feature 309 

Parallel lines Sun Peaks’ development plans conjure up images of Whistler in its early years By Bob Barnett Twenty years ago, waiting for a bus at the garbage dump to take you from the base of the Olympic Run back to the lifts at Whistler Creek, it was difficult to envision Whistler as it is today. The area was known only to Vancouver skiers, who had to bring their groceries from the city for a weekend at the cabin but enjoyed a huge mountain virtually to themselves. Few could imagine that one day visitors would come from around the globe to ski, play golf and do something called in-line skating. Today, with Whistler approaching buildout, some people look back wistfully at the days when the area’s potential was greater than its international status. Some of those people now see a parallel to Whistler’s early, formative years in Sun Peaks Resort, 45 minutes north of Kamloops. Four years ago the Nippon Cable Company saw potential in Tod Mountain and bought the money-losing ski area. Renamed Sun Peaks Resort by the new owners, Tod was — and still is — to Kamloops skiers what Whistler was to Vancouver skiers for many years. But it’s changing. Through the Sun Peaks Resort Corporation Nippon Cable has spent more than $40 million in the last three years, installing two high-speed quad chairs, building the first nine holes of a golf course, developing a sewer system, building a new day lodge, an on-mountain lodge, cutting and grooming trails, developing real estate and planning a village. The first two hotels at the mountain were opened this winter, Nancy Greene’s Cahilty Lodge, a condo-hotel, and the Sun Peaks Lodge, operated by the Stumboeck Club, a German tour company. With German tours coming through on a weekly basis, negotiations with Japanese tour companies on-going, a growing reputation in eastern Canada and condo sales to skiers from Washington state, Sun Peaks is slowly broadening its base of winter visitors. But the mountain is hardly overrun. Uphill capacity is about 6,300 skiers while the trails can handle at least 8,000. A five minute wait on the Sunburst Express is still considered a long lineup, and there is never a wait for any of the four other main lifts. The mountain itself offers 2,844 feet of vertical, more than 1,000 acres of skiable terrain, including lots of glades and bowls filled with light, dry snow. You won’t find the high alpine experience of the Blackcomb Glacier or the Peak Chair, but the mountain is impressive. It feels like Red Mountain, or Whistler Mountain 20 years ago, with lots of local secrets and "natural" — read ungroomed — terrain off the original Burfield Chair. Indeed, until last year there was still an obstacle or two that didn’t need marking "because everyone knows it’s there." The Burfield Chair represents what Tod Mountain was. The longest double chairlift in North America when the mountain opened in 1961, it still provides access to virtually the entire mountain. But skiers today can ride the Sunburst Express, ski down to the Crystal Chair, ride it and then hike the remaining few feet up to the Top of the World and still have to wait for someone riding the Burfield from bottom to top. However, old-time Tod skiers still swear by the Burfield and runs such as Expo and the Chief, which gave Tod its experts-only reputation. The Burfield Lodge has become an administration building for the Sun Peaks Resort Corporation. A few private cabins surround the area and six refurbished chalets are being used for "value conscious" slopeside lodging, but most of the action is taking place a little further up the valley. It’s here that the new day lodge was built, between the base terminals of the two quad chairs. A little further up the valley Nancy Greene’s Cahilty Lodge marks the far edge of what will one day be the village. Beyond the lodge the cross-country trail network begins. The Sun Peaks Lodge sits in the middle of the village area; on the other side of the creek is the new golf course. From this perspective many people see parallels with Whistler 16 years ago. Many also see new opportunities. A handful of former Whistlerites have moved to Sun Peaks. Jamie Tattersfield, who was in charge of Whistler Mountain’s mechanical equipment for years, has the same role at Sun Peaks. Steve Parsons was in charge of food services at Blackcomb when it opened in 1980. He’s got the same duties at Sun Peaks. Paul Martin worked at Il Caminetto di Umberto for years before moving to the Interior. He now works at Masa’s in the day lodge. Ski Area Manager Mark Faubert spent a brief time at Blackcomb, after stints as ski area manager at Nakiska and in the Okanagan. And of course there are the Raines. In retrospect it’s easy to see they were running out of projects in Whistler. Their proposed Cayoosh Creek ski area remains a captive of government bureaucracy. They’d been out of the hotel they built for some time, David Thomson was setting records for longevity at the helm of the WRA, so they were in need of new projects. Sun Peaks provided a commercial opportunity, but it was also an opportunity to help shape a new ski area, one that they feel will become the number one resort in B.C.’s Interior. That fits with their long-held belief that British Columbia can and should be as big a ski market as Colorado, which has dozens of ski areas to choose from. As Al says, if B.C. set out to rival Colorado, "with a 10-year program we’d be damn close." Because of Whistler’s success and the international attention it has garnered, the Raines, Nippon Cable and others feel the time is right to start developing other B.C. ski areas to their full potential. The other aspect of moving to Sun Peaks was that the Raines like building. "Al’s a teacher, a leader," Nancy says. "He always says you have to let people have a chance to make mistakes, otherwise they’re not going to learn." Part of the learning includes educating staff and regular visitors about becoming a destination ski area, such as marking obstacles that "everyone" knows about. "Kamloops is a good town," says Nancy, "but it’s not a ski town. There are too many other things to do." As season-ticket holders to the Memorial Cup Champion Kamloops Blazers, the Raines know about some of the other things to do. But that diversity may ultimately help Sun Peaks become a true year-round resort. When the snow melts and the hockey season is over Sun Peaks holds as much potential for summer recreation as it does for winter. Work will begin this summer on the second nine holes of the golf course, but the string of lakes in the valley and the area’s ranching heritage make fishing and horseback riding natural summer pursuits. Another road, from Chase in the west, is needed to make Sun Peaks more accessible, but that will come. In the meantime Al Raine has pulled his weather monitoring equipment out of Cayoosh and put it on Tod, to get better data on where the next lift should go. A downhill course, suitable for Nor-Am and women’s World Cup races, is being planned to coincide with a bid to host the Canadian Alpine Championships. More condominium parcels will be built this summer and the number of on-mountain beds will increase with the second phase of the Raines’ lodge. Standing in the parking lot, waiting for a bus to take you back to Kamloops, it’s possible to envision what Sun Peaks may someday become.

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