I’m now in my mid-60s and gradually checking off the ski area bucket list. In early March 2017 I made my first ever visit to Whistler-Blackcomb (Whistler) in Western Canada’s province of British Columbia. For much of my adult life Whistler has been at or near the top of the most important metrics in North American skiing: largest ski area (8,171 skiable acres), greatest vertical rise (5,234 feet), number one rated resort by many ski magazines, and one of the world’s most visited ski areas. Now that I’ve finally been to Whistler I can confirm another salient point, it gets a lot of white stuff.
This was only my third ski vacation outside the US and on the rare occasions when I’ve done that, I’ve sought out local cultural experiences. I’m setting myself up for serious flak from all Canadians, but British Columbia is about as close to being in America as any foreign country can be. There is no language barrier and I did not even notice much of a distinctive accent with many folks. I’m not sure if it was because of or despite this, but my wife and I had a great time in British Columbia including a memorable weekend touring Vancouver before making the 75 mile drive to Whistler.
We arrived in Vancouver on a Saturday afternoon and stayed in an inexpensive motel in the suburbs. That first night I had a quick and tasty cod dinner at an informal restaurant called Cockney Kings Fish and Chips in the town of Burnaby. The next day we drove to the renowned Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia on the west side of Vancouver. The campus is located on Point Grey and the museum stands on a majestic peninsula overlooking the Strait of Georgia, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean.
The museum is a post and beam architectural marvel and features a particularly strong collection of North American Indian artifacts. It was our great good fortune that the 10th annual Coastal First Nations Dance Festival was taking place at the museum on the very day of our impromptu visit. The festival included numerous performances by colorful and evocative Coastal First Nations dancers and singers.
After our tour of the Museum of Anthropology we set out for Vancouver’s Granville Island Public Market. Located on the south edge of downtown, the market abounds with merchandise from the local region and from all around the Pacific Rim. It was fun to wander through the enormous variety of foods, produce, and arts and crafts. Later we sampled some of our edible Granville Island discoveries while watching tour boats chug through the harbor beside the market.
We picked up our son that same night at the Vancouver airport and drove to Whistler in total darkness. The weather in Vancouver wasn’t much different than Washington, DC and it was only until the next morning when I stepped out of our condo into the light of day that I realized we were now immersed in white. Whistler Village was blanketed in snow and conditions on the slopes were excellent. They only got better in the five days we spent there because it snowed intermittently almost the whole time.
The scale of the terrain at Whistler is the first thing that hits you. I have visited a number of famed locations in the Alps, and the grandeur of Whistler’s vistas reminded me of the Alps. There is just no way to argue with one mile of vertical. It’s mind blowing to ride the long Whistler Village Gondola (3 miles length, 3,796-foot vertical) only to disembark and see the Whistler Peak Express (1,316-foot vertical) waiting to take you up another huge chunk of high alpine terrain. Whistler is the big leagues!
Another important take-away from my Whistler visit is that with great verticality comes great variability. You can and will ski through multiple types of snow conditions on a single top-to-bottom run. My ski days were often a mix of epic runs in excellent snow and terrain, interspersed with moments of terror in the lowest visibility I’ve ever experienced on a ski slope. I spent the first morning of my first day wandering around Whistler Bowl skiing very defensively in a range of vision of about ten yards.
After lunch my son Vince and I decided to seek out better visibility, so we hopped on the amazing Peak 2 Peak gondola connecting the Whistler side to the Blackcomb side of the resort. At 1.88 miles, the Peak 2 Peak is the longest unsupported lift span in the world and is suspended a breathtaking 1,427 ft above the ground as it transverses a deep gorge from mid-mountain Whistler to mid-mountain Blackcomb. From the Peak 2 Peak terminal on Blackcomb Mountain there is about 3,900 vertical feet of mostly intermediate runs back to Whistler Village. We skied these lower mountain runs the rest of the first day in comparatively good light.
My family rented a nice two bedroom condo in Whistler Village that I thought was very affordable at $170 per night thanks to the favorable exchange rate. It was within one-third mile walking distance of the Whistler Village gondola and that was the lift I used to start my second ski day. From the top of the gondola I took a couple of warm up runs and then connected with a group of hard charging friends for some of the most physically aggressive skiing of my week.
We stayed on Whistler Mountain, but focused on the tree runs beneath the lower two-thirds of the Harmony and Symphony Express Chairs. These chairs roughly parallel each other and both serve about 1,700 feet of vertical. We spent time on both. The visibility at the 6,939-foot summit of the Harmony Chair was bad, vertigo-inducing bad. The range of vision was less than ten feet at times and I almost collided with some of my friends. But the trees below the summit were steep, deep, and oh-so-sweet. My group made three or four laps off the Harmony chair, each time persevering through the white-out at the top for the opportunity to pillage a foot or more of fresh powder in the trees.
