There is a certain kind of frigid that envelopes every pore when you're plucked from a New Zealand summer and thrust into a Canadian winter.
The -20C temperature stabs your irises and the skin on the tip of your nose. And if you happen to be flying down a ski slope at ill-advised speeds, don't be surprised if the wind chill — which feels like -500C — sears the softest parts of your cheeks.
Unlikely as it sounds, this is a small price to pay for enjoying the splendour of mountain views, epic powder snow, and the sheer joy of ripping down a mountainside on improbable strips of fibreglass, also known as skis.
It would probably be more skin-preserving to slow down in such conditions, but that's not really an option if — perhaps foolishly, in hindsight — you happen to have described your own skills in the lead up to your visit as something like "supremely awesome".
This led to a morning of instruction with Nancy Greene Raine, Canadian female athlete of the century and certified Master of All Things Supremely Awesome. The 75-year-old looks about half that age, skis every day that's skiable, and out-skis 99 per cent of the thousands that flock every winter to Sun Peaks Resort, near the city of Kamloops in British Colombia.
She collected an Olympic gold and World Cup titles in the 1960s, then turned her attention to developing skiing in Canada, firstly in Whistler and then in Sun Peaks, where she is now director of skiing. And it's not hard to see why. She glides effortlessly over any and all terrain, weaving in and out of trees and bumpy moguls while looking serene, carefree and casual.
Nancy is also a no-nonsense instructor who doesn't waste any breath when she offers tips. "Don't use your upper body so much." "Push with the balls of your feet." "Let your hands flop to your sides — poles are decorative."
I had been warned about Nancy's directness by someone the day before, who had been told, in blunt terms, that his skiing sucked. This was a stark contrast to the stereotypically polite Canadian disposition, which has been described by some as "nice to the point of boring".
My instructor the previous day, Carly, was far more gentle in offering tips. She told me to use my knees and ankles more aggressively so my skis would edge more and slide less. To best demonstrate this, Carly did a couple of normal turns, and then defied the laws of physics by lifting her downhill ski into the air and turning with only her uphill ski angled into the snow.
This was impossible to mimic. Every time I lifted my downhill ski and leaned, I slammed it back down straight away to avoid an inevitable crash. But I took solace in the fact that Carly's talents were often difficult to emulate; she also had the dubious distinction of finding forward-flips on skis much easier than back-flips.
Nancy's instructions - although delivered in a firmer tone - were at least simpler to follow. Push with the balls of the feet. Balance hips and legs. Let the skis do the rest. When I tried this, it actually made a demonstrable difference. My edges glided through the snow in glorious fashion. Even on steeper terrain, the simple act of engaging the balls of my feet made finding a rhythm and groove effortless.
I started skiing alongside Nancy more confidently as she darted around trees — forests are a regular and wonderful feature of Canadian ski resorts — and carved her way down groomed trails. Flying down the slopes with her was exhilarating, despite the wind chill stabbing at the tip of my nose.
Nancy sought to show me as much of Sun Peaks as possible and there's a lot to see. It has the second most ski-able terrain in Canada — behind only Whistler — and is expanding. There are five hills and 1700ha of terrain — three times the size of Whakapapa, New Zealand's largest ski area. And Sun Peaks includes luxurious facilities such as chairlifts with leg rests and wind shields.
At its heart is a tiny village with a permanent population of 800 — presided over by a mayor and four councillors — although the population swells to thousands over winter. It's unique in that it's a "ski-in, ski-out" centre. You park your car, check in where you're staying, and either walk through the snow or ski to anywhere you want to go. Even kids attending elementary school have to ride a ski-lift to get there.
Every morning we stepped out of the Sun Peaks Grand Hotel, put on our skis and made our way to a chairlift about 100m away. There was another only 50m away, if we were feeling lazier than usual.
Every evening, after a session of free yoga and a soak in the outdoor hot tubs of varying temperatures — fairly warm, beautifully warm, and unbearably hot — we wandered the strip of classy restaurants and bars in search of Canadian fare.
In all our culinary experimentation, one truth emerged: the flavour of poutine — fries covered in gravy and cheese curd — is enhanced with a few rounds of caesar, a seemingly incongruous mix of vodka, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and clam and tomato juice.
The convenience of such a place sets the bar very high, and one of the first things I noticed on arrival at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, in Banff, Alberta, was the apparent lack of a "ski-in, ski-out"experience.
With a punishing -28C and a dark shadow blanketing the bottom part of the resort, it seemed to be a clear case of false advertising.
"There will be sun at the top of the gondola," said Brynn, my guide for the day whose angelic, white complexion suggested she had no idea what direct sunshine was. But she was right. After a 25-minute ride, the gondola emerged into a divinity of sunshine, as well as spectacular mountain scenery in all directions, including a glimpse of the famous Mt Assiniboine.
The village at the top of the gondola was a different world to the shade-entombed section at the bottom. Five ski-lifts branched off in different directions, next to a centre that included a fine-dining restaurant and Sunshine's smaller version of the ski-in ski-out experience: a line of luxurious bedrooms drowning in sun-filled bliss.
Despite the sunshine, it soon became apparent that the raw, deadening feeling of cold air on exposed skin was not just a British Colombian phenomenon. But the snow, despite the lack of any recent snowfall, lent itself to some excellent gliding on the mostly easy-to-intermediate family-friendly terrain.
With 1350ha of ski-able terrain, there is also no shortage of steep stuff. There's even a back-country bowl that raised enough health and safety eyebrows to warrant restricted access.
Despite my improvements under the tutelage of the Canadian female athlete of the century, I decided against the bowl and found myself instead drawn to some steepish terrain on a long chairlift, which happened to have heated seats.
The delight of warm buns on the ride up the slope — and the blessings of good powder on a variety of terrain on the way down — was enough to keep me there all afternoon.
There are precisely zero heated seats at Lake Louise Ski Resort, an hour's drive west from Sunshine. To appease my obvious displeasure at this news, my guide Roland appealed to my elitist sensibilities.
"Lake Louise is for real skiers," he said. The sub-text was that real skiers take to the slopes for the snow, and those craving warm buns can stay at home at the expense of Lake Louise's supreme awesomeness. The sub-sub-text was: are you a real skier?
Roland definitely was. He had lived and skied in New Zealand — based at Treble Cone — and Australia before moving to Canada, where Canadian politeness had rubbed off on him over the years. He would not be baited into dumping on Sunshine, which he described as "nice" in tones that made me question whether this was a compliment.
There is nothing nice about Lake Louise, he said in tones that made it clear that this was a badge of honour. There is no accommodation for a "ski-in, ski-out" experience, no elementary school, and although there is a fine-dining restaurant, it's halfway up the mountain and requires effort to get there.
Lake Louise has plenty of beginner and intermediate slopes, but 60 per cent of the 145-odd runs are expert black diamond. There is also no shortage of back-country terrain which, perhaps in a nod to the type of skier Lake Louise attracts, doesn't require any special permission to access.
Lake Louise has three faces: Front, Back and Larch. Each face is grand enough to be an entire Whakapapa by itself. A gondola takes you to the top of the Front Face, where groomed trails cut wide roads through dense forests. The Back Face offers most of the ungroomed back-country. It has a distinct alpine feel, above the tree line. Several steep and narrow chutes dive from the top of the ridge into white oblivion.
The mountain views rival those at Sunshine; the north face of Mount Temple gazes out from across the valley, and you can even spy the distant majesty of Mount Assiniboine.
With an afternoon to myself, I took Roland's advice and rode the gondola, which soaked up the sun and provided some relief from -30C temperatures. He had recommended a steep, groomed trail that, for some reason, nobody else seemed to ski.
It was so sublime that I skied it all afternoon. I put Nancy Green Raine's lessons to the test and carved my way through powder at speeds of unheralded magnificence. Such freedom amid such natural beauty is hard to match on crowded, treeless New Zealand ski slopes where powder can be thin. So delectable was the elation that it mattered little that my buns were far from warm, or that I couldn't ski to my room and be in the shower within minutes.
It didn't leave me unscathed, however. A week later, the skin on the tip of my nose peeled off in alarming fashion. Two weeks later, dark spots on my cheeks suggested that frost-nip had visited. I didn't mind. I took comfort in telling myself that the scars of skiing in -30C were unmistakable signs that I'd made it as a real skier.