A Tale of Two Ski Towns 

Whistler Blackcomb and Mont Tremblant offer very different experiences — but there's a reason they are top ski resorts

click to flip through (5) PHOTO COURTESY OF MT TREMBLANT - A TALE OF TWO SKI TOWNS Whistler Blackcomb and Mont Tremblant offer very different experiences — but there's a reason they are top ski resorts
  • Photo courtesy of Mt Tremblant
  • A TALE OF TWO SKI TOWNS Whistler Blackcomb and Mont Tremblant offer very different experiences — but there's a reason they are top ski resorts
 

There's probably no other book in history that has inspired as many lazy headlines as Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. A quick Google search reveals the 19th century classic has been riffed on for tales about everything from two airlines and auto shops to zombies and zoos. But, given that the two cities in question were London and Paris, it still seems somehow a propos to use it when comparing the two best ski towns in Canada — Whistler Blackcomb right here in B.C. and Mont Tremblant in Quebec, a province where après ski is taken literally and "vert" is the colour for beginner runs rather than shorthand for vertical drop.

While Whistler Blackcomb is routinely rated as one of the best resorts in the world, over in La Belle Province, the top spot is — with apologies to Mont-Sainte-Anne and Le Massif — generally considered to be Mont Tremblant.

Located in the Laurentian Mountains an hour-and -a-half drive north of Montreal past several smaller ski hills, it has been voted the best ski resort in Eastern North America by the readers of Ski Magazine for 18 out of the past 19 years in a veritable epitome of the French expression "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." Other recent accolades include being named one of the top 10 family-friendly ski hills in North America by Condé Nast Traveler and one of the top 25 overall globally by National Geographic.

Not too shabby for a mountain that, with a summit of just 875 metres, has roughly the same elevation as the kids' tube park above Base II on Blackcomb.

Nearly a century after Dickens wrote his tale set during the French Revolution, the title of a different novel came to define the relationship between the English and French here in Canada. Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes became an instant symbol of the longstanding divide between Anglos and Francos when it was published in 1945.

(Aboriginal Canadians could point out there is a third option glaring in its absence from the so-called Two Solitudes, but back then polite society still had a long way to go towards accepting that French explorer Jacques Cartier did not, in fact, "discover Canada.")

Before heading east for a visit, I decided to reach out to someone who not only has extensive experience riding at both resorts but also happens to be a bit of an authority on the Canadian identity.

In his recent autobiography, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau describes learning to ski with his family at Tremblant before, as a teenager, crossing the floor to snowboarding after watching the James Bond film A View To A Kill, in which 007 (actually stunt double Tom Sims) wrenches a ski from an incapacitated snowmobile and proceeds to use it as a makeshift snowboard to elude machine-gun-wielding bad guys. Trudeau eventually went on to teach snowboarding at Whistler in his 20s before returning home and following his father's footsteps into politics.

Unfortunately, Trudeau was unable to find the time for a quick phone interview with his former hometown newspaper. He also didn't reply to emailed questions about his time spent at either resort, despite an assurance from his press secretary that someone would get back to me. He's probably a busy guy, but it means we may never know the answers to such important questions as, for example, if fond memories of shredding pow in Whistler's out-of-bounds Khyber Pass area played a part in his decision to choose a Montreal restaurant with the same name for a first date with eventual wife Sophie Grégoire.

But in any case, it's not as if the new PM has left enough of a mark at either place to earn a trail named in his honour. Unlike his famous papa.

After an infamous episode in Parliament in the early `70s when former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau allegedly mouthed the words "f--- off" to a political opponent and later claimed he instead said "fuddle duddle," Tremblant's owners renamed a run for the gaffe. Fuddle Duddle, located halfway down the north side of the hill near the top of the Expo Chair, is an intermediate blue run rather than one of the black diamonds that make up half of 95 trails offered on four different mountain faces, which seems fitting given the language in question was likely blue as well.

"Quebeckers thought it was pretty funny and, since Monsieur Trudeau was a fairly regular visitor to the mountain back in those days, the people in charge must have thought it was a great idea," says André LaChapelle, a semi-retired computer technician who has skied at Tremblant for nearly half a century. "I'm sure he got a bit of a kick out of it every time he skied down it."

LaChapelle is one of 90 volunteer Infoski guides who show visitors around the mountain in exchange for a free season's pass. Similar to Whistler's Mountain Hosts and mostly made up of retirees, they are easily identified by their bright yellow parkas with giant question marks on the back that make them resemble henchmen of Batman villain The Riddler.

He says he has seen a lot a famous faces at the mountain over the years and that locals take a certain pride in leaving them alone.

