Category Archives: Whistler Blackcomb

Contrasts

With my lungs finally behaving like part of a functioning human body again, I decided to sneak one extra ski day into my week of vacation. Yesterday was the perfect day for it.

I drove up a snowy Sea to Sky, with the trees wearing progressively thicker capes of white from Squamish onwards. My first chairlift rides were in thick cloud, with snowflakes falling lightly from a leaden sky. The mountain was cold and quiet, and I was able to steal first tracks on about 10cm of overnight snow on the blue runs under Franz’s, Tokum, and Dave Murray. The light powder on top of groomers felt like silk beneath my skis. On Bear Paw the snow was boot-deep and unbroken on the edges of the run, with deeper pockets here and there.

Clouds behind Symphony

As the clouds cleared I headed to Harmony, where I caught a run on largely untracked powder down Low Roll and then through soft, churned up snow through Boomer Bowl back to the chair. It was the kind of conditions the Rockers were made for, and I couldn’t believe the difference they made to my performance. I popped back out at the lift with an unshakeable, lightly snow-dusted grin plastered to my face. For me, these skis are already a game changer.

In between the euphoria of the runs, I saw a sobering incident just below Low Roll. An injured snowboarder lay completely motionless on the snow, being tended to by a friend. Patrollers gathered round and worked on him, and a short time later a heli flew in and he was loaded up and taken away. I hope he’s alright; he didn’t move once, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many patrollers attending a single person before.

Around mid-morning I headed over to Blackcomb and the Glacier, unaware that this was its opening day. The area closest to the bootpack was already tracked out, but on the lower angle slopes to skier’s right and just outside the boundary on the Husume apron there was plenty of untouched powder. I flew down it, sliding into huge surfing turns on a run I never wanted to end. It wasn’t quite as epic as the day last season when a ski buddy and I got first tracks after a huge storm, but it was easily the best Glacier run I’ve had apart from that. The Rockers are the perfect ski for this kind of snow: tons of float, super maneuverable, and a joy to arc through turns on bottomless snow. I was grinning the whole way down Glacier Road.

The Glacier was so awesome that I went back to do it again after a brief stop for lunch. There wasn’t as much untracked snow left second time around, but the Rockers just rocketed over the tracks between powder pockets and I barely noticed they were there.

Blackcomb Glacier panorama

It was one of those days when I didn’t want to stop skiing. Even frozen feet and hands couldn’t drive me inside. Secret Chute yielded some awesome soft snow, and unfortunately one lurking rock near the entrance that took a core shot out of my left ski. Seventh was bony up top with super fun soft carving lower down (the camber underfoot makes the Rockers surprisingly competent on groomers for their width), but the off-piste slopes were littered with more rocks so I quickly moved back to the Horstman side of the mountain.

Back on Whistler I was able to sneak one final run in on Red before the chairs stopped turning. Even the ski out to Creekside was fun, with half of the runs left ungroomed and little creeks to hop over here and there. The evening light lit up the last traces of cloud lingering in the valleys as I cruised down Kadenwood to the village.

Kadenwood views

Re-entry to the world after a day on the mountain is always jarring; even more so after days this good, when the snow is incredible and the skies are blue and there’s no place on earth you’d rather be. Yesterday reality came crashing in with a desperate harshness, the tragic news from Connecticut so at odds with the simplicity and joy of the slopes I’d just left. I wish I could have stayed up there, above it all, a long way away from the news and the violence that humans can inflict on one another.

Back in the powder

Day two: powder!

With the Creekside Gondola down, we drove into the village and rode Excalibur up to a glorious powder morning. Our first run was full of knee deep turns and shoulder shots, crossing tracks around pockets of untouched snow. We reached the end with quivering quads and mile-wide grins, then got back onto the lift as fast as we could.

Jersey zone on a powder morning

From Excelerator we headed over to Jersey Cream, where conditions on the wall were incredible: deep, steep, soft. The Rockers were in their element, floating and smearing through the snow. It’s a ski that was made for these kinds of conditions. We lapped Jersey a few times until the snow started to track out, and then headed to Ross’s where we were able to poach fresh snow lower down the run while slalom racers practiced higher up.

