When Barnett Senior built his first cabin in Whistler he said there was no way he was going to have a phone in the building; he came to Whistler to get away from the world and to ski.
When his sons became old enough to drive, however, and began coming to Whistler more frequently than he, a phone was installed in the cabin.
Today he can’t go skiing without his cellular — make that digital — phone.
Next winter, Intrawest is going to have an IBM Business Centre in the new Roundhouse Lodge. No doubt, there are many people who will find it convenient to check their e-mail part way through a day’s skiing or riding, perhaps send a fax back to the office or cheque stock quotations. Who knows, in a couple of years we may come to expect to be able to do these types of things on the mountain, just as we now expect free use of cellular phones on the mountain.
But do we still respect the mountains for what they are — rugged, gnarly, potentially dangerous thousands-of-years-old mountains — if we’re taking our business with us into this environment?
Playing on the mountains has become easier in recent years, and this is a good thing. It may never be as easy to go skiing as it is to go to the beach, but through high-speed lifts, better equipment, better grooming and mountain design, going skiing or boarding isn’t quite the mountain expedition it used to be. This has brought new people to the mountains and revived many former skiers’ interest in the sport. As one veteran put it, "Because of the new equipment and the grooming, I ski better every year, even though I’m in worse shape every year."
Access to the mountains has definitely become easier, albeit more expensive, and one of the most controversial access points is the new yurts Whistler/Blackcomb has built as part of its Mountain Adventure Academy/Freeride program. Located just outside the ski area boundary, they are referred to by staff as Gucci yurts because of amenities such as a hot tub, gas fireplace, futons and other comforts.
The criticism has been that the Gucci yurts are an affront to those who work to get into the backcountry and away from the masses on the groomed slopes. True backcountry skiers have to know and respect the mountains in order to survive.
Well, the Gucci yurts are in the high alpine but they are hardly in the backcountry. Eventually a system of yurts may be built into the backcountry, but the first two simply offer an opportunity — again, for those who can afford it — a chance to experience the high alpine after the lifts close. An analogy might be made to car camping and "real" camping, where you get to a camp site by foot or canoe.
For purists, the yurt experience is no substitute to climbing or skinning into the backcountry, digging a snowcave and revelling in the satisfaction of having done it all yourself. But for those of us whose time in the alpine is limited the yurts offer a unique experience. And unlike a business centre, that experience can also build greater understanding and appreciation of the mountains.