The bizarre ecstasy of Sun Peaks’ ski season

It was a year unlike any other…

Sun Peaks’ powder is so light, some times one has to truly immerse themselves in it to truly appreciate it. Photo by Joel Barde.

There’s no two ways about—this was a season unlike any other. From mandatory facemasks to requisite hand-washing stations, things looked and felt dramatically different in Sun Peaks.  

But when push came to shove, and we disembarked the lifts and pointed our skis and boards down hill, everything was back to normal. 

Like always, the grooming was exceptional, and all your favourite pow stashes were still there.

The mountain was relatively busy on weekends and holidays, but the lines never got out of control. 

Compared to Whistler Blackcomb—where keen skiers got used to getting in line at 5:30 a.m. to get first chair on powder days—Sun Peaks lineups were always lightening fast.  

And when the mountain was busy, the vibe was undeniably good. With limited pass sales, the majority of traffic was from regional skiers with season passes. They ended up using their passes with more frequency than in previous years. With so many activities off the table, from team sports to concerts and events, there was little else to do. 

And really, can you think of a better way to spend a chilly winter day than in Sun Peaks? 

As fun as skiing and boarding is, if you do it consistently, year after year, you can start to take it for granted. You might get out of bed a little later than in previous years, or gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee or long lines. 

We’ve all been there. 

But given the state of the world, I imagine there was significantly less of this going on this season. 

After all, Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) was fortunate that it was able to operate, and there seemed to be widespread appreciation for the staff, who adapted to the new regulations and saved the season. The patience of lifts crews in particular—who were kindly and routinely reminding people to pull up their masks as late as last week—truly knew no limits. And skillful advocacy and educational campaigns from the Canada West Ski Areas Association was vital. 

After all, many European resorts didn’t operate at all—or saw major interruptions to their operations.

And closer to home, similar resorts struggled with high case counts of COVID-19. 

Big White saw a cluster of more than 230 COVID-19 cases late last year, many of which were related to social gatherings and people living in shared homes.  

And if you missed it, on March 29, just hours after provincial health officer Bonnie Henry made her latest round of restrictions, a group of entitled cheeseballs jammed into a Big White bar to some of the most unspeakably-bad electronic dance music known to man just hours after. 

“The entire management team are absolutely disgusted, appalled, embarrassed,” said Michael Ballingall of the potential super spreader event. “This is the exact opposite of what we should all be doing.”

And then there was Whistler, which has been an area of concern for months. 

Despite repeated pleas from the province and municipality for people to stop socializing outside of their own households, the province had to literally intervene at the start of the week, ordering the resort to shut down operations as a way to stem the spread of the fast-moving P.1 (Brazillian) variant. Whistler registered 218 cases of COVID-19 just last week and authorities are warning the public of a potential forthcoming spike.

But judging from the tenor of social media, locals are upset about the decision and seem ready to burn Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in effigy or storm the provincial legislature. How dare they cut short or season?  

For his part, Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton acknowledged the loss, but pleaded for Whistlerities not to “blow” the summer season too. 

“Last year at this time we faced a very similar situation and some of us responded by throwing big parties and putting our whole community at risk,” he said, in a video message. 

“We’ve been seeing more of that now, with large house parties being thrown around town. I want to be very clear—this needs to stop.” 

How Sun Peaks got away with so few cases is a good news story if there ever was one. 

While good fortune and provincial travel restrictions probably had something to do with it, so too did the strong coordination by the Sun Peaks Health Centre, SPR, municipality and Interior Health. 

Thanks to the centre’s advocacy, the community got its own COVID-19 testing site in December, and Sun Peaks physician Dr. Shane Barclay has taken a proactive approach to getting to notifying the public of exposures the very morning he learns of them.  

This has allowed for rapid tracing, not to mention reminded the public about the gravity of the situation we’re all facing. 

Any way you look at it, 2020 was a crap year. From job losses to losing loved ones, it sucked. 

But at least there was skiing.

Joel Barde is a reporter hired with funding from the Local Journalism Initiative, a federal program created to support “original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada.” His writing is focused on the tourism industry in the Thompson Okanagan from the resident perspective.

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