The weather was chaotic, lurching without warning from heavy snowfall to brief moments where the clouds cleared, broken sunshine filtered through, and we could see the winds tearing huge plumes of snow from the ridgelines higher up. We rode Peak to Peak into a dense fog that hung in the valley between the mountains, giving the appearance of gondola cabins emerging from a grey void.

Peak 2 Peak

In the afternoon we headed over to Whistler, where we railed a few groomers, tested our legs on moguls much too big for our weary quad muscles, and found some lingering stashes of soft snow on Dave Murray and in the trees around Franz’s. We’d planned to hit Harmony when it opened, but poor timing left us a long way back in a giant line and we bailed in favour of getting more skiing in elsewhere.

After we came off the slopes we hung out by the fireside at the Dubh Linn Gate for a little while, drinking beer and waiting for the premiere of Candide Thovex’s new film, Few Words, over at the Conference Centre. It was an excellent movie and well worth the time; more food for thought than many of this year’s counterparts, incredible ski footage (natch), and interesting insights into a skier who has always let his skiing do the talking in the past.

Apres

In spite of the persistent bronchitis and legs that really aren’t too sure what has hit them since the season started, I had an incredible day. All I wanted on the last run was to come back the next day, and do it all over again. My lungs aren’t up to that yet, but with the help of an inhaler they are slowly improving. I hope that the season will begin in earnest very soon.

Back in the world

It sucks being a seasonal sports addict. For six long months, you’re cut off from the activity you love the most. You use other muscles and try to make the best of doing other things. And then suddenly the season turns, and you’re back in a world that you last stood in half a year ago. It feels as comforting and familiar as home and yet as unknown as walking on the surface of the moon. There’s no consistency in your progression when it suffers such an intense annual disruption.

This year, more than any other, I couldn’t wait for winter to start. I’ve been sick since the beginning of July, first with one thing and then another that jumped in while my immune system was still on hiatus. I’m out of condition, still on medication, weaker than I’ve ever been going into a ski season. Weaker by far than I was coming back from my blown knee and surgery in 2011. And yet I’ve never needed to ski more than I do right now. I need some kind of redemption, something to take me away from the things I lost this year that I won’t get back. I need that one thing where nothing else matters and once the turns begin there’s no more room in the world to think of anything else.

Yesterday, it came around at last.

Rocker 2s, Red Chair

I’d been anxiously hovering over snow-forecast.com for days, tracking storms like an amateur meteorologist. In the end, we got lucky; I opted out of Whistler’s early opening at the weekend to allow an extra few days for my bronchitis-ridden lungs to rest and heal. Those who made the trek on Saturday were rewarded with a 25cm base and howling winds. We waited for Thursday, Blackcomb’s opening day, and got 126cm of additional snow and ungroomed runs all over the mountain.

I’ve been wanting this day so hard and for so long that I’d lost the ability even to imagine it. This new, feeble body that four months of illness has left me with doesn’t know how to carve a turn. The night before I woke from a dream that we’d already been to Whistler, and I couldn’t remember a single turn or run. At Creekside, boots on my feet and skis over my shoulder, it didn’t seem possible. On the gondola, watching the blanket of white deepen as the cables pulled us up the mountain, it didn’t seem possible. On Red Chair, gazing at the snowline that stretched almost the whole way to the valley floor and feeling my face and fingers go numb in an unfamiliar cold, it didn’t seem possible. Standing at the top of Ego Bowl, a single heartbeat away from the first turn, I honestly felt that I must still be in a dream.

My lack of practice and fitness and ability to breathe properly showed. I skied like a gaper from first chair to last. My first couple of runs were all skidded turns, trying to adjust to my weakened body and six months away from snow and a new pair of skis with a full hybrid rocker profile. On the third run I suddenly remembered how to carve, and finally got the new skis up on edge and running with speed. On the fourth run we left the groomers, and as we ploughed through the soft new snow the Rockers came into their element and blew my mind.

