Blasting through a snowbound forest at 40mph on a skidoo, I feel like I’m on Top Gear.
There’s a shower of snow from the machine in front, making it hard to see through ice-encrusted goggles.
I overtake on the next straight and, whooping as I accelerate past, find myself ahead of the pack and heading along a frozen mountain pass in the heart of British Columbia.
Within half an hour, heart still beating in exhilaration, I’m huddling around a campfire beside a frozen lake drinking cold beer and roasting sausages over a roaring BBQ.
For someone more used to hopping on the Eurostar snow train for a week’s skiing in the French Alps, the midnight BBQ in Canada’s snowy forest made the nine hour, 4,714 mile journey to North America worthwhile. And better still, the resident cougars and brown bears are hibernating until the spring thaw.
I’d flown to Canada to sample its two biggest resorts: the world-renowned, Olympics-hosting behemoth of Whistler; and the newly-expanded Sun Peaks.
Despite Sun Peaks’ boast of 2,000 annual sunshine hours, there’s thick cloud sitting in the valley when we first meet our hosts outside the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel. Soon I’m heading up the Sunburst chairlift to break through the cloud layer into the bright sunshine on the slopes.
The piste map makes some big claims. The opening of two new ski zones last season has made Sun Peaks Canada’s second-largest ski area, with an impressive 4,270 acres of terrain.
Spread across three mountains, which all feed into one ski-in, ski-out village base, there are 133 trails and glades, two alpine bowls and, for the freestylers, a 10-acre, ability-zoned terrain park.
Sitting inland from the Coast Mountains, Sun Peaks is sheltered from the milder coastal weather and instead offers dry, fluffy powder that makes the interior of BC a mecca for serious powder enthusiasts.
The resort enjoys 6m of snow here every season and there are no queues for it, either. The number of resort beds is currently nowhere near the mountain’s capacity so, for now, skiers have the luxury of most of the runs to themselves.
Our guide for the morning is a former Olympic Champion, the perfect antidote to my rusty skiing technique. Despite being in her 70s, the resort’s director Nancy Greene Raine is still a whizz on her skis – and she’s keen to see what a Brit is made of.
The Giant Slalom gold medalist meets anyone who fancies putting some turns in with her at 1pm by the Sunburst chairlift whenever she’s free. There’s no booking system and no charge, just a love of skiing and an expert knowledge of these mountains.
Nancy takes me down a section of the fearsome Headwalls Speed Track, one of the most difficult runs on the FIS Speed Ski World Cup tour. Here, skiers accelerate from 0 to 175 km/h in a mere eight seconds. The holder of last year’s record reached over 178 km/h. I take a more leisurely pace.
I glean a few tips from Nancy on carving technique (“widen your stance and roll your ankles more in the turns”) as she shows off the resort’s great intermediate terrain with snaking tree runs and wide, immaculately-groomed pistes.
On another morning I take the first chair lift of the day to enjoy a First Tracks breakfast complete with maple syrup pancakes, before jumping on the 22-minute Burfield chairlift. Carving down the glorious 5 Mile run, I’m churned around on the un-pisted steeps like I’m in a spin cycle.
An unexpected highlight is the evening snowmobile safari, where after skidooing along moonlit forest trails and tucking into BBQ sausages, you can even have a go at Eskimo-style ice fishing.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the relaxed intimacy of Sun Peaks, which has a chocolate-box architecture based on the traditional Alpine styles of Austria’s ski resorts. It looks very European, but the slick service at the Grand Hotel’s ski hire shop is all North American.
But a visit to Canadian skifields wouldn’t feel complete without attacking the pistes at Whistler; the flashier big brother much loved by Canada’s wealthier ski set. It’s only a few hours drive away – with a scenic tour that took in isolated ranches, roadside rodeo signs, salmon breeding stations and even an American bald eagle soaring overhead. But despite the short distance, Whistler is a world apart from Sun Peaks.
The piste map gives an idea of the scale: one vertical mile top-to-bottom drop; two connected mountains; three glaciers; five terrain parks; 16 alpine bowls; 38 lifts; 200+ runs and 8,171m of skiable terrain. Add nearly 12m of snow per year and it’s no surprise this is consistently ranked the top resort in North America.
I’m bursting to try out the Blackcomb glacier, the bowls, the steeps, deeps and chutes. Without doubt one of my favourites was the seemingly endless Dave Murray Downhill, which cuts its way through the trees all the way to the Creekside base. It was the Men’s Downhill course when Whistler hosted the 2010 Olympics and, as I’m here during term time, I barely see another soul as I race down the piste three times.
Whistler has its own ‘Ski With An Olympian’ offering. Here it’s a paid-for, high-end package, including a full day of being guided around the mountains and coached by an Olympic skier or rider who is happy to take apart your skiing technique and rebuild it from scratch.
When the lifts are closed, Whistler’s renowned après-ski bars are a must. At the Longhorn Saloon, charming waitresses serve ever-flowing pitchers of beer and there’s a lively atmosphere, complete with the ubiquitous extreme ski videos.
It’s enough to limber up for the most decadent event of the evening: dinner at the Bearfoot Bistro, which offers swashbucklers the chance to try the art of Sabrage or Champagne Sabering. To the uninitiated, that’s removing the top of a champagne bottle with a sabre. It sure beats popping the cork.
Then it’s time to don Arctic parkas and gloves for a tasting session in the Belvedere Ice Room – the coldest vodka tasting room in the world, apparently.
It’s tempting to go mad, but I know that, as I’m drinking, the piste bashers will be working their way over miles of runs to create a glut of corduroy snow the next morning. It wouldn’t simply do to miss it.
NEED TO KNOW
Ski Safari (skisafari.com) has a 10 night Whistler Peaks Safari, including accommodation at Sun Peaks Grand and the Delta Whistler Village Suites. Prices start from £1,525 per person, including flights, transfers and accommodation.