Skiing and Snowboarding in Whistler
Canada V0N 1B4
Concierge.com's insider take:
Have no fear of pulmonary edema here: Whistler sits so close to the island-dotted, glacially luminescent waters of Howe Sound—a.k.a. sea level—that its base elevation is only 2,214 feet. But far above the verdant Whistler Valley, the jagged peaks of the Coast Mountains soar to 7,000 feet and beyond. At higher elevations, Whistler and Blackcomb resemble the glaciated, moonscapes of the Alps; at lower elevations, the mountains are more similar to the tree-lined slopes of Vail. The resort typically gets 30 feet of snowfall a year, but since the Pacific Ocean is so close, the snow tends to be heavy and wet, at least by Colorado or Utah standards. The result? Straight, skinny boards get mired in the coastal concrete, but wide planks don't, so Whistler Blackcomb attracts snowboarders and skiers with fat boards. For equipment rental, try Can-Ski, which carries a wide selection of gear from Atomic, Salomon, K2, and more, and has four Whistler locations near lifts (604-938-7744; 866-976-6273).
Skiers and boarders have their choice of mountains: Lift passes work at Whistler and Blackcomb, and gondolas for both rise from the main village. Even better, since the December 2008 opening of the Peak 2 Peak gondola—which spans nearly two miles between mid-mountain stations—skiers and riders can transfer without descending to the base. The two massifs are home to more than 200 runs, which keeps the crowds spread out and lift lines manageable (866-218-9690; www.whistlerblackcomb.com).
Blackcomb, which opened in 1980, is the slightly younger peak and has a mile-high vertical drop (5,280 feet, in case you'd forgotten), the longest at any North American resort. Thankfully, access to the upper mountain is speedy via the Glacier and Seventh Heaven quads. The lifts reach two distinct glaciers—Blackcomb and Horstman—and gnarly chutes such as the Couloir Extreme, a nearly vertical coffin-width chute. After a big snow, veteran skiers and riders head to Spanky's Ladder, a five-minute hike from the top of the Glacier Express chairlift. There you'll find a ridiculous array of expert runs, including the infamous Wind Lip and the unforgettable Sapphire Chutes. Intermediate skiers, meanwhile, blitz the consistent pitches of Cruiser, Stoker, and Merlin's—although quadriceps tend to give out before the runs do. Blackcomb is the slight favorite for snowboarders, as it is more open and has fewer moguls than Whistler. It also maintains three terrain parks (including the experts-only "Highest Level" park) and two pipes for those who like their tricks.
With 4,757 acres and a peak of 7,160 feet, Whistler is 1,300 acres larger and 300 feet shorter than Blackcomb. It's considered the classic skiers' mountain, thanks to its tight trails and the steep lines plunging down Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, and the Cirque. Beginner and intermediate skiers, meanwhile, love the downhill groomer Burnt Stew, which connects to Sidewinder to make for a full seven-mile run. Whistler's lift system, which seemed antiquated just a few years ago, is now among the most modern in the world. The Symphony Express, a high-speed quad lift that rises 1,670 feet to the rim of Symphony Amphitheatre, was added in 2006, opening 1,000 high-alpine acres to backcountry skiing.
Lastly, more adventurous—and wealthier—powderhounds can employ helicopters to reach untouched Coast Mountain terrain. Coast Range Heliskiing flies to 200,000 acres of backcountry terrain above the Pemberton Valley, 25 minutes north of Whistler. Daily, multiday, and custom packages are available (800-701-8744; www.coastrangeheliskiing.com).