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Summer in Whistler begins at the lake

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The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle ... unless you find yourself in the middle of GoFest. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

The River of Golden Dreams is an idyllic waterway for a quiet paddle … unless you find yourself in the middle of Whistler’s annual Go Fest and the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

A quiet meander down the River of Golden Dreams, I’d promised my wife. After 36 hours of skiing, cycling, trail running, stand-up paddle boarding, dancing, eating and drinking, this would be a relaxing canoe cruise in the sunshine, a chance to mellow ourselves from weekend warriors to weekend wanderers.

It didn’t work out that way.

We’d come for Whistler’s Great Outdoors Festival, aka GO Fest. Held on the Victoria Day long weekend, GO Fest was the chance to cram an entire Whistler summer of activities into four days. A packed schedule had offered everything from fly-fishing to disc golf, river rafting to yoga, and much in between that involved wearing a silly costume.

By Sunday, my legs were aching from Saturday-night’s AlpenGlow Fun Run, a six-kilometre jog around Lost Lake, while wearing glow sticks. Or they might have ached from skiing Blackcomb’s Seventh Heaven all day; or from jumping up and down to The Sheepdogs during Friday night’s concert in the village.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. In some places the river is little wider than a canoe.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake and Green Lake. riverofgoldendreams.com photo

Cycling Whistler’s Valley Trail on Sunday morning, we stopped at Lakeside Park where we met Eric White of Backroads Whistler. When he told us about paddling the River of Golden Dreams, the timing seemed perfect: No pressure to perform; tranquility now. Backroads Whistler even picks you up at the end of the two- to three-hour paddle.

“People were coming here for the lakes long before the skiing,” Eric pointed out. “I think you’ll really enjoy it.”

To get our sea legs we warmed up with a stand-up paddle boarding session. Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, has taken off in recent years and it’s easy to see why. Not unlike snowshoeing, SUP offers a short learning curve and gets you closer to the elements. It can be as relaxing or as strenuous as you want. Eric gave us a quick tutorial on the dock and we were off.

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

Pasty Englishman attempts balance feat on stand-up paddle board!

The Kahuna boards designed by Whistler local, Steve Legge, were exceptionally stable, despite my initial fears of falling. (The lake ice broke just a month before!) It only took a couple of lengths between Lakeside’s docks for it to begin to feel like a core workout.

Now acclimatized to the occasional gusts picking up on Alta Lake, we paddled to shore for a new vessel.

Backroads offers kayaks and double kayaks but we opted for a two-person canoe. The canoe requires smooth communication between paddlers to navigate the notoriously tight corners of the River of Golden Dreams.

It’s also known as “The Divorce Boat,” according to Eric.

“We’ve only been married 23 years, what could possibly go wrong?” I asked my wife.

The River of Golden Dreams connects Alta Lake with Green Lake about three kilometres north. Because of its stubborn refusal to follow a straight line, the river’s full length is closer to five kilometres. In places, the river is barely wider than a canoe and portaging is sometimes necessary, depending on water levels, which can fluctuate rapidly depending on rain and snow melt.

After a quick paddling tutorial, we donned our lifejackets and set sail. Within 15 minutes we’d crossed Alta Lake and were nearing the mouth of the river. That’s when I noticed people waving at us from a bridge. Seconds later we heard a siren – the kind that’s normally accompanied by a loud voice shouting “release the hounds”.

“Why are those people waving at us?” asked my wife from the bow.

The answer appeared over our left shoulders: canoeists, two to a boat and wearing helmets and numbered pinnies, launching from a nearby beach and paddling straight for us. Unsure whether the people on the bridge were waving us in or away, we opted to paddle for the river, full steam ahead.

At the bridge we made two discoveries. The first was that we’d need to portage a few yards because we’d arrived at a weir. The second was that we’d unwittingly joined a pivotal leg in GO Fest’s Great Snow-Earth-Water Race – a grueling six-stage competition involving skiing, biking, running and canoeing.

“We’re expecting two dozen canoes through here,” a young man with a radio told us. “You might want to sit out and let them through.”

It occurred to me that on a narrow, winding river with few passing lanes and a head start, we could actually try and win the race. Then my wife reminded me that this was supposed to be a cruise. She also said something about ethics.

So for 20 minutes we perched at a picnic table and watched contestants portage their canoes around the weir and back into the river, cheered on by locals. When everyone had passed us, we re-launched and quickly learned to adapt to the river’s ever-changing moods: turn too tightly and fast eddies would pull us into the reeds; lose concentration and we’d find ourselves turning sideways to the current.

But the lush wetlands and snowy peaks beyond the banks made up for the occasional brushes with low branches. Better yet, during the course of our 90-minute paddle we became minor celebrities to those who had turned out to cheer on the racers. Everyone loves plucky losers and despite not wearing race pinnies, we were assumed by many to be the last-place finishers in the canoe stage of the Great Snow-Earth-Water Race.

I still think we probably could have won it!

The River of Golden of Golden Dreams (Backroads Whistler – riverofgoldendreams.com or 604 932-3111) is just one of a multitude of adventures awaiting visitors to Whistler this summer. Here are five more.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Several runs atop Blackcomb and the Horstman Glacier are open for skiing and boarding until late July.

Hit the Valley Trail: For a better perspective on Whistler’s surroundings get out of the village and onto the Whistler Valley Trail. More than 40 kilometres of paved trail and boardwalks connect Whistler’s lakes, parks and neighbourhoods. The trail is suitable for bikes, rollerbladers, joggers, walkers and well-behaved pets. Whistler.com offers more information on making the most of the Valley Trail, including a blog on the trail’s “six perfect spots”.

Shred the Park: Valley Trail offers a benign cycling experience and cross-country cyclists will find more than 500 kilometres miles of single track around Whistler. The Whistler Bike Park though condenses the best of Whistler’s downhill for all levels of mountain biker. Ride the lift up and take your pick of alpine view trails, banked cruisers through the forest, tight, winding single track and – for the experts – steep rock faces. Whistler Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, including some with rentals, and accommodation packages. More information is at whistlerblackcomb.com.

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Buckle up and ride the Elaho! Eric Beckstead photo

Ride the river(s): If paddling the River of Golden Dreams is too tame for you, consider whitewater rafting either of the Green, Lower Cheakamus, Elaho or Squamish rivers. A range of half-day and full-day tours are available from Whistler, (whistler.com/rafting) or from the Sunwolf Centre in Brackendale near Squamish (sunwolf.net/rafting).

Fly by the seat of your pants! The most exciting thing I’ve ever done in Whistler is ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler. Superfly Ziplines (superflyziplines.com) runs Canada’s longest, fastest, highest ziplines where speeds of more than 100 km/h are made possible by runs well over a kilometer long, 200 metres off the ground. Strap into a paragliding-style harness, attach to half an inch of galvanized steel with a trolley rig and prepare to fly! Ziptrek Ecotours (ziptrek.com) combines similar thrills above Fitzsimmons Creek with a strong environmental ethos.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ziplining at Cougar Mountain, just north of Whistler.

Ski in a T-shirt: For all the great winter skiing at Whistler, the novelty of descending Horstman Glacier while wearing a T-shirt in July is hard to beat. Until late July, two or three runs, plus the terrain park remain open atop Blackcomb where lunch on the deck of the Horstman Hut is a must.

* For details of summer accommodation packages, visit fourseasonswhistler.com

inukshuk-Neville Judd

Splendor in the snow

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ski out2

Skiing takes on a surreal quality when it’s 28 degrees and you’re wearing a T-shirt. That’s part of the appeal when it comes to skiing Blackcomb Glacier, a time-honoured summer tradition at Whistler.

Most of the shale atop Blackcomb started as mud on the seafloor about 100 million years ago. The place still resembles a beach in July. That’s when summer skiing is in full swing and public displays of nudity are commonplace. OK, not full-on nudity like Whistler in the 60s, but there’s plenty of flesh visible 7,500 feet up on the Horstman Glacier.

I’ve never been summer skiing before and I pack with excited anticipation bordering on paranoia: neck-warmer, gloves, fleece jacket, Under Armour and longjohns compete for space in my backpack with water, emergency chocolate and a camera.

It’s too heavy so I ditch the longjohns and eat my emergency chocolate.

It’s 11 a.m. when I upload on the Wizard Express at the base of Blackcomb. The temperature in the village is about 25 degrees. (Thank goodness I ate the chocolate.)

The first thing I enjoy about glacier skiing is the journey. My skis are stowed on the chair in front; I’m wearing a T-shirt and enjoying the warm mountain breeze. Compared to the winter experience, it’s liberating.

Another tough assignment - but someone has to do it.

Another tough assignment – but someone has to do it.

