Skiing Sun Peaks, British Columbia (February 2008)

United Airlines flies our Richmond Ski Club group from coast to coast on a Saturday morning in early February. Our destination is Sun Peaks in British Columbia, Canada. I am excited by this opportunity to ski British Columbia for the first time, and the fact that my ski companion has never skied in the west. He has never skied the soft, dry powder that I have enjoyed for a number of years. With no more than normal snow conditions, it will be an unparalleled experience for him.

As it turns out, what awaits us is far superior to “normal.”

Our flight lands in Vancouver, a city recently ranked the most livable city in the world.

Surprisingly, we get through baggage and customs relatively painlessly. No strip searches. No lost baggage (skis in this case).

We board our bus and are disappointed to learn that our trip will be two hours longer than expected, as we must by-pass a massive avalanche that has occurred on the major highway between Vancouver and Sun Peaks (the bus ride now becomes a seemingly endless eight hours in duration).

As a result, our trip to Sun Peaks starts at 5 am on Saturday. We are not to arrive at Sun Peaks until 9 pm. Quite a lengthy trip in this jet-set age…

As it turns out, this two-hour diversion is anything but disappointing. Instead, it would be the first in a line of fortunate events for us. Why? Because the highway is the only major road serving Sun Peaks from a major city. By being closed for the entire week we were at Sun Peaks, a large number of skiers were unable to get to the resort. Particularly in the afternoons, we would have the entire mountain to ourselves.

(Adding to our good fortune was that the highway would re-open the day we return to Vancouver after our week of skiing. Timing does not get any better.)

On our first morning at Sun Peaks, Sunday greets us with dry, cold, Canadian air. We look out of our hotel window and are thrilled to see ample snow piled high on nearby rooftops.

The pre-trip information about Sun Peaks assures us that the snow and conditions we see will be unequaled. Sun Peaks boasts 3,678 skiable acres on three mountains, with 121 runs that includes twelve gladed areas.

At 2,891 feet, Sun Peaks has the biggest vertical drop in the interior of British Columbia. And British Columbia is world famous for its light, dry powder to lubricate this big drop.

Here, one finds the second largest skiable terrain in British Columbia, and third largest in Canada.

Can’t wait to strap on those skis!

We start by easing into skiing. We select a green “bunny” run. We soon discover that at Sun Peaks, the green and blue (intermediate) slopes are much more demanding than I have experienced in the past. Black (expert) runs are wild-eyed, and the double blacks are a challenge for the best skiers in the world. Indeed, my one (unintentional) sampling of a double-black (the dreaded “Green Door” run) later on this first day ends disastrously. I fall and summersault and crawl more than I ski down this staggeringly difficult run.

That will be the last time I miss a turn…

I soon learn more about Sun Peaks. While the signage for ski runs is not perfect here (a few difficult-to-understand intersections lack signs), it is better than average. Our hotel – Cahilty Lodge – is a highly convenient ski-in, ski-out facility. A short hill carries us downslope to the major lifts from just outside the hotel door. The Lodge is also a short, easy walk through the village to the ski rental shop and a decent selection of breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurants.

The mountain ranges we observe in the region when we ascend to the top of the mountain are not particularly spectacular, but they are nevertheless impressive.

On Monday morning, small and dry snowflakes greet us as we emerge from our lodge. I had learned as a small boy in upstate New York that smaller snowflakes are an indication of larger accumulations of snow. I am therefore eagerly anticipating days of joyous skiing from a big dump of snowfall.

The snowfall lasts all day.

By the end of the day, we find ourselves skiing in deep, fluffy, soft powder. More wonderful timing…

Early in the week, we notice a break in the weather. The “top top” is where the skier takes the main lift to a second lift – and even a third lift to reach the very pinnacle of the mountain. Usually shrouded in wind and clouds, we hurry to the top top. There, we are met with the comical spectacle of a scene only Dr. Seuss could have drawn. Conifers that have been relentlessly whipped by high winds and deep snow appear to be more like snowmen than trees (see photo).

