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Party on in Whistler

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The Dubh Linn Gate begins to fill up at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival.

It’s 4:20 p.m. on 4/20 in Whistler and the aroma wafting through the village is unmistakeable:  Axe body spray with just a hint of beef jerky. It smells like a high school locker room, which is probably why my 15-year-old son Ryan doesn’t seem to notice. Either that or he’s carrying too much Axe and beef jerky to notice.

The final weekend of Whistler’s ski season is also the final weekend of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. That means all manner of free arts, music, and sports events. It also means free giveaways – Axe, beef jerky, Monster Energy drinks and yoghurt. It’s an odd combination, but a popular one among teens nonetheless.

It makes for an eclectic scene: Sweet-smelling kids amped on caffeine. (Monster drinks are for over-18s, but plenty of parents were indulging their under-18s.) Bandana-wearing dogs fresh from Whistler DogFest, mingling with toddlers and locals mingling with visitors to the beat of G. Love and Special Sauce, (they’re a band). Somehow it all works.

You want some Axe with that beef jerky?

You want some Axe with that beef jerky?

We’ve skied out to the village just in time for Fashion EXPOSED, a fast-paced, high-energy show on a catwalk set up by the main stage. Macklemore’s infectious hit, Thrift Store is booming over the speakers as models come and go every few seconds. G. Love and Special Sauce, the day’s first live act, are up next and pretty soon everyone from the decks of the Garibaldi Lift Company to The Longhorn to the crowd in between are swaying to bluesy hip hop. The lead singer looks like Justin Timberlake and plays a mean harmonica.

Aside from abundant yoghurt and beef jerky, our immediate après options look sparse with lineups at almost all the bars fronting the main stage. Thank goodness for the Dubh Linn Gate where there’s room at the back. Pints of Guinness and a poutine and fries later, we’re back outside for Vancouver’s very own enduring hip hop band, the Swollen Members. They’re a more than capable warm-up act for the ever-popular Big Air event and Monster Energy Shred Show. (Try saying “Shred Show” fast! It’s easier after a Monster Energy drink.)

Lab chills out to G. Love and Special Sauce.

Lab chills out to G. Love and Special Sauce.

As darkness and temperatures fall, pro snowboard riders soar upwards of 70 feet in competition for a $15,000 cheque and the 2013 Big Air title. It’s an impressive finale made all the sweeter by 18-year-old Canadian Maxence Parrot landing a Triple Cork to beat a Norwegian and an American for the victory. As the lineups to the village’s bars and clubs grow ever-longer, we head back to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and find refuge in the Fitzsimmons Pub (The Fitz, as it’s known to locals) opposite the hotel. No lineups, great food and a solid beer list. ($13.75 a pitcher!)

Telus no longer sponsors the World Ski and Snowboard Festival, but that has not diminished the event’s appeal. On the contrary, organizers expanded the WSSF’s arts and culture scene this year. Open daily at the Whistler Conference Centre, State of the Art celebrated the mountain community in a variety of media. Storytelling and improv were the themes of the Mountain Multiplicity Show and the Chairlift Revue. And Vengeance in the Valley, the resort’s inaugural roller derby bout, sold out.

Skiing on Blackcomb continues until late May. Meanwhile golf season starts May 4. Visit fairmont.com/whistler for details of Whistler golf packages, starting at $139 per person.

For everything else Whistler, visit whistlerblackcomb.com.

G. Love's Garrett Dutton treats Whistler to a 'Booty Call'.

G. Love’s Garrett Dutton breaks from ‘Booty Call’ to harmonica.

Written by nevjudd

April 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Whistler celebrates readers and writers

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Sunshine Coast filmmaker Nicolas Teichrob appears at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Oct. 12-14.

A comfy bed and a good book sound like the perfect antidote to the chilly onset of fall, but organizers of the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival have something less solitary in mind.

From Oct. 12-14, the resort will showcase the art of storytelling with a celebrated lineup of Canadian and international authors. Panel discussions, workshops, and speaking events make up the festival, which also pairs authors with wine and jazz at a Saturday-night gala to be held at the Chateau Fairmont Whistler. The Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre will host the festival’s opening night reception.

