There are just two places called Whistler in the world: 13,000 km apart and located in different hemispheres. One is a little-known tourist lookout point on King Island in Bass Strait, the other a world-renowned ski resort in British Columbia, Canada.
The ski resort Whistler Blackcomb is setting its sights high – really high. Along with the not-so-small task of co-hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the resort also recently embarked on a landmark project that will connect its twin mountains with a gondola that reaches a vertical height of 415 metres above the Fitzsimmons Creek below.
“This an exciting project for everybody involved. It’s such a huge undertaking and one of the largest of its kind in the world, not only for myself, but for all parties involved, including the contractors on site,” says Rick Temple, Peak to Peak project manager for Whistler Blackcomb. “It’s both challenging and exciting.”
The Peak to Peak Gondola is the first of its kind in North America and will boost Whistler Blackcomb’s year-round tourism offering. The cables will be supported by only four towers, with a 3,024 km free span between the two middle towers— a world record. Passengers will take in the scenic views of the high alpine, travelling 4.4km in just 11 minutes.
“I think this project is just an entirely new horizon for Whistler Blackcomb and its’s going to spark all kinds of opportunities,” says Temple. “Something of this magnitude naturally is going to open many doors.”
Meanwhile, preparations are well under way for the Winter Olympics. Creekside, which is part of Whistler Mountain, will host the men’s and women’s downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined (Olympic only).
Crews led by the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) are hard at work widening and contouring the mountain terrain for those events. As well, VANOC spent approximately $17.6 million on snowmaking infrastructure during 2006, which will be a lasting legacy for the mountains long after the Games are over.
While Whistler Blackcomb is edging into the world spotlight leading up to the Olympics, millions of mountain enthusiasts continue to visit each year. During 2006/2007, Whistler Blackcomb hit two million-plus skier visits— boosted by the resort’s second snowiest year on record, coming in at an impressive 14.16 metres; which is roughly 40 per cent more than the average annual snowfall.
The result: 14 days of 15 cm-plus snowfall and whopping 43 days of 10 cm-plus snowfall. Imagine how many days you could have skipped work.
Still, despite the sheer number of people who visit each year, Whistler maintains its small-town feel.
Sydney native Angela McSpadden arrived in Whistler in November 2006 and was greeted by one of the best pre-seasons in the resort’s history, with back-to-back snowstorms dumping a total of 416cm in just one month. She was impressed and not only by the winter wonderland, but also by the warm Whistler vibe.
“I felt at home amongst everyone. It wasn’t necessarily just the Aussies I met,” McSpadden says.
During the day, skiers and riders chat on chair lifts and gondolas as they look out over snow-blanketed mountain peaks a far as the eye can see. In the evening, mountain-goers saunter lazily through the streets, carrying their gear – and often a buzz from the beers consumed during après.
In Whistler, the après tradition consists of having drinks and nachos (or other decadent bar food) after a long day on the slopes. It’s practiced religiously. Popular post-mountain venues include Merlin’s at Blackcomb base, the Garibaldi Lift Co (GLC) at Whistler base and Dusty’s at Creekside base.
“The village is very friendly and very inviting. The lights are on, the town’s all snowy and there are fires inside the hotels and pubs,” explains McSpadden. “Whistler’s got a really friendly atmosphere. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere else I’ve travelled.”
McSpadden had skied only three times on Aussie snow prior to arriving in Whistler, so opted to take lessons with Whistler Blackcomb’s Ski and Snowboard School. The school offers a variety of private and group lessons as well as multiple day camps and specialty clinics for all abilities.
“I found the ski instructors to be excellent. The lessons were brilliant,” she says. “I really improved my confidence on the slope.”
Whistler Blackcomb boasts a mile of vertical— the highest in North America— as well as 8.1781 acres of skiable terrain including steeps, chutes, tight gladded runs, off-piste sections and even cruisy groomed runs.
Beginners, who normally spend their early days learning on lower altitude “bunny hills”, can access the graduated slopes of Whistler’s high alpine and are rewarded by spectacular views.
Last season, skiers and riders flocked to Whistler Blackcomb’s newest high-speed quad chair, the Symphony Express, which accesses 1,000 acres of varied terrain (and truckloads of powder after a big winter storm). The Symphony Amphitheatre has stunning vistas of neighbouring Blackcomb Mountain and Garibaldi Provincial Park.
For adrenaline junkies looking for a challenge the two mountains offer five terrain parks spread over a total of 80-plus acres with more than 150 features, as well as a halfpipe and boardercross track. The award-winning Whistler Blackcomb Park boasts design features for all ability levels, which, in turn, attracts a variety of visitors, from beginners to park rats, film production teams and professional athletes.
Whistler Backcomb offers a world class skiing experience, whether you’re looking to improve your skills, take it easy on the groomers or push your limits on the double blacks.
And rest assured, the cool and crisp Whistler winter is a respite from the sweltering Aussie summer and well worth the journey— even if it’s from one Whistler to another.
PUBLICATION: Australian Alpine News