Skis and creaking knee at Big White

When Olly McEvoy went to get his left hip fixed he was told his skiing days were over. Well, said Olly, I’d rather limp. In that case, the specialist informed him, he could have the joint resurfaced – but it would only last for three years. Eight years on Olly, 70 this year, has a new, ceramic right hip and the repair job on the other side has given him no problems.Olly Just as well, as he still works as a ski instructor at the British Columbia resort of Big White. A small, spry man and a wonderfully elegant skier, he is a prime organiser of Big White’s Masters Week, which is aimed at over 50s who are “passionate about skiing”. It all began with Masters Mondays. Three years ago the resort added a five day programme. It proved so popular that this year, for the first time, they ran two, at different times in the season, attracting a staggering total of some 250 skiers, My wife Cheryl and I joined them.

We are split into groups of around six, each with an instructor. The aim is to get us skiing smoothly, ironing out those wrinkles in our technique that are destined to cause us increasing grief as we grow older. Olly takes Cheryl’s group, which includes an 80 years old former senior officer in Britain’s elite Special Boat Service, the naval equivalent of the SAS. My group includes three skiers from Kelowna, just down the road, which seems slightly unfair as they can ski pretty well any time they like, but they are as eager as the rest of us to hone their techniques. At 74 I’m the oldest. Gary from Ontario, at 60, is the baby. He wears a toy moose on his helmet, which proves a useful identifying factor when I miss a turn and lose contact with the group. The others are in their mid to late 60s. Marge is the token woman and an aggressive skier. Brad is the only Australian, though with many compatriots participating in the week’s activities – and Aussies making up a huge majority of Big White’s staff, he can’t feel too far from Melbourne.

Our first instructor, Bernie, is also in his mid 60s. His tricks to make our turns smoother include dragging both poles, trying to keep them level across the fall line while clutched to our chests, lifting the uphill ski into the traverse and – in my case – a back breaking exercise holding my poles below the knees as I weave my way down an intermediate run. “After this”, he’s fond of saying, “you’ll see how easy skiing really is”. Sadly Bernie has to withdraw with sore toes, which has a certain irony about it as some of the Masters have spent the previous evening at a lecture on the benefits of custom boot fitting from Lindsay “Dizzy” Bennett, whose shop* has a display of boots down the years – among them the kind of lace ups I started in, and those rear entry models from the 80s that seemed so comfortable but left me with agonising blisters. On the upper slopes The talk comes with beer, pizza and a prize draw. On other days we are invited to after ski drinks and ‘appies’ (substantial appetisers) at two different eateries. And we meet a lot of like-minded people. Some have enjoyed themselves so much they’ve arranged to meet up with new friends again, at subsequent Masters Weeks.

As instruction ends before midday, Cheryl and I are able to ski together after lunch. Locals nickname Big White ‘Big white out’. Whether that’s fair or not I can’t say, not being a regular visitor, but it’s true we don’t see much of the sun. On the highest slopes, where the sparse, white clad trees are frozen into spectral figures known as snow ghosts, visibility is often poor. But the flip side of that – and the occasional blasts of icy wind on chair lifts – is that conditions are superb. During the week it snows the best part of one metre. We’re told it’s too cold for the airiest flakes but we aren’t complaining. The skiing is excellent. It’s varied but never boring and while we’re no longer wild about tackling bumps or weaving between trees, fresh snow between the prepared runs is light enough that my sometimes tense powder technique becomes unusually relaxed. At the end of the afternoon it’s back to our apartment and a soak in the hot tub on the balcony, looking out – when skies clear – at the distant Monashee mountains.

One of the great pleasures in this neck of the woods is tasting wines from the Okanagen Valley’s 250 or so wineries, among them impressive pinot noirs and Gewurztraminers. The pleasure is enhanced by the fact that they are not widely available in the UK and, as the output of most producers is relatively small, they tend to be a little pricey. Our time in Big White coincides with one of two regular tasting sessions at which dozens of wineries are represented. It’s jam packed.

Big White Centre Does the week do anything to prolong our skiing lives? Non skiers may stop reading here. Olly says he can’t believe how much Cheryl has improved, and I have to concede there’s some truth behind the hyperbole. As for me, Bernie’s successor James, a young English instructor from Cambridge, tries to correct a persistent failing: a tendency to leave my right shoulder too far back when making a turn to the left. It’s a hangover from the long dead days before carving skis and I think it’s the reason for pain inducing pressure on my right knee. By the end of the week I think I’ve mastered it. I can’t wait to try it out on my next trip – but old habits die hard. And in any case, being well beyond 50, will I remember?

More information

Master’s Weeks will cost $278 next winter (about £160 at the time of writing). That includes five half days’ coaching and entertainment. Dates are 29 Jan – 2 Feb and 26 Feb – 2 Mar. Big White is in British Columbia’s interior. It’s a good idea to combine it with another resort of resorts in the area, such as Sun Peaks or Silver Star. Trips to the area can be organised by long established Canada (and now also US) holiday operator Frontier Ski. For most people getting there will mean changing planes in Calgary or Vancouver. We did so at the latter on the way out and the former coming back. Transfers were commendably smooth in both cases though changing at Calgary involved a notably long walk.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier Canada and Frontier America.

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Roger Bray

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