Whistler’s festival events have an intimate feel, say organizers, who add that booklovers can interact and connect with top authors from all over North America.

Festival headliner, Alistair MacLeod.

Headlining is Canadian author, Alistair MacLeod, best known for his critically acclaimed collection of short-stories Island as well as his multiple award-winning novel No Great Mischief. Lawrence Hill, author of the international best-seller and prize winning The Book of Negroes will be there, along with short-story author and journalist Zsuzsi Gartner (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives). Also speaking will be young adult writer Susan Juby (Alice, I Think, The Woefield Poultry Collective); non-fiction and fiction writer Margaret Macpherson (Nellie McClung: Voice for the Voiceless, Body Trade); historical fiction novelist, Jack Whyte (A Dream of Eagles, The Templar Trilogy); fiction and poetry writer Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny) and celebrated poet John Burnside(Black Cat Bone). Local author and festival director Stella Harvey will be releasing her new book, Nicolai’s Daughters.

In 2001, Harvey founded the Whistler Writers Group, otherwise known as The Vicious Circle.

“Our first festival was 20 people in my living room,” laughs Harvey. “We had a guest author – Andreas Schroeder – and a workshop the following day. We were finished by 4:30!”

Harvey invited the poet, novelist and Roberts Creek resident, Schroeder, back for the festival’s 10th anniversary. Another Sunshine Coast resident, Nicolas Teichrob, will appear at this year’s festival. The filmmaker will be part of a panel discussion on writing and film on Oct. 14.

Festival founder, Stella Harvey.

The Whistler Writers Group now has about 150 members and has seen its annual festival grow to a three-day event, attracting internationally acclaimed writers and about 300 participants last year.

But, says Harvey, the festival has lost none of its intimacy.

“One of the things we hear most in evaluations by guests and authors is that intimacy is a great strength of the festival. The fact that you can share lunch or a coffee with the authors and hear about the books they like, or what their motivations are, is definitely appreciated.”

Saturday night’s “Wine, Books and Jazz” event at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler is a first for the festival, says Harvey, who hopes it will be another way to cultivate that intimacy. “It will be a pub-like setting and a chance to share a drink with authors while listening to good music.”

The New Orleans Ale Stars take the stage with swing-era jazz from 7:30 p.m.

In partnership with the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival is offering “Book and Bed” packages. The full “Book and Bed” package starts at $658 and includes two full event passes (entry to 14 events over the festival weekend) for the festival plus accommodation for two nights, based on two sharing.

For more information, visit www.theviciouscircle.ca and http://www.fairmont.com/whistler/special-offers/other-offers/readers-writers-festival/, or call 1 800 606-8244.

The Fairmont Chateau Whistler hosts the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Oct. 12-14.

Taking the plunge

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Expert kayaker, Bernardo Barajas, helps guide the Sunwolf raft down the Elaho. Eric Beckstead photos

There was a time when bonding with my son Ryan meant getting on the floor and building a train track. He’s almost 15 and not really into that any more.

Chances are he’s also not into having his dad land on top of him, soaking wet, in a 16-foot inflatable raft. But there we were, a chaotic display of arms, legs, neoprene wetsuits and lifejackets – a triumph of survival over style.

The Elaho River has a way of breaking the ice like that.

The night before we’d come to the Sunwolf Centre at Alice Lake near Squamish. In a cozy little cabin, we’d fallen asleep listening to the rain and the swollen Cheakamus River roaring by. It was still raining the next morning as we ate a huge breakfast at Fergie’s Café.

At the stern, guide Bob Vranich and his five-man crew navigate Class 4 rapids on the Elaho.

“The water level’s up 40 per cent over yesterday,” says our guide Bob Vranich with a big smile. “It could get a little spicy out there today,” he adds. For a moment I wish Ryan and I were building train tracks again.