I’m not going to make any apologies for how badly I rode them. I had no style, no finesse, no technique: I simply hit the snow and made my way down as best I could. And yet these skis were like nothing else I’ve ever strapped to my feet. They floated. They bounced. They were playful as hell. They were fun.

That’s as much as I can tell you about the Rockers from day one, because I wasn’t able to ski them to any kind of reasonable testing level. What I can tell you is that we skied perfect corduroy under Emerald at the start of the day, knee-deep blower pow on Blackcomb, and soft moguls and heavy crud on Whistler in the afternoon. And I walked from it at the end of the day with a grin – such a grin – because this is my world, and I’m finally back in it. I may be crashing inelegantly through with flailing arms, weakened legs and a total lack of grace, but I’m here. And right now, this year, that’s the only thing that matters.

Alternate universe

All this time, and I’ve never been to the Whistler alpine in the summer. The closest I came was on our honeymoon, when we rode the gondola from a summer valley through fall colours and into a winter wonderland where the snow was already a foot deep in mid-September. I didn’t ski at Whistler that year because I was too busy dealing with finding work, applying for Canadian residency, and being broke. I suspect it was an epic season.

Snow reservoir, September 2004

This September we celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary, and decided there was no better way to spend the day than revisiting the scenes from our honeymoon. We arrived in Whistler village on a baking afternoon that felt more like mid-August, and rode a greenhouse-like gondola up to the Roundhouse. The tourists sharing our cabin were speculating about what it might look like in the winter, and I pointed out the best runs and landmarks on the way.

Whistler peak (summer)

Being in the Whistler alpine on a glorious sunny day in the early fall was a strange, strange thing. I felt like I was in an alternate universe: this world I know so incredibly well now – I can track the changing contours on a run from one season to the next – and yet everything about it was different. Shale Slope, which is pretty mellow for a black run, looked near-vertical. There wasn’t a waterfall at the Waterfall, which confused me. I could just make out the lines of Air Jordan, but without their winter coat it was hard to imagine them skiable.

Whistler in the summer

All the angles were different, and everything was sharper and darker. I love mountain landscapes more than any other kind, regardless of the season. And yet they’re at opposite ends of the spectrum: the clean, monochromatic winter, where everything is so simple and pure. The jumbled chaos of summer: grasses, alpine flowers and trees, the fading reds and blacks of basalt and shale, uneven surfaces and the sudden blue of lakes that would be just another frozen surface at another time of year.

High Note inukshuk

We rode up to the peak, and hiked around for a while on the High Note trail. Here and there we found trace patches of snow leading into the bowls, and with the desperation of a long summer I hurled myself onto them. One day soon the new season’s snow will start flying.

Summer snow at Whistler

It was a very strange experience: being somewhere that I know better than almost any place on earth, and yet having every single thing about it from the colours to the way the ground felt underfoot being so profoundly different.

More than anything else, J was looking forward to her first Peak 2 Peak ride. Her dearest wish was that we have a cabin to ourselves. I told her I thought this was very unlikely – the lineup when we reached the Roundhouse was 50 deep – and yet perfectly on cue, it happened. A glass-floored gondola swung in right after the cabin we were in line for, and everyone else abandoned ship and rushed for it. We hopped into the first cabin, and rode the distance between the two mountains completely alone. It was all my favourite things rolled into one: Whistler, mountains, and J. It was beautiful. It was a very fine way to celebrate an anniversary.

Whistler anniversary

Gaper Day 2012

Monday was Gaper Day. In spite of a weather forecast that looked like a dog’s breakfast and my ski buddy’s unexpected cancellation at the last minute due to a sleepless night, there was no way I was going to miss it. In the event the weather was awful and the snow was mucky slush, but I was so glad I made it out.

The costumes, as always, were awesome.

Gaper Day chefs

Gaper Day outfits

Some were extra specially awesome. I believe!

