Ski secrets: hidden gems in British Columbia
With a helpful guide to lead the way, Roger Bray enjoys the secret slopes of British Columbia
Saturday 08 November 2008
Gary Eaton was in no doubt that it was the best day of the season at Big White. Normally it snows there in small increments. But 30cm had fallen overnight and there were so few skiers that we were still gliding ecstatically through light, untracked powder when the lifts closed. But when we'd driven up there from Kelowna a couple of days earlier we had begun to question whether we would get much skiing at all. A low sun was shining, the foothills around were glowing brown, signposts pointed diversions to vineyards and fruit farms.
Kelowna is in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, 400km (250m) inland from Vancouver. The Okanagan climate is remarkable. Winter contrasts reliable mountain snow with moderate conditions in town. Summer temperatures can reach the high 30s; the lakes can be as warm as the Caribbean. A little further south, near Osoyoos, where some houses remind you of Spanish villas, is desert.
Thanks to this climate, Eaton and friends can be confident of staging their "triathlon" each March. They ski in the morning, follow that by mountain biking in spring mud and finish with a round of golf. Eaton is a volunteer ski host, available in Big White, as in many other Canadian and US resorts, to show visitors around the slopes in return for a lift pass. Often they are of mature years. Eaton, a retired PE teacher from Ontario, is 65 and didn't learn to ski until he was 37 – though you wouldn't know it to watch him.
The option of skiing with a host is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to North America. Without Eaton, I wouldn't have found the Never Never Glades, or – had I come across them by chance – would not have anticipated the little rock face that demands careful negotiation. "I'm gonna put the brakes on when we get to it," he warned me. But he stopped so abruptly and I was so hard on his heels that he became the brake, roaring with laughter when I cannoned into him.
Wild animals, or at least the thought that you might encounter them, are also part of the appeal. Eaton recalled that not long ago an instructor had been chased down the slope by a moose, which then loped through the resort centre, as if part of the opening credits of Northern Exposure. Out snowshoeing after dark in Sun Peaks, where we had started this trip before heading for the Okanagan, we were told cougar tracks had been spotted a few days earlier on one of the lower ski runs. All we saw was the trace of squirrels, mere canapés to such big cats. (They prefer something more substantial, such as deer.) That didn't prevent someone asking, as we roasted marshmallows over a wood fire in mid-circuit, whether cougars might have a sweet tooth.
Snowshoe guide Irene Kastner explained that the resort's highest summit, Tod Mountain, owed its name to John Tod, a fur trapper who travelled west on snow shoes. It is difficult to imagine the hardship and discipline this involved, the hours of patient plodding, the long nights camping, huddled under skins. But you could get an inkling pausing on your skis at the aptly named Top of the World peak, before swinging away down Christmas Bowl, and looking north. There is little but forest, lakes, mountains and hibernating bears between you, the horizon and far beyond.
If North America's peaks generally lack the immediacy and drama of the Alps, this sense of vastness adds immeasurably to its appeal. It encourages you to take in more than one resort on the same trip, getting at least some idea of the distance, remoteness and occasionally the severity of weather. We skied three resorts in a fortnight, finishing at Silver Star – though each would sustain the interest of most British holiday skiers for a week. Driving between them cost two half-days of precious skiing, but did at least place them in geographical context.
None of the above would keep tugging me back across the Atlantic if the skiing were poor; but it is not. Sometimes the runs seem a little short, but that is counteracted by the speed with which you get back onto the lifts. Even at weekends there is none of the lift-queue anarchy seen at peak times in major European resorts. My wife and I chuckled when we overheard a Canadian skier telling his group they needed to "get away from the crowds" on Sun Peaks' Mount Morrisey. On one run there, which we skied towards midday, perhaps only half-a-dozen others had made tracks in the light covering of fresh snow.
Mount Morrisey is the latest swathe of terrain to be opened as part of a 25-year development plan led by Nippon Cable, owners of Sun Peak, who acquired the ski area in 1992. It comprises mainly pleasant, gentle intermediate trails cut artfully between trees, plus a few demanding – and often mogulled – black descents for thrill-seekers.
In Silver Star we skied with Betty Campbell, a 76-year-old host (or partner as they call them) of Scottish ancestry, who pointed out Mount Robbie Burns and recalled an American visitor asking if it was named after some Canadian hero.
Unlike resorts such as Aspen, which was originally a prospecting boom town, Silver Star, with its pastel shaded buildings of many colours, was simply designed to resemble one. An initial glance at its piste map might suggest limited skiing but in fact it punches far above its weight. Those with energy to burn will find plenty of demanding possibilities, most notably in the Putnam Creek area, where the majority of marked trails are graded single or double black. A few of the singles are pisted, using machines hauled up on winches. Most of the doubles are only for the very agile, or very brave. And, like Sun Peaks, Silver Star has also opened a clutch of additional, mainly intermediate runs, served by an entirely new chairlift. (All but one of the resort's lifts have been replaced in the past five years.)
Big White shares ownership and lift pass with Silver Star. High on its slopes, where the forest thins out, we skied between fir trees clothed in wind-blown snow and sculpted into grotesque forms, like a wintry Burnham Wood bearing down on Dunsinane. Visibility is poor up here in cloud or storms, so we stuck to the intermediate runs and glades of the Black Forest area, where dark trunks provided contrast, waiting until the weather improved to head back to the top.
Full of the extra zest stirred by the reappearance of the sun, we headed for the long, thigh-burning runs of Gem Lake. There were so few skiers that in places the powder had survived through the morning. Being a host, Gary Eaton had said, was "the best gig imaginable". We had now been spoiled by, arguably, the two best days of the season. It was hard not to envy him.
Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; ski-i.com) offers a broadly similar 14-night itinerary from £1,655 including flights from Heathrow with British Airways, internal Air Canada connections and a hire car (excluding a one-way car drop-off fee to be paid locally).
A six-day adult lift pass covering Big White and Silver Star costs from £182. A six-day pass at Sun Peaks starts at £173.
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