During the hour’s school-bus drive north to the “put-in,” we glimpse the Elaho from the logging road. It looks angry, all foam and froth with some mist thrown in. It feels a bit like driving into a Lord of the Rings movie.

The 18-kilometre stretch of the Elaho we’re to raft features several stretches of Class 4 rapids, Bob tells us. They have names like Cheeseball, Devil’s Elbow, 50-50, and Steamroller. The International Scale of River Difficulty spans Class 1 (easy) to Class 6 (impassable unless you’re Chuck Norris). It defines Class 4 as follows:

Long rapids; waves high, irregular; dangerous rocks; boiling eddies; best passages difficult to scout; scouting mandatory first time; powerful and precise maneuvering required. Demands expert boatman and excellent boat and good quality equipment.

“It’s OK,” I reassure Ryan. “I grew a beard for this.”

There are few more effective ways to wake up than leaping off a 40-foot cliff into the 4-degree waters of the Elaho River.

More reassuring to both of us is Bob’s track record, and the fact that expert kayaker Bernardo Barajas happens to be a doctor and will be scouting and, if necessary, rescuing. Bob’s in his 10th year of endless summers – raft guiding in New Zealand and Chile during our winters, with spells in Switzerland, Guatemala, India and Nepal thrown in. He’s rafted the Zambezi in Africa, and last month was leading a tour through the Grand Canyon. He has also appeared in National Geographic movies and on Outdoor Life Network TV.

After a lengthy safety talk on land and a quick paddling tutorial in an eddy, we’re finally in the thick of the waves, leaning as far out as we dare and paddling hard. Conditions on the Elaho change daily, and Bernardo is a little way ahead, scouting for debris and signalling to Bob the best passage. Five of us respond to Bob’s steady stream of commands and we paddle our way through Reflection Waves – a knockout combination of waves where the river pummels a vertical wall of rock and rebounds on itself. Then it’s on to Devil’s Elbow, where the river takes a jarring 120-degree turn to the right. I don’t think any of us expected conditions so intense, so soon, but Bob coaches us through the worst of it and into calmer waters.

“This is awesome,” says Ryan quietly with a grin.

Bob wields two massive oars from the stern and steers us towards a large eddy and a cliff face where natural steps lead to a ledge about 40 feet up. Bob invites us to climb up and leap off the ledge. When I realize he’s not kidding, I follow Ryan and the others out of the boat and up to the ledge. I’m sure there’s a lesson about peer pressure here, but Ryan jumps before I can tell him. Legs shaking, I have no choice but to jump, too.

Me and the boy – in our element.

It’s breathtaking, charging all my senses and actually warming me to the core. I’m laughing as Ryan helps pull me into the boat and I fall on top of him. We’ve all taken the plunge and camaraderie replaces any lingering paranoia about falling in.

It’s just as well because more challenging rapids are ahead. But first there’s time for lunch – barbecued wild B.C. salmon with salad, hot chocolate and a fire. On a sandy beach, Bernardo has everything set up for our arrival and we’re glad of the shelter as rain intensifies. The food is every bit as good as breakfast at Fergie’s and welcome fuel for the exertions ahead.

On the second leg of our journey I begin to appreciate our surroundings. Above the cliff faces of the Elaho Canyon and far above the gnarled ranks of fir, hemlock and cedar are numerous silver streaks lining the Tantalus Mountains – waterfalls created by the incessant rain and snow melt. Bob points out Butterfly Falls, a cluster of waterfalls that on windy days evaporate before reaching the canyon floor.

As the mist clears we glimpse the peaks of Mount Caley and Mount Fee. Later we glide past a wall of dirty snow two storeys high, the legacy of an avalanche that carried trees and boulders to briefly dam the river earlier this spring. This trip is equal parts education and adventure.

The adventure returns and mounts steadily through House Rock, Playground, Cheeky Monkey and Little Steamroller – whitewater sections that climax in the main event, Steamroller. It’s the biggest rapid of the trip; a wall of water that Bob had earlier warned us would be as big as the boat is long. It doesn’t disappoint. After skirting an ominous watery hole atop Freight Train rapid, we manoeuvre left, and then right to hit an immense wave called Wu-Tang, head-on.

Behold the Steamroller! Resistance is futile!

As the boat crests we all seem to be paddling thin air before descending like a rollercoaster into a curtain of spray that drenches us all. We might have high-fived but for gripping our paddles so tightly. We’re soon back into rapids named 50-50, (“You don’t need me to explain why it’s called 50-50, right?” shouts Bob, laughing) Tombstone, and Aiden’s Alley. Somewhere in the mix, a wave catches us sideways and dislodges Ryan and me from our seats. Thankfully, we’re sent sprawling into and not out of the boat.

Our final minutes of the trip are spent quietly floating through “the Braids,” a gentle stretch of the river punctuated by fallen trees and gravel bars. It’s a welcome rest.

Back at the Sunwolf Centre, Ryan and I snack on goodies at Fergie’s Café and relive a day neither of us will ever forget. “We should do this again next year,” I say.

“Let’s do it again next week!” says Ryan.

If you go:

A full-day Elaho River expedition costs $155 per person and includes lunch, post-trip snacks, full wetsuit and related gear, plus a professional guide. Participants must be at least 12 years old and weigh more than 90 pounds.

For more information about the Sunwolf Centre and its other trips, services and accommodation, visit www.sunwolf.net or call 1-877-806-8046.

More Eric Beckstead photos, click here.

 

Written by nevjudd

June 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm

Whistler spring break for parents: Kids optional

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No child was harmed during the creation of this obviously staged photo. (Really.)

What to do with your kids? It’s the theme of every spring break travel story. We all love our kids, but let’s face it, they cramp our style sometimes.

So how about spring break for parents? Have we not earned a little indulgence?

From the poolside hammocks at the Scandinave Spa in Whistler, yes. From the tranquil cross-country ski trails of Callaghan Valley, certainly. From the excitement found atop a throbbing 4-stroke Bombardier snowmobile, hell yeah!

The best part of a trip can be in the planning, but sometimes it’s easier to leave it to experts. Enjoy Whistler offers personalized service to ensure travellers strapped for time can still enjoy a memorable visit, with or without children. In 72 hours, I drove fast, fired rifles, relaxed in a spa and skied till I dropped. I think I may have even had a better time than my kids.

Some of it was hard work though. Take the Biathlon Experience, for example, a two-hour immersion into the oldest winter sport of them all. At the Whistler Olympic Park in Callaghan Valley, adults can try the sport, a combination of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. Aside from one regrettable hunting trip in Ireland 20 years ago (the rabbit got away), I’ve never done either. That was soon apparent to my instructor Antoine, who gently coached me through the finer points of skate skiing. In contrast to classic cross-country skis, skate skis are thinner, trickier, and faster.

“Tougher to learn, but easier to master,” said Antoine, who should know. He started 30 years ago, when he was 22 months old.

After some advice on balancing and edging, I began shifting my weight from side to side, achieving a clumsy version of V-skating – no poles, just pushing off with one ski and repeating with the other. We moved on to the classic diagonal stride, coordinating a forward poling arm with the opposite driving leg. Antoine made it look like ballet, all grace and elegance. I looked like Bambi with haemorrhoids.

Ignore the snow, gusty winds, racing heartbeat and the burrito you ate for lunch, and just focus on the grapefruit-size target 50 metres away.

I was exhausted by the time we reached the Biathlon Range, where I at least got to lie down. It was the part I’d been waiting for: Firing a 22-calibre rifle.

Antoine demonstrated, telling me to focus on my breathing, and pointing out that with snow and gusty winds, a racing heartbeat won’t improve my chances of hitting a grapefruit-size target, 50 metres away. I hit five out of five. Would the Whistler Olympic Park really go to such lengths to make me feel good?

“The size of grapefruits, you say?” my wife whispered to me later that evening through the mist of a eucalyptus steam bath at Whistler’s Scandinave Spa. It wasn’t a whisper of hushed reverence; in fact I detected a hint of sarcasm. Talking among guests is strongly discouraged at Scandinave, which offers hydrotherapy and massage packages. The hydrotherapy comprises outdoor baths – some hot, some cold – with a sauna, steam room and solarium.

We followed the hot-cold relaxation sequence three or four times, and aside from the occasional gasp in the Nordic plunge pools, we observed the spa’s code of silence. There was plenty of time to talk, back at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. Our kids were making the most of the hotel’s pools and hot tubs, where silence is discouraged.  The hotel is more progressive than most when it comes to children. Not only do its chefs offer a children’s menu that is actually healthy (and delicious), its gym offers guided fitness training for seven to 17-year-olds.

"Yeah, it's Ryan ... wait a second, my dad's taking a picture."

On Blackcomb the next day, my son Ryan explained to me Whistler Blackcomb Live, the new Telus Mobile app. Track your runs using GPS, clock distances travelled, vertical shredded and maximum speeds. As if further proof were needed that Ryan’s cool and I’m not, the app is available on his iPhone, but not on my Blackberry. I was stressed to learn that the app logged Ryan’s fastest speed at almost 80 km/h. But then I’m a 44-year-old dad who skis: As long as Ryan’s mum doesn’t find out, he’ll be fine.

Not that any of us were slowing down the following day. The biggest adrenaline rush of the weekend came courtesy of Canadian Snowmobile Adventures’ Callaghan Cruiser tour. After getting geared up in helmets, gloves and heavy waterproof jackets, our guide Morgan gave us a detailed safety talk about the Bombardier snowmobiles and the conditions ahead. The engine sparked to life, and I was actually a little nervous until Ryan leaned into my ear and told me to step on it.

The Callaghan Cruiser tour may be billed as ‘family friendly’, but I still felt just slightly rebellious whizzing around wide and winding trails in a blizzard. We followed our guide Morgan to a frozen lake near Northair, a former gold mine, where we could really let loose on the wide-open flat.

The snow fell as thick as the traffic we encountered on the drive back to Horseshoe Bay. The backcountry snowmobile route might have been quicker.  Not to mention more fun!

  • Enjoy Whistler specializes in planning and booking the perfect Whistler vacation. Find a lower price within 72 hours of booking your reservation and Enjoy Whistler will match it and refund the difference, or cancel your reservation without penalty. Call 1 888 882-8858 or visit www.enjoywhistler.com
  • For more details about spring-ski packages at Fairmont Chateau Whistler, visit www.fairmont.com/whistler

Teens gone wild: An adolescent rite of passage in Whistler

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Hanging by threads, suspended 60 feet up between two Douglas Firs, my mind wanders to the Okiek tribes people of Kenya.

When their kids reach adolescence they are ceremonially circumcised and then secluded from adults for four to 24 weeks.

Social services would probably take a dim view of that here. And it wouldn’t fly with my son Ryan, 13 today and exuding adolescence from his gravity-defying hair right down to his boxers, proudly hoisted above his gravity-defying jeans.

Instead we’re in Whistler with Raven and Cyrus, two of Ryan’s adolescent friends, in search of adventure.

The Birthday Boy in his element.

We found it yesterday on the trails of Whistler Mountain Bike Park. After turning my back on mountain biking years ago, I finally realized what I had been missing: a full-suspension bike with shocks to absorb the worst Whistler could throw at me.

Our guide Mike Johnstone broke us in gently in the aptly named Easy Does It trail, advising us on the basics of braking, cornering and trail etiquette. He also chided the birthday boy for tailgating!

Pretty soon we were launching our bikes into the berms of B-Line and bouncing our way down Crank It Up. And while other bikers were few and far between, we spotted eight bears — the closest all but 20 feet away.

We stopped to watch the experts hurtling down A-Line, eight kilometres of drops, tables and more than 100 berms, and one of the busiest bike trails in North America, according to Johnstone.

We had to talk Cyrus out of trying A-Line, but then I think we all shared a feeling of invincibility by day’s end.

But that was yesterday, back when gravity was my friend.

Today, hanging high above the forest floor, I’m feeling anything but invincible.

“Are you OK, Dad,” asks Ryan thoughtfully from the safety of a wooden platform.

“Don’t show us up,” says Raven, who’s on a fast track to walking home from Whistler.

I say nothing, preferring instead to focus my energy on the task at hand: Walking across a series of spinning balls each hanging from two ropes. My two orange carabiners — a mountaineer’s best friend — are clipped on to an orange wire above me. The orange wire connects the trees, ensuring I at least won’t die on my son’s birthday should my feet slip off the balls.

Orange wire is an important part of WildPlay, an outdoor playground set on Cougar Mountain, 15 minutes north of Whistler Village. Zoom Zip Lines and Monkido aerial courses make for a full day of adventure and, judging by my aching wrists and tender armpits, a full body workout.

Zipliners at WildPlay reach speeds of up to 100 km/h.

Monkido is an obstacle course elevated among the trees and comprises increasingly difficult challenges, from a simple tight-rope walk to Tarzan swings, mini zip-lines, scramble nets, swinging logs and those infuriating spinning balls. From platform to platform, one challenge ends and another begins, with the adventurer continuously reattaching the orange carabiners to the orange safety wire. Preservation instincts make it unlikely you’d forget to reattach, but a WildPlay guide makes sure you don’t while yelling encouragement.

By the time I complete my graceless navigation of the slippery balls the boys have moved on. I’m congratulating myself when I hear Cyrus shout: “How the heck are we supposed to do this?”

This doesn’t bode well. Cyrus may well have been a monkey in a previous life and has been whipping through the challenges.

Through the trees I see Cyrus on his hands and knees crawling a la Spiderman on two parallel wires.

“Just loop your ankles around the wires and start crawling,” our guide Katie tells me with just a hint of reassurance. There’s nowhere to look but down as I inch across, trying to ignore the strain on my knees and the sunglasses about to fall off my face. The Mission Impossible theme tune pops into my head. This must happen to Tom Cruise all the time.

Mercifully it’s a short crossing.

It takes about 90 minutes to complete the course and the teenage testosterone is almost palpable at the finish. The adrenaline kicks in moments later on WildPlay’s Zoom Zip Lines tour.

While Monkido demands physical and mental agility, zip-lining is just a flat-out thrill ride. On a course of five dual zip lines, the longest is the aptly named Godzilla. Four hundred metres up and 1,500 metres long, Godzilla spans two mountains. It descends 200 metres from start to finish, propelling riders in paragliding harnesses at speeds in excess of 100 kilometres per hour.

It’s a bit like bungee jumping, but with a destination and a lot more screaming.

After riding Godzilla, the boys appear momentarily speechless.

“Oh my God,” offers Cyrus.

“I think I may have swallowed a bug,” says Raven.

“That’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” says Ryan.

“Let’s do it again,” I think to myself.

By the fifth and final ride back to base, we are pros at angling our bodies like torpedoes to maximize speed, or making like a starfish with arms and legs out to slow down. We have screamed at each other in tandem on our way down and marveled at the loud but cushioned impact on landing.

At no point do any of us dwell on the fact that we have entrusted out lives to half an inch of galvanized steel and the immutable laws of physics.

Well, perhaps I did a little bit.

“That was the best birthday, ever,” Ryan tells me on the way home.

Mine, too, son.

If you go:

We stayed in Whistler Creekside at Legends, which offers two-night packages, including a Peak 2 Peak sightseeing pass, for $79 per person, per night. Visit www.legendswhistler.com or call 1 866 385-0611 for details. For other accommodation deals, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com or call 1 888 403-4727.

WildPlay operates parks in Whistler, Maple Ridge, Nanaimo and Victoria. For more information, visit www.wildplay.com or call 1 888 668-7874.

Whistler Mountain Bike Park offers numerous ticket deals, some of which are combined with hotel packages. Visit www.whistlerbike.com or call 1866 218-9690 for more details.

Written by nevjudd

December 7, 2011 at 11:39 pm

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