From 1963 to now – 55 years of Big White
On December 8, 55 years ago, 400 skiers traversed the one-way road up the mountain to the newly constructed resort – complete with a 1,700-metre T-bar and 150-metre tow rope. They paid around $4 for a ticket, ate a “light meal” from the cafeteria in the log-cabin style chalet – located about 150 metres straight uphill from where Monashee Inn is now – and likely had no idea what a ski helmet was.
Big White was the dream of two Kelowna locals, Cliff Serwa and Douglas Mervyn. “Snow and weather conditions in the Okanagan Valley are very much superior to those found at the coast and coastal skiers are already travelling the ski circuit,” Mervyn told a local newspaper at the time.
Cliff Serwa, who will turn 83 later this month and is the grandfather of Olympic Gold Medalist and Big White athlete Kelsey Serwa, still lives in Kelowna. He recalls the evening before opening day as “frenzied.” Because the chalet was heated with a wood furnace, the stain on the tables they had recently built hadn’t dried. Panicked, they covered everything in plastic so that the skiers would have somewhere to eat.
The tables were one concern – whether or not people would show up on Opening Day was another. But, “miracle of all miracles,” Serwa says, “people were willing to drive the distance.” The parking lot filled; the hill was “terribly crowded.” Kelowna, which at the time was known as “Canada’s Apple Capital,” now had Okanagan Champagne Powder to offer during the off-season
Planning for the new resort, at the time the biggest in Canada and housed a ski school and a rental and repair shop, began years before, in 1955. It took seven years of dreaming before construction began on the $150,000 project. For the first year of operation, the road from the turnoff to the ski area, which Serwa describes as narrow and twisty, was one way. No uphill traffic was allowed after noon, and no downhill traffic from the resort was allowed before 1:00 p.m.
Over the next seven years, the resort saw its first on-mountain accommodation built, as well as the installation of two more T-bars. Rapid growth began in the 70s: in 1973, the Ridge Double Chair started spinning; in 1976, the Easter Triple Chair; and in 1979, the Powder Triple Chair – which has now been replaced by our new Powder 2.0 Quad Chair, set to open before Christmas.
In 1985, ownership of the mountain changed hands. The Schumann family bought the resort with the goal of building a world-class ski area, focusing on customer service and convenience, while increasing capacity and opening up new terrain. Within a few years, the mountain saw two quad chairs installed, lengthening of the Alpine T-bar and the introduction of snowboarding as a legitimate sport.
The 90s and early 2000s saw an explosion of on-mountain accommodation and restaurants, the installation of additional chairs and the gondola, and acres upon acres of new skiing terrain. Last year, Big White announced it would be investing $10-million into resort improvements – including the new Powder 2.0 Quad Chair, the expansion of the skier tunnel on Hummingbird, a brand new Pistenbully groomer, not to mention a $15-million investment in staff accommodation.
“We have a lot of things planned, including new lifts, new buildings and a continued focus on our summer product,” says Peter Plimmer, president of Big White Ski Resort Ltd. and the third-generation to run the resort. “We’re not hoping to be more commercialized – rather we are planning on getting more people skiing in winter and enjoying the mountain over summer, too.”
While Big White may be unrecognizable from what it was 55 years ago, a few things have remained the same. For one, the snow. “The fact that we have never had, ever, a bad snow year,” Serwa says. “That makes Big White special.”
Secondly, the focus on family – which Serwa says is a value that started with him and Mervyn, and has been maintained with the Schumann/Plimmer family at the helm.
“I first skied here in 1988, when I was 12,” Plimmer says, “and it changed my outlook on what skiing could and should be. Since moving here and living in B.C., I realize there’s so much that this mountain has to offer regardless of the time of year. Our focus is on making sure people have a great time and we realize this is more than just snow and more than just bars, instead it’s more of a lifestyle where the outdoors is as important as the indoors.”
ARCHIVED NEWS ARTICLES:
Read: Giant Ski Development Planned near Kelowna from 1962
Read: Big White Opens on Sunday from December 6, 1963
Read: New Ski Resort Inspection Invited from July 5, 1963
Read: Big White Ski Area from January 8, 1964
Read: Big White Ski Resort, Major Tourist Attraction from 1964
Read: Big White Expansion Includes New Lift from 1964