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Climbing that Big White mountain: the birth of Kelowna’s signature ski hill

Best friends they were 12, Cliff Serwa and Doug Mervyn created Kelowna’s ski resort
The first ski shop at Big White Ski Resort created and founded by Cliff Serwa and Doug Mervyn. (Contributed by Cliff Serwa)

The story of Big White Ski Resort starts with co-founders Cliff Serwa and Doug Mervyn.

Serwa and Mervyn saw the need for a bigger ski resort close to Kelowna and went all into creating it themselves.

“It would’ve never happened if Doug and I weren’t good friends,” said Serwa.

When they were just growing up, both of them moved to Kelowna with their families and met at United Church Camp. From there, they became friends when they were around 12 years old. They both loved the outdoors, including becoming junior members of a fish and game club.

Over the years, Serwa, Mervyn and their friends would make trips to Little White Mountain and stay at a forestry lookout where you could see Big White.

“It was all alone and we were attracted to it, we always wanted to get to Big White,” said Serwa.

In the summer of 1953, Serwa was working in construction for the family business, which was Serwa Bulldozing at the time (now Serwa Excavating Ltd.). He was building a road link connecting the end of Joe Rich Valley to McCulloch Road on the other side. At the time, it was the closest he’d ever been to Big White.

A winter season soon after, Serwa, Mervyn, and their friend Howard Carter tried to hike to Big White in snowshoes but got caught up in a blizzard, only getting to West Kettle Valley.

The two of them would also hike and hunt in the area but never made it to the mountain, despite their attempts throughout the years.

As they were still in their late teens and into their early 20s, they both continued to work for their fathers.

Mervyn was also the director at the Black Mountain Ski Bowl above Rutland, which was the only place to ski in Kelowna at the time.

“Some winters we had two weeks of skiing and some we had six weeks,” said Mervyn. “It became obvious there was a need for another ski area.”

Thanks to Mervyn having his private and commercial pilot’s license, he was able to fly around the Okanagan to get a lay of the land.

“Big White was unquestionably the right mountain to development,” said Mervyn.

At first, they promoted the idea around town but weren’t able to get anyone interested right away.

“One day, we were going somewhere and I said to Doug ‘Why don’t we try it?’” said Serwa. “Both Doug and I were risk-takers and of the mind ‘it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’ so we wanted to try to do something on their own. Silverstar (Vernon) had started and Apex (Penticton) had started.”

The two of them then went on to find out what they had to do to get started. It was recommended to get a Ministry of Forest Special Use Permit. If they got that permit, they had two years to get everything done and open Big White.

To get started, they would have to scout the mountain. The first trip was 22 hours and they would get stuck in another storm and wouldn’t have enough equipment with them. They got to the west side of the mountain and thought the ski hill would go there. In the second round, they prepared themselves better, making the trip over a few days and camping near the top of the mountain. They got to the south slope and found the terrain and the view they were looking for. Despite the extra road mileage, this is where the mountain was going to be in their eyes.

They figured if they got approved, they would have one year to build the road and one year to build the lift and chalet. But that changed.

It had been four months and they hadn’t heard anything about their permit application and hadn’t told many people except their families, and close friends. Until the day Serwa recalls he was at his parents’ house for lunch and the radio was on. All of a sudden, the newscaster said on the radio a group of local businessmen were looking to develop Big White.

Confused by this, Serwa and Mervyn inquired about their application, which did get approved but with a twist - they only had one year for operations to begin, a mighty tall task.

“We didn’t have much money,” both Serwa and Mervyn echo, but eventually they got businesses in Kelowna to invest. Even those who would never ski were interested because of the benefits it would have for Kelowna.

“The business people in Kelowna were wonderful, buying shares in the company with us and without that, we would’ve never been able to get it done,” added Mervyn.

Serwa’s dad was also generous on the payback terms as his construction company helped them with the 13 Mile Road.

It was November 1962, when they started construction by building a CAT trail from a logging road (that Rutland Saw Mills opened up) up to the mountain. They laid out the road, did all the footwork themselves, and utilized logging roads to help out as much as possible. Mervyn said it took them the whole month for them to build right of way to the mountain that is still there today.

There wasn’t much downtime but when there was, Serwa and Mervyn would bring their skiing friends to the mountain to help get their thoughts and ideas.

“I wasn’t a skier and these friends were,” recalls Serwa.

At one point during the winter, they had to stop construction because there was simply too much snow.

One of the challenges they faced was in 1963, that spring and summer was the wettest year on record from heavy participation and snowmelt.

