The night is black and there's no sound but the rumble of snowcats in the distance as I make lazy S-curves down freshly groomed 5 Mile, the widest, gentlest green run at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops. I've got nothing to guide me but the light of my head lamp and Barb, my ski instructor, slightly ahead. At first I'm tense, straining my eyes to try and see what's coming. Then I start to loosen up and ski by feel, and I can sense my face softening into a smile. Skiing in the dark might have had me nervous at first, but the butterflies are turning into elation.
Night skiing isn't uncommon at Canadian ski hills. Floodlit runs are a way for resorts to extend their profitable hours and for skiers to squeeze in more precious time on the mountain, whether as part of a vacation or, for locals, straight after work. But what Sun Peaks offers is something special.
Thursdays and Fridays from late December through the end of March, those who've purchased tickets for the Fondue Dinner and Evening Descent line up at the Sunburst Express chairlift just before 5 p.m. for a twilight ride up the mountain, now empty of the day's skiers and snowboarders and instead populated by the night crew, mainly grooming machines smoothing out runs for the next day. Disembarking mid-mountain, they settle in at Sunburst restaurant's long tables for live music and a three-course fondue dinner – that's cheese, broth and chocolate – before separating into small guided groups, donning head lamps and skiing back down to the village.
I'm barely an intermediate skier, so while at Sun Peaks in March, I secured an instructor to join me for this unmissable evening. Barb, a long-time resident of Sun Peaks, meets me at the chairlift and tells me tales of local life – her teenage daughter, for instance, attends the slopeside village school and skis on her lunch breaks – as we ascend. We head into the restaurant and find seats next to a raucous group of Vancouver lawyers on a week-long ski vacation and one of the group guides, a local who volunteers to hold a lantern and lead the way on night descents in exchange for the sheer pleasure of skiing in the dark.
After my meal, I linger in the dining room to indulge in some nostalgia – the evening's musician is playing one of my favourite songs from high school days – before heading out into the darkness to reclaim my skis and join the final group back to the village. It's a little foggy as we start, but after a few minutes the visibility improves and my eyes adjust to the dim light, and we settle into a rhythm. It's peaceful on the mountain at night, the usual chaos gone, which makes the skiing contemplative, almost meditative. By the time I lean into the last reluctant turn toward the village, my smile has turned into a grin, and I feel a pang of envy for the volunteer guide who gets to do it all over again next week.
IF YOU GO
Sun Peaks Resort is now Canada's second-largest ski area with 202 hectares added to two of its three peaks. It's located 45 minutes from Kamloops, three hours from Kelowna and 4 1/2 hours from Vancouver.
The Fondue Dinner and Evening Descent is for intermediate skiers and snowboarders and at least 14 years of age, able to confidently descend a green run with just a headlamp. $75; sunpeaksresort.com.