Travel

Alpine night skiing by torchlight: A New Year’s moment in Sun Peaks

Night skiing under the direction of Olympic legend Nancy Greene Raine

  • Jan 05, 2023
  • 994 words
  • 4 minutes
New Year's Eve fireworks at Sun Peaks. (Photo: Riff Stills/Sun Peaks Tourism)
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Regardless of how we approach it, life is about moments: the precious, unique and exhilarating seconds that evolve into the stories that define us. I’m having just such a moment on a dark ski hill, in formation with 200 others as we light up flares on New Year’s Eve at Sun Peaks Resort, Canada’s second-largest ski destination. 

“Remember to hold your flare low, go slow, and keep your distance,” commands Nancy Greene Raine, an Olympic legend, former senator, and local pioneer. Thousands of people have gathered in the village below, bolstered by thumping dance music and festive holiday lights as  kids are waving glowsticks. A skills contest has just concluded, and the mood is fittingly upbeat. Our flares explode into red flame, and we begin a torchlight ski descent in single file. Having pursued my bucket list in more than 100 countries and across every province and territory, trust me when I say this moment is as good as it gets.

Nancy Greene Raine. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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British Columbia has over 85 ski resorts, offering diverse terrain and attractions. Local and international visitors sit on a spectrum of hotels, shopping, restaurants, nightlife, and festivals. Some have this, and others have that, but Sun Peaks has it all. Located about four and a half hour’s drive from Vancouver and 45 minutes from Kamloops, the resort has sprouted from a single mountain into a vibrant community, enjoying 16 square kilometres of skiable terrain, with 137 epic runs serviced by 13 chairs. The village is compact and modest, with no major hotel or shopping chains. Dining and accommodation options are fantastic, diverse and located right off the slopes. The atmosphere is particularly family-friendly, and with six metres of annual snow and 2,000 hours of sunshine, conditions are reliably excellent. It’s the kind of ski town where folks on lift chairs offer free ski lessons, line-ups are manageable even on the busiest days of the year, and you can walk through the village in just a few minutes. Despite its vast terrain and increasing international appeal, Sun Peaks still feels like a secret. Visiting over Christmas and New Year, those in the know register early for the annual Torchlight Parade.

I’m having dinner with childhood friends at the homely Voyageur Bistro, a short stroll from our comfortable room at The Grand. Immediately there are some concerns. “Wait, you’re going to ski a blue, at night, with an open flame?” asks a mate, visiting with his family from Australia. “Esrock, can you even ski?” It’s a valid point. I’ve only recently ditched my snowboard, learning to ski alongside my kids after realizing that my knees are rusting and nobody over 50 should be snowboarding anyway. I’ve heard of festive torchlight runs on other hills, but those are limited to instructors and staff. At Sun Peaks, anyone 16 and older can sign up for the New Year’s Eve Torchlight Parade, presuming you can navigate a blue run and not roast yourself in a wipeout. I’m not entirely convinced of either, but the General inspires confidence.

Photo: Kelly Funk/Sun Peaks Tourism
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Photo: Connie Williamson/Sun Peaks Tourism
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“There were only 10 permanent residents when Al and I moved here,” says Sun Peaks’ Ski Director and Canadian Sportswomen of the 20th Century, Nancy Greene Raine. Nancy is the passionate matriarch of this growing mountain community, whose permanent population of 1400 rose 127 per cent between 2016 and 2021. Her husband Al is the long-serving mayor, and the kids take a ski chair to school. I once tried to keep up with Nancy on my snowboard, and it was like chasing a Ferrari on a push-bike. It was Nancy who got me up on skis for the first time (she told me I wouldn’t fall, and I didn’t), but coming down a slope at night is a long way from the bunny hill. It reminded me of night diving: technically, everything is the same, yet it feels like a different world. Alpine night skiing is a thrill all its own. 

Sun Peaks village on New Year's Eve. (Photo: Robin Esrock)
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Moonlight batters through clouds as we ascend on the high-speed Sundance Express, casting a pale glow across the frosted glades. Volunteers with lanterns help us get to our starting point, where we assemble into four lines and receive bamboo poles with attached flares. Everything is timed to perfection. Young kids ski down the village platter with glowsticks before we’re given the go-ahead, Nancy leading the way. We spark our flares with flint and descend in wide S-curves amidst elated hollers and yells. It’s a jaw-dropping spectacle to witness from the village. From the back of the formation, it looks like we’re floating down an exploding volcano, accompanied by the crackling sounds of fire and ice. It’s a wow moment, a goosebump moment, a bucket list moment. 

Crowds cheer the arrival of the light brigade as we approach the village. We halt near the bottom, flares still lit, and begin a familiar countdown from 10, nine, eight… At zero, we simultaneously extinguish our flares in the snow, and the first massive firework explodes above our heads. It’s a dazzling display of light in the darkness, an expression of hope for the year to come.

Up to this point, my most memorable New Year’s Eve was outside the House of Wonders in Zanzibar. Sydney Harbour, Trafalgar Square, and Copacabana Beach were fun but way too crowded. No landmark could possibly compare to alpine skiing at night with lit flares under the direction of an Olympic legend, greeted by cheering crowds and massive fireworks. 

In another stroke of planning genius, the whole thing is over by 9 p.m., allowing families to relish the celebration and choose whether the kids can ride it out to New Year. My young kids barely made it to midnight, thanks to hot chocolate, great friends, and the enduring idea that the passing of years still matter. In time, they too will learn that it’s all about these special moments, wherever you happen to find them.  

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