Just as it was 55 years ago, Big White Ski Resort was packed on opening Day 2018 a few weeks ago. These young skiers camped out overnight to be the first on the chairlift on Big White Ski Resort’s on opening day. —image: contributed

Freedom 55 for Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna

What started as a small rural ski hill in 1963 has grown into a premier North American ski resort

In 1963, Lester B. Pearson was the prime minister of Canada, a lakefront home in Kelowna cost just over $16,000 and the Big White Ski Resort opened to the public.

On Dec. 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, were able to eat a “light” meal at the cafeteria in the log cabin-style chalet located about 150 metres straight uphill from where the 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.

Serwa, who will turn 83 later this month still lives in Kelowna. He is the grandfather of Olympic gold medal ski-cross racer Kelsey Serwa, who grew up skiing at Big While.

Cliff Serwa remembers the evening before Big White’s opening day in 1963 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, people were willing to drive the distance,” said Serwa.

The parking lot was filled, the hill was crowded and Kelowna, then known as Canada’s Apple Capital and a summer resort town, now had skiing to offer during the winter.

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 Highway 33 turnoff to the ski area, which Serwa described 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 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 1970s—in 1973, the Ridge double chair lift started spinning, in 1976, the Easter triple chair lift was built and in 1979, the Powder triple chair started operation. The latter has since been replaced by the resort’s new Powder 2.0 quad chair, which is 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, a lengthening of the Alpine T-bar and introduction of snowboarding as a legitimate sport.

The 1990s and early 2000s saw an explosion of on-mountain accommodation and restaurants, the installation of additional chairs and the gondola, and a lot of new skiing terrain.

Last year, Big White announced it would invest another $10-million into resort improvements, including the new Powder 2.0 quad chair, the expansion of a skier tunnel on Hummingbird and the addition of a brand new Pistenbully groomer.

“We have a lot of things planned, including new lifts, new buildings and a continued focus on our summer product,” said 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 said. “That makes Big White special.”

And then there’s the focus on family, which Serwa said 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 said. “And it changed my outlook on what skiing could and should be.”

He said since moving to B.C., he realizes the mountain has to a lot to offer at all times 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.”

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