Weekend Pass

Sun Peaks: The Whistler Alternative

A Canadian ski legend left Whistler for this out-of-the-way mountain—for good reason.

By Allison Williams February 3, 2015 Published in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Photo credit adamstein w13 026 eocv2p

Image: Adam Stein

No, Nancy Greene doesn’t look fast. She’s 71 years old and skis with an unhurried, casual lean, as if standing in line for her morning coffee. And the long groomed runs of Sun Peaks, British Columbia, were made for cruising.

But just try to keep up. Try pointing your skis straight downhill. Try your best racer’s tuck. Greene, who bagged two Olympic ski racing medals in 1968, can’t be caught. The official director of skiing and unofficial mascot of Sun Peaks—a resort that opened 500 new acres this year to become the second-biggest ski hill in Canada—Greene won her gold in Giant Slalom by a mind-blowing 2.64 seconds, and she still outpaces nearly everyone on the snow.

Sometime after the Grenoble Games and before ending up here in Sun Peaks, Greene helped jump-start the resort town of Whistler. She and her husband, former national head ski coach Al Raine, opened one of the first hotels in the Coastal Range town and promoted the village until it became one of the most popular resort towns in the world. Greene became a famous face, named athlete of the century alongside Wayne Gretzky. When she was lured to visit Sun Peaks on a cloudy midweek day in December 1995, she was cautious. 

Nancy Greene

Image: Kelley Funk

“If I was going to leave Whistler, the skiing had to be as good. Or better,” she says. She made the trek to just past Kamloops, a small industrial city four hours northeast of Vancouver. She ascended 30 miles to a horseshoe-shaped valley under rounded hills, so unlike the sky-high peaks that defined Whistler, and was immediately sold on the mountain’s perfectly groomed runs. 

Sun Peaks was no glorified local’s hill; each run takes a long, scenic path through the forest, the longest living up to its name: 5 Mile. Crowds are nonexistent. “We were ripping run after run after run,” she remembers.

Ever since, Greene and Raine have served as Sun Peaks’ first couple. She’s a Canadian senator; he’s the town mayor. 

The couple has forgotten more about skiing than most people could hope to learn, and they love trivia about the crazy, ambitious practice of turning remote mountains into snowy playgrounds. Greene points to a cat track—the thin, flat trails serve double duty as equipment roads and easy-peasy ski runs—and notes they’re now built with a 5 percent tilt so snowboarders can ride an edge instead of huffing and puffing to gather speed. Raine is a weather buff who shows newcomers rime ice, a feathery frost that gathers on chairlifts when the fog moves in. 

Sun Peaks doesn’t see the same wet snow or powder dumps that frequent other BC ski resorts. But it doesn’t have freezing rain or big storms either. The snow, when it comes, is light and soft, and the sun delivers on the resort name’s promise—most of the time. Sometimes the fog descends, and the dry cold leads to icy lumps of snow the size of softballs. “Death cookies,” Raine calls them, slang he picked up from the women he coached on the national team. 

The village. Most of Sun Peaks’ hotels are clustered around the chairlift base, with the easiest ski-in access at the newly renamed Sun Peaks Grand Hotel and the Coast Sundance Lodge.

Image: Kelley Funk

Whistler is the specter that hangs over Pacific Northwest ski life. It’s the heavyweight, the blockbuster, drawing crowds from around the world and boasting Olympic facilities. Whistler tops worldwide lists for the best resort, best gondola, best luxury hotel, best chic après-ski scene. Most area hills don’t even try to compete. 

But here comes Sun Peaks. Its 500 new acres are backside glades with avalanche control—daredevil bait. The mountain is maintained with the same perfectionist care as Whistler Blackcomb, and the village is no less well manicured. Europeans ski teams train on the hill, and Australians come for their summer vacation. Every slope around the condos and hotels is carefully calibrated to allow for maximum -ski-in-and-out ease, with surface platter lifts wherever you need a short shove uphill. It’s like an irrigation system for people—or a snow-covered Chutes and Ladders. 

And yet Sun Peaks isn’t quite the second coming of Whistler. It’s calmer, without party crowds, and there’s no table in town with a dress code. The fanciest dinner ticket: on-mountain fondue on Thursday nights, followed by a flashlight ski. While Whistler boasts bobsled tracks and sky-high gondolas, Sun Peaks has a tubing hill and horse-drawn sleighs through the pastel Tyrolean-inspired village.

The steep slopes of Tod Mountain, one of the three ski areas, used to have a gnarly reputation and drew mostly hardcore locals; now the resort’s marquee sport has a family-friendly focus. The signature runs are “groomed glades,” a new kind of intermediate run that preserves clumps of trees within the ski path. It’s all the fun of glade (or tree) skiing without the bomber attitude.

Getting There Reach Sun Peaks via the Coquihalla Highway, a wide freeway that navigates a series of mountain passes in BC’s interior. Try not to duck when trucks kick up rocks and snow along the route—but do refill your windshield washer fluid before you start.

There are only 500 or so full-time locals in Sun Peaks, but during dinner hour at Powder Hounds, they all seem to be in attendance, popping amid tables to catch up and celebrate birthdays. The town is still small enough for local legends, like the man who skied the grass in the off-season. When he died, no one took his vest off his favorite chair in Bolacco Cafe. Raine is allowed to sneak onto the closed-to-the-public slalom course while racers are still warming up; coaches call him “the Honorable.”

The town’s elementary school is on the top of the bunny hill, right next to the tubing park, allowing visitors to witness the enviable form of recess. Sun Peaks is a town perfectly crafted for pleasure, and not just the hedonistic kind.

And Greene doesn’t see turning 72 as any reason to quit. When she started skiing, she wore boys’ rubber work boots strapped to her father’s homemade bindings. Now she floats on curved fiberglass that practically turns itself. Despite commuting to Ottawa to serve in the Canadian senate, she has no problem skiing Sun Peaks every weekend.

“I know all the secrets to taking it easy.”

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