How good was the skiing on Monday? In my estimation, the first six runs we sample are the six best runs I’ve ever experienced in my life. So good that following one of these remarkable runs, I turn to my ski buddy and inform him that if we had only done that single run this week and nothing else, the entire trip would have been worthwhile.

On this exhilarating second day of skiing, we stumble upon a small group of skiers who are gathered around Nancy Greene, a well-known Canadian Olympic Ski Champion (named the female athlete of the century for Canada). The diminutive Ms. Greene, who I find charmingly down to earth despite her fame, is offering to lead a group of skiers around the mountain.

Before finding her, I joke to my ski buddy that should we come across Ms. Greene, I will “show her up” by skiing circles around her (“She will be left in my ski dust, Mike”). As it turns out, not only do I NOT show her up, but I show myself to be the clumsy skier I am. I end up falling twice during her guided ski forays. Both times, she notices someone has fallen down behind her. She asks if this were true as the group gathers around her after a run, and I sheepishly admit that I had fallen. She asks if a “snow snake” had gotten me. She then proceeds to offer me tips on how to avoid another “snake” encounter. So much for shaming an Olympian…

By Tuesday, we hit upon a strategy that becomes our mission for the remainder of the trip. We arrive at the ski lifts 20 minutes before they open for the day, which puts us into the dream position. On our first two runs for each of our remaining days, we are laying down “first tracks” on virgin runs that have not seen a single skier since they were groomed to perfection just a short while ago. Essentially, we are skiing where no skier has skied before, as James T. Kirk would boldly say.

For me, First Tracks runs means at least one thing: Blinding speeds. I find myself skiing faster than I have ever skied in my life, and am doing so without a single worry, as there are no imperfections to upend me. On a number of these virgin runs, I am skiing so fiercely fast that I realize my life would come to an abrupt end should I fall. Adrenalin is blasting through my veins.

Because the surface of the run is flawless, and I find no need to slow down. So I continue the terminal velocity of my rocket descent.

At the bottom third of several of these majestic runs, the exuberance is so uncontrollable that I am shrieking with joy. I meet up with my buddy at the bottom and scream that the run we just did was killer sweet. He heartily agrees. We laugh out loud and hurry to the lifts for another astonishing, unforgettable run.

Sun Peaks, we are to learn, has an incredibly high percentage of fantastically enjoyable runs. Only once or twice in our five full days of skiing did we come across a less-than-stellar route. And in those cases, the problem was simply that they had not been groomed for some time. Our favorite run turns out to be Second Growth, a wondrous glade run. Other excellent runs are Delta’s Return, Mid-Life Crisis, I Dunno, Still Smokin’, C.C. Riders, Runaway Lane, Cruiser, Blazer, Exhibition, Broadway, OSV (where the Austrian Olympic Ski Team trains), Sunrise, Sun Catcher, Roundabout, and Rambler.

One black run known as Sting stands out. On Tuesday morning, we are the first skiers on this freshly groomed slope. The groomers report this morning indicates that this run is the “Groomers Choice.” It is simply the best ski surface I have ever experienced. For on top of the groom was a fresh yet thin layer of fluffy powder. I have never skied so energetically high-speed, carefree and joyously in all of my life. Simply perfect.

On each of our five days, the snow remains light and fluffy. As advertised.

A lesson we learn: NEVER mention to another skier on your morning chair lift that you are intending to ski a groomed run off the lift. Like a mining “claim jumper,” skiers hearing this information will often make a mad dash off the chair for this slope, to be the first to ski it (ahead of you). We had this happen to us two or three times, and we vowed to be mum in the future (hand signals only!).

For both Tuesday and Wednesday, we have become so efficient in navigating the ski area that we find we are able to sample runs on each of the three sister mountains before 10 am. A sign of a compact, well-designed resort.