I took a day off from skiing on my third day at Whistler. My wife and I had a nice time strolling around town and checking out numerous shops and facilities. We also went snowshoeing on trails near the perimeter of the village. Despite the huge vertical of the place, the base elevation at Whistler is only 2,214 feet above sea level, which is similar to the base of many mid-Atlantic resorts such as Seven Springs, Wisp, and Massanutten. For a major western ski destination, the altitude adjustment is quite manageable for flat-landers and this makes it easier for vacationers to partake in active sports such as skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, jogging, etc.
On my fourth day at Whistler I returned to the ski hill and enjoyed a few morning runs in Whistler Bowl and on the long groomers of the lower mountain below it. By mid-day I was back on the Peak 2 Peak Gondola and crossing over to explore Blackcomb Mountain again. The highlight of the day was an afternoon lap through Blackcomb Glacier with my son Vince and DCSki forum member and fellow Virginian JohnL.
The scenery and skiing in Blackcomb Glacier is epic. This is where the scale of the place really goes off the charts. It was a trek to get to the entrance of the glacier even starting way up on the hill. From the Blackcomb Mountain terminal of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola at elevation 6,102 feet we had to ski about a mile, catch the long Glacier Express chair (6,175-foot length, 1,965-foot vertical), ride the Showcase T-Bar (486-foot vertical), and then walk about 50 yards up a small incline to an elevation of about 7,400 feet. It was definitely worth the effort! We skied a line a few hundred yards to skier’s left from the entrance of the glacier that had a fairly steep and convex pitch. I remember a distinct pucker factor on this terrain and a requirement for concentration because we had to avoid a nearby rocky area with serious consequences.
While the visibility had been a bit crazy at times earlier in the week at Whistler, the snow surfaces had always been nicely covered in untracked or packed powder. On my last day at Whistler (and fourth ski day) I got a strong parting dose of the unique climate of the Coast Mountains of British Columbia. Sections of the mountain received a foot of heavy overnight snow and I don’t think I have ever seen such variable conditions on a single day in 50 years of skiing.
It was raw at the base, cold at the summit, clear and mild at mid-mountain, foggy at times down low, and there were intermittent snow squalls up high. I got a taste of the heavy powder in the morning skiing off the Emerald (1,394-foot vertical) and Garbanzo (2,156-foot vertical) express chairs on Whistler Mountain. Later, trail surfaces went from powder, to cotton candy, to a shiny glaze in the span of a few hours.
At mid-morning I went back and checked out of my condo and grabbed a quick sandwich. Then I caught the free village shuttle to the base of Blackcomb Mountain and headed up to the Jersey Cream Express chair (1,230-foot vertical). Visibility was again dodgy and a friend named David who knew the mountain well guided several of us over to the 7th Heaven Express chair (1,929-foot vertical). The summit of this chair is the highest lift served point in the entire ski area at an elevation of 7,494 feet.
The summit of 7th Heaven was extremely foggy, but the visibility was mostly clear for the lower 1,700 vertical feet of this chair. So we stayed and lapped it for about 90 minutes. The snow was copious, but sticky like cotton candy. Nevertheless, I had a ball as my time on the mountain came to a close. The lesson this day was that sometimes at Whistler you don’t leave good visibility to search for better visibility. Sure enough, when we headed down from 7th Heaven at the end of the day we had about 3,000 vertical feet of skiing-by-Braille to get back to the base village.
In conclusion, I’m pretty good about effectively getting around a new mountain and checking it out, but I reflect on my Whistler trip with a strange feeling. Never before had I left a place after as many as four ski days and still felt there was so much yet to explore. Between the enormous scope of Whistler-Blackcomb and the tricky visibility, I literally missed seeing it all. I missed seeing Spanky’s Ladder and Couloir Extreme, not that I’d be able to ski them. I never made it down to Creekside. I barely got a few moments peek at the Black Tusk, one of the iconic mountain vistas from the slopes of Whistler.
My advice if you go to this mountain without a guide is to definitely take one of the free daily mountain orientation tours to help maximize your chances of finding the best snow conditions and your preferred terrain. The exchange rate for the last two years has essentially represented a 25% discount for Americans on lodging, dining, and shopping. If that holds, maybe I’ll return someday, sooner rather than later. One last thing, do at least one direction of the drive to Whistler in daylight. The Lord of the Rings/mountains-meet-the-sea views are unlike anything we have in the mid-Atlantic.
Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.
Jim - did you rent skis or bring your own? Thinking you would need a powder or mid fat ski for that terrian.
I brought a pair of 106mm wide skis on that trip. Those are pretty much my daily drivers west of the Mississippi, although sometimes in Utah my son will loan me something narrower or fatter depending...