Just follow me and try not to look down,” said my instructor Drew at the top of the hike. Nervously following his instructions, I clipped into my bindings, focused on his jacket and began counting the rhythm between pole plants down the untracked Blackcomb glacier. At the bottom, panting for breath and buzzing with adrenalin, I looked back and my heart skipped a beat. I couldn’t believe I’d got down it.
I had only been in the Canadian resort of Whistler for 48 hours and already I had had a skiing epiphany. “There’s a line that most skiers aren’t willing to cross,” my instructor Drew had told me earlier that day. “But don’t worry, we’ll get you over it.” And now I had crossed that line, whooping and hollering, no longer afraid of off piste. I hardly recognised myself.
As a child, I’d snowploughed in family-friendly Austrian resorts, later swapping busy half-term slopes for long weekends in the French Alps. Much as I’d loved these trips, I dreamt of trying somewhere different, like Canada. But friends had put me off, saying it was too far to travel.
Finally, I had the chance to experience it for myself, on an eight-day trip visiting two of British Columbia’s leading resorts – Whistler and Sun Peaks – with Dan, my new-to-skiing boyfriend.
The trip was an eye-opener in so many ways. It was the first time either of us had been on a long-haul flight, so we had that realisation of what jetlag really means (utter exhaustion by 8pm). The trip was a learning curve for Dan, who had only skied once, at an indoor snow centre in the UK. But he joined Laurie, from Whistler Ski and Snowboard School, and together with a small group of beginners, was soon comfortably progressing from snowplough to tentative parallel turns.
Discovering Whistler was no less enjoyable for me. At 8,171 acres, spread over two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, the ski area is one of the biggest in North America. On day one, I explored with a local guide, from mid-mountain Roundhouse Lodge to the top of Whistler peak, at 2,182m. I felt joy and wonder at this place that, with its tree-covered peaks and scenery, looked so different from the Alps.
As we approached ungroomed runs like the Ridge Run and Headwall, I was daunted by their names. There were fleeting moments of panic, too, as I realised that what lay ahead was deep, ungroomed terrain. And unlike in Europe, there had been no safety briefing or mention of off-piste equipment. One of reasons I’d always wanted to ski in North America was that everything within the ski area is monitored by ski patrol and safe from avalanches. It’s a sense of freedom that I’d always imagined might help me conquer my fear of going off piste.
Which is why, on day two, I found myself stepping right out of my comfort zone with Drew, on an Extremely Canadian Steeps Clinic. We spent the morning “priming my legs for the goods”, working on technique, from pole planting to finding a rhythm in deeper snow, and putting in some mileage before the difficult stuff later in the day.
In the afternoon, the “goods” materialised in the form of my first ungroomed black run, Angel Dust, accessed from the 7th Heaven lift on Blackcomb mountain. I dropped into my first ever couloir, Secret Chute, and did my first hike with skis, albeit just 50m up from the Showcase T-bar to Blackcomb Glacier. This is where, legs shaking, I followed Drew, didn’t look down, and crossed that line.
In Whistler the action doesn’t stop once the lifts close – the resort has 200 restaurants, and we did our best to make the most of it. Whether it was chicken wings and cocktails at après in the Beacon Pub and Eatery, or indulging in pan-seared Pacific snapper at Basalt Wine + Salumeria, or donning sombreros for nachos at Mexican Corner, it was a surprising change from my usual chalet-board holidays in the Alps. Later, there’s plenty of opportunity to dance in ski boots or sing at open-mic nights, but we opted for outdoor activities instead – ziplining over towering trees 180m in the air, and splashing about in the secluded Scandinave Spa, an outdoor haven of hot tubs and steam rooms.
After three days in Whistler it was time for a change of pace, and we packed our bags and headed down the Sea-to-Sky highway to Vancouver. A short flight to Kamloops and a 45-minute transfer later, we arrived in Sun Peaks in a snowstorm and were engulfed by space and silence. The next morning we piled on extra layers to deal with plummeting temperatures, which dropped to -17ºC on some days.
While I was having my epiphany in Whistler, Dan had been quietly developing his own love affair with skiing. In Sun Peaks he quickly bonded with his instructor (Paul, who also ran the local doughnut shop), and was full of confidence as he set off for another day’s tuition. Meanwhile, I cruised around Sun Peaks’ near-empty slopes. Sun Peaks is more laid-back than Whistler, and much quieter, though still impressive in size, with 4,270 acres to explore. Over the coming winters, Sun Peaks will receive a CA$60 million transformation, including a new four-person chairlift and new accommodation.
Travelling across the resort’s three mountains – Sundance, Mt Morrisey and Crystal – I became more confident. I embraced my new love of knee-deep snow among the trees, discovering how the powder stays fresh for longer under the branches, and practised carving on 5 Mile run, all the way down from the top of Crystal to the village centre.
Come après time, as in Whistler, we skipped the bars and this time strapped on head torches and snowshoes for a twilight hiking tour. But by far the most un-European après adventure was an early morning ice-fishing trip with local guide Campbell, from Elevated Fishing Adventures in Sun Peaks. As we marched across the frozen lake at 7.30am, Dan and I looked at each other in wonder – not just because Campbell was flimsily dressed in a flannel shirt and bucket hat, but because we were going fishing on a ski holiday.
“Now this is real Canada,” I whispered to Dan as Campbell regaled us with stories of learning to hunt with his grandfather near Toronto, while we sipped hot chocolate, rods poised over the holes we’d drilled through the ice into the cold water below.
Thanks to our early wake-up call, we were at the front of the queue for the opening of the Sun Peaks lifts, and skied together for the first time on the trip. We lapped the resort’s green and blue runs all morning, our favourites being Three Bears and Sundance, on Sundance Mountain. Then Dan took the plunge into an easy tree run with me, weaving between branches and mining powder pockets. It was bliss. Rather than the long lunch I usually insist on, we stopped only for homemade cinnamon buns at the Sunburst Bar and Eatery.
Our final day ended with a trip to the top of the ski area, Crystal mountain at 2,061m, and selfies in front of the snow ghosts – trees drowned in snow and frozen solid. Yet another first for us – a fitting climax to our trip.