Travel

Slip sliding away

British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley is a chiller thriller for skiers of all stripes
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(Maps: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

It’s 7:30 p.m. and it’s dark but I’m still racing pell-mell down a frozen mountain. I blame Matt “Chili” Palmer, the friendly Big White Ski Resort rentals technician, who gave me high-performance Rossignols. I’m yelling “Woo-hoo!” to teenagers I don’t know and ignoring the trembling quadriceps of a no-longer-young lady because I’m trying to live up to my skis.

I know crashes occur more often near the day’s end. Unnatural shadows start pooling under artificial light and downslope contours can disappear altogether. Plus, if you’ve been skiing all day and are tired, you’re sloppy. But who can think of splintered tibias when you’re an hour away from a mound of pad Thai in a winter resort in the heart of British Columbia’s Okanagan and want to earn your supper? Come on. One more run.

The notion of pacing myself during this triple-slide challenge — alpine skiing, nordic skiing, snowboarding — at Big White and Sun Peaks resorts evaporated as we parked alongside fourmetre snowbanks at Sundance, our Big White hotel, and stepped into whirling flakes. There is less beer now than in my ski bum youth and the only drugs are traditional Chinese, but the thrills will be selfsame.

Speaking of same self, I’ve brought my purple Uvex goggles, which I bought when people still thought those droopy-crotch MC Hammer pants were flattering. They’re thick as a brick, tinted queasy green and the old foam cushioning leaves dusty grey rings around my eyes. They are now ironic novelty goggles. Photographer Bobbi Barbarich, a snowboarder with pistol tattoos on her thighs, has a pair of sleek, polarized SPYs, but it’s obvious: she covets the nov-gogs. My hoser status is completed by a second-hand jacket with a paperclip replacing the zipper’s absent pull tab (it’s a clipper!) and a pair of bulbous teal mittens I bought with the gogs two decades ago.

When I initially wade into the sea of rainbow GORE-TEX and other de rigueur swanky outerwear in the chairlift line at Big White, I’m mortified. But listen — it’s not what you wear that matters, and everyone knows it. One can awaken one’s nordic ninja in any uniform. Or, in the case of snowboarding, give the impression you’re being repeatedly electrocuted. It’s a sad fact: you can’t learn snowboarding without looking like a schlemiel. But we’ll get to that.

Okanagan, a place name in Nsyilxcen, one of the Salish languages, is a popular word, referring to, but not exclusively, a long lake, a river, some waterfalls and a legendary valley in south-central British Columbia known for its wine, fruit, old people and winter sports. There are more than a dozen ski hills in southern British Columbia and I choose a couple I’ve never seen: Big White, just southeast of Kelowna, and Sun Peaks, northeast of Kamloops. Sadly, there’s no time to visit Silver Star Mountain Resort, their charming sister just northeast of Vernon. That intimate ski-out village, where I sampled both alpine and Olympic-standard nordic trails and then blissed out in a rooftop hot tub about a decade ago, will have to wait for another trip.

Roughly 750 centimetres of talcum-powder snow fall each season onto Big White Mountain’s highest peak at 2,319 metres and around her flowing skirts, making it a dreamy winter destination. Sue Yerex thought so and fashioned herself an enviable retirement plan. The former registered nurse learned to ski at age 40 when she moved to Kelowna from Edmonton with her husband and two sons in 1991. She now owns a condo at the resort, with a view of the Monashee Mountains, and skis for free as a volunteer ski host, giving newcomers complimentary mountain tours. “They’ll have to take me out in a box. I ain’t leaving,” says Yerex, just shy of five feet tall with blue eyes and a grey ponytail. “I ski every day.”

Everyone here has at least one thing in common: the rapture. I overhear a buff 50-something man remark to his buddy, “Why is it every weekend we come up here, it’s like the best day we ever had?” The icy winds are fortifying and the misty valley vista reminds us of our obvious privilege but mostly, everyone’s just high on fresh air and adrenaline.

Yerex leads us through copious bumpy glades, around giddy children and baggy-panted snowboarders and past huddles of snow ghosts — frothy white treetops poking out of the threemetre snow base. After chasing the nimble Yerex and brawny Barbarich all morning, I’m ready to take a break at the Telus Terrain Park to watch a North American Cup ski-cross final. In this freestyle-type event, four skiers race down a short course of jumps and turns with the fastest skiers advancing to the final.

I’m wondering what persuades an athlete to engage in such a perilous contest when we run into Kelowna’s own Kelsey Serwa, the current female ski-cross world champion whose grandfather, Cliff Serwa, co-founded Big White with Doug Mervyn in 1963. Serwa junior, 23, explains it this way: “I love the rawness of it, the head-to-head racing, the jumps,” she says, all freckles and fearlessness. “It’s so exciting to watch and fun to do.” Serwa isn’t competing today; she’s recovering from knee surgery and wears the bystander’s role like a shrunken suit. And who could blame her? She grew up on this hill.

On day two, we embark on our second sliding challenge: nordic skate-skiing. Liberated from leaden gear, I feel I might float over the trails like a spandex pixie. The pine-lined trails offer peaceful respite from the crowds and I should be thoroughly enchanted except that the loop we’ve chosen feels like it’s almost entirely uphill. An hour later, sweaty and groininjured from incline duck-walking, we seek out therapy in spicy Caesars and yam fries at the trailhead Moose Lounge.

When you’re spent from ski-hill swagger, Big White has a fine array of restaurants and lounges. And if you need a break from skiing, there are activities such as snowshoeing, dog-sled tours and even mini-snowmobiles for kids, all a short gondola ride from the main village. The resort also organizes free family events nightly, including fireworks, Wii competitions, Bingo, bonfires and carnivals. It totally makes me miss my children. For 14 seconds.