“Some days were real downers,” said Serwa. “The road was the biggest challenge, the rest of it fell into place once we had the road.”

As the road got better and access to the mountain became easier, they took the J5 Bombardier, a CAT and a few workers and started clearing the area to build the original chalet site, which is further up the mountain than the present one. They also started building the parking lot.

In September 1963, work began on the ski lift.

The last piece of the puzzle for Serwa and Mervyn was adding the cable to the ski lift.

“In a 12-hour day, near the top of the original T-Bar, we made 147 lineal feet (of cable) in five and a half feet of snow,” recalls Serwa. “It would build up on the tracks and we would have to clean it out.”

After just over a year of work, Serwa and Mervyn opened Big White to the public on Dec. 8, 1963.

“We were very fortunate to be able to get it done,” says Mervyn.

On the very first day, more than 100 cars were in the parking lot, bringing about 400 people to the ski hill.

“You could hardly believe it,” said Serwa. “And you have to understand, it was gravel road up to the mountain, it was a rough drive and our road wasn’t very good but it enabled us to have a very successful first year.”

In those days a ticket to the hill was $3.

Mervyn added when they first opened, his wife Marie ran the food business while his daughter Rhonda stood on a box so she could reach the cash register at the cafeteria.

When the two of them started, they each put $20,000 into the project and received great financial support from local businesses but it would be two more years before the pair would make any money from the mountain.

“At the end of the first year of operation, we had about $200,000 of investment in the mountain including the road, the lift, and the chalet and our first year gross revenue was $27,000,” said Serwa. “It’s changed a lot since then.”

At the time, they still made money from their everyday jobs with Serwa in construction and Mervyn as a car salesman.

“There were a lot of challenges, energy and time was one of them,” said Mervyn.

During their time owning the resort, they also created something that had never been done before. At one point, they wanted to expand the mountain and they had a new chairlift in mind, that would go from the chalet to the west ridge, where the skiing was happening. Mervyn went to the Doppelmayr Factory in Austria to order the new lift when Serwa called him saying they needed to change their idea.

Mervyn came back and they looked at the area and concluded the ski area was already too congested and didn’t open to any new areas. Instead, they built another mile and a half of road going down below the present lift drives and towards the village - this would open up a whole new area never seen before.

“The side benefit was something we had never seen either in Europe or in North America, a village within a ski area where people could ski from their residence to a lift system and from a lift system to their residence,” said Serwa. “It was unique in that way.”

Over time, the resort would grow every year right in front of their eyes.

The two of them brought power, water, and a sewer system to the mountain at their own expense as well as building the first condominiums.

Eventually, in 1978, Cliff and Doug agreed to sell the resort as they could see the work that was going to have to continue.

“The demands of skiing were going to take a lot of money we didn’t have,” said Mervyn.

When the two of them were on the mountain, they would check everything to make sure it was okay and not damaged.

“We were a partnership and we were also pioneers. What was happening was that the things that we loved doing, being outside, were being relegated because at times we had up to 200 employees. It needed a more sophisticated style of management, we were too close to everything,” said Serwa.

They sold the resort to Dave Bowering, who was the son of the former Deputy Minister of Commercial Transport.

Because of their knowledge of the mountain, Cliff and Doug said they would help but Bowering never consulted them.

The two of them went on to have other great adventures in their life. Mervyn always wanted to be a rancher and had a little ranching experience growing up. He eventually bought a ranch in Williams Lake that became the first cattle ranch in the province. Serwa got into politics ‘by accident’ he says and became BC’s MLA from 1986-1996, representing Okanagan South before Okanagan West.

For Serwa, his granddaughter Kelsey made herself a household name at the mountain as she went on to represent Canada at three Winter Olympics Games.

“It’s very impressive,” said Serwa. “We were there when she won silver and gold. What’s most impressive is the degree of work she’s put into achieving…It’s been good for the mountain and Kelowna and been fantastic.”

In 1985, the Schumann family was looking at Apex but discovered Big White. They decided to buy it and have been the owners since.

“They’ve done a great job, they’ve had the financial resources,” said Serwa.“I think I would be a liar to say we envisioned to the magnitude it is today, all we were really hoping for is to create something that would be a benefit to the community and we would have our own jobs,” added Serwa. “It’s an absolute honour to be a part of it.”

On June 13, 2023, the two of them were named inductees to the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame (COSHOF).

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Jordy Cunningham

About the Author: Jordy Cunningham

Hailing from Ladner, B.C., I have been passionate about sports, especially baseball, since I was young. In 2018, I graduated from Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops with a Bachelor of Journalism degree
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