Canada: Skiing in the footsteps of giants

By Sarah Ivey

Standing high on the slopes of Whistler at the top of the Dave Murray Downhill, the course for downhill skiing competitions in World Cups and the 2010 Winter Olympics, I had the unfamiliar feeling of butterflies in my stomach.

I don't usually get nervous, but the thought of skiing in the tracks of so many champions, like Olympic gold medallist Didier Defago of Switzerland, or American bronze medallist Bode Miller, who got up to 148km/h on this very course, had me feeling queasy.

But no use thinking about it. With a nudge off the top, I was away. The crackle of freshly groomed hard pack, vibrating like crushed velvet as it passed beneath my skis, got me going.

My subconscious had already decided that I wasn't going to hold back, I was going to give this run everything I had - after all this was the Olympic course.

At the second corner I was thinking I had it made, by the third I was gaining serious pace and by the fourth I was flying. I very swiftly fell into the state of euphoria that allowed me to forget any surplus thoughts and focus solely on skiing.

My senses were sharp. I going to nail this.

But the Dave Murray was no easy course. With every roll-over, bend and bump that I wasn't prepared for, my thighs burned hotter, and the strain began to tell.

As the passing trees morphed into a blur of green, momentary lapses in concentration started to occur, and I started to wonder if taking this on was such a good idea after all.

As I swooped down the mountain into lower altitudes the snow began thickening, slowing my pace considerably. Then, as I came around a bend towards the bottom third of the course, I hit it ... an unsuspected chunk of ice, disguised as a skiff of slush.

Thrown slightly, I worked quickly to regain my balance. From one ski to the other, I rocked back and forth until I was back on course. A close call.

As the course came to a finish, so did the snow, with patches of earth beginning to appear on either side, and it quickly became apparent that my Olympic dream was over.

By the time I passed the spot where the finish line would once have been there was just a 2m wide strip of man-made snow to ski on. No crowds applauded, no times flashed up on the monitors. But I was happy. I had made it.

Fortunately, there was the gondola, the perfect place to take a breather and give the legs a chance to recover, so I hopped aboard and sank back. There was plenty more skiing on offer.

Whistler-Blackcomb, the ski area right on the doorstep of Vancouver, is having a year of near record snowfalls. With over 3300ha to be skied, including more than 200 trails, the opportunities are endless.

But despite the great conditions the slopes are speckled with a few diehard locals and the odd tourist. Reports of very little snow at nearby Cyprus Mountain during the games led many to believe there was no snow at Whistler either. But with 600m difference in elevation that wasn't the case.

Whistler has had over 14m of snow this season - making it the second snowiest on record - and those who did turn out have the goggle marks to prove it.

And the facilities from the games are phenomenal. From the sliding park to the half pipes, and of course the Dave Murray Downhill, the best of the action is there for the taking.

In fact this is a great time to enjoy a special Canadian ski experience. The pleasant, almost jandal-worthy, temperatures in Whistler village provide perfect apres ski conditions when you've been churning through corn powder all day on the hill. The ski-in, ski-out accommodation loses a little of its charm when the snow isn't falling, however it's still bloody hard to beat a cocktail in the hot tubs at the Fairmont Chateau at the end of the day.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has regular flights to Vancouver.

Skiing: Check out whistler.com, whistlerslidingcentre.com and whistlerolympicpark.com.

Further information: See BritishColumbia.travel

Sarah Ivey did the Dave Murray Downhill with the help of Air New Zealand and Tourism British Columbia.

- NZ Herald

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