GSA

There were garywaynes.

garywaynes

The pond skimming was particularly good this year, with some fabulous wipeouts.

Pond skimming

Underwear skim

Pond skim

And then, just like that, it was over. 39 days of amazing skiing, backcountry adventures, powder days and hero spring snow. The year of no restrictions. The best season I’ve ever had.

Now it’s time to turn my thoughts to the summer ahead, to randonneur rides and GranFondos and dusty singletrack. I love the lazy days and drawn out evenings, the blue skies and the sunshine, the long swims in the outdoor pool and the ocean. But somewhere inside, a little piece of me will always be glancing over at the mountains in the distance and the slight coating of white that still crowns the highest peaks, dreaming of the days when the snow flies and once again, after a wait that’s always way too long, the new season begins.

Spring in the PNW

I always have a hard time picking my favourite season. Hot summer: the beautiful blues and greens of the Burrard Inlet; long bike rides and ocean swims; salt-scented air and dazzling light fading to sunsets blazing across the sky. Deep winter: snowstorms and powder days; the lure of the mountains; the endless dance with the weather and the evolving snowscape and those unbelievable moments when everything falls into place and you get as close as you ever will to flying. Smoky autumn: the flare of fall colours; air still warm enough to ride a bike in shirtsleeves; that very faint chill in the mornings that holds all the promise of the winter to come.

And then there’s spring.

Yesterday I woke early, and cruised up the Sea to Sky with a brief stop at Galileo Coffee. In the Whistler day lots the sun was already beating down fiercely, and up on the mountain the icy runs softened very quickly. There isn’t much snow below the base of Solar Coaster now, but it’s solid from there to the Rendezvous and in the high alpine I even found a dusting of fresh snow on the Horstman Glacier. Seventh was a dream, with icy upper runs softening to perfectly granulated snow lower down. Late in the afternoon I lapped Solar Coaster again and again, catching whatever air I could off the bumps and rollers and blasting down the final slushy stretch back to the lift.

When the clock ran down I left the mountain and drove home to the sun-drenched city, where J and I got on our bikes and rode in shirtsleeves to Kits Beach. In the warm, cloudless evening, we jumped into the Kits pool and swam for an hour beside the ocean as the sun went down. The next day, we spent the afternoon drowsing on the warm sands at Jericho and plunging into the chilly ocean waves for the first time this year.

On Sunday I rode to Lions Bay and back with two of my bike buddies, and then climbed the Grind with J in the evening. There aren’t too many places in the world where all of this would be possible in the space of a single gorgeous spring weekend. Vancouver, you’re the best.

The last powder day of the season

I’ll be honest. The upload didn’t look promising.

Upload

Fortunately, the upload was completely wrong. Pow day!

Pow day!

I’d seen that there was snow forecast overnight, but given that it was May 4th what I wasn’t expecting was to arrive at Whistler and find midwinter powder. It had fallen after the night’s grooming had been completed, so at first chair the entire mountain was an unbroken blanket of white. We lapped Jersey while we waited for 7th to open, and with just a handful of people on the mountain we were able to get run after run on untracked snow on Jersey Cream Wall.

Mid-morning on Jersey Cream

When 7th opened later in the morning, we raced as fast as we could down the cat track to the chair. Lakeside was closed, but Xhiggy’s and the Everglades yielded a series of glorious runs in knee-deep snow that felt more like February than May. My powder technique still has a lot of gaper moments, but it’s come on one hell of a long way compared to last season.

I skied until the powder was finally tracked out, and then we headed down for a late patio lunch at Merlin’s where we were able to shake our heads over a beer and wonder if we’d just dreamed the morning. We had time for a couple more laps before heading back to Van; on the lower part of the mountain the snow was super fun slush under a blue sky, with absolutely no hint of the winter wonderland hiding above the mid-mountain cloud.

Spring on the mountain

I’m quite certain that will be the last powder day this year. Given how late in the season it is, I’m not complaining.

Spring powder day

I had a pretty neat day at Whistler last Friday. The alpine had been closed for a few days, and storms had delivered a foot or so of fresh snow high on the mountain. I skied a few icy groomers, and then took a chance and headed down the cat track to Seventh. The chair opened while I was on the way there, and I got one run down on completely untracked snow. The mountain was quiet, so even the second and third runs were on pretty clean powder.

Cloud 9 powder

I skied Seventh till it got completely tracked out, then headed back over to Solar Coaster and had some fun carving down Springboard and jumping off cat tracks. It was quite a bizarre juxtaposition; powder and deep winter in the morning, and spring hero snow in the afternoon. The run back down to Base II was a glorious high-speed blast that I desperately wanted to repeat. At this time of year, every day is a gift and very few days start off like that one.

So long, Whistler

Even though the forecast was crappy, last Friday was my last chance to ski at Whistler this season and I couldn’t pass it up. My truck has gone on loan to a friend while she moves house, so I was driving her brand-new Volkswagen Golf station wagon. Between the heated seats and the media console, it felt like I was cruising up the Sea to Sky in the lap of luxury.

The morning was actually far better than I expected. About five centimetres of snow had fallen overnight, and the freezing level had dropped. Garbanzo was closed, and it only took me one run to realize that as a result no-one was skiing Dave Murray. I caught first tracks, second tracks, and third tracks before anyone joined me. The slope beneath the fresh snow was pretty icy, but there was enough of a layer on top to catch a whisper of an echo of those powder days out on Diamond Head and the Blackcomb Glacier.

I’d hoped to get up into the alpine, but the peak stayed veiled in impenetrable cloud and strong winds were whipping down from the Saddle. I tried to visit as many mid-mountain favourites as I could, knowing how long it would be until I saw them again. I even skied out to the village a couple of times, extending the runs just a little further while the snow was still good. After lunch the winds really started howling and I spent the final couple of hours in the terrain park. My confidence in the air is coming back and although I’m still sticking to smaller features, I was catching more speed on the kickers and finding lips to jump off around the edges of the glades on the way back to the chair.

The end came too quickly, as it always does. Blackcomb is open for another month, and I’m hoping for a handful more days and some more of that glorious spring skiing before the season draws to a close. I know that from here on, everything will feel like it’s winding down and I’m just not ready for that. This year more than any other, I truly want it to last forever.

Return of winter

Spring days

Spring skiing is such a double-edged sword. The sky is blue, the slopes are warm, the snow is glorious…and the clock is running down. You have to make the most of every moment, because this particular kind of perfection only occurs as the end is drawing near.

My last visit to Whistler was an absolutely perfect spring day. Icy first thing, softening to hero snow mid-morning. I couldn’t ski enough runs, go fast enough, keep going long enough. I love these conditions. I love the spring. Slushy snow that’s heavy enough to build into bumps that you can air all over the run, but soft enough to slice like your skis are a surgical scalpel? Bring it on.

Late in the afternoon when we’d climbed high to find some slightly firmer snow for my friend K, I turned left and took a run down the Blackcomb Glacier. After a week without precipitation, I was still crossing pockets of powder and blowing through soft heaped snow. All I had to do was point the skis downhill, and then deke them left and right enough to avoid going completely out of control.

This is what I should have been doing all of this season, and maybe last too (though there was a different need for caution then that makes it hard to assess now.) Point. Click. Chute. It’s that easy. The faster and harder I go, and the more speed and aggression I bring into my turns, the easier it is. It’s that simple.

I’ve hit that point in the season where everything has clicked. I’m feeling confident on the slopes, in the air, on icy groomers and in crazy bumped out basins. I don’t want the days to end. I want to keep on skiing like this forever. This is what really sucks about loving a seasonal sport: every year, it has to end. And five months from now, my legs won’t remember the lessons they learned as this season drew to a close. They’ll be tense, difficult, jarred. They’ll have to begin all over again.

In the meantime, there’s a bare month of the season left. I hope that as many of those days as possible will be ones like this.

Spring mountains