Ski and Life Lessons at Kelowna’s Big White

Our writer returns as an adult (with kids) to the mountain that took his four front teeth.

December 9, 2016

By Sean de Vries / Photo: Tourism Kelowna

In my youth I skied Big White with my older brother, who absolutely loved to give me lessons. And by “lessons” I mean he’d force me down runs way beyond my abilities, cajoling, mocking and humiliating me from top to bottom. Injuries were common. But there was one day when, against all odds, I kept up. We jockeyed back and forth in the light powder, carving through glades and down steep cliffs. And then, right on cue, one of Big White’s legendary weather changes rolled in, covering the mountain in a blanket of fog so thick you’d think you were inside a cotton swab. He pressed on at an irresponsible speed, taunting me the whole way. But I stayed with him and stayed with him . . . and promptly tumbled down half the run, coming to a stop with four broken teeth.

He still talks about it. “Taking your family to Big White? Don’t break your face.”

This trip is going to be different. Twenty years to the day after that incident, I am returning to Big White. This time I’m taking my wife, my nine-year-old son and my six-year-old daughter, neither of whom have ever skied in their lives. The student has become the teacher, and no one is breaking their face on my watch.

The Return to Big White

The newbies begin their first day with trepidation. I assure them they’ll have all their teeth at the end of the day. My wife’s eyes roll. But, before long, they’re warming to their friendly Australian instructor and making their way to the impressive beginner learning area. With everyone taken care of, it’s time for me to reacquaint myself with the scene of my near demise. I take advantage of a complimentary guided tour of the mountain with a member of their army of yellow-jacket-clad snow hosts.

Carlan is a senior citizen, but watching him thread through the powder you’d think he’s a junior pro. We chat about him spending his retirement here: “Amazing snow, and it’s never too crowded. What else would you want?” He makes a good point. He recently guided a skier from Toronto, who said he could fly to Kelowna, take the shuttle to the mountain and get in more runs than if he had stayed to ski a local hill in Ontario.

“What do people complain about the most?” I ask.

“The fog. . . always the fog,” he replies.

Running my tongue over my dental work, I nod slowly.

After their lessons, my wife and kids still have all their teeth—I can tell because they can’t stop smiling.

The next day we wake up to a bright blue sky and fresh powder and I can’t possibly leave without giving my son a ski lesson. I think of it as correcting the mistakes of the past—you know, breaking the cycle, so to speak. I tell him we’re going to the top. He protests: “Dad . . . I’ve only been skiing for two days.”

“C’mon, you’ll be fine!” I reply, echoing the words of my brother on that fateful day.

Halfway up the mountain, the wind picks up considerably.

“Totally fine. It should be clear when we get off,” I say, half-convincing myself.

By the time the lift reaches the top, a hard wind has ushered in a wall of fog so thick you’d need a shovel to get through it. After a few falls, my son insists on taking off his skis and walking the rest of the way. Not on my watch. I continue to prod him downward. He refuses to move and insists that I am guilty of child endangerment (how does he even know that term?) and that he’s going to get a lawyer . . . if he reaches the bottom.

But, then halfway down, two amazing things happen. The fog lifts and my son makes a few successful turns. I see a change in his face—a combination of steely determination and total joy. He’s having the time of his life. We reach the bottom and instead of calling a lawyer, he asks if we can do it again. And we do—again and again and again.

Take that, big brother.

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