We’re at Whistler’s peak, some 1,530 metres / 5,020 feet of vertical above the renowned ski resort’s Village. There’s a small lump in my throat as I look out across the bowl and peaks to a single craggy fang called Black Tusk. The lump isn’t from the sweeping 360-degree alpine panorama before me, but the fact that this is my first time downhill skiing; ever. I’m here to prove it’s never too late in the season to learn, and this is the never ending season to prove it, as the fraternal twin mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, offer the best spring skiing in recent history.
First, there is the quantity of snow, 1443 cm of cumulative fall, and a 346cm base. Then there is quality, -4C at the mid mountain this morning, -5C in the alpine, and tomorrow more snow it predicted. Speaking to the mountain’s revisionist take on sunny spring day in April, a 45 foot tall Inukshuk stands hip deep in spring snow. What goes up, must come down though.
Despite being a 40-year old downhill virgin, I’ve now had two learning runs of Ego Bowl and Whisky Jack under my belt now. Those runs have shown I can at least fake the basics by drawing on my experience cross-country skiing. What that means is I’m used to balancing with a couple slippery boards strapped to my feet and I know how to snowplow.
I’ve also lucked out, Patrick Jennings, a childhood friend of my partner Kevin, has graciously slid in to show me the ropes and the slopes. Patrick is a volunteer ski instructor to mentally and physically challenged individuals via the Whistler Adaptive Ski and Ride Program. Given my natural born attention span of a butterfly, I couldn’t be in better hands. Patrick’s patience is unparalleled, his experience deeper than waist high powder and expansive as the Whistler-Blackcomb backcountry he’s skied extensively.
Each section I complete comes with a fist bump. It’s an action I find juvenile at first, then a sign of success and congratulation, then finally as a sign of the scene. Patrick instructs with well-read philosophical quotes, mixed with the technical details of technique and equipment, and when one explanation doesn’t work he tries another, or demonstrates the techniques.
The warm encouragement in his teaching style immediately reaches me, and sees me letting go of my worry about holding up Kevin and Patrick as I slowly make my way down my first run under the Emerald lift near the top of the mountain. Patrick borrows a phrase, “Any day on the hill is better than a day not skiing.”
Through luck, planning and engineering Patrick has created what from the outside is a ski-bum lifestyle, but that’s a derogatory term that fails to encompass the mix of philosophy, skiing, athleticism and attitude. No one could watch the exuberance of his turns, the joy in his descent and fault him for wanting to live as much of this as possible, this Zen Philosopher of Zoom is in his element. Force him out of it with work-a-day concerns, and it would surely dry, wizen and kill him.
We’ve quickly gone from the basics on a first mid-mountain run down Ego Bowl and Jolly Green Giant, to the very top of the mountain and a descent of runs that are beginner’s “Green Circle trails, occasionally sliding into Blue Squares”. The latter being gauged as intermediate.
What amazes me about Whistler though is that a full 20% of the mountain’s 1,925 hectares of skiable area is accessible to a newbie like myself. That’s before you factor in 15% of Blackcomb’s 1,382 hectares. And its not limited to the bottom of the hill, but scattered all the way to the top. Looking up from the village, you only see a fraction of the territory available to explore, and it’s appealing to know you don’t need to be a hard-edges expert to access the alpine.
My descent though, isn’t all smooth sailing. As one the phrase goes, “if you’re not crashing, you’re not learning”, and I do in grand style. Descending from the peak to the intersection with Burnt Stew Trail, I’m coming down a section of ridge I’d like to think of as “Blue”. The snow is icy, the turns well worn to the verge of being moguls, and the edges of the ridge closing in. My turns become less frequent, I begin picking up speed, and even catch a little air as I straight-run past my turn-off to the easier green trail.
What follows my “landing” is a plume of snow and shock at how far I slide. Patrick slews sideways in a hockey-stop, throwing snow overtop of me as I lay on my side. It’s a post crash tradition, a further indignity initiating me into the world of downhill skiing. It’s also proof that in Whistler’s seemingly endless 2010/2011 season, it’s never to late to learn to downhill.