ex • per • i • ence /ˌikˈspirēəns/ (noun): Participation in events, ideally the thrill of weightlessness while purring through snow. Occurs while carving the slopes of Sun Peaks, BC.

By Rob Story

So you’re looking to ski somewhere new in British Columbia, and you discover that Sun Peaks is actually the second-biggest ski area in Canada.

Photo: Grant Gunderson

You book a flight to Kamloops and catch a 50-minute shuttle to Sun Peaks, where a central, Bavarian-type village is magically encircled by three ski mountains: Tod, Sundance, and Morrisey.

The next morning, you ascend the longest of 7 chairs to a lift-served apex of 2,080 metres—just shy of Mount Tod’s 2,152-metre summit. If conditions are right, you’ll experience the spectacle of “snow ghosts.” A local peculiarity, snow ghosts occur when wizened pine trees act as magnets for wind-driven snow and ice crystals. The trees become completely cloaked in sparkling, white pixie dust, while the precipitation’s weight bends branches into haunting shapes.

Photo: Destination Canada/Grant Gunderson

There, atop Mount Tod, you gaze over vast meadows studded with sagebrush and lakes frozen into white discs and compare the views to Jackson Hole’s. The difference is that Jackson occupies a well-known mountain range (the Tetons), while Sun Peaks...does not. Instead, Sun Peaks sits atop BC’s Shuswap Highlands. A Sun Peaks friend once characterized Shuswap Highlands as a “2,000-metre zit in the middle of the Canadian desert.” Wikipedia is a bit more diplomatic, describing the highlands as “a plateau-like hilly area” of 3,321 square kilometres.

At any rate, these Peaks of the Sun comprise the only alpine uplifts within 32 kilometres. Far from both Whistler and the province’s famed Powder Triangle, the ski area is a seven-hour drive from Calgary and four-and-a-half hours from Vancouver. As far as BC ski resorts are concerned, Sun Peaks grew up as an only child.

The ski area opened in 1961 as Tod Mountain, in honour of the Shuswaps’s highpoint. In the ensuing decades, however, British Columbia’s skiing clientele became significantly more international. In 1993, the resort’s owners re-named it Sun Peaks because the German translation of “Tod Mountain” is “Death Mountain.”

Sun Peaks may not belong to a proper mountain range, yet it skis huge, with two alpine bowls, 138 trails, and 882 metres of skiable vertical. Again, its 4,270 acres of terrain make it the second-largest ski area in Earth’s second-largest nation.

Care to assay your mitochondrial efficiency on a big-mountain steep? Head from Crystal Chair to Chute. A sheltered, snow-hoarding finger of a slope, Chute drops as precipitously as 45 degrees. This is the Sun Peaks test piece.

If said mitochondria are still firing, proceed to Headwalls. Were you to search “Headwalls, Sun Peaks” on your magic glowbox, you’d learn the run doubles as the only course in North America equipped to handle World Cup speed skiing. An annual competition—the Velocity Challenge—has roared down Headwalls dozens of times since 1989. The course is considered the world’s best, since it’s convex and has two stomach-turning bulges that promise two opportunities to experience the delirious feeling of weightlessness.

Photo: Grant Gunderson

Spend time here, and you’ll quickly note the absolute absence of crowds or liftlines. Strolling the delightfully car-free village at the base, you realize any and all services at Sun Peaks are walkable. That means spas, sports shops, taverns, a fondue restaurant (evoking resorts in the Alps), and a yoga studio (evoking every town in North America) are all easy to get to after your final run or from your accommodation.

Photo: Destination Canada/Grant Gunderson

If you like fondue (poor, poor lactose-intolerants), you should know Sun Peaks offers a second, more adventurous opportunity to dip food into melted cheese and chocolate. Every Wednesday and Thursday evening during ski season, you can participate in the Alpine Fondue & Starlight Descent. Around twilight, you board a chairlift for Sunburst Bar + Eatery, savour the aforementioned cheese and chocolate, and then ski down Sun Peaks' longest run, the aptly named 5 Mile, with the benefit of a guide and a headlamp. You’ll stop a couple times along the way to stargaze at the infinite British Columbian sky.

Photo: Grant Gunderson

While average snowfall equates to 602 centimetres, Sun Peaks can get hammered with precip like any other BC resort. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, a monster storm dumped 61 centimetres in less than 48 hours, earning praise as both “snowmageddon” and “powpocalypse.” Snow kept falling, resulting in a January record-deep base of 191 inches.

If your trip coincides with such a bounty, get yourself back atop the Shuswap Highlands. Make your way to Gil’s, a former backcountry stash that became part of the resort in 2015. You hike for five or ten minutes to get there, and are rewarded handsomely with 200 hectares of unmanaged, undisturbed skiing. You ski through glades, around snow ghosts, and over three rolling benches. You drink in the whole Sun Peaks experience, eventually coming to the conclusion that you’ve never had more fun at a plateau-like hilly area.

Sleep: Sun Peaks Grand Hotel is indeed grand enough to boast a gym, heated swimming pool, three hot tubs, a sauna, and massage rooms.

Eat: Mountain Tiger Restaurant. Stock up on Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian specialties here if you can get past the joint's groaner of a motto: "Wok in, take out."

Après: Bottoms Bar & Grill features Okanagan Valley craft beers, fun takes on the Caesar (Canada's national cocktail), and slopeside people-watching. (bottomssunpeaks.com)

Don’t miss: Sun Peaks offers the unique off-slope activity of guided ice fishing on one of the surrounding lakes, during which one angles for rainbow trout from a heated tent.

Getting There

Sun Peaks has grown into the second-largest ski resort in Canada, but its old-school soul is still alive and well.

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