Above Merlin’s run I spot two deer and on Upper Main Line a solitary bear appears from the bushes. We switch to another quad chair – Solar Coaster Express. The first snow comes into view moments later above a black diamond run called Sorcerer, and there are more banks of white where the Nintendo Super Pipe used to be.

Solar Coaster takes us to the Rendezvous Lodge and the Peak 2 Peak Gondola where a bus awaits to ferry us the short ride to 7th Heaven Express and the last chairlift to the Horstman Glacier. Two T-bars, terrain parks and endless blue skies await.

At the top I find every kind of tourist: adventurous seniors hiking on the shale, international students up for lunch at the Horstman Hut, couples posing for photos at the inukshuk, and parents watching their kids play in the snow. Then there are the skiers and boarders – mostly half my age and seemingly unencumbered by back packs full of winter gear.

Undeterred, I spend the next hour skiing numerous variations of what are essentially two runs to the Horstman T-Bar. It’s where most of the skiers and boarders are funneling and the lineups are surprisingly long. But it’s warm, the views are spectacular and everyone’s happy. Not surprisingly the snow is soft and slushy in places, but I’ve skied on worse in January.

For a while I perch beside the public terrain park and photograph the jumpers whose attempts to defy gravity mostly end in wipeouts. I tell myself I’d try it, but what with the backpack and all; I don’t want to land on my camera, right?

Half-pipe or jump? Photographer Javier Carranza mulls his next move.

Half-pipe or jump? Photographer Javier Carranza mulls his next move.

I stop for lunch at the Horstman Hut and lather on yet more sunscreen, putting extra under my chin and nose – the most vulnerable spots for snow-reflected sunburn. I order a beer and a deli platter of bread, meats, cheese and pickles. From the deck, Black Tusk’s ominous spire is hard to miss in the distance – it’s the kind of day photographers set aside for brochure assignments.

With some effort I step into my skis again and prepare for another run to the Horstman T-Bar. That’s when I notice the Showcase T-Bar has largely emptied. It’s normally reserved for private lessons, like the Dave Murray Ski and Snowboard Camps. With an hour of skiing left till downloading at 3 p.m., I ski across and get the green light from a liftie to ascend.

The only way is down to the Horstman T-Bar and the Showcase T-Bar.

The only way is down to the Horstman T-Bar and the Showcase T-Bar.

It’s only about a 500-foot climb, but the Showcase T-Bar takes me to one of my favourite winter skiing spots, the entrance to Blackcomb Glacier. I seem to have this side of the mountain mostly to myself for the final hour and take full advantage, picking my routes beside the jumps, the half pipe and the inflatable landing spots for aerial gymnasts in training. With a bouncy castle to land on I’d almost consider attempting a jump. Almost.

I leave myself a little time to ski out on Green Line, a narrow strip of snow left among the rocks and the wildflowers beginning to bloom. Twice I almost fall while mesmerized by the epic landscape before me and it’s a relief on my legs to finally board Solar Coaster for the download. A mum and cub are basking on one of Blackcomb’s lower runs. At the bottom, a dozen horse-riders are wending their way uphill.

Within an hour I’ve revived sore muscles in the pools and hot tubs at the nearby Chateau Fairmont Whistler where – as luck would have it – the Mallard Lounge is serving $5 happy hour drinks and free appies. Somehow on reflection, those terrain park jumps don’t seem so daunting.

Maybe next time.

The thin white line. Almost time for apres!

The thin white line. Almost time for apres!

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If you go:

Weather-permitting, glacier skiing on Blackcomb is one of a multitude of summer activities on offer in Whistler. The Whistler Mountain Bike Park is in full swing and the Alpine Wonder Routes – a vast network of hiking and running routes – is becoming more accessible with every day the snow melts.

The Peak 2 Peak Viewing Gallery is a new series of videos showcasing construction of the gondola linking Whistler and Blackcomb. It’s on a raised walkway in the Peak 2 Peak Terminal on Whistler Mountain. Also new is the Alpine Theatre at the Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler Mountain. Movies with an alpine theme air every 30 minutes.

During our weekend in Whistler, I got to relive my adolescence dancing to The English Beat, part of the free Whistler Presents Concert series. Whistler Olympic Plaza hosts free weekend concerts throughout the summer.

Details of all these activities are at www.whistlerblackcomb.com/

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is a few seconds’ walk from the Wizard Express chair and offers numerous summer accommodation packages. For more details, visit www.fairmont.com/whistler/ or call 1 800 606-8244.

Faster, higher, longer: Riding Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola

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The girls aren't too bothered about dangling by a steel thread 436m above Fitzsimmons Creek.

