Hitting the blissful slopes of British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb, the biggest, wildest, craziest, friendliest, most eco-conscious ski resort
One day this winter, I was gliding down a gentle curve on Blackcomb Mountain in British Columbia. It was early afternoon, on my second full day of skiing at the Whistler Blackcomb resort. The slope began to level out, and my thoughts grew as lofty as the clouds topping the surrounding Coast Mountains. I shivered, anticipating the next day’s heli-skiing trip. I ran through arguments that might persuade my risk-averse ski buddies to try a few more black diamond runs. I was “out there.”
The reverie of the moment, though, was suddenly interrupted by a sharp tug on my right leg. My rented Völkl skis snagged an edge, sending me tumbling down to the run’s bottom. Fully caked in snow, I looked up to see a bearded face gazing at me with a concerned expression. “Are you OK?” the man said. “There’s a ski patrol base right up the hill…” And then, with that lovely Canadian restraint: “…That is, if you need it.”
If skiing experiences were fine art, Whistler Blackcomb would be the Metropolitan Museum, an expertly curated collection so vast that one week of daily visits is little more than an introduction. The resort boasts 8,171 acres of skiable terrain spread across more than 200 runs. Thirty-eight lifts can carry more than 60,000 skiers per hour up a staggering 10,300 feet of vertical. The two mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, are joined at the base and nestled high in Canada’s Coast Mountains. On clear days you can look out from the lifts and take in a dramatic view—mountain ridges bristling with snow-dusted fir trees, back-dropped by the craggy peaks and glaciers of Garibaldi Provincial Park.
The Pacific coast’s varied weather and relatively heavy, wet snowfall have led to a longstanding debate over how Whistler stacks up against Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort, with its older pedigree and famously dry “champagne” powder. But the competitive terrain has shifted since the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which brought many improvements to Whistler’s infrastructure. The governments of Canada and British Columbia spent $600 million transforming the notoriously treacherous Sea-to-Sky Highway into a safer and wider road. This cliff-hanging stretch of Highway 99 runs from Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay up through the mountains to Whistler and beyond. (My skiing partners and I easily navigated the midwinter jaunt in a chain-less Toyota Prius.)
Cross-country skiers can now take in more than 50 miles of trails at the new Whistler Olympic Park, a short drive from the downhill slopes. Nearby, the Whistler Sliding Center is planning to launch a public skeleton program later this year and a bobsled run in 2012. These enhancements build on 2008’s completion of the $50 million-budgeted Peak 2 Peak Gondola, an engineering marvel that floats skiers from Whistler to Blackcomb and back, spanning almost three miles of alpine air. Whistler Blackcomb is well on its way to leaving its American rival behind, becoming to many North America’s premier ski destination.
It’s not only the slopes that make the resort accommodating. Many of the add-up costs of skiing are complimentary at Whistler Blackcomb: free cubbies in Whistler Village to stash your sneakers; free tool stations on the slopes for making on-mountain adjustments; free orientation tours from local “mountain hosts.” Complimentary shuttles ferry skiers back and forth between the mountains’ bases. The village itself is a model of car-free planning, an inviting warren of pedestrian promenades that wind past boutiques and restaurants. Whether you rent a $700-per-night ski-to-door chalet, or a $50-per-night hostel, you won’t need a vehicle.
It’s also more at one with nature than many 4-star resorts—quite literally: Palm-sized birds called Gray Jays hop from ski pole to pole, some even landing on skiers’ heads. Whistler appears to have bested the Sisyphean challenge of keeping the ecosystem pristine while hosting 2 million visitors annually. Programs like reusable cups have diverted more than 60 percent of the resort’s waste stream away from landfills.
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For the day’s final run we flew to the top of Rainbow Glacier. For the first time, it was truly cold, maybe five degrees. We descended about 1,000 feet into the 3,000-foot run. The air warmed. I picked up speed, bouncing from turn to turn. The new snow opened up with a zipper-like sound, and my attention shifted to the mountains encircling the distant horizon. A moment later, I was dealt another blow by Whistler’s formidable combination of gravity and bliss, losing both of my skis and leaving me with a mouth full of powder. I came up laughing, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before it happened yet again.