Celebrating 60 Years of Big White Ski Resort – Canada’s Favourite Family Resort

Posted On: November 28, 2023 |
On December 8, 60 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.

When it opened, Big White Ski Resort, located on the highest mountain in the Okanagan Valley, was the highest ski area in Canada at 7,606 feet above sea level. The resort 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. 

The biggest concern on Opening Day? Whether or not people would show up. But, “miracle of all miracles,” Serwa says, “people were willing to drive the distance.” The parking lot filled, and the hill was “terribly crowded,” he recalls. 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.

celebrating 60 years
celebrating 60 years
celebrating 60 years
celebrating 60 years

(Last photo) Original caption from January 8, 1964: 18 inches of fresh powder snow in a beautiful alpine setting is normal for Canada's newest ski hill – Big White Mountain only one hour and 15 minutes by good road from Kelowna.

Long-time local resident, Jamie Browne, recalls the early days of the resort, “when there was no power up here, all the places got their heat from propane. You cooked with propane, your fridges were propane, your lighting was propane.

“The mountain did have a small generator service for a while but when the first people showed up with the hair dryers in the mid 1960s, the draw from the hair dryers would blow the generator and shut it down,” Browne adds.

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. 

VIEW OUR INTERACTIVE HISTORY TIMELINE

In 1985, ownership of the mountain changed hands. The Schumann family, who owned Mt. Hotham in Australia, 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. 

Peter Schumann, whose father, Desmond, purchased the resort, recalled his first visit to Big White in the late 1980s. “When I came over, I looked at the resort and to me, it was the perfect resort. I was excited. Compared to Australia, it was like heaven. Guaranteed snow, plenty of it, beautiful blue-sky days. I’ve looked at a lot of resorts around the world, I’ve studied them, and I wouldn’t swap Big White for any resort in the world,” he said in an interview shortly before he passed away in 2022.

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.


WATCH 60 YEARS OF BIG WHITE SKI RESORT

 

While Big White may be unrecognizable from what it was 60 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.”

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,” says Peter Plimmer, president of Big White Ski Resort Ltd. and the third-generation to run the resort. “I was mesmerized by the beauty of the place and what it offered. It was magical.

“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."

What’s your favourite memory of Big White Ski Resort? Share it with our team at communication@bigwhite.com or post to social media and include the hashtag #bigwhitehistory to be featured on this page.

 

 

60th Anniversary Merchandise

celebrating 60 years
celebrating 60 years
celebrating 60 years

Exclusive to our Season Passholders:
Enjoy 15% off any ‘Big White’ product or souvenir so you can represent your favourite mountain in style and share our latest giftware with loved ones. Some exclusions may apply. For all retail inquiries, email retail@bigwhite.com.

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