Behind the Sun Peaks Expansion

Sun Peaks expands to Canada's second largest ski area for the pine beetles and the skiers

sun peaks
An aerial view of Sun Peaks, now the second largest ski resort in Canada. PHOTO: Sam Egan

Like a lot of us, Gil Marini wanted to own a ski hill. Lucky for him, back in the 1950s that dream wasn’t as lofty as it is today. In 1961, Gil, along with 11 other local entrepreneurs, helped fund the creation of Sun Peaks Resort in the Monashee Mountains north of Kamloops, British Columbia.

After cutting runs, building roads, and installing the longest chairlift in North America at the time, Gil laid the first set of tracks down a bowl just beyond Sun Peak’s ski area boundary, a run that still bears his name. Known as Gil’s, the short hike and easy ski back into the ski area made the run a popular chunk of resort-accessed backcountry. Until this year.

Last December, Sun Peaks swallowed Gil’s inside its boundary and also cut two new runs on another mountain, Mount Morrisey, part of a 500-acre expansion that makes Sun Peaks the second largest ski area in Canada. Still dwarfed by Whistler-Blackcomb, Sun Peaks’ 4,270 acres is now a couple more than Banff’s Ski Louise.

When it's good, it's good. Sun Peaks cleared trees affected by pine beetles and opened new terrain for skiers. PHOTO: Adam Stein
When it’s good, it’s good. Sun Peaks cleared trees affected by pine beetles and opened new terrain for skiers. PHOTO: Adam Stein

An hour north of Kamloops, in south central B.C., Sun Peaks sits all by itself. Far from other ski areas, it is a family-oriented, destination resort with a modern village-style base. On the eastern edge of the northern Monashees, only the very top of the resort pokes through the tree line and the terrain is rounded and mellow. Families come to be catered to, cruise groomers, and not stand in line; most of the lifts are high speed. While the tree skiing can be awesome, the gnar borders on nonexistent. The addition of Gil’s brings the first big mountain-esque terrain inbounds.

“Sun Peaks has planned this expansion for 25 years,” says Adam Earle, the editor of Sun Peaks Independent News and a veteran local skier. “To see it come to fruition is fantastic. It will be even more exciting when they put in some new lifts.”

Earle’s lukewarm response is indicative of Sun Peaks rippers. Gil’s was already popular with backcountry skiers, and the new runs on West Morrisey end in the middle of nowhere. Further, unlike the usual ski area expansion, driven by a need for more space, things weren’t getting crowded at Sun Peaks. So why were the runs added?

“The expansion wasn’t prompted because we need more capacity; we don’t need more space,” says Brandi Schier, the spokesperson for the resort. “It’s part of our forest health program.”

While both expansions, the addition of Gil’s and the two runs on Morrisey, were part of Sun Peaks’ master development plans, the timing was partially prompted by the mountain’s pine beetle epidemic. The little pests killed thousands of trees within the ski area tenure. For years, to reduce fire hazard and potential for the infection to spread, the resort has been actively cutting effected trees, opening up gladed terrain. These two areas needed more focused attention.

I skied Gil’s years ago. A short bootpack from the top of the Crystal Chair led to a minor summit. From here we sliced up one bigger open pitch traversed through stands of wind stunted trees and repeated. With a local in front, five or six 10-turn pitches popped us back in the ski area. After last summer’s logging, there’s still the 10- to 15-minute hike, but the boundary line is a well defined strip, the stands of trees breaking up the pitches have been opened up, especially lower down, doubling the vertical and extending the fall line turning, and a logged pick up traverse track guides skiers back to the ski area.

“It’s choose your own adventure kind of skiing,” says Schier. “We were sensitive to not ruining the natural aesthetic. It’s wilderness feeling skiing. It’s a wind loaded feature and gets the deepest and driest snow on the mountain.”

By choose your own adventure, TK means this. PHOTO: SunPeaksNews.com
By choose your own adventure, Brandi Schier means this. PHOTO: SunPeaksNews.com

Bringing the open bowl into the resort also created a need for an avalanche control program. Previously the forested slopes of Sun Peaks had minimal risk for avalanches; Gil’s is its first true alpine terrain.

“You still have to hike in, but the avalanche control and inbounds makes Gil’s accessible to everyone now,” says Earle. “Not everyone is happy about that.”

With no change to the access to Gil’s the people who used to ski there see adding it to the ski area as a net loss to their skiing. “The avalanche control is bringing more people in that didn’t go before,” says Alex Cross, a Kamloops skier. “When they add a lift then at least we’ll be able to ski the area more and it will make it easier to access the other backcountry areas.”

The other expansion is only slightly less controversial. Two new runs were cut on the north-facing steeps of West Morrisey Mountain.

“It’s great looking terrain, but until a new lift is put in it will be under utilized,” says Earle.

Right now the new black diamond runs, Tumble Dry and Lint Trap, pitch down through dense forest. Midway a cat track cuts right, circumnavigates half the mountain back to the lift. If you keep skiing below the cat track, the runs merge and continue to, well, nowhere. It ends at the bottom of the mountain far from any lift, restaurant, or bar, close only to a few homes. A bus will shuttle skiers from the bottom back to the lifts, but Earle expects most skiers will use the mid-run cat track or, more likely, avoid the runs until a planned future lift makes this area more feasible.

The lift has already been approved, says Shier, and more runs will be cut in the area this year. And, last September, Sun Peaks applied to build a new lift to access the Gil’s area, a plan opposed by the local First Nation band. When the two lifts will actually be built remains unknown, but resort officials predict the lifts will be built in at least three to five years.

“Expansion is inevitable and so is push back from some of the locals,” says Earle. “But when the new lifts go in everyone will think it’s fantastic.”