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Resort heroes for a new age

click to enlarge Maelle Ricker
  • Maelle Ricker

"The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it."

- XVII Century French playwright Moliere

Still slim pickings on the slopes. Weird, eh? Here we are, already January 2014, and our mid-mountain snow base is still struggling to hit the 100cm mark. Hmm... last year at this time, we'd already surpassed 300. What's up with Ullr this winter?

Did he think Whistlerites were getting too smug? Taking too much credit for all the white stuff we'd been blessed with over the last few seasons? Or was it simply our turn to feel the sting of a snow-challenged year?

No matter. There's a host of people in Sea to Sky tasked with keeping the spirit of the mountains alive and strong. And while the rest of us are wringing our hands in frustration — and dinging our bases and edges on the slopes — they're all hard at work making things happen... reminding us all exactly what passion and determination can accomplish. Even in the face of hard times....

That's why I wanted to give a shout out to the snowmakers and the lifties, the hill-groomers, the artists, the club racers and the storytellers last week. The community is fortunate to have such talented people working on its behalf.

But last week's list was just the tip of the glacier. In the spirit of the season — the holidays are all about giving, right? — I'd like to present a few more Whistler Mountain Culture Awards (WMCA) to deserving individuals (and groups).

They say a culture's identity is forged in the fires of hard times. Well, if that's the case, this season's minor contretemps could help the Whistler community develop an even stronger sense of itself. Consider the following four WMCA nominees. Each of them has something unique to offer this town. And each, in his or her own distinctive way, represents the very best that Whistler can be. See if you agree.

Snowboard Diva Maelle Ricker: There's nobody like her in the world. The 2010 Olympic gold medallist in snowboard cross (and the current world champ), Maelle has suffered countless "career-ending" injuries... only to come back from each debilitating incident stronger and faster and even more competitive than she was before.

And she does it with such grace and charm. There's no attitude in Maelle's make-up. No sense of entitlement whatsoever. What you see is what you get. Indeed — she may be the most understated athlete on the snowboard circuit! That is, until she's standing in the start gate. Then all bets are off...

But Maelle is way more than just another champion. An exceptional freerider and experienced mountaineer (her alpinist dad, Karl Ricker, taught her well), Maelle is a living, walking, riding advertisement for the Whistler lifestyle. She's a Coast Mountain gal through and through — as happy and at home in the high country as anyone I know. Remember that when you're watching her compete in Sochi next month. In my mind, she's one of the top Whistler ambassadors of all times...

Jeff Slack and the Whistler Museum: He's mad for the mountains; well-versed in all things alpine... both as a scholar and athlete. I mean, this guy is keener than keen. Which is good news for us all. Meaning? Jeff Slack's job as program director at the Whistler Museum allows him to indulge his passion for all things high-country by curating a variety of events — debates, slide shows, panel discussions — that examine local (and mostly self-propelled) mountain-use issues from the practitioners' point of view.

Is there a code of behaviour for backcountry travel? Should we build/allow more access to wild terrain or leave it as it is? How did adventure filmmaking evolve at Whistler? What's best practice in local avalanche forecasting? Who are the movers and shakers in backcountry safety? These are just some of the themes addressed at museum-sponsored events in recent months. And all of them — well, at least the ones I attended — were pretty much sold out.

The world is changing, my friends. The era of self-propelled travel is upon us. In the snowsports apparel and hard goods market, for example, the only upward trending category this year was in ski and snowboard touring gear. As for Sea to Sky country, you couldn't create a better destination for self-propelled sliding if you tried! Every side valley offers a new opportunity for adventure. Every peak offers a potential new route to explore. Which makes Slack's curating efforts all the more relevant. Safety, protection, communication — basic respect for the mountain commons — these are all vital issues for backcountry users. And they need to be discussed! Congrats to Jeff and the Whistler Museum for being leaders in this field.

Whistler's Restaurateurs: Whistler lost a legendary host last November when the longtime owner of Le Gros, Pascale Tiphine, suddenly passed away. Happy, generous, witty — in love with all things hearty and earthy — Pascal was Le Gros. And for the regulars who sought out his restaurant on the southern fringe of town, that's exactly the way they liked it. Eating at Pascale's wasn't just a meal... it was a happening.

Fortunately for Whistlerites, our little town is still blessed with a plethora of owner-operated restaurants. And it doesn't matter whether they're big or small, high-end or modest-priced. They all have character.

Think about it. Whether it's Les and Dan at the Southside Diner or Mickey at Sushi Village, Eric at Alta Bistro or Bob at the Rimrock (to name but a few), each restaurant owner lends a little bit of himself to the job each day. Which is what makes dining in this town so memorable. It's not just the food my friends, it's the characters... and their stories. Yeah baby.

And yet, these small business-owners are the most vulnerable too. When the economy is hurting — or in winters, say, when the snow refuses to fall — they're the ones who are the most exposed. Frankly I don't know how they survive the food industry's financial snakes and ladders. But they do... or at least the most persistent ones do.

So let's raise a toast to all those crazy, hard-working restaurateurs who manage to stay solvent in this town. Congratulations and thanks. Whistler would be a much sadder (and far less diverse) place without you.

Sara Jennings and the WCSS Food Bank: In a perfect world, there would be no one — not one person — going hungry in a mountain resort community like Whistler. Alas, this is far from a perfect world. And the pool of hungry people in this town is expanding... not diminishing. Sigh.

Which makes Sara Jenning's job as coordinator of the Whistler Food Bank all the more important. Born and raised in this valley — