A cynical American takes a ski trip to Big White to see why it is such a favourite…
I came in biased, and maybe a little bitchy, as is my south-of-the-border birthright. Most of my previous experiences with Canada had been underlined by harshness: brutal Coast Range bike rides and uptight interior border guards. A blue-skinned week of below zero in Banff, watching World Cup skiers dull their edges on the Lake Louise ice. Sure, everyone I talked to had been creepily pleasant – eh? – but I figured Canadians’ friendliness was some kind of cover for the toughness the country must breed. Even the counter people at Tim Hortons – Canada’s version of Dunkin’ Donuts – seemed too sweet.
So I had my guard up when I flew from Seattle direct into Kelowna and took the hour-long drive up to Big White. Flakes skittered across the windshield. They flew all night. And in the morning when I woke up and clicked into my skis just outside my door, the clouds still swirled, and there was more than a dusting of fluffy, dry snow.
It had been a thin winter in the States. Powder days raised hackles and elbows, and it felt like everyone was redlining all the time in that eyeballs-about-to-burst, overly-adrenalized, bro-don’t-steal-my-line kind of way. I felt like I had to be racing all the time. Like if I wasn’t cutting someone else out for the goods, then I was missing out. Skiing was still fun – when I could get turns in – but it was starting to feel like it came with a side of struggle.
And then I cinched my hood tight in a mid-week, mid-morning powder day at Big White. We took a warmup cruiser off of the Snow Ghost Express, and then headed to the Powder Chair, which promised both the aforementioned powder and visibility because of the trees.
The amount of snow at the bottom belied the deepness up high. We dropped into the trees off the top of the lift – untracked, perfectly pitched. So dang nice that I was giggling. This had to be a trap.
But I soon learned and then learned again as I explored as many powdery crevices as possible of Big White’s 2,500 vertical feet and 2,765 patrolled skiable acres (though the controlled boundary contains 7,355), that the niceness wasn’t a front for anything. The skiing here is just that good. This – Canada’s largest ski-in, ski-out area – is the mecca of hero skiing. It has the second largest lift capacity (read: no lines, ever), everything is skiable, nothing is out of bounds, and the majority of it is cushy blue runs, perfectly spaced glades, and the kinds of powdery bowls that make you feel like a much better skier than you are.
Maybe it’s a bootstrapping American thing or maybe I’d been conditioned by crowded mountains and sub-par snow packs, but I had forgotten that skiing didn’t have to be brutal.
Big White felt gentle; things came to me. The snow stayed good and I didn’t even have to pray for it. There was no schlepping of gear or fighting through crowds. And as I slowly explored the mountain’s many pockets, the lack of people and the rambling terrain meant that there were always stashes to be found.
When the clouds cleared, later in the week, I took laps off the steep ridges of the Cliff Chair. Big White often gets labeled as a mellow, family-friendly place, but standing on top of this zone, I find myself taking a few deep breaths to help me focus. Off the top of the T-Bar, both the views and the snow ghosts came out. I cruised my way through otherworldly terrain, linking between wide-open glades and just-steep-enough steeps.
I started to understand the lay of the land. The radius of the place began to feel smaller, but never tight. When you’re up there, you’re way up there, in an old-school ski resort kind of way. Big White isn’t attached to anything else, it’s its own snowy little planet, so it’s easy to catch the rhythm of the place and learn the ins and out of the village. Après at Snowshoe Sam’s, a little bit of late-night at Session Tap house. A surprising number of very good coffee spots. All the things you might want. Or at least all the things I might want: namely beer and coffee.
I don’t have any children. But if I did, I’d let ’em run free and head to the bar. (That’s how parenting works, right?) There were little dudes rambling the village and ripping through tree runs. It feels like the perfect place to be a kid, right in the valley between wild and safe. The boundaries are clear, activities are plentiful, and it seems like you wouldn’t be able to get yourself too lost or into too much trouble. It’s the perfect recipe for freedom – the long leash kids seem to be lacking these days.
When it came time to leave, I felt just the right amount of sore, a titch hungover, slightly windburned, and breathing easier, despite the altitude. I’ll probably always be cynical, but Big White taught me that genuine friendliness – dare I say happiness? – does exist, and its source is the pure, easy joy of sliding downhill. As for those north-of-the-border donuts, though, I’m still not sure.
This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Heather Hansman.