A tale of two mornings — early season extremes at Whistler Blackcomb 

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"Tradition is the illusion of permanence."

- Woody Allen

The rain was playing blues on my metal roof. It was warm outside, way warmer than it should be at this time of the year. Certainly didn't feel like the first day of the season. No matter — the decision had already been made. Tradition would be respected. Early tee time at the gondola.

I slipped quietly down the stairs. Stopped by the car to grab some gear, nodded at a couple of fellow-crazies trudging by — they looked like they were already soaked, it was raining even harder now — thought about my warm, comfy bed and the Murakami novel I was leaving behind for this absurd outing, sighed once, and nearly turned back.

But I knew it was useless. It was Opening Day. Didn't matter that this was the boniest opening in decades and the only sliding we'd be doing this day would be on artificial turf. Didn't matter that we'd been spoiled rotten the last few years with fresh snow and been blessed with peak-to-valley runs from day one. Or that these soppy conditions would never get us on the hill at any other time of the year. THIS WAS OPENING DAY.

I shrugged. Took a long sip of coffee. And another. Sighed again. Did I really want to do this? Did I really want to put myself through the misery of a monsoon morning simply to say I was there? At the head of the line on Opening Day? Sure I did, and I started walking through the still-dark morning towards the Creekside gondola. Me, my skis and my big golf umbrella.

Okay, so it was a bit of an eccentric look. Big deal. I mean it's one thing to stand in line, in the dark and the cold, and wait for two hours for the lift to start running. But to wait in line, in the dark, in the cold... only to get pissed on by this bestial Pacific disturbance with no protection? No way. I didn't care if I looked like a wimp. I was a Whistlerite. I knew how to stay dry.

Picture it: Six-thirty in the morning, raining so hard now it's bouncing off the paving stones. A small group of die-hards stand, sit, shuffle in the gondola line-up. There's maybe 50 of them, maybe a few bodies more. Some have tarps, some have ponchos — most are just happy to stand in the downpour in their brand new Goretex ensembles praying that their gear will handle to the challenge. It's a male-dominated crowd, for sure. Most in the early to mid-twenties. There's a lot of testosterone in the air. Some serious posing. But there are exceptions.

Like the three young gals who somehow found a way to ease themselves under my umbrella while I wasn't watching. They were grade-niners at Whistler High, they told me. And they just loved skiing. Couldn't wait to get back on their boards. That's why they'd gotten up so early this morning, they said. That's why they'd convinced one of the moms to drive them out to the hill before her first coffee. "It's Opening Day," said one of them, with the kind of inflexion that assumed I knew exactly what she meant. And I did. "After all," she concluded, "there's only one opening day per season. It would be a shame to stay in bed and miss it just because the conditions aren't perfect. Don't you think?" Ah, from the mouth of babes...

Bob Dufour was there of course. WB's venerable VP of Operations, ol' Dufour, I think, loves the Creekside opening as much as the rest of us do. Besides, he too knows how to dress for the weather. He didn't have an umbrella but... decked out in his waterproof duster, he looked as comfortable out there as a duck in a pond. And he seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself. And why not?

There are few traditions left from Whistler's ski-bum glory days. Nude windsurfing, alpine pig roasts — the always-amusing Freakers' Ball — they're all gone. Fortunately, the one that most defines us as a snowsliding community — Opening Day — still exists. And like all of Whistler's best traditions, it totally defies boundaries. Doesn't matter whether you're a 14-year old grade-niner in pigtails or a 58-year old near-bald ski-wreck — a reefer-toking dread-locked anarchist or a perfectly-groomed, phone-in-the-ear real estate agent — standing in that line-up on the first day of the year is like taking mountain-church communion together. It unites us all. Reminds us what this place was meant to be. How powerful the snowsliding bond really is.

But it's almost like an underground thing. A Grateful Deadish kind of event that attracts only the die-hards. And it shouldn't be.

Heck, if I were running this town, I'd have a full-on Festival Of First Snow at this time of the year. Parties. Demos. Movies. Debates. Panel discussions. And even more parties. I'd plug into all that positive energy in all those young kids who've scrimped and saved and hoped and dreamed... and now they're here, ready to go. Ready for la premiere neige. I'd make it one of the biggest events on the Whistler calendar. And I'd pump up the story every chance I could. In other words, I'd let people know just how much Whistlerites care about the start of a new snowsliding season here.

And furthermore...

But I'm getting carried away. Again. Still, I'm sure you all get the idea.

As for our first day on the hill, it was much better than I'd anticipated. Don't get me wrong. I've never seen so little snow at this time of the year — well, maybe the winter of '78. Regardless, venturing anywhere off-piste on Saturday was an exercise in stupidity. But on-piste was a whole different thing. Mountain Manager Doug Mac and his troupe of merry pranksters had performed some serious magic with their snow-hoses and grooming-machines. Our first two runs of the year were utterly sinful. Kind of like snarfing your grandmother's expensive chocolate bonbons when she's not watching. De-lis-cious...

But I'll be honest with you. The weather was foul. For one thing, the storm gods couldn't decide whether it was raining or snowing. The freezing level was all over the place. Which made for very soggy chair-riding. And it didn't matter how expensive or exotic your Goretex was — that inimitable wet diaper feeling came on pretty fast. As for the wind, forget about it. It was just plain nasty. And by mid-day, I'd had enough.

Still, I was happy to have done it. Another Opening Day at Whistler. Another successful start to the season.

What a difference a day makes. I woke up Sunday morning to a window-full of snowflakes and a text message on my phone. "C u at Creekside, 7:45." Really?

I mean, why? It's not like conditions would have radically changed overnight. We'd still be stuck on groomers. Besides, the Murakami still beckoned. I hesitated for a second. To ski or not to ski? But really, how could I refuse? It was snowing in the valley. The mountain was under a veil of white. Did I really want to stay in bed while my buddies ate up first tracks? No way. Might as well go up for a few runs, get the legs back into the skiing swing of things — even if it was only on groomers — make some turns with the gang. You know, make a social day of it...

I love Whistler. I love the fact that you can go up the mountain one day, and see nothing but rocks and stumps and twigs and exposed creekbeds, and return the next... to a vastly different scenario. Such was the case last weekend. It was almost like time-lapse photography. Only it happened in 24 hours. One day there was less than no snow. The next, everything was white. As I wrote on my Facebook site: "from hell to heaven in just one day!"

I know. You're sceptical. I would be too if I hadn't lived it myself. And no, it wasn't absolutely epic. But it sure was fun. And again, it was Whistler's special geography that made it happen. As usual, the goofy mix of rain and snow the day before had laid down a thick, frozen carpet of white for the new storm snow to fall on. The result? Anything above mid-station that was summer-groomed — and even a lot that wasn't — was now passable for the bold-at-heart. And with 20-30 centimetres of storm freshies to ski through, well, it suddenly felt like we were back where we should be. Right in the Whistler swing of things.

So there you go. A tale of two mornings. A story of two infinitely different ski days. And you know, it made me realize all over again all you can miss at Whistler when you stay in the valley. Welcome home winter! Welcome home Alaska Low. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow...

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