Ski series: Kiwi pride at Whistler Blackcomb

By James Russell

James Russell discovers just how proudly the Kiwi flag flies at Whistler Blackcomb, and why guests flock to the area in search of the white stuff
The chairlift at Whistler mountain.
The chairlift at Whistler mountain.

The proliferation of Kiwi and Aussie accents gives it away; Whistler village, British Columbia, Canada is the Lourdes of the Antipodean ski scene; the pilgrimage every self-respecting ski and snowboard rat must make to truly say they know what it is to "ride the pow" (ski the powder snow, of course).

There are the Kiwis fresh off the plane. There are the ones who have somehow wrangled the immigration system to stay just one more year. And then there are the Kiwis who have never managed to escape.

Two New Zealanders well and truly in the latter camp are Whistler politician Duane Jackson and former Blackcomb HR manager Roger McCarthy, dubbed the "All Blacks" of Whistler. Each has carved a highly respected niche in the area. Jackson is on the council, and McCarthy has a resort development business (he was the brains behind the breakneck Olympic development of Russia's Sochi). He is one of the stars of the film Fifty Years of Going Beyond, a retrospective documentary in celebration of the resort's anniversary in January

"It sure is a hard place to leave," explains McCarthy, whose New Zealand roots are scarcely discernible through a pretty convincing Canadian accent.

"We love Kiwis here," says Hugh Smythe, the founding manager of Whistler who, 44 years ago, hired the young McCarthy, and put him to work on the T Bar (where people weren't expected to last long).

"Kiwis have been coming here to live and work for a long time. They're super-friendly and hard-working. They play hard, and they show up in the morning. They're great people."

Whistler skiing in Canada.
Whistler skiing in Canada.

Smythe's face has the crow's feet of a man long used to squinting through the glare of a dazzling snow field.

Though long-retired from the helm of Whistler Blackcomb, he can't help but run a critical eye over the workings of the mountain, or chuckle at the antics of the mischievous whiskey jack birds landing on the heads of those waiting in line for the chairlift. A story about the habits of our own cheeky avians - the keas - is one he hasn't heard, and it tickles him.

Now 68, Smythe still skis 70-plus days each season, sea-kayaks in winter and summer, and spends at least 100 mornings a year cruising lakes on his stand up paddleboard.

In 1966, when Whistler Mountain opened, the teenaged Smythe was hired to clean the toilets. By age 26, he was the mountain manager. After a hiatus in Alberta, he turned traitor, hired to return to build and open competing Blackcomb Mountain, just across the valley, which opened in 1980.

Here was the problem. If Whistler was the elder statesman, Blackcomb was the young punk. Snowboarders, the new alien freaks sliding down the hill sideways, were welcomed at Blackcomb but were banned at Whistler.

Pot smoke billowed from Blackcomb; disapproval emanated from Whistler. On Blackcomb, people rode the lifts naked and launched themselves from cliffs. Its reputation spread throughout the world, and visitor numbers grew rapidly. By 1987 Blackcomb had more visitors than Whistler.

But Smythe was playing a long and clever game and Blackcomb's success resulted in rapid competitive development on both mountains, and the eventual, inevitable amalgamation of Whistler and Blackcomb in 1996.

The competition was over, and North America had a ski area beyond compare.

It was a merger that shook the faithful followers of the respective mountains to the core. John Smart, freestyle ski legend, and Whistler kid to the seat of his ski trousers, said: "We called it 'Cloudcomb' and never wanted to go over there. It was the dark side. Of course, that didn't last after we saw what was over there."

Another of the Whistler faithful, former mountain manager Cate Webster, cried when she heard the news of the union.

For the previous eight years she could not bring herself even to visit Blackcomb.

Smythe further enhanced the marriage when in 2008 the Peak to Peak cable car opened, linking the two mountains near the tops and spanning the colossal gulf of the Fitzsimmons Valley.

Some thought he was crazy, and others thought he was mad. "It was tough going," says Smythe. "There was a lot of opposition, from inside our own company too."

Smythe unveiled the plans in 2005, and the price tag -- CAN$50m (NZ$53.5m) . "The technology for how we were to do it hadn't yet been developed. There was an awful lot on the line."

When the Peak to Peak opened it set world records for cable lifts -- the longest distance between two towers (3.03km), and the highest distance above the ground (436m). If you ever ride on it, wait until the gondolas with the glass floor come around.

Whistler ski resort Canada.
Whistler ski resort Canada.

Whistler Village itself feels like a movie set, with its snow-covered pedestrian streets and Christmas light-lit trees. It's the romantic winter scene on a box of chocolates come to life.

