When the local mountains are only dusted with snow, how does one satisfy their yearning for winter adventures?
The wise head elsewhere in British Columbia to explore new terrain.
That’s exactly what I did a couple of weeks ago when I planned a trip to Big White Ski Resort. Hearing they were experiencing powder days and blue bird weather, it was an easy decision and well worth the five and a half hour drive on the then clear Coquihalla—notorious for being a dangerous route. Equipped with winter tires and a sensible driver, we experienced no problems on our Friday night drive.
After arriving in a snow-covered Big White and checking into our no frills room in the Inn at Big White, we headed to Kettle Valley Steakhouse and Wine Bar, which was only a short walk and a gondola ride away.
We started with a chilled seafood platter — jumbo prawns, snow crab legs, oysters on the half shell and smoked mussels — to make it a surf and turf meal. My favourite was definitely the smoked mussel.
It was in this restaurant that I ate one of the best steaks that I have had in quite some time; cooked to perfection — medium rare, in my case — the steak was tender, juicy, and flavourful. At $36 it was great value for the quality, with a price point comparable to many restaurants you would find in Vancouver or Whistler.
After dinner we enjoyed Gun Barrel Coffees for dessert at the appropriately named Gun Barrel Grill. These boozy beverages involved brandy, crème de cacao, coffee, whipped cream, a shotgun and a gas flame. It was to no surprise that shotguns were afire all over the room distributing Monte Cristo coffees to locals and tourists alike.
A night of fun ensued in Snowshoe Sam’s with live music, dancing, pints of Prohibition beer and terrible triple shot tequila Caesars (thanks bartender), before it was time to hit the sack in preparation for an active Saturday.
As the locals do, we woke up early with slight hangovers, ready to shake them by getting some exercise in the -15 degree weather. The sun was shining, there was fresh powder and after a breakfast bagel and an Americano at Beano’s Cafe we were raring to go.
I spent the morning exploring the 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) of Nordic trails with a lovely Snow Host named Carol, who has 25 years of skiing under her belt. As a first time Nordic skier I had no idea what was in store for me, particularly considering that I had been told by friends that it would be a bore for an adrenaline junkie like myself. Since I’m a “try everything once” kind of person, I ignored their comments, looking forward to the serenity that was in store. Being informed that the Big White trails had some “hilly” parts, I was hoping that my acquired motor skills from alpine skiing as a child would come flooding back to me. Clearly underestimating my capabilities, Carol anticipated that we would be out for an hour; we were out for three, and had both stripped layers due to the beaming rays and the moderate to fast pace. Serene and beautiful, I couldn’t believe that we were among only a few others out exploring the trails. It was a perfect break from the hustle and bustle of downhill runs.
While I was enjoying the Nordic terrain, my friend Paul was exploring the 118 runs, five alpine bowls and the resort’s “famous” snow ghosts. Although you’ll see them occasionally at local mountains, the ghostly apparitions “painted” on pine trees are a constant sighting at Big White.
“Big White has a lot more terrain (two peaks, longer runs, more open bowls, lots of great glades to carve through) as well as better snow (dryer and deeper base) than the local mountains,” exclaimed Paul. “Also, it looks like there are a lot of lit runs for night-skiing off the main high-speed chairlifts.”
He noted that there was zero wait time due to the five high-speed chairlifts, and the fact that a hex (six man) and quad (four man) chairlift sat side by side in the main lift area. When we asked a few (seasonal) locals if this was a normal occurrence, they admitted that it was saying that they were able to get in far more runs because of it, particularly when compared to other mountains they had worked at.
After our skiing adventures, it was time to take a jab at the 60 foot (18M) ice tower. Looking up at it, I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was hoping that my previous experience bouldering and rock climbing would help. I discovered that it did, and it didn’t. Ice climbing is largely dependent on leg strength rather than arm strength, as it is with the aforementioned activities, but since you’re using axes and crampons to hoist yourself up the tower rather than hands and shoes it offers a completely different feeling and challenge. Being nimble and flexible certainly helps, but the tower is suited for all levels of athleticism so with determination and a few breaks anyone can conquer it. Apparently they average about 40 climbs per day of which 85% reach the top. The youngest to the top is currently a five year old, while the oldest is 67 years old.
I had a quick chat with our climbing host Jim, an AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association) Certified Guide, to find out a little more about the tower.
The website says “weather permitting”, how bad does it have to be before you close the tower?
We seldom close the tower only if it gets too warm and the ice softens too much (rare indeed).
How long did it take to build the tower and what was the process?
The frame of the tower is four 70′ poles all cross braced with hefty boards. I wait until the temperature drops in November then turn on the water for about two weeks. Mother nature does the rest.
I noticed that many of the climbers with record times are adolescents (least hits, highest number of climbs in one day, etc). Is this because they are more apt to climb it, or do you think it’s because of their weight and nimble bodies?
Normally most records are actually adults, but we try to make everything about the tower kid-friendly so we have made sure to have categories for them as well. They also have less FEAR than most adults as it hasn’t rooted in them yet.
I finished the climb with only one slip that made my life flash before my eyes. I knew that I was in good hands and completely safe, but it’s natural to panic slightly when your footing fails you and you imagine yourself plummeting to the snow-covered ground 45 feet below you. After rappelling down to the base, my forearms were completely pumped, but the sense of accomplishment rushing over me combatted any discomfort that I felt in my rock-hard arms. For only $25 and a once in a lifetime opportunity, I highly recommend that everyone give the tower a shot. Who knows, you may even discover a new favourite winter sport.
While Big White Ski Resort seems quaint from the village, it boasts a variety of activities to do for the whole family from downhill to nordic, snowshoeing to ice climbing, and ice skating to tubing. It is also home to 18 on-mountain restaurants, cafes, delis, pubs and nightclubs so there are many options for dining and après within a short walk from each other. The Caesars and Calamari at “The Moose” are tasty, though I would avoid the underwhelming Crab Mac ‘n’ Cheese and ask them to add condiments or toast the bun (it was dry) if you order the Chicken Bacon Brie Sandwich. It’s après, stick with pub grub! All that aside, it was nice to wind down with live music and drinks in a casual environment after a busy day, and “The Moose” was certainly a popular watering hole.
For my next visit, I’ll make sure that I leave early Friday to catch the $10 Friday night deals: $10 dinner, $10 tubing, $10 night skiing, $10 equipment rental. March is generally their best month for snow so I’ll definitely be heading then.
Check out more Big White photos here.