Another amenity we learn to enjoy are the great many “glade” runs on the mountains. These runs are rather technical due to their relatively steep pitch and the need to negotiate around a number of tall conifers. In particular, we enjoy 3 Bears, Cahilty, and Granny Greens as top-notch, frolicking glades. I find myself making sharp, tight, high-speed turns through the trees, often needing to crouch low to zip around and under low-lying branches.

We find ourselves skiing these runs repeatedly in the glorious afternoon sun. Addicted to glade exhilaration.

For many of our runs, we are surprised by how enjoyable the 5 Mile run turns out to be. Despite its designation as a green bunny slope, 5 Mile enables the skier to effortlessly reach rather high velocities and maintain speed continuously. No exertion necessary. A very impressive, carefree “cruiser” run. I end up polishing my ski skills, mostly by striving to keep my skis and legs close together.

On Thursday, we hike Snowshoe Nature Trail all morning. Today is a ski injury/exhaustion recuperation day for us. Regrettably, we opt not to rent snowshoes, as the glades and open fields we pass by are covered with deep virgin snow. Oddly, we don’t see any snowshoe tracks going off into this powder. All hikers seem to want to stay on the hard-packed trail, rather than enjoying the cloud-walking sensation of snowshoeing in deep snow.

That afternoon, we opt for dog sledding with Alaskan Racing Huskies. When we arrive, the huskies are gathered in a large group, each chained to a small, nearby doghouse. Curiously, the 30-40 dogs all move in synchronized unison, as if in a ballet. When one would get excited and dart back and forth, all of the others would join in and mimic this.

I have never in my life seen dogs so desperately eager. Eager to pull a sled. Their high-pitched screaming and impossibly high vertical leaps into the air informed us that they would do ANYTHING to be selected to be hitched to a sled.

We opt to have me lead the team first. My buddy is to take his turn later. During my run, I am “cited” by the manager for allowing too much sled speed on a particular downhill. Oops.

The marquee event at Sun Peaks is the Fondue Dinner and Torch Ski Run. I have signed up for this as far in advance as possible, as the event sells out quickly, and I am certain it will be unforgettable. Coincidentally, our Thursday night (the event is held every Thursday) happens to be on Valentine’s Day. The event begins with a trip up the chairlift to the Sunburst Restaurant on the mountain. Upon arrival, we are treated to a delightful fondue accompanied by live acoustic music. The menu includes a variety of meats, seafood, breads, and vegetables to accompany the oil and cheese fondues. The meal is followed by a decadent dark chocolate fondue dessert with a selection of fresh fruits. After the meal we break up into small groups, don headlamps, and effortlessly, gently, resplendently cruise down the torch lit slopes of the seemingly endless 5 Mile ski run.

Simply delightful. Out of this world.

I’m not a religious person, but I now know what it is like to die and go to heaven.

As we reach the bottom of the run, I wish this would never end. So much so that I have the urge to return to Sun Peaks EVERY Thursday…

Like every other after-ski evening here at Sun Peaks, I slide into the soothingly hot and steamy spa that sits just outside our hotel. AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

On Saturday morning, we are greeted with the wonderful news that the avalanche has been cleared and the highway is open again, after seven long days of hard work. Our bus zips through the very steep and towering valley where the avalanche occurred, and we see evidence of several smaller avalanche slides in the vicinity. The valley contains huge volumes of fearsome, smothering snow, and our bus driver informs us that this area can get snow year-round. I hold my breath, as I fear that one false move will set off another tumultuous fall.

We arrive in Vancouver just after noon, and unload our bags into a luxury hotel in the heart of the downtown. For our few hours of afternoon, we walk the waterfront along the seawall trail. First stop is Canada Place, then the impressive old growth trees of Stanley Park. We return to the impressively bustling shopping street known as Robson Street. Finally, we arrive in the historic, charming Gastown. Stop at a microbrewery for a sampler of their excellent beers, then finishing at Chinatown, where we grab some authentic Asian cuisine.

We have had the time of our lives.

Click on this link to see a video of the photos I shot on this trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmpuLoeWSe0

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Categories: 2001-2010, Canada, Skiing | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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