chairs, which is another reason for the absence of queues. Indeed, in terms of modern facilities and exciting terrain, Sun Peaks is every bit as good as Whistler. And, of course, it boasts a resident Olympic legend. Before coming here, I have to admit that I had no idea quite how Nancy's fame had endured for nearly four decades. Every time we paused to admire the view, someone would come over and ask to have their photo taken with her. Amazingly, she never refused.
Nancy is one of those people who has a seemingly endless supply of energy. She may be 63, but when she smiles you can still see the 24-year-old girl who represented her country in Grenoble all those years ago.
Needless to say, she's still an absolute demon on skis. Having warmed up with a few mellow blasts between the trees, we headed through the underpass at the bottom of the valley and over to the other side, to Mount Morrisey.
If you're looking for gently sloping pistes with plenty of room to lay out big, wide turns, this will be your favourite side of the valley. A particularly nice run is C C Riders, which forks off halfway down; head right and you can weave in and out of little trees all the way to the bottom. Carry on left and it's a clear run down.
A substantial dump of overnight snow had left a satisfying layer of powder on top of the groomed corduroy, creating ideal conditions. As my confidence increased, so did my speed, with the result that Nancy was no longer having to wait around so much while I played catch-up. Of course, over-confidence inevitably breeds wipe-outs sooner or later, and it wasn't long before I found myself face down in the fluff, eating ice-cold humble pie.
"Ten out of 10 for aesthetics," said Nancy, as I dusted myself off and emptied the snow from inside my ears. If you're going to make a fool of yourself, you might as well do it in front of an expert.
Luckily for me it was our last run of the day; my legs had turned to jelly, and any semblance of skill that I'd tenuously grasped earlier had been replaced by fatigue and hunger.
Away from the slopes, Sun Peaks has a good selection of restaurants to choose from. Everything you need here is only ever a short walk from your hotel. There are nine hotels, all centred around a few little streets and a village square containing various shops and bars. If you're still up for it by 10pm, head to Mackdaddy's and elbow your way on to the packed dancefloor. The crowd here ranges from baggy jeans-wearing boarders to parents who should know better.
Despite my passion for dancing to Justin Timberlake, however, my day on the hill with Nancy had taken its toll and I headed back early to my room at the Cahilty Lodge.
It turns out that Nancy's guided resort tours take place every day - and are free for anyone staying here. So you can ski with an Olympic champion every day, if you wish.
The writer travelled with Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca), which flies to Vancouver from Heathrow, with onward connections to Kamloops, around 45 minutes' drive from Sun Peaks. Vancouver is also served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow; Zoom Airlines (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com) from Gatwick, Belfast, Glasgow and Manchester; and Air Transat (020-7616 9187; www.airtransat.co.uk) from Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester. Vancouver is around four hours' drive from Sun Peaks.
Nancy Greene's Cahilty Lodge, 3220 Village Way, Sun Peaks (001 250 578 7454; www.cahiltylodge.com). Doubles start at C$126 (£60), room only.
EATING & DRINKING THERE
Bella Italia, Hearthstone Lodge (001 250 578 7316; www.hearthstonelodgeatsunpeaks.com).
Masa's Bar & Grill, Village Day Lodge (001 250 578 5434). Mackdaddy's Nightclub, Delta Sun Peaks (001 250 578 2582; www.deltahotels.com).
Sun Peaks Resort, British Columbia: 001 250 578 5474; www.sunpeaksresort.com
British Columbia Tourism: www.britishcolumbia.travelReuse content