“It’s just like January or February—amazing,” said a skier of the Big White ‘champagne powder,’ huffing gently as he shucked his gear at the Happy Valley day lodge. Taking a mid-morning break from the deep, fluffy powder, it was the earliest season opening at Big White he could remember.
It was in the fall of ’95, maybe it was ’96, around Halloween, is how Matt and Kyle remember it—the other early season opening of Big White lifts. They remember it fondly.
The locals, riding Big White’s Ridge Rocket lift Wednesday, were there to hit more and better powder than even that remarkable year offered. There was an El Nino, they recall, just like this year.
While Vancouver area ski areas and Whistler Mountain prepare to open this weekend, Big White Ski Resort opened on Nov. 13 with 46 cm of fresh snow up top. As of Thursday, the alpine base had grown to 118 cm, with a cumulative snowfall of 177 cm.
And that’s all powder—there’s no need to supplement with snow-making machines.
Tomorrow, Nov. 21, both the Bullet and Black Forest chairlifts as well as the Magic Carpet Beginner’s Area will be operating, in addition to the Ridge Rocket and village access lifts—Lara’s Gondola and Plaza Chair.
Though not packed on this early weekday visit, the day lodge in Big White Village is busy with skiers and staff. It’s been a challenge staff members seem to have easily met to get up and running for the early opening. The big dump of early snow was a surprise even to them.
But already the crew at the main ticket office look comfortably settled in to their routine, greeting customers with a smile. Manager Manon Maley, from Quebec, has been at Big White for seven years, “working for the company for five years.”
“The company” is the Schumann family-owned resort facilities on Big White Mountain in south-central British Columbia. With an altitude of 7,595 feet, it’s the highest mountain in the Okanagan Highland range.
From Australia, Desmond Schumann bought the property in 1986. It remains a hands-on operation for subsequent generations.
Maley says working for the Schumann family, she has “always felt supported and respected. It’s a great place to work. You get to take the morning off on a powder day—it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Inside the same day lodge, an extensive variety of rental equipment is available. David Swan, better known as Salty, manages the downhill, snowboard, cross-country ski, and snowshoe rental facility, along with all the accessories that go with each snow sport—boots, poles, helmets.
Every age, size and ability level is taken into consideration when matching equipment to client.
“Just because of the early opening we’re still getting set up,” said Salty. He spent his summer up the mountain repairing, sharpening edges and waxing last year’s rentals, but this season’s new skis are still having bindings mounted.
The early opening was “definitely” a happy surprise for everyone. “The snow we have is superb,” said Salty. “I was out there this morning just checking on our coverage, so we can start setting our high performance gear up.”
“We’ve been training our staff for a long time so we were able to get them up to scratch.” And four returning staff members help the situation.
From the south coast of New South Wales in Australia, this is Salty’s fourth year with Big White. With a long-term girl friend and two pugs, he loves his mountain lifestyle.
“It’s a great way of life. I like living an active and physical lifestyle. I love hiking, skinning, skiing, snowboarding, playing a little bit of hockey on the ice [outdoor rink at Happy Valley] when it opens up. It’s a healthier lifestyle than I would be living anywhere else.”
Outside there’s a grey/black hue to the clouds, promising more snow but holding back for the day skiers.
Dominic Carlile, an Englishman from East Yorkshire, is just finishing up giving a private snow board lesson. This is his ninth year at Big White, where he lives all year long, working food services and with the fire department in the summers. His days of chasing winter 12 months a year are done. “Oh no, I need my summer. There’s a real community up here in the summer. I’m on with the fire department as well, so it’s a really good way to keep contributing. I love it up here.”
Carlile’s boss, ‘Clipboard’ Bob Casson from Toronto, earned his nickname the obvious way. He’s in charge of getting snow sport school lessons moving onto the slopes on time, a job that requires close attention to his clipboard full of lists.
The instructors teach everyone from kids to octogenarians, any type of snow sport they prefer. Ten years with Big White’s ski school, Clipboard Bob has instructors who he first saw when they were kids coming up the mountain with their elementary school classes to take the comprehensive program of ski lessons.
The school even offers Big White staff members free lessons.
Taking a ski on the main groomed runs, conditions are as good as mid-winter. There’s soft groomed corduroy to float across with patches of shin-deep powder to punch through along the edges.
Early season warnings remain in place, however, and skiers are asked to stay on the groomed runs as the smaller trees in the glades are not covered up just yet.