This is no accident; in an incredible act of foresight, Whistler village's design was conceptualised by planner Al Rain, who proposed that the garbage dump site was the perfect spot for a new, larger village. He envisaged the separation of walkers from vehicles, summer and winter recreation facilities, community amenities, and a style guide for a wide variety of buildings, restaurants, hotels, retail stores and offices. It has become model for ski resorts the world over.

The village's stage-managed and dreamlike qualities are, therefore, a sharp contrast to the mountains, which are at once both beautiful and increasingly intimidating as you journey upwards.

When you ride the connecting chairlifts at Whistler Blackcomb you get the feeling that they might never stop. That's because from the bottom to the top, a skier will have risen a vertical mile - 1600-odd metres. By comparison, the ski field with Australasia's largest vertical drop - Turoa - boasts just 722m.

Some numbers: Whistler and Blackcomb mountains feature 3036ha of terrain and receive an average of 11.6m of snow annually. There are more than 200 trails; three glaciers; 37 lifts; and 16 alpine bowls. The variety is mind-boggling, and a solid week of skiing will not see you complete all the runs.

The quaint Sniffle Stations - the seemingly superfluous tissue dispensers available to queuing skiers at the base of each chairlift, suddenly become a serious necessity by the time your screaming legs and heaving lungs make it to the bottom of these gigantic ski runs - your nose literally flows like a tap.

To ski, flat out, from the top of the mountains to the village, with only the absolutely necessary 30-second stops to let your legs recover, will take an advanced skier almost 20 minutes on the wide-open groomed trails. Take a detour through the trees (hard to resist for a Kiwi who has never seen a tree on a ski field in their life), and it can easily stretch to 40 minutes.

There are, of course, some caveats to the paradise of Whistler Blackcomb; it can get crowded, particularly on weekends and holidays, when around 25,000 people can take to the hill and lift queues can stretch to 20 minutes.

When the mountain opens at 8.30am and closes again at 3pm, those precious minutes feel like they are slipping away. Many of the locals stick to skiing Monday to Friday only.

Also, if you think you're going to be skiing fresh, untracked powder snow all day after a night snowfall, you're mistaken. The Canadians seek out the powder like grave-robbers' dogs, literally frothing at the mouth and falling over each other to be first on to each lift as it opens during the morning.

On a weekend the entire mountain is tracked out within two hours, apart from perhaps some closely guarded secret spots - which may take a season to discover.

The scale of Whistler Blackcomb means also that mountain users are ultimately more responsible for their own safety, in the sense that Ski Patrol, in conducting their final sweep of the day, cannot possibly search all of the terrain, as they do in New Zealand. In the unlikely event you lie injured in the trees and cannot make contact, then you may have to spend the night.

There are three ways of having the Whistler experience; 1. Spend the season living in a flat with six others, find a job in the service industry, then ski and party hard at every opportunity; 2. Save for years and blow it all in a five-star, two-week experience of a lifetime; 3. Stay in a self-catering chalet a little bit out of town, catch a shuttle to the base of the mountains each day, bring your own gear, make your own sandwiches and bring a thermos of tea. In short, the way the vast majority of us do skiing in New Zealand.

Skiers on Whistler mountain.
Skiers on Whistler mountain.

Option one is for under 30s only; option two will cost a king's ransom, and option three will still be cost-comparable to a week in Queenstown.

You get the picture: Whistler is expensive. But it's also worth every cent.

Must knows for the mountain

What to wear

If you've skied a cold day on a South Island skifield in New Zealand, you already have the gear you need for Whistler. Due to its proximity to the coast, even in the alpine zone of Whistler (above the tree line) it rarely falls below -10C, as opposed to the interior Canadian skifields, which can drop to -30C and require different equipment.

What to ride/ski

These days, it's not unusual for skiers to have a "quiver" of equipment; that is, more than one set of skis. For the powder days on Whistler, a skier will benefit from specialised powder skis, which are much wider underfoot (anything up to 125mm) and often longer than a standard ski. This gets the skier up and floating on the powder and smooths out the ride. When the powder is gone or tracked out, skiers might like to return to a ski more suited to carving.

Whistler Blackcomb has a ski rental store in most of the village's hotels, which is super-handy. It also means you can change your skis for a different type while you're up the hill, without having to do the long run back to the hotel.

For snowboarders, the presence of powder snow is heavenly, particularly if they have grown resigned to skating around on the icy ridgetops of Whakapapa.

Be warned, there are some flattish traverse sections on both Blackcomb and Whistler which need to be walked or shunted, and will try a snowboarder's patience.



Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Vancouver, Canada. One-way Economy fares start from $1059.
Whistler is a one-hour drive from Vancouver.


- NZ Herald

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