Long Way to the Bottom

Why Whistler-Blackcomb is the best skiing in North America. Maybe.
  |  Gorp.com
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Like the prologue to Star Wars or smoke signals from a volcano, the unequivocal message floating in the sky above those mountains up north is "We're number one!"

A lofty claim, as it were, for Whistler-Blackcomb—but is it really the best place in North America to ski?

My relationship with Whistler has been rocky. As a lad I skied it when it first opened, and thing that stays in my mind is a primitive gondola pounded out of B-19 panels with rivets everywhere. I also remember whiteouts and rain. It wasn't something you enjoyed; you just tried to survive. Afterwards—tired, cold and bruised—you asked the skier's question:"Why did I pay for that?"

But like a bad blind date with a homely neighbor who you see twenty years later on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Whistler's massive image overhaul should be enough to persuade anyone to take another look.

For non-Northwesterners, there are 39 non-stop flights from around the world to the Vancouver Airport. Rental cars, buses—even a classy train, the Caribou Prospector—will take you the last 72 miles from Vancouver. From Seattle, Whistler is under four hours by Saab. The route up the valley, the Sea to Sky Highway, is a widened mountain trail on the edge of a rock wave. To your right are precipices punctuated by long falls of water. On your left is Howe Sound, a broad, flat inlet, and above it, another ocean of mountains. Fair warning: the sign saying"Rockfall" isn't lying. Invariably you'll see them scooping up the latest droppings with heavy equipment. Also be aware: this road is a Grand Prix route where you'll learn the true meaning of "Those Crazy Canucks." Come prepared, or stay to the right. You'll know you're halfway there when you pass the mining museum outside Squamish. That's world class climbing granite above you, and if you look real closely you can see spandex spiders on it. (Pull over before you look.)

Finally, behold Whistler-Blackcomb, a snowy Disney World produced and directed by Canadians. It's not exactly Small World, though; if there's one thing you can say about this operation, it's that it's big. Really big.

A humming village, greater Whistler-Blackcomb has nearly 8,000 residents and brings in more money than any other place in British Columbia except Vancouver and Victoria. There are 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. rush hours. Lying at the feet of what drives it, the village seems to supplicate itself before the mighty Whistler and behemoth Blackcomb, which rise up like the massive thighs of some Salish moon goddess that has fallen to earth. Both have a vertical drop of one mile, the largest in North American and the equivalent of Europe's legendary resorts. There are three gondolas, 10 high speed quads, and 19 other chair lifts girdling the mountains, more than any other resort in the world. Combined, they can handle 55,000 skiers an hour, each of whom has a choice of 7,000 acres to ski in. Roughly 20 percent of that is beginner, 50 percent intermediate, and 25 percent expert. Five percent is rated X for "Crazy Canuck."

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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