This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Andrew Findlay
The topography of Sun Peaks Resort is fused into my DNA. My earliest ski memories are of two-planking my way around what was then known as Tod Mountain, the bald-headed interior B.C. mountain where my lifelong love affair with skiing began.
I fondly remember shivering beneath a frozen-stiff wool blanket tossed at my buddy and me by the liftie for the 22-minute trip up the Burfield Chair. And going head to head with Craig Ellis in a distance jumping competition on the Chief, blowing the Tyrolias out of my Dynamic VR 27s upon impact (it did earn me a second-place podium finish). And searching in vain for a lost Dynastar Omeglass II on Chute during an epically light interior snowstorm.
Times have changed.
In 1992 Nippon Cable bought Tod, and so began the mountain's evolution from a teetering-on-the-edge exercise in dysfunction to Sun Peaks Resort, one of B.C.'s largest ski areas with a village so charming and sweet it might have been designed by a Swiss pastry chef. Terrain was expanded, two mountains added—Mt. Morrisey and Sundance—creating 4,270 skiable acres, now second only to Whistler Blackcomb when it comes to quantity of inbounds terrain. That's a stat you can hang a ski toque on.
When you pull into contemporary Sun Peaks Village, it screams "family friendly," which is why some big-mountain rippers might mock its lack of steep chutes, big bowls, and other alpine features. But they've obviously never dropped into Challenger on a March afternoon, when moguls like small mountains are just beginning to soften in the spring sun.
Consider it a resort with a dual personality. One is what you see from the hot tubs, condos, cafes and boutiques of the compact and warm Ecosign-designed ski-in, ski-out village: plush, wide open blue-square groomers. The other is the Tod Mountain of my youth: the continuous fall lines and unrelenting steeps of combo runs like Chief to Roller Coaster, Chief to Expo or Chief to Challenger. Having earned the local moniker "the compulsories," the runs in this zone offer up some skill testing, sometimes off-camber side hill, and steep shredding that will make you wonder just what kinds of "families" these are friendly for.
Every time I come back here, I peer under the blankets at this more nuanced Sun Peaks. And every time, I find something new. This time, I head first to Challenger, a test piece that hearkens back to the rustic glory days of Tod Mountain and quickly tilts to a gamey 45 degrees at its steepest. A half-meter wide glide crack cuts across the steep upper face. I pop the chasm then sink into a comfortable rhythm, working a small natural half pipe feature skier's right that spills onto the low-angled reprise that makes up the middle portion of the run. I pause atop the hair-raising final face of Challenger, just long enough to absorb the view of the peeled-log structure known as the Burfield Lodge and the warren of small 1970s-era condos arranged in rows on the hillside above it. This is old-school Sun Peaks—or rather Tod Mountain—where the Findlays had a family pass, frozen denim was outerwear, and 210 cm GS boards were considered hot-dog skis.
Next, I ride up the Burfield Chair for a top-to-bottom Chief to Roller Coaster "compulsory." Snow ghost trees populate the ridge near the Burf's top station. The steep rollover has been buffeted by wind into grippy styrofoam snow, but I find long, lazy moguls of loose-packed dry snow in the guts of Chief. The rolling cat track between the bottom of Chief to the Burfield mid-station gives my legs a few minutes to recover. Then it’s into the aptly named Roller Coaster, a playful, undulating piste through the spruce, pine, and fir forest.
Following my nostalgic morning rip on old-school Tod Mountain, I ride the Morrisey Express to experience new-school Sun Peaks. After 1992, the first phase of expansion opened up the Sundance zone, where a matrix of blue and green runs rises above the village extensive enough to keep a thousand SUVs full of American families amused. And then came Morrisey.
The terrain and topography is as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. Gil's—then known as Gil's Hill—is where I acquired my first taste of fresh, untracked powder. Though the vertical drop is less than 1,000 feet, Gil's always seems to deliver.
The Morrisey Express glides above C.C. Riders and Still Smokin', two runs that were experimental in nature when then mountain operations manager Jamie Tattersfield and his team designed them in 2003. They called it "groomed glading." In essence, they're wide groomed blue runs punctuated with patches of trees, the aim being to give character and relief to what would otherwise be a forgettable ramble through a swath cut through dense forest. The concept works.
I snake down the gladed grooming of C.C. Riders, the crowds as thin as the bleachers at an REO Speedwagon tribute band concert. The dearth of humans impresses me. I was told that Sun Peaks' uphill capacity currently outpaces visitation by a long shot—for skiers that's a great problem to have.
It's 1 p.m. and the carpet still takes an edge as smoothly as it would if the groomers had buffed the run for my personal pleasure. Afterward I reload Morrisey, before traversing over to explore the Laundromat, a north-facing advanced/expert zone that holds cold, dry snow well into the spring. Soon I'm shedding skis at the bottom and shuffling across the covered pedestrian overpass linking the Morrisey pod with the main village. I stop at local favorite Bolacco Cafe for a fortifying espresso (in the old days of Tod, espresso was something exotic, probably found only in the Old World). With skis back on, I skate over to the Sunburst Express, which years ago replaced the aged, double Shuswap Chair that was an 18-minute journey into the clouds.
Sun Peak's modern terrain expansion included the hallowed territory of Gil's, named after one of Tod's founders Gilbert Marini. It was long a favorite slack-country haunt, and no doubt when the resort absorbed this pod of terrain into its in-bounds, patrolled area, there were skeptics. From the top of the fixed-grip Crystal, I follow the traversing trail that leads to Gil's. It's been days since the last refresh so the track is well set, slipping between clumps of trees that are like white gargoyles. The terrain and topography is as familiar to me as the lines on my palm. Gil's—then known as Gil's Hill—is where I acquired my first taste of fresh, untracked powder. Though the vertical drop is less than 1,000 feet, Gil's always seems to deliver. Despite the recent high pressure, I find pockets of untracked in the secluded glades, reminding me how even just a half dozen turns in boot-deep interior powder can be enough to stoke the flames.
Come evening, my wife and I head to the regular Wednesday night fondue feast at the Sunburst Lodge, followed by torchlight ski down 5 Mile. Sun Peaks' growth from a 50,000-skier-per-year, precarious-mom-and-pop operation to a polished four-season resort that welcomes a half a million visitors annually has been remarkable. But scrape away the polished veneer, and it's still basically the same place I remember: a ski hill full of people having fun, like the gregarious group of women from Seattle gathered at Sun Peaks to celebrate a birthday, with whom we share a table.
Every time I come back here, I peer under the blankets at this more nuanced Sun Peaks. And every time, I find something new. This time, I head first to Challenger, a test piece that hearkens back to the rustic glory days of Tod Mountain and quickly tilts to a gamey 45 degrees at its steepest.
And also people like Nancy Greene-Raine, Canadian Female Athlete of the Century, gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, and Sun Peaks' director of skiing. She is one of Canada's most enduring Olympic icons and is a fixture at Sun Peaks. Together with her husband Al Raine, she founded Nancy Greene's Cahilty Lodge. Fifty years after that Olympic glory, her passion for snow still burns strong.
"I still ski five days a week," Greene-Raine tells me. On weekends she often skis with guests (check the sign at the top of the Sunburst Express for afternoon sessions with the Olympian). It's well worth tagging along for a tour—even at 75, she rips. Like an Olympian.
Later, our bellies full of raclette and chocolate, we stomp out into the evening for a twilight run down the long and winding 5 Mile. I butter the edges, then take a brief detour onto a little knee-grinding pump track of a forest trail that parallels the run, just for the fun of it. For a moment, I’m once again that scrawny kid in frozen jeans and a red down parka, shredding the mountain of my youth.