Ski secrets: hidden gems in British Columbia

With a helpful guide to lead the way, Roger Bray enjoys the secret slopes of British Columbia

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.

Traveller's Guide

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager - major leisure brand

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Partner

    £25000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Partner is required to ...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Knaresborough ...

    Beverley James: Accounts Payable

    £23,000: Beverley James: Do you have a background in hospitality and are you l...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003