A First-Person Account of Big White's Free Mountain Tours
It was a low-ceiling day – one of those days where you could barely see Dizzy’s from the Village Centre Mall. The mountain was in a cloud, and all I could see from my over my Clocktower Coffee was a mob of yellow jackets huddled around a signpost. It wasn’t going to be a busy day, one of the yellow jackets said to me once I had finished my coffee, bundled up, and headed across Easy Street.
On Wednesday, January 9, I spent the morning exploring the mountain with Big White’s Snow Hosts – a group of 25 or so volunteers who tour guests around the resort for free. Every morning, at 10:30 am, around eight Snow Hosts wait outside of Dizzy’s, offering their expert knowledge and charming company to families, beginners, singles and everyone in between, including me, an intermediate/advanced snowboarder, who, while not adhering to their usual demographic (a snowboarding employee who lives on the mountain), would still find a bit of orientation around my new home helpful.
Skiers, and the occasional snowboarder, are assigned to groups of about eight people based on their ability level and what they hope to get from the tour. Are they fast, or slow? Do they like moguls, or glades, or just a nice, flat groomer?
I was one of four people to join the Snow Hosts that morning – and ended up getting a private tour with four guides. Nick Battaglio, his wife Trudy, Margaret Manton and Gregg Reese led me to the Snow Ghost Express Chair. Normally, Nick said, he would spend more time explaining the different lifts, the lodges and restaurants, the access ways to Happy Valley and anything else that might be important for a Biggie first-timer to know. But, since I lived on the mountain, our time was better spent on the slopes.
“We usually take them to the map and show them how the mountain is laid out,” Nick says. “Like, how at Black Forest, the runs tend to be gentler, and if you get to Gem, they’re steeper, harder – the blues are a darker blue.”
That’s the beauty in these tours – the Snow Hosts read and evaluate their guests to determine the best use of the two-hour tour. Is it someone’s first time at the resort? Are they skiing alone and looking for company? Or, is it a day like today – where visibility is limited and in some cases, you can’t tell what’s up from down – and they’re looking for someone to follow; someone in a bright jacket who has intimate knowledge of the runs and maybe most importantly, knows how to get them to the bottom of the hill.
Nick tells me he’s been a Snow Host for seven years but has been skiing Big White for nearly two decades. Trudy is in her third year, as is Margaret, and Gregg is in his second. Everyone, besides Gregg who commutes from Kelowna, lives on the mountain. Being a Snow Host is completely volunteer – each host spends two, two-hour mornings a week taking guests on an orientation tour or the mountain. The complimentary program has been running for over 20 years at Big White, and in exchange for their time, the Snow Hosts receive a seasons pass. The Snow Hosts don’t just give tours – on a busy day, you can also find them at the top and bottom of Lara’s Gondola offering guidance and knowledge of the mountain, and assisting in the direction of skiers and snowboarders.
We follow Nick to Speculation, down to Ridge Connector, and finally, exit onto Exhibition back to the Snow Ghost. On the way down, he stops at different access points and tells me how I could get to this run from here, and that run from there, and this run will take you back to the Village and that run will take you to the Black Forest Chair.
They’re all good skiers, but in their role as a Snow Host, they’re not allowed to give guests pointers – instead, they’ll recommend a newbie skier take a lesson or two from Big White’s Ski & Board School. The only pointer Trudy says she gives is that they use their poles to orient themselves on days with poor visibility. By sticking their poles into the snow on their turns, they’ll have a better grasp of the terrain and feel more grounded.
Snow Hosts are also limited with the runs they can take visitors on. Greens and blues are always good – no blacks unless they are groomed (which is limited to Speculation and Black Jack), and unless the skier or boarder is advanced enough to go on their own and meet up at the bottom.
Gregg and Margaret head off to Gem Lake, while Nick, Trudy and I slide over to one of Nick’s favourite runs: Secret, a short blue through the glades next to Highway 33. Trudy’s favourite is Born to Run. We make it to Black Forest, with Nick pointing out how to get to the Village, Bullet Chair, the public washroom next to the Alpine T-bar, TELUS Park and the Feathertop Development off Sundance on the way there.
Once we’re in line, Nick tells me about the sculpture in front of the Black Forest Day Lodge – donated to the resort by Westbank First Nation. The sculpture is beautiful, depicting a grizzly bear, a coyote, the Ogopogo and a medicine wheel. He tells me how most guests don’t know about the Ogopogo, so he has the pleasure of introducing them to the underwater monster of Okanagan Lake – the Canadian equivalent to the Loch Ness Monster.
Normally, Trudy and Nick would tell me about where I could find lunch, which restaurant serves the coldest pints of beer and which runs I should avoid, or try, based on my ability, but because I had to go back to work, we chatted about real estate and weather and their lives before living on the mountain and Snow Hosting. We rode down Whiskey Jack, and popped into the Black Forest Day Lodge for a quick break before heading back up the lift and back down to the Village.
The tours last until 12:30 pm, run every day (besides Christmas), and are 100 per cent worth joining if you are either looking for friendly and informative company while skiing or would like a local’s take on how to get around the mountain. And, on a cloudy day, there’s nothing more reassuring than seeing a yellow jacket tackling the terrain in front of you while you cruise down the mountain.