Exploring the wonders of Whistler

By Craig Hill, The News Tribune
Posted Feb. 21, 2013, at 2:33 p.m.

WHISTLER, B.C. — On the wall of his office at the base of Blackcomb Mountain hangs a trail map marked up with a highlighter.

When Stuart Rempel skis a run at Whistler Blackcomb he marks it off on the map. His goal this winter is to ski each of the more than 200 runs at North America’s largest ski area.

Rempel, the resort’s marketing vice president, figures he’s 75 percent finished.

When you ski every day like Rempel, covering all 8,171 acres is doable as long as you have expert skills.

But what about the typical visitor from Washington, who looks up at the two massive peaks with only a weekend to take them on?

“Well, first off,” Rempel said, “you have to accept the fact that you can’t do it all in two days.”

However, with a good plan you can get a pretty good sample.

This season, Whistler Blackcomb started a new service designed for skiers and snowboarders trying to get the most out of their visit. The program, called Wonder Routes, offers six self-guided themed tours for skiers of all skill levels.

Route descriptions come in a trail map supplement or visitors can scan the QR code at the ticket window and navigate the routes via smartphone. Along the way, visitors can share pictures and video at the resort’s famous Inukshuk statues, which are now Wi-Fi hot spots.

“It’s a great way to tour the mountain without needing a guide,” said Laura Gallant, a resort spokeswoman.

Recently I had the chance to tag along with my dad and John Shea, a Louisiana lawyer who manages to ski more than me even though he lives in Louisiana, for a weekend at Whistler. I’ve skied here many times and can’t remember ever bothering to set a plan of attack. This time, I thought I’d take a different approach.

I grabbed a Wonder Routes map to act as my guide. Well, at least, a loose guide.

Size matters

The routes planned by the resort include agendas for experts (The Steep Sampler and Powder Stashes), those who want to try the 2010 Olympics runs (Gold Medal Route), those looking for good views (Top of the World) and green run lovers (Family Certified Route).

My dad and I were drawn to the Size Matters Route because it included one of our favorites run, Peak to Creek.

Peak to Creek is the longest run in North America and descends almost a vertical mile. It’s so long the resort installed benches along the way for skiers to rest.

When it’s groomed, it’s a flowing intermediate masterpiece that puts smiles on the faces of even the most gifted skiers.

When it’s not groomed, it’ll wear out your legs.

It wasn’t groomed and luckily the Wonder Routes itinerary took this into consideration.

Part of the Peak to Creek legend is that ends at the front door of Dusty’s Bar & BBQ.

Dusty’s is named after a stuffed horse and is famous for its pulled pork ($15 Canadian) and brisket ($16) sandwiches.

We met Shea here and refueled before heading back up the mountain.

From mid-mountain, we took the Peak 2 Peak Gondola across the valley to Blackcomb Mountain. The gondola in itself is so much of an adventure it’s included in all but one of the Wonder Routes.

The gondola is the highest in the world (1,472 feet above Fitzsimmons Creek) and set a world record by spanning 1.88 miles between lift towers. It cost $50 million (Canadian) and took 18 months to build.

Once on Blackcomb, we decided to improvise. While most of the resort was blanketed by clouds, an area called Seventh Heaven was bathed in sunlight.

We spent some time here skiing through the trees before getting back on track with a trip to the Horstman Glacier.

There we rode a T-bar farther up the mountain then hiked our gear up another 75 yards to the Blackcomb Glacier for another long run with a mile drop. Unlike Peak to Creek, this scenic run down the glacier soon turns into a simple slide down a cat track before linking to short blue runs that lead to the base area.

Here the agenda called for finishing at Merlin’s Bar & Grill to try its trademark nachos. We were familiar with these nachos – the third largest mountain in town – that range in price from $19-$36. We decided this was a challenge we could not handle.

New wonders

As I skied with my dad, I couldn’t help but wonder if these Wonder Routes were really necessary.

A skier or snowboarder without any knowledge of the mountain would be hard pressed to spend a weekend here and not have a good time. Of course, it would be a bummer to get home and realize you missed the chance to ski an Olympic run, on the glacier or Peak to Creek.

While following the Wonder Routes will assure you get to the “must sees,” I’ve found these spots seem to lure me every visit. So often, in fact, that I wondered what I might be passing up that’s not on the Wonder Routes.

So on our second day, I met up with a gifted local skier, instructor and guide named Mark Hornby.

Hornby taught a Grammy-winning musician how to ski and was a skiing extra in the 2010 comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine.” He’s so in tune with the sport, he tweaked my form when I skied behind him based on the sounds my skies made.

Hornby has skied it all and seen it all, and for our first run he took me straight to the top of Whistler Bowl.

I’d skied the bowl many times but he insisted he was going to show me something different and “not too crazy.”

“We’re going over there,” he said as we cut across the bowl under steep rocky cliffs. He pointed to a ridge that seemed to offer nothing more than impossibly narrow triple-diamond chutes.

“Not many people go over there,” he said.

Not even warmed up yet, I think I actually gulped as I asked, “Why?”

“Because it looks so scary,” he replied and then skied off.

I followed, trusting Hornby even though I’d met him only 30 minutes prior.

We reached the ridge and skied along, almost brushing against a half dozen orange signs with big black letters warning “CLIFF.”

My skis slid forward while my mind drafted an exit strategy.

Then, as we reached the end of the ridge, it plummeted downward. The way was fairly steep but definitely manageable.

Hornby spent the rest of the morning showing me other runs I’d never skied, like a short diamond spur on Blackcomb called Log Jam. But by the time we parted ways that first run, Doom and Gloom, was still the highlight of the morning.

“There’s so much here,” said Hornby, who’s lived in Whistler for 12 years. “You’ll never get bored.”

Grande Finale

Rempel says it’s the new Wonder Routes program that inspired him and other Whistler Blackcomb employees to attempt to ski every run this season.

He says another worker has a highlighted trail map similar to his hanging on his office door. The marketing department is even concocting prizes for those who ski every run.

What Rempel has enjoyed most about the exercise is the reminder of just how massive Whistler Blackcomb is and how much it has to offer.

“The other day I skied an area I don’t think I’ve skied before,” said Rempel, who has worked in Whistler for 12 years. “Sometimes you become a creature of habit and go back to the same runs.”

Rempel is a lifelong skier with plenty of notches on his poles. He’s skied in Europe. He’s skied in Hawaii. And February marks the 220th month in a row he’s skied at least once. But bagging all of Whistler Blackcomb’s runs in a season will be a first for him.

“Somebody here did it about 10 years ago and people still talk about it with some awe,” Rempel said.

If all goes according to plan, Rempel hopes to reach his goal by May 20, a Canadian holiday honoring Queen Victoria’s birthday.

For his final run he’ll cruise through Whistler Bowl before linking to a somewhat steep diamond run.

The run’s name? Grande Finale, of course.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/21/outdoors/exploring-the-wonders-of-whistler/ printed on July 22, 2014