Seek the satisfaction of sliding downhill on snow then sharing stories at your favourite après locale. Big White forms the perfect playground for this pursuit.
By Andrew Findlay
Fluffy white flakes dance in the beam of my car’s headlights. Tires squeak on cold snow. This is the kind of welcome that I love—the sparkle of falling snow and a night sky bursting full of promise.
I have skied Big White Ski Resort only twice before—not enough. The first time was as a member of a visiting alpine ski team. I was a mediocre teenage gate-basher at best, on an underperforming but fun-loving team. It was ages ago, but I still clearly remember navigating a slalom course in a white-out of driving snow, feeling like a ship being tossed in a storm. I burrowed through waist-deep ruts to a mid-pack finish, as usual. Then it was time for the real fun to start. I said so long to the coach and vanished with a few teammates to explore Big White’s ample terrain for the rest of the afternoon.
The second time was ten years ago, on a guys’ trip. Naturally, it wasn't long before we strolled through the doors of a Big White institution—Snowshoe Sam’s. Jugs of lager slopped generously onto well-worn tabletops and the place was thick with accents from down under. The energy was decidedly youthful and hormonal. As an unintentional irony, a ski film was playing on a large screen above the pool table, mostly ignored; it was a gut-busting parody of the timeless après ski activities in which we were immersed in real time at Snowshoe Sam’s.
A decade older now, I am much more protective of my precious ski days, and far less tempted by late nights of lager and pool playing. With my wife and kids back at home in the routine grind of school and playdates, this was to be a selfish solo mission. It was also my chance to get reacquainted with Big White, an often-unsung magnet for quality powder nestled in the Beaverdell Range east of Kelowna in the heart of BC’s Okanagan Valley. So, I skip the bar and check into the Stonebridge Lodge for an early night.
The next morning, I awake to a perfect hand at the poker table of skiing—a deep blue sky above and a reported six inches of fresh powder below. I make speedy tracks to the Black Forest Express, ripping off a mittful of warm-up laps on immaculately groomed blue square cruisers topped with cold-smoke snow so light that a skinny pair of stiff slalom skis would suffice. Dry ice clouds billow behind me as my edges cut into the carpet; this is what it feels like to carve powder.
My memories of Big White are sketchy, so I follow my impulse to colour between the lines. Instinct guides the way. A black-diamond sign tacked to a tree draws me from the Black Forest top station and into the Easter Chutes. A narrow lane between snow ghost spruce and fir trees, undiscovered and untouched by the first chair powder hounds, beckons me onward. A brief section of 40-degree spiciness quickly relents to low-angle cruisy grades. Minutes later I’m jetting down Cougar Alley, a canvas of white marked with only a few lonely signatures. I leave mine before heading elsewhere to explore.
The crack and thunder of morning avalanche control work has ceased, meaning the Cliff Chair is open. I traverse from the Bullet Chair off-load into the Camel’s Back, steep thinly treed glades that drop into the bowl. Timing is everything—unencumbered by others, I move around the mountain with ease. A quick survey of Big White’s bigger mountain terrain reveals just a dozen or so other skiers who have beaten me to the feast. From the top of the fixed grip Cliff Chair, I thread cliff bands into double-black Pegasus, topped with last night’s gift of feather-light snow. The Cliff Chair demands my attention for a few runs, then it’s time to move on.
A playful, mellow-angled ridge run takes me from the mountain’s 2300-metre summit to the Falcon Chair. Its namesake glades are where a young Ian Deans cut his skiing teeth long before becoming a ski cross Olympian and snagging podiums in multiple World and Euro Cup races. Though he now lives in Seattle, his Big White stoke remains strong.
“A lot of people think Big White is all blue squares,” Deans tells me. “Big White is where I go to de-stress and reconnect with why I love to ski. And the snow without a doubt is world class. ”
And this hill is most definitely not just a blue-square wonder. Riding up Falcon Chair, I survey the playground that Deans told me about over the phone, his excitement palpable and descriptions so vivid that I imagined something that more or less resembles what lies in front of me now: steep, gullies and faces, peppered with cliffs and stunted trees. Cotton clouds have gathered above the mountain, but a few stubborn rays of sunshine poke through, keeping the light sharp and clear. I pause to admire the rugged Monashee Mountains glistening to the north, then slide into the natural half-pipe at the top of Grizzly. I arc some lazy wall-to-wall turns before popping over the roll onto a funnel-shaped face of soft and forgiving moguls.
It's mid-week and the mountain is delivering an abundance of untouched terrain. The Falcon Glades are a private playground and I’m like a kid who got an early bird pass to the Christmas fair, and a private audience with Santa Claus, to boot. I realize that I’m enjoying this solo state of alpine skiing flow, perhaps a little too much. At times during this morning of blissful skiing, I completely forget that I have any other responsibilities.
I look at my phone. The clock hasn’t even clicked 11 a.m. and I’m feeling the burn. I decide it’s time for a top-to-bottom, non-stopper to make it really hurt. From the Falcon I cruise Easy Out over to the Alpine T-Bar (I have a special nostalgic place in my heart for T-bars; wherever I go, I seek them out.) This relic of old Big White drags me back up to the summit. As clouds thicken with the promise of more snow later in the day, the light also flattens, becoming more diffuse. I extract a crinkled trail map from a jacket pocket to plot my descent of the resort’s respectable 820-metre vertical drop.
I stitch together some blue squares that lead me to a green dot called Ogo-Slow that wiggles its way down to Gem Lake. I look over my shoulder—because I’m actually going pretty fast on Ogo-Slow. Five minutes later I slide to a stop at the base next to a building that exudes the scent of deep-fried pastry, a perfect antidote to my already fried ski legs. Forget about healthy lunch choices—I’m going to have not one, but two Beaver Tails. After all, for these few glorious days of solo skiing at Big White, I have nobody to answer to but myself.
Sleep: Towering Pines offers three-level suites of luxury, each with a private mountain-view outdoor jacuzzi. It’s steps ways from the Bullet Express and Lara’s Gondola.
Après: Don’t fight it. Click out of your bindings at the end of the ski day and go to Snowshoe Sam’s, the source of all things après. With 24 beers on tap, this Big White institution has been serving up beverages, burgers, and good times for 40 years.
Don’t miss: If you feel like really getting out of your comfort zone, hop onto Lara’s Gondola, glide down to the Happy Valley Adventure Park, and swing some axes into the human-made 18-metre ice climbing tower.
Big White is perfectly situated as a southern British Columbia territory, ready for exploration and adventure.