Confined within a steel and glass capsule, suspended by a galvanized thread 436 metres above Fitzsimmons Creek, Whistler’s Peak 2 Peak Gondola is no place for acrophobics. Fortunately, a fear of heights tends not to afflict skiers and boarders, who’d otherwise be stuck on the bunny hills forever.

In fact, judging by the hum of conversation in the cabin, our cruising altitude of 2,000-plus metres above sea level appears to concern no one.

“I’m gonna have a burrito for lunch,” says the 20-something Aussie woman in front of me. “What’s in that then?” replies her male English friend.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres.

A man from Pemberton, sitting across from my wife, is showing off his $600 goggles, which came with prescription lenses and a de-misting fan. “You’ll never need to buy another pair,” he tells her. I do the math and realize his goggles cost more than my family of four’s second-hand skis, poles, board, boots and goggles combined.

The kids on board are discussing their best wipeouts of the morning. (Funny how parents never do that.)

The miracle of engineering that put us here is the last thing on anyone’s minds and most passengers do not immediately appreciate the view. That could be because the journey’s so smooth, it feels a bit like we’re floating.

It’s more mellow glide than thrill ride.

Grounded by just four towers, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the top of Whistler to the top of Blackcomb — a distance of 4.4 kilometres. Three kilometres of that distance dangles between two of the towers, making this the world’s longest unsupported span for a lift of this kind. It’s also the highest.

“It’s iconic,” says former Intrawest vice-president, Hugh Smythe, who started as a ski patroller in Whistler back in 1966. “It truly differentiates Whistler as unique.”

Smythe was skiing in Zermatt, Switzerland, in February 1997. An idea took shape while looking down at the vast expanses between peaks as he flew above the resort in a helicopter.

“I said, ‘Gee, we could connect Whistler to Blackcomb,” recalls Smythe.

It has been 10,000 years since the Overlord glacier that once connected the two peaks retreated to leave Fitzsimmons Creek on the valley floor. It only took 11 years for Smythe’s idea to be realized and for the mountains to be connected again. (Albeit by a cable 2 cms in diameter.)

In 11 minutes, the Peak 2 Peak does what used to take skiers like me half a day to do.

When the $52-million Doppelmayr-type lift opened two years ago, I wasn’t initially thrilled.

I’d always been fond of clumsily working my way down Whiskey Jack and Olympic runs from Whistler’s Roundhouse to ride Excalibur and Excelerator up Blackcomb. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who longs for the days when keys, not swipe cards, opened hotel room doors, and when people raked leaves instead of blowing them, but really, must everything be sacrificed for the sake of time and convenience?

Then, on our first evening in Whistler earlier this month, I got talking to Stu from Utah in the hotel hot tub.

“I rode the Peak 2 Peak today,” he told me. “Whistler was socked in, but it was sunny on Blackcomb so we scooted over.”

Funny, I thought to myself. I’d never considered that.

Other unexpected benefits became obvious the next day when we finally boarded the Peak 2 Peak on Whistler.

Our modest party of 14, including six children, had spent much of the morning arranging meeting points by cell phone after becoming split up on runs or in lineups for chairlifts. After finally assembling at The Roundhouse Lodge, we moved next door to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola.

The lift’s 28 cabins each hold 28 people (24 seated and four standing). Two cabins are built with glass bottoms, reducing capacity. Fitting 14 people isn’t exactly a squeeze, and with a cabin departing every 49 seconds, lineups are minimal.

Each of the lift’s 28 cabins have room for 28 people to get cozy (24 seated and four standing).

The day we first boarded, it was Whistler village that was socked in, leaving us to glide across a valley floor coated in cotton candy-like mist. To the east soared the peaks and bowls of Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Below, the meandering black streak of Fitzsimmons Creek was just visible through the cloud.

And then skiers and boarders on Blackcomb’s upper runs came into view.

“Look at the ants, Dad, look at the ants,” said my daughter Emma, excitedly. Navigating black runs and occasionally dropping off into the trees, they might have been pine beetles on planks from where we watched.

Disembarking on Blackcomb, we paused to take group photos by the lift station before, inevitably, getting split up during the descent of Blackcomb.

The next day, I was back taking advantage of the fast track in the sky. The lower slopes were icy and fogged in. From mid-station up blue skies heralded an inversion that blessed both peaks with temperatures well above freezing.

But which peak to choose?

It only took 11 minutes to figure out.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm