Sun Peaks at 50: Burfield lift sowed seeds for great ski culture

Sun Peaks celebrates its 50 thanniversary this season. This is Part One in a two-part series highlighting some of the history of the development of the ski resort.

Sun Peaks may have changed a lot since its Burfield Chair opened 50 years ago, but long-time devotees say what drew skiers back then has only gotten better with time.

In its day, Burfield Chair at Tod Mountain was the longest ski lift in North America.

It could also have been the coldest, joked Bill Rublee, noting lift attendants in the 1970s and '80s often handed out protective capes to riders to keep them warm on the 23-minute trip to the top.

"Ski clothes weren't as good back then."

The chairlift, however, which opened in November 1961, gave skiers access to some of the most challenging ski terrain in B.C.'s Interior, sowing the seeds for what would become Sun Peaks' world-class resort.

Rublee, who arrived at Tod Mountain in 1976, said the Burfield chair also created a local ski culture, drawing people from across North America to the undeveloped mountain with the great terrain.

The mountain had a reputation as difficult to ski, a tough place for beginners.

"It was steep and bumpy," he said. "It wasn't much for beginners, it was mostly expert. There wasn't much grooming either."

In other words, the mountain spawned good skiers.

Ian McLaren, (the son of Bill McLaren, one of Tod Mountain's original founders), was 11 years old when the Burfield made its inaugural run on Nov. 18, 1961. He was one of the first to ride the lift.

"It was a big mountain," he said. "Especially when you are 11 years old. We were up for the first ride, for sure."

Then, there were only a handful of runs, including the Five Mile and Ridge Run, The Chief, and the Seven Mile.

"There were quite a few runs through the Crystal Bowl," he said. "It was challenging terrain, for sure."

Tod Mountain became his home for many winters that followed. In fact, he has only missed skiing there one season in the last 50 years.

He and other local teens skied and partied their way through the late 1960s and 1970s. There were wild events on the hill - tunnel jumps and other crazy races - and wilder parties at night. People crashed on the couches of those who had the means (and foresight) to buy one of the first condos to be built there, each worth about $13,000 at the time. It was a different time, and lifestyle.

"Those were fun times," he said. "In our teens, we were hard at it then. We hung out there."

His most memorable day of skiing was at Tod Mountain, a day in the late 1960s when the Burfield chair wasn't operating as it had been damaged in a fire and was closed that season.

McLaren caught a ride to the top of the mountain on a tracked vehicle and skied down with a friend in four feet of fresh untouched snow.

"We skied Expo. It was a perfect sparkling blue-sky day. It was just effortless skiing. It was probably the best ski day of my life; we could have carried on forever. It was like a dream."

Just as McLaren and his friends grew up, so did the mountain. Nippon Cable's acquisition of Tod Mountain operations in 1992 signaled the start of the new era. Sun Peaks Resort opened up Tod Mountain's eastern slopes to new crowds, and made it the popular travel destination it is today.

Rublee said the transition to Sun Peaks chased away some of the "lifestyle" ski crowd.

"Some of the hardcore guys, which is not what you build your business on anyway, took off for other mountains," he said.

But almost everyone who skied at Tod then welcomed the new owners, the development and the expansion. Sun Peaks today is a radically different place, but the core of what made Tod Mountain special to many still exists.

The Burfield chair still runs, taking 23 long and cold minutes to carry skiers to the top, in order to ski terrain largely unchanged from 1961.

Rublee said Sun Peaks has seemed like "controlled growth," something he expects will continue for the next 50 years.

"There is lots of opportunity to expand. There certainly is capacity for growth.

"It's never going to be a Whistler and I don't want it to be. We have high quality skiing, but in the big picture, compared to other mega resorts, it's still quite affordable."

And the culture that existed in the '60s, '70s and '80s can still be found, though on a smaller scale. The "old guard" - people like Ian McLaren and his father - are still on the mountain, quietly skiing, as they have always done.

They likely won't be found on weekends or during the peak busy periods, he said, but on weekdays and during the shoulder seasons, those Tod Mountain pioneers still show up.

"They are in their 60s, 70s and 80s now, and still going strong," Rublee said. "They still have what they want."

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