I could easily stay longer at Big White but I have a date with a Sun Peaks snowboard instructor to complete my winter triad so we depart early on day three, fuelled by coffee and leftover flat-crust pizza — never a good combination.

Moments after checking into the luxurious Delta Sun Peaks Resort (and getting a replacement paperclip at the front desk for my jacket’s clipper) I hustle to the rental shop for gear and join five classmates at snowboard school. Two are teenagers. One guy’s 64 and plays in a band called Never 2 Late. Instructor Harry Goldberg, a 56-year-old fisheries-biologist-cum-hobbyfarmer, employs the QuickRide System, a safe, step-by-step instruction method that teaches the sport in small increments. Gone are the days when learning to ride meant bruised tailbones and whiplash. I’m relieved. When I told my friends I was learning to snowboard, most of them winced dramatically like they’d just been kicked in the shin.

“You are a piece of toast and the snowboard is the toaster slot,” Goldberg tells us. “Bend your knees, hold your arms out to the side for balance and don’t lean too far forward or backward or you’ll get burned in the toaster.” In no time, I am clamped to the board and shuffling toward the magic carpet to climb mighty Sunbeam, the beginner hill. After two hours of terror, flailing, terror, laughter, terror, shame, I’m switchbacking downhill and ready to sell my skis on eBay. As Halifax indie musician Rich Aucoin entices a swarm of admirers to dance in their snow pants at the base of the hill, I go faster and faster. Then I catch an edge and catapult backwards. Cocky kills me every time.

Sun Peaks resort has a South Tyrolean-style ski-out village that I eventually discover on day two. It’s larger and more posh than the family chill vibe of Big White. There are sumptuous café options, a chocolate store, arty boutiques, tempting fusion bistros and a wine shop. The resort celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and though Tourism Sun Peaks president Christopher Nicolson has been hosting media for months, he doesn’t seem to mind spending the day skiing with us and Snow Magazine editor Roger Fulton.

A life-long ski bum, Nicolson parlayed his passion into numerous slope-side jobs in Western Canada before eventually landing the top job at Sun Peaks. He’s in prestigious company: Olympic alpine champion Nancy Greene Raine is the resort’s director of skiing and also runs a lodge here.

Sun Peaks’ bowl design and multiple peaks and aspects allow skiers to choose sunny or shady faces depending on weather and temperature. Today is mild so Nicolson leads us to cooler spots, but not before we grab cappuccinos for the chair. We disembark, take a short run to another lift then head further up the mountain to the Sunburst Lodge for oven-fresh cinnamon buns the size of our heads. We meet a herd of Kamloops seniors — members of the “Sun Peaks Antiques” — who ski thrice weekly. Most of them are 80 or older.

Later, after Nicolson indulges Barbarich by repeatedly skiing through the trees for some impressive action shots on Mount Morrisey, we stop for lunch and bid the president farewell for a while. Barbarich convinces me to head up Mount Tod. We ascend into blizzard conditions. Indigo shadows crawl across sculpted drifts beneath the sky’s combative clouds. It’s like Jack Frost’s rec room. We linger briefly at the top, breathe deeply, shiver uncontrollably then push off with renewed vigour. That is until I get stuck in the Rice Bowl, a steep pitch of moguls way beyond my aptitude. I straighten the nov-gogs, hitch up my pants, pull up the clipper and descend sideways, shamelessly scraping powder off mogul-tops. I’m not proud, but my tibias are intact.

On our last night at Sun Peaks, we sample some local wines at the Globe Café and Tapas Bar with Nicolson and wine connoisseur and dog musher Taryn Rixon. There are roughly 200 wineries in British Columbia, she tells us. Clearly we ought to have scheduled a wine tasting at the beginning of our trip, not the night before we leave.

Barbarich says the pain I feel in my legs and shoulders will eventually fade and I believe her because she’s a registered dietician and an athlete, which is to say she’s authoritative. Nonetheless, I fear I may need a wheelchair after six hours of sitting still on tomorrow’s flight home. It’s a small price to pay for rediscovering the joy of sliding down a mountain.

Hills, spills and thrills

Getting there
Sun Peaks is close to Kamloops and Big White is close to Kelowna, so you can fly into either city and rent a vehicle or take an airport shuttle or express bus. Consult www.sunpeaksresort.com and www.bigwhite.com for the type of ride that best suits you.

Staying there
Accommodation options abound at both Sun Peaks and Big White, from on-hill hostels to condos and chalets. Start with the resort websites and expand your search from there. At Big White, we stayed in a two-bedroom suite at Sundance, a ski-in hotel with outdoor hot tubs and heated saltwater pool along with a steam room. At Sun Peaks, we opted for the Delta Sun Peaks Resort, which also has outdoor hot tubs, a health club and delicious, locally sourced cuisine at Mantles Restaurant & Lounge.

Playing there
Big White and Sun Peaks, like many hills in the Okanagan and beyond, have transformed into true “winter resorts,” with numerous non-skiing options for kids and adults alike. Big White, in particular, offers everything from tubing to ice-wall climbing and skating, while Sun Peaks holds a wine festival every January and hosts world-class ski competitions. The only dilemma with dining at both resorts is deciding where to go. At Big White, try Lotus Lounge for delicious Thai food and The BullWheel for upscale pub grub. At Sun Peaks, you can eat like kings and queens at Mantles, Black Garlic Bistro and Globe Café and Tapas Bar. For general information about skiing in B.C., visit www.hellobc.com/ski.

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