It isn’t often you get to see a ski resort being born. But that is exactly what’s happening just north of Kamloops in British Columbia’s interior.
And if this winter marks the “birth” of Sun Peaks, the last few seasons have been its “pregnancy.”
We arrived late last January, when the base was still filled with construction rigs and trailers serving as temporary offices.
We thought back to 1979, the year before Whistler Village got off the ground, to appreciate what we were viewing. Now the village core is well on its way, the bugs have been worked out on the mountain and things are ready to go.
Sun Peak’s previous incarnation was as a hugely undercapitalized local hill called Tod Mountain, 32 miles north of Kamloops. It was mostly expert runs down gnarly, stump-filled trails. There wasn’t even a real base lodge.
But there was potential - enough for six different owners to plug in over 30 years. Trouble was, nobody ever had enough money.
Enter Nippon Cable, a family-owned Japanese company which has developed five ski resorts in Japan.
Since 1992, they’ve been quietly getting Sun Peaks ready. “There were so many false starts,” said ski resort designer Paul Mathews, “so our advice to them was we should just do it - put in the lifts and initial hotels and keep our mouths shut. Then when we got a bed base good enough to show the world, start spreading the word.
“Starting today,” Mathews said over coffee last season, “we’re ready.”
Last season there were two hotels with a third being finished, five restaurants, a new sports complex with ice rink on the mountain, and three base lodges. This season there are five hotels with a series of boutiques and cafes on ground level, much like the original Whistler Village, plus eight or so restaurants and bars.
But it’s up on the mountain that things get really exciting. An entirely new mountain was added to the original Tod Mountain, providing much needed intermediate runs.
Do you like to cruise? Really cruise? Boy, does this place have terrain for you. The intermediate cruisers flow down from the Sundance chair in long, wide boulevards of constant pitch. There’s a 5-mile-long beginner trail - a trail, not a skinny cat track - that winds down from the very top of the resort’s highest chair. And there are stairstepping cruisers for advanced skiers.
But best of all, advanced skiers can enjoy a series of shaved, really steep cruisers off Sunburst Ridge. This is significant because most resorts rarely groom very steep runs on a regular basis.
Over at the original Tod, things have also been smoothed out. “We’ve spent $1.5 million rehabilitating the existing runs,” Mathews said. “It was very rough, with boulders, stumps, brush and downed trees. We’ve been clearing out the trees. We’ve put in erosion control and grass and now our runs look like Julie Andrews walking through the ‘Sound of Music’ in the summertime.”
None of this rehabilitation has taken the testosterone out of the expert runs. There are hairy-chested bump runs, a 1,000-foot vertical drop of powder-filled trees called The Gils, and a heart stopping double-black-diamond run named Challenger which Mathews says is the steepest cleared run in British Columbia.
“Hey, there are couloirs and chutes at Blackcomb that are gnarlier, but Blackcomb is really Switzerland on top of Colorado, while this is more like high country Colorado,” Mathews said.
The snow is also like high country Colorado: dry and rarely melted. In fact, there hadn’t been a single day of rain in three years - until the day we arrived for our first trip in spring of ‘96. But even after two days of mixed snow and drizzle, the stuff was still wonderfully smooth to ski.
The quality of Sun Peaks’ snow comes from its location at the edge of a climate change from desert to the snow-catching peaks used by heliski companies.
The main problem at Sun Peaks is the same one shared by many Northwest resorts: fog. It comes most often in early season and can get so bad, you can hardly see your feet.
All the planning at Sun Peaks comes courtesy of Mathews’ company, Ecosign. It was Ecosign that designed Blackcomb and has had a hand in just about every ski hill in existence since the 1970s (45 in Canada, 23 in the U.S. and other resorts from Australia to Japan to Morocco). And it’s Ecosign that is busy sculpting Sun Peaks now.
Mathews shoved aside the coffee cups last year and spread out his master plan. It showed Sun Peaks stretching to the top of 7,000-foot Tod Mountain and sprawling across three more mountains (in addition to the two at present).
If it’s all developed, there will be 17 lifts (compared to six now) across five mountains that cover an area 1.5 times bigger than Blackcomb. The $130 million spent through this summer could become half a billion dollars worth of development.
What Sun Peaks offers to lure skiers away from Whistler is uncrowded runs, not only now but in the future. “We’ll have a balance of beds matching the mountain capacity, and since we’re not near a major population center, we can’t be overrun by the 10,000 Vancouver weekenders that flood Whistler,” Mathews said.
Canadian Olympic gold medalist Nancy Greene was excited enough about all this to pull out of Whistler and build a condo-hotel here. She and fellow ex-racer/husband Al Raine have put their primary residence in the hotel.
Local enthusiasm seems to be working, especially from a real estate standpoint. Using little more than word of mouth in its first 18 months, the resort sold two thirds of the condos in the first three condo hotels, and all but 11 of its 170 townhouses and single-family lots.
For package skiers, meanwhile, the resort is wooing Germans, who fill the German owned-Stumboeck Lodge by the carload, plus Australians and Brits. The second push, for U.S. skiers, is planned for this season, now that more amenities are in.
We quickly began to understand the lure of Sun Peaks. It became infectious, especially the night we joined the weekly fondue ski-down.
After collecting cyalume sticks and riding the lift to the Sunburst Lodge, we chowed down on fondue. By the time dinner was half over, the cyalume sticks had made their way into the wine bottles, glowing eerily in the grapey depths, and the Germans were toasting everything that moved.
Stuffed with fondue and fueled by wine, kirsch and beer, we retrieved our cyalume sticks from the bottles and attached them to the backs of our hats for taillights going down. Then the guides lit their torches - actually, long highway flares - and admonished us not to ski over the flare droppings because they’d burn through our ski bottoms.
Nancy Greene attempted to translate this for the Germans and coined a new German word for the stuff: glunk.
Then we were off. We wound down in single file following the flares in front of us, snow flurries slanting into our faces. There were flares placed in the snow every 50 yards or so, and from the front of the line came an occasional yodel.
Making our way down Five Mile Run, we soon got into a rhythm: turn, swoop, turn. The flares’ glow turned the snow around us crimson. Even the flake-filled air was luminescent, making the whole effect hypnotic.
For 15 minutes, we wound down in wide arcs, finally catching sight of the base buildings and sliding up beside the day lodge.
This was not a once-only kind of thing, we agreed. We would definitely do it again - next time we visited Sun Peaks.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Sun Peaks Resort is 32 miles north of Kamloops in British Columbia. From Spokane, the drive through Penticton takes about eight hours in good weather. Sun Peaks’ season is mid-November to mid-April. The mountain has six lifts, 58 runs and a 2,844-foot vertical drop. Daily lift tickets run about $30 U.S. A two-day midweek package including double occupancy lodging and lifts can run as low as $120 U.S. per person during low season, $150 in regular season. A five-day package for two including lifts starts at $290 per person in low season, $365 in regular season. There’s also a delightful B&B;, Father’s Country Inn, just off the mountain, with rooms running as low as $55 U.S. a night per couple and dinners (including wine) for another $15-$20 per person. For more information, contact Sun Peaks Resort, P.O. Box 869, Kamloops, BC, V2C 5M8, Canada or call toll free (800) 807-3257. SnowPhone (250) 578-7232. Contact Father’s Country Inn at P.O. Box 152, Heffley Creek, BC V0E 1Z0, Canada, (604) 578-7308.