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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