I lay face-first in the snow, in a mild panic, wondering if my left arm was broken ... and what the hell had just happened.

Somersaulting through the air and face-planting the snow is not an ideal way to start the day. Doing it in minus 23C is mind-numbing.

The rental shop had encouraged me to wear a helmet. Why hadn't I bothered?

We had arrived at Whistler the previous night, braving a six-hour snowstorm along a back-country pass, after three days at Sun Peaks, a sleepy, stylish resort midway between Calgary and Vancouver.

Our journey gave us an inkling of what was to come. A dozen water bottles were frozen solid under our rental van's seats. And the forecast confirmed the snow which had enveloped us on the Duffy Lake Road was also falling in Whistler. This, as we soon found out, absolutely delighted the locals.

Whistler-Blackcomb might be the world's second-biggest alpine ski resort, but it's not immune to the vagaries of the weather.

This season these mountains have been in drought, of sorts. Just 118cm of snow fell in January, compared with 264cm last year and 469cm in 1906.

And it was a similar story in February, until our group's arrival in the final few days of the month. We had arrived simultaneously - us and the snow - and everyone was overjoyed.

In total, 60cm of snow fell on the day and night of our arrival, 40 per cent of the month's total. It remains the biggest dump so far this season.

If the snow was a delight, Whistler was a revelation. For it hadn't dawned on me that Whistler wasn't a ski resort - but a town.

Built directly at the base of two spectacular snow-covered mountains, The Resort Municipality of Whistler comes complete with a mayor, three schools, doctors, police, emergency services, a new public library with an organic roof and sports facilities, catering to nearly 10,000 permanent residents.

The tourists make their home in over 90 village bars and restaurants and in hundreds of rental abodes - from the Hostel International Whistler, C$28 ($39) a night, to the five-star Four Seasons Hotel and the Fairmont Whistler Chateau where, as luck would have it, we were staying.

Our small party of seven, however, wasn't among the Chateau's most revered guests. That honour belongs to, among others, Robin Williams.
The comedian reportedly spends three months a year at the hotel, soaking in the Chateau's outdoor hot pools - within throwing distance of the Blackcomb chairlift - and indulging in its Vida Wellness Spa.

Other celebrities to grace the Chateau include Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Mel Gibson and Reese Witherspoon.

They flock to Whistler for good reason. It's not called "Disney on Snow" for nothing and, if skiing or boarding aren't your thing, there's always snowmobiling up the mountains, ziplining (on a flying fox) between the two mountains, dog sledding, tubing or hiking to keep you occupied. And that's just in winter.

One thing our tour group quickly learned at Whistler was that fresh powder ruled all.

On our first night, it was all the talk - at the restaurant, on the streets, in the hotel and at the rental shop where the late-evening queue for skis, boards, boots, bindings and helmets went almost out the door as everyone geared up for freshies the following day.

Twelve hours later it seemed the entire village had had the same idea - the queue for the 7am Whistler Village Gondola disappeared into the distance, though they weren't just waiting for the fresh trails.

The Fresh Tracks Breakfast at the Roundhouse Lodge, at the top of the Gondola and two-thirds of the way up Whistler, is a ritual for young diehards desperate for a square meal - and for untouched powder.

At C$18, the all-you-can-eat buffet is a bargain. Our day had dawned cold and perfectly formed, with not a cloud in the sky.

On the mountain they call it a "Bluebird day", and surrounded by white peaks, the view from our breakfast table was amazing.

Meanwhile, all around us, the locals had their heads down, with one eye on their meals, the other on a bell near the front of the room.

In fact it was one of our group, a young blonde, who was invited to open proceedings. Climbing up on a chair, to a loud roar of approval, she rang the bell at the Roundhouse Lodge - the mountain was open for action.

Whistler, by reputation and status alone, can be an intimidating place for the first-timer. It is, after all, home to five alpine skiing events at next year's Winter Olympics, with racers reaching speeds of up to 140km/h in the downhill and slalom.

The weekend skier, though, has nothing to fear. With more than 200 runs, the sheer size of the mountain offers challenges for all.

There are abundant off-trail black and double-black slopes with waist-high powder for the hard core, and long languid green trails for below-average and beginner skiers and boarders.

The longest run on the mountain is a popular 11km green run, from Burnt Stew near the top of the mountain to Side Winder on the mountain's west side.

It was on one of Whistler's green runs that I came unstuck.

Coming down Upper Whiskey Jack, I had a choice to make: turn right into the men's Olympic down hill and Super-G course (which I didn't recognise), or take a hard left and cruise down the Pony Trail to the Big Red Express (chairlift).

The rest of my group had sped off and I was boarding in uncharted territory. It was a toss-up, but the sight of a speed-skier on my right indicated that wasn't the way to go.

I cut left, straightened up down the Pony Trail ... and airmailed it.

Flying airborne, headfirst on a snowboard is a bad feeling, but it's not the part that hurts.

Lying on the trail, a group of three-year-olds on a group lesson whizzed past on either side. Their balance seemed perfect - they were naturals. I was not.

It was a salient reminder that in Canada "you learn to walk then you learn to ski" is the mantra.

I'd also learnt a valuable lesson: boarding with a camera in a pocket pressed against my chest was a bad idea. My arm wasn't broken, but (I later found out) two ribs were.

Still, it was nothing a hot chocolate and a hot tub at the Whistler Fairmont Chateau couldn't fix.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Vancouver from Auckland three times a week, on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Travel time is approximately 14 hours.

From Vancouver take the Whistler Mountaineer train on the 120km journey to Whistler. It departs from Vancouver mid-morning.

What to do: Snowmobile up Mt Blackcomb at night, eat a fondue dinner on top of the mountain, then snowmobile back down. Also, try ziplining on a flying fox over Fitzsimmons Creek from Whistler to Blackcomb and back again. Dog sledding is also great fun.

Where to stay: The luxury Fairmont Whistler Chateau is a stone's throw from the mountains.

Further information: See the official Whistler-Blackcomb website for everything you need to know about visiting Whistler.