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Building a Bigger Big White

Big White is famous for its above tree line skiing and grew to become one of BCs busiest ski resorts by catering to families.

The Schumann Family is about to construct its twelfth new lift at Big White Ski Resort, the first lift addition in a dozen years here. Back in 1985, Australian Desmond Schumann bought the mountain out of receivership following his success at Mt. Hotham before acquiring nearby Silver Star to form Schumann Resorts Ltd. Back in the eighties, Big White was a sea of T-Bars and double chairs as primarily a day use area for nearby Kelowna. Fast forward to my first visit there in the 1990s and nearly every lift had been moved or replaced, with the eventual addition of a Leitner-Poma six-pack in 2006. Mr. Schumann died in 2012 and Big White and Silver Star went their separate ways with separate children. Today, the larger of the two is run by descendant Peter Plimmer and the last pre-Schumann-era lift will carry its final passengers on Sunday.

Now in its third-generation of family ownership, Big White has been working with Brent Harley & Associates of Whistler over the last 15 years on an ambitious master plan to guide development over the next many decades. Its important to note that Canadian master plans tend to be aspirational and do not necessarily represent eventual reality. Whistler Blackcomb has its own big plan; Sun Peaks has one and so do unproven destinations such as Revelstoke and Valemount Glacier.

Part of the current Big White vision focuses on the Gem Lake area, which opened with a single 8,000+ high-speed quad in 1996 that services approximately half of the entire resort. New lifts are eyed for either side of the current one to add more capacity and terrain. A much-needed mid-mountain infill lift is also planned for between Powder and Gem. As the first base area one encounters when driving from Kelowna, Gem Lake will continue to serve primarily as a base camp for locals. Two more lifts could rise on the west side of the highway for intermediate skiers and snowboarders.

Another part of the plan adds needed high-alpine terrain within the existing controlled recreation area. The Alpine T-Bar, which still runs full time with a diesel engine, would be replaced with a lift rising to the true summit of Big White Mountain. Another lift would unload at this point from new terrain on the backside of the mountain. Most appealing to me is a new chair near the current Cliff double servicing longer chutes and steeps. Near the main village, the Ridge Rocket Express would be extended downhill to service new day skier parking and a second gondola would connect from this base to the main village. A new beginner lift is also mapped for the Happy Valley near the base of Laras Gondola, where a new lower village is envisioned.

The bulk of potential expansion is to the east, where up to ten lifts could eventually rival the scale of todays Big White. New ropeways could be built on East Peak proper and multiple surrounding peaks with connections to Big White Village and a smaller new development.
A greatly expanded Big White could eventually include an impressive 31 lifts with a comfortable carrying capacity of some 24,000 skiers per day, up from 11,000. The Okanagan region of British Columbia is growing rapidly (Kelowna is the sixth fastest growing city in the nation) with a burgeoning tech economy. YLWs airport traffic just grew 9.3 percent in a single year and is projected to double by 2045 to more than 3.5 million annual passengers. I see expansion at Big White as significantly more likely to occur than in more remote regions of the province at places like Kicking Horse and Jumbo Glacier. Like its interior neighbors Silver Star and Sun Peaks, which are also both adding lifts this summer, Big White has already found success as a family destination and it feels like another era of growth is just beginning.

Article by Peter Landsman

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