It’s dark outside and I’m driving uphill. Transitions are one of the most exciting things about going to the ski hill. There’s always a giddy excitement whether it’s leaving the rain-soaked congestion of Vancouver for the snowy hills or entering the Rockies from the stubble ?elds west of Edmonton. Tonight’s transition ?nds its wellspring on the bonedry ?oor of the Okanagan Valley. Not far into the commodious hills outside Penticton, I’m playing slalom with the ponderosa pines and swooping past ranchettes that are lit up by my dirty high beams. This is automobilespeak for “I’m going skiing.”
There’s also magic to the night. Climbing farther into the upper reaches of these hills, the ?rst vestiges of snow sprinkle themselves along the banks of the road. Those small mounds soon turn into bigger pure-white banks, and after railing my car around a few more rally curves, the piles are huge. That’s the “Eureka” moment: “I’m in the mountains!” And it’s here that I feel at home.
Geographical ?rst impressions stay with me forever: like Thunder Bay. I can’t stand the place. Not because it isn’t a nice place, but because the ?rst time I travelled there the sky was dank, dreary and depressing. Seeing the hulking grain terminal under this industrial haze was uninviting and Thunder Bay will always seem unfriendly.
But the Okanagan is far away from Thunder Bay. Tonight, I’m driving into Apex Mountain Resort; the night stars glisten as if to re?ect the snow lit by my headlights. I descend into the mystical hidden valley that harbours Apex, roll through some big timber and become enveloped by the orange warmth of ski-cabin lights within a world of white. Like a Peeping Tom, I stare at people cozied up on the couch with what is probably a good book; one family is sitting around a dinner table ?nishing a good meal and the second half of their bottle of red wine. This is the imagined ski-cabin village—but for real.
The moon rises over the sharp outline of Apex’s summit ridge. Grooming machines create light on the runs, giving me a vertiginous overview that sticks out like a pop-up book. I’m ready to go skiing now; breakfast can’t come too soon.
Waking up in the rolling hills of an Okanagan ski hill on a sunny day also doesn’t hurt my impression of this place. Apex so far, thanks in part to Mother Nature’s marketing, is capturing me. And sometimes that’s the way it is: you hit the place on the perfect day. Oh, I’ve had the opposite, but today is my day. I slide past the Gunbarrel Saloon and make a mental note to stop there for an après-ski drink. But ?rst to the lift: I get onto the Quickdraw Quad and I’m whisked into the world of Apex skiing.
After surveying the runs and cross-checking them with my map, I’ve decided to warm up on something solid blue: Ridge Run and Motherlode look like perfect fall-line cruisers. Despite the sun, there’s also a nasty wind whipping across the rolling hills from the west. Getting off the chair in a headwind is pretty tough—the wind wants to keep me in the chair and I want to avoid tripping the safety gate. But once I turn with the wind and drop into my ?rst warm-up run, it’s all looking up again.
I derive a carnal pleasure from my ?rst run. Stopping halfway down, I look up and relish the deep grooves I have slashed through the corduroy. Success is measured by the depth of those grooves, which is measured by the quality of the grooming. A two-inch deep channel is the reality of my success. I stand and beam at the consistent canyon marking the passing of my skis. The Motherlode is an apt name.
If I had to stop now, the day would be a success: from my entrance during that magically clear night to the on-hill don’t-need- your-car setup and the splendidly high standard of grooming that didn’t look as if it would get skied off halfway through the day. But I greedily want more. A few more cruisers, then I’ll head into the chop, and then I’ll go for a taste from the menu of steep black runs that look as if they offer some delectable treats.
There’s a lot of skiing in the Okanagan Valley. To the north, just outside Vernon, is Silver Star. Then there’s Big White, the granddaddy of the Okanagan ski hills that sits on the other side of the valley just outside Kelowna, the valley’s largest population centre. I’ve never been good at math, but let’s try some here: three major ski centres in a valley without a real major city with a total valley population of about 300,000. Let’s compare that to the million-plus cities: Whistler has Vancouver, Lake Louise has Calgary, Tremblant has Montreal and Blue Mountain has Toronto.
Apex has Pentiction. With 40,000 locals to draw from, it’s not surprising that there are no lineups here on weekdays. In fact, this is the kind of place you come to escape the crowds. This is the place you come to lay down your bead on the groomers all day, the place where you can ski a fresh snowfall for a couple days, not just a couple of stress- ?lled hours. This is the place where you can learn to ski moguls without being under the watchful eye of too many others.
I’m glad for that as I stare down the Gunbarrel itself. There’s nobody around me except a handful of friendly-looking moguls. I like a good mogul-run workout, but I also need my space on them, not zigzagging like a zipper-precise Olympian but bouncing around like an unbridled jackhammer. The fall-line skiing here is very consistent, despite the linear length of this hill and the few lifts it does have. But well-placed lifts are so much more effective than a large number of lifts.
While Kelowna has sunk its teeth into the WestJet crowd, Apex focuses more on rubbertire traf?c. It’s closer to the U.S. border and also serves south Okanagan Valley towns like Oliver and Osoyoos. Almost threequarters of the skiers here are local.
Apex Mountain Resort has also found its niche with high-performance ski racers. The terrain here is steep enough, the snow coverage more than adequate, and the atmosphere here is relaxed and conducive to the kind of environment race teams are looking for. Good early-season conditions also help Apex host various freestyle teams who train here at the National Training Centre for aerials and moguls. The racers and freestylers have plenty of room to do their thing. And when they want some action, it’s just a quick stroll over to the Gunbarrel Saloon at the base of the hill.
I remember my mental note to stop in there—especially after having dropped the run by the same name. It’s time to celebrate. I zip along the cat track back to the base area. After a day on the slopes, I feel like a local, like I’m going to the local bar after claiming these runs for myself. Apex is unintimidating and welcoming. On the lifts I was greeted with honesty and friendliness. “You might want to stay away from the right side of The Pit,” says the liftee, “there are still a few rocks poking out.” Even the racers are chatting me up on the lift.
So I didn’t get to ski any fresh pow today—they’ve had a ton of deep snow days like that this season, but my timing isn’t quite so perfect. But that’s skiing. I trust by the layout of this place that any powder day would just be the icing on the cake. But I knew I wasn’t going to get powder. And besides, this psychological powder—a good hill layout with stellar cruisers and steeps, über-friendly staff and a beer with my name on it at the end of the day—is pretty intoxicating. That’s what I’m thinking anyway as I nurse my third beer in the Gunbarrel Saloon and look out the window to admire the outline of all my turns from this day. Not a bad impression.
ON THE SIDELINES
Apex is not only good for skiing, it’s great for winter family adventure. Bring your skates and enjoy a NHL-sized outdoor hockey rink that’s lit at night. If hockey’s not your game, try exploring the woods on a one-km skating loop or schussing along some of the 56 km of groomed cross-country ski trails. There’s also a lift-accessed tube park for those looking to belly-up on their tobogganing skills.
VERTICAL: 605 metres
SKIABLE TERRAIN: 450 hectares
ANNUAL SNOWFALL: 600 cm
RUNS: 67; 16% novice, 48% intermediate, 36% advanced/expert
FROM KELOWNA AIRPORT: 90 minutes
FROM PENTICTON AIRPORT: 35 minutes
MORE INFO: Apex Resort 877/777-2739