"People all look pretty much the same when they are all wearing helmets and goggles and all their other gear, but nobody here wants to make a fuss anyway. There's no paparazzi or anything like that. We see Michael Douglas, who owns a house nearby, and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) up here it seems like every other weekend and he just skis around like everyone else."

While celebrities are also a frequent sight around Whistler and a few such as Seal, Sarah McLachlan and the guy with the tongue from Kiss have even bought homes in the area, this is still a fairly recent phenomenon. In Tremblant, being a vacation milieu for the rich and famous goes back several generations. Members of the Kennedy clan were frequent visitors and Henry Fonda is said to have had at least one of his five honeymoons in town. Tremblant was also the setting for a popular novel in the `60s called Chateau Bon Vivant about an American couple who unexpectedly inherit a hotel. The somewhat saucy book was later sanitized, anglicized and turned into a Disney movie called Snowball Express, which inadvertently foreshadowed the French-Canadian town's own eventual Disneyfication after being transformed from a sleepy ski town into a bustling four-season resort.

FIRST TRACKS

The first settlers to the area were members of the Algonquin First Nation, who sought refuge along the shores of Lac Tremblant from the war-like Iroquois. They were the first to form alliances with early French settlers and who gave the mountain its name. Mont Tremblant, or "Trembling Mountain," comes from the Algonquin "Manitou-Ewitchi-Saga," meaning the Mountain of the Dreaded Manitou, a supreme being who, when displeased by human behaviour, would cause the mountain to tremble with storms and falling boulders.

Coincidentally, trembling is also how inadequately dressed skiers and snowboarders will find themselves on terrain that regularly sees temperatures of minus 20 Celsius. Before the wind chill factor.

The first people credited with climbing the hill were three Americans: an expat businessman named Henry Wheeler, a millionaire entrepreneur named Joe Ryan and a journalist named Lowell Thomas, who is best remembered today for introducing the world to Lawrence of Arabia. In February of 1938, they were all staying at Gray Rocks, a small ski resort on nearby Lac Ouimet owned by Wheeler's brother, and got to talking one night about how much they'd like to climb the much bigger hill on the horizon. The following day, they hopped into Ryan's plane, flew over to Lac Tremblant and slapped sealskins on their skis before heading in waist-deep snow up a route that is now known as the Flying Mile.

Thomas described the day in the introduction to the 1954 book The Mont Tremblant Story.

"After a couple of hours we reached the summit, and found ourselves in a dazzling fairyland of rime ice and pine trees laden with snow," Lowell wrote. "Joe Ryan, who had the soul of an Irish poet, was particularly impressed. Joe said, 'In the years that I've spent roaming the world, I believe this is my most thrilling sight. But there is one thing wrong with the mountain. It's too difficult to get up here. And I think I'll fix that.'"

Ryan put his money where his mouth was, convincing the federal government to sell him the land surrounding the mountain and staking most of his fortune on following his dream. Exactly one year after Ryan first reached the summit, Mont Tremblant Lodge opened its doors to skiers with a 1,370-metre chairlift rising from the Versant Sud, or the south side of the mountain, with a total of eight runs.

Snow enthusiasts from big cities such as New York, Toronto, Chicago and Washington soon flocked to the town, mostly arriving via the P'tit Train du Nord, a milk run rail service from Montreal. Ryan also attracted top ski instructors such as John Fripp, Norwegian skimeister Erling Strom and Herriman Cup winner Ernie McCulloch to teach visitors. Tremblant later became the first resort in North America to offer lifts on two sides of a mountain after another was added in 1946, and savvy skiers – and now snowboarders – follow the sunshine by beginning the day on the Versant Nord and making their last laps on either the Versant Sud or Versant Soleil.

(Although Ryan was an accomplished man of action, his sense of direction left something to be desired. The so-called south side of the mountain is actually its western flank while the north side mostly faces east, an enduring error as mysterious as the location of Whistler's fabled Dual Mountain.)

For many years the ski scene was literally nonpareil, but by the late 1980s, Tremblant was going downhill in a bad way. Aging lifts and grooming machinery were badly in need of upgrading and snowmaking equipment was in short supply. Intrawest Resorts Holding, Inc. at the time also the owners of Blackcomb Mountain (and later Whistler Mountain), took a chance on the fledgling resort and forked over $26 million to owner Louis Laporte for it. The man they sent out to oversee the hill's renaissance was a 41-year old Whistler Mountain lifer named Roger McCarthy.

THE MCCARTHY ERA

"It was bankrupt when we bought it and the deal closed Sept. 1 of '91 and it was rough trying to get things ready in time," says McCarthy over the phone last week. "The vehicles' tires were all down to the canvas, rodents and insects had taken over all the buildings, and there was no electricity because the power had been shut off. It was a scramble and that first winter was spent really evaluating 'what do we have' and 'let's put together a plan.'"

