This article, and distribution, was paid for by the Canadian Ski Council and produced in conjunction with POWDER.
Words by Mike Berard.
The first visit to Whistler always resonates with anticipation. It’s difficult to catch a glimpse of the mountain proper while driving Highway 99. Unlike other ranges, like the Rockies or the Alps, where the peaks dominate the skyline with all their edgy curves revealed, the Coast Range maintains broad, strong shoulders. She offers hints, but mostly keeps her secrets hidden as you climb from sea level to the iconic ski town of Whistler. Around each corner, another beautiful river, forested hill, or granite chunk appears, but the jagged peaks remain elusive. Anticipation grows as the oceanside highway winds. In Howe Sound, you begin to see the potential – the pyramid of Mount Atwell, Garibaldi’s massif, the impossible sharpness of Tantalus – but soon the road descends back in the forest. Passengers crane their necks in hopes of seeing the famous Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains. Excitement crests and falls, building slowly as the road gains elevation, deeper into the Coast Range, with barely a hint of the world-class skiing that lies ahead.
And then there it is. Weekend Chutes, a collection of steep, permanently-closed lines above the always deep-as-balls West Bowl. These chutes have claimed both season passes and the exposed femurs of those who poach them. Below them lies Christmas Trees, as near perfect of a powder run as can be had. Behind them, West Cirque’s sustained seemingly-precipitous pitch has provided the first terrifying steep turns for many a tourist. And even farther back, Peak to Creek, the legendary top-to-bottom, thigh-burning ego check of a run that serves up humble pie for so, so many out of towners. And just like that, the stoke hits hard. The car fills with palpable excitement. Welcome to Whistler. This is the place you always dreamed about.
What’s left to say about Whistler? Collectively, these mountains offer a “greatest hits” package for skiers: insanely deep snow, tree skiing through towering Douglas Fir, steep-as-hell couloirs, a backcountry that stretches farther than skins will get you, a world-class Superpipe, multiple impeccably maintained terrain parks, and even perfect grooming, for those who like that sort of thing. From any chairlift, in any direction, inspiring lines lay within eyesight. Indeed, this mountain has fostered the development of some of the most creative skiers in the game: Pettit, Petersen, Turpin, Hjorleifson. You’ve heard it so many times, and probably you will hate hearing it yet again: This place rules.
Nowhere else in Canada can claim lift-serviced alpine terrain with this kind of stable snowpack. Nowhere in North America can match Whistler’s sheer surplus of diverse terrain. The Coast Range is the deepest range on the continent, and its biggest resort – Whistler Blackcomb – is legitimately one of the best skiing experiences on the planet. If you are a skier, and you have not visited Whistler, you are blowing it.
Paul is a photographer who first came to Whistler in 1973. At 19 years old, he and a friend traveled from Ontario to B.C. in a 1964 Ford Econoline van.
“This was before ‘Van Life’ was a thing.” He says. “Before there was ever a hashtag.” Or any hashtags, for that matter. We are in Handlebar, a hole-in-the-wall après-only drinking spot devoted solely to B.C. craft beer. The place opens at 3 p.m. There’s very little food on the menu. It’s the kind of drinking establishment you find in other ski Meccas like Verbier, La Grave, and Chamonix: loud, cramped, and populated by raccoon-eyed, grizzled skiers still in their boots. Handlebar is a locals’ spot. This is a bar for skiers, and whether from Whistler or out of town, a true skier would quickly recognize their own kind in this small space.
Meanwhile, Paul excitingly recounts his first full season living in Whistler (1975). “Our tour was originally going to go through Banff, Whistler, all through the States, Sun Valley and Jackson and Aspen.” But the van’s engine blew up in Dryden, Ontario.
“We blew all our money on fixing the motor,” he recalls. “We ran out of money sooner than expected. We were stuck in Whistler. It was a good thing.”
Paul and his friend lived in the van for a while (“It was primitive”) but eventually found space at a friend’s condo in what would become the Creekside neighborhood.
“It was always busy on the weekend … In terms of lineup time, worse than it is now. It took 45 minutes to get up the Green Chair. But everyone would go home on Monday, and we would ski hard Monday to Friday.”
Forty three years and thousands of ski days later, Paul and his wife are some of the few who built a home and remained in Whistler not only through the glory days of the ’80s, but through the madness and growth of the ’90s, and the modern era of freeskiing’s origin. They raised a child in Whistler, and now reside high above the valley in their modest log home, nearing retirement age. I ask Paul how the town has changed over four decades, and how it’s stayed the same.
“Well, I can’t ski as well.” He laughs. “But the skiing remains the same. The snow is beautiful, and the terrain just gets better. It’s a hard place to stay for a lot of young folks, though. We got lucky showing up in the ’70s.”
Living in Whistler can be difficult. Most of the rumors are true: Housing is sparse and expensive. Food is too. It’s hard to keep up with the cool kids … In many ways. Whistler likes to party more than most, and everyone is fit as hell. If you think your skiing is on point, be present for a Spanky’s Ladder opening. Your ego will fall away as quickly as the rooster tails of the locals easily schooling you down Ruby Bowl.
You need to spend time here to learn the idiosyncrasies of Coast Range skiing. People often arrive excited about the deep snow, but soon find themselves flailing in, well, really deep snow. Visitors from resorts more familiar with high pressure systems arrive only to wonder just how the hell you’re supposed to see … It’s often really foggy, or snowing so goddamn hard you need to point and pray. This is the coast, and the storms that hammer these mountains are not feared by locals. They are revered. Cherished, even. It’s wet and deep and gloriously challenging, and the locals soak it up with big dumb grins.
Most of the locals weren’t always locals, though, and even more often, they don’t remain locals. Like Paul, skiers come here for skiing first and foremost. But unlike Paul, many leave. I was one of them.
Between 2006 and 2014 I lived in Whistler. My wife and I were married in a park in the center of town. We had our reception in the infamous Garibaldi Lift Company bar, and none other than local ski-rocker-partiers The Hairfarmers provided the music. We bought our first house here. A modest price-controlled townhome which previously served as Olympic housing. We adopted a rescue dog from nearby Mount Currie. Simply put, Whistler was home.
And then one day it wasn’t. In an equation being calculated constantly, working Whistlerites must evaluate their place in the Sea-to-Sky – deciding what trade-offs are worth making. A constant dance with introspection means asking ourselves if we can hack living in paradise for another year, another five, another decade. It’s a process that may sound exhausting, but there’s a positive result: Whistler is a town populated with people who know, in their hearts, that they want to stay here. And it shows in the community of people who manage to pull it off. They raise kids who ski like Mike Douglas. Hell, Mike Douglas lives here, and he raises kids who ski like Logan Pehota, who also skis here. Locals open businesses that stand in stark contrast to the franchises that came before them. They work whatever jobs keep them skiing, or keep them from leaving. Their passion keeps them happy in the mountains. Whistler is a magical place, and the magnetic hold it maintains can be intoxicating.
I realized I had to leave while walking my dog on the banks of the swollen Cheakamus River. My wife and I were planning to have our first child, and we wanted to raise it in a house with a backyard. She didn’t want to work night shifts at sushi joints and bakeries any longer. I didn’t want to quit my less-than-lucrative writing career. As I watched fat snowflakes fall into the frigid glacial run-off, I realized a truth I was ready to embrace. We didn’t want to swim against the current anymore. We would sell our shoebox townhome. We would quit our jobs. We would leave Whistler. We would no longer be locals. Ouch.
There aer plenty of people who figure out how to stay. Brittany is a bartender at the Fitz Pub, a tiny, humble bar situated at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain, serving up both a solid craft beer selection and a sharp distinction to the luxurious Fairmont Chateau Whistler across the lane. After a morning of turbo shopping at the Turkey Sale, she is starting her shift.
“I was a competitive softball player,” says the Quesnel, B.C. transplant, as she tops off a glass of locally-brewed hazy IPA. “I was driving by on the way to a tournament, and we saw snowboarders standing on the side of the road in June. I wanted to know why.”
Brittany found out about the summer glacier skiing, rivaled in North America only by Oregon’s Mount Hood camp scene. She moved to Whistler shortly thereafter, charged up with first-season energy.
“You couldn’t stop me from smiling,” she remembers, while smiling widely. Fifteen years later, the bubbly bartender can still access that energy easily.
“You really need to fight for balance here.” She says. “But there’s community and love and family. There’s a lot of abundance here, and if you want it, there’s a lot of success.”
Desire for more often colors what sits at our center. In the bizarre little mountain culture microcosm that skiers choose to live in, we often forget that the simple act of freefalling through snow and trees and over rocks is what we are truly chasing. We focus on the fashion, the styles, and the places that shine brightest on that day. And it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of this world we’ve chosen. But skiing itself is still the engine that drives each of us. It’s still the source.
When we first linked up turns, we probably didn’t make them in Aspen or Zermatt or Whistler, and we probably weren’t wearing expensive goggles or GORE-TEX. And that’s OK. Because we had the stoke; the frequency that coursed through your body the first time you shakily turned right instead of making one big stupid left. The weightless, giddy fear of falling off that first boulder, or recklessly weaving through the trees at the edge of the run with your friends, goggles askew and mittens falling off. Many of us still chase that feeling every day, whether we are on our skis, or daydreaming about it far from the mountains. That’s the reason. Don’t confuse it. Stoke is sacred. We can never access that first-day feeling again, but we can come close every time we see that new mountain fill the windshield’s view, every time we drop into a new run, or line up a beauty booter.
Some people who come here on vacation find time to bitch about the line-ups, the prices, the trends, the clothing. True skiers arrive, and they go skiing. Any criticism leveled at Whistler cannot be applied to this sport which we love so much. And it is a commitment to the actual act that keeps this place pure. I may not have been able to live the life I wanted in Whistler, but as a skier these mountains continue to exceed my expectations. They have fulfilled every promise. I continue to visit this corner of the Coast Range as often as possible, and I promise you this – I will never stop. You should too. Because, more than any other thing, Whistler is for skiers.
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