Tremblant's new general manager also had to substantially upgrade his rusty high-school French. "It was terrible," says McCarthy, who returned to Whistler in 2007 after spending a decade working for top ski resorts in the U.S. "I had a French woman come and sit in my office two days a week. This, at a time where we were busy ripping buildings down and adding new ones and people are hammering on the door looking for me and I have to say, 'sorry, I'm getting my French lessons!' My first speech to the employees, I had my assistant put it all on a piece of paper and double-space it and I wrote out phonetically underneath what the words were."

Intrawest eventually pumped roughly a quarter of a billion dollars into the facility and added five high-speed quad chairlifts, several new routes including a gladed area called the Edge, a much-needed terrain park, and an extensive snowmaking system to help offset the region's icy conditions, as well as a couple of golf courses, a high-speed cabriolet in the village, a 1,000-seat restaurant at the summit and an indoor water park.

McCarthy says he takes particular pride in the look of the new village itself, a faux-European, pedestrian-only town packed with colourful, multi-story buildings overlooking cobblestone streets. It looks a bit like a steeper version of Whistler Village, which isn't surprising given that both were designed by landscape architect Eldon Beck.

They also moved some of the older buildings of the original base village — including the massive Chalet des Voyageurs lodge — downhill to create what is now called Vieux Tremblant to preserve some of the town's heritage.

"I sort of felt like I was making an adjustment to a Stradivarius. We had the utmost respect for what was and wanted to maintain as much of that as we could. Like the Chalet des Voyageur, we moved that with the light fixtures still hanging. I'm almost breaking into a sweat just thinking about all the stuff we did there... We really tried to put our arms around it and keep as much as we could because the history of skiing back there is so well-documented and preserved, unlike in Whistler."

DENOUMENT

While Whistler and Tremblant share the same raison d'être as outdoorsy tourist traps, in many ways they remain quite distinct. Scale is an obvious one.

Pierre Bessette, a dapper, grey-haired gentleman who works as a liaison for Tourism Laurentians, says he only realized how much bigger Whistler really is after visiting on business a few years ago.

"I'm there to try and convince people to come to mini-Whistler when they are already in Whistler," he says with a chuckle. "But on the other hand there are many things that we have here that you won't find in other places. We have things like a casino, a (Formula One) race track, an airport with direct flights to big cities and cross-country ski trails that are part of a national park."

There are also no huge lineups at the gas pumps or gridlock as visitors drive back home after a day on the slopes. Or avalanche danger when off-piste. Or a Starbucks, at least for now. And way more options for poutine.

But the biggest difference when it comes to Quebec will always be the language. Resort workers are now mostly bilingual, although attracting English-speaking tourists is always a delicate matter in a province where the infamous Office Québécois de la Langue Française, commonly known as the Language Police, is ever vigilant when it comes to finding perceived abuses against Bill 101, which insists English words on signs or ads have to be less prominent than French ones.

Bessette instinctively lowered his voice when asked if this was a problem for attracting American tourists who could just as easily spend their money at nearby New England resorts such as Stowe, Killington or Jay Peak.

"They kind of leave us alone here because they see the value of tourism but it is still a sensitive subject," says Bessette. "It is much better now than it used to be. To give you an example, back in the `80s I was about to give an interview with a TV station in Boston and the minister of tourism at the time called and insisted that I only answer questions in French. I tried to explain to her that they don't speak French in Boston but she didn't care. It did not go well."

Many local businesses have adopted a laissez-faire attitude, including a nightclub venue with a sign near the dance floor stating, "No Men, No Drink in the Cage" followed by a simple "merci" in blatant disregard of provincial language laws. Although it's equally possible that French guys simply don't need to be told that go-go dancing is a faux-pas.

But the exoticness of French is also a big part of the attraction for many people. Tom and Emma Grant, a 30-something couple from England I spoke with while riding the gondola, were making their second visit to the resort in five years.

"It really feels like skiing in a foreign country, which obviously it is, but more so because of the French thing," says Emma. "It's a bit like visiting the Alps, only people here are much friendlier and our money goes a lot further. Plus it's a lot closer to home for us than the Rockies."

I mentioned the title I had in mind for this article since they hailed from Dickens' homeland, and Tom pointed out that the book's famous opening line could easily apply to ski trips.

"The 'it was the best of times, it was the worst of times' pretty much sums it up," he says. "It usually is the best of times until you hit a tree or break a leg or something like that and then suddenly it's the worst of times."

It goes without saying that most people head off to the hills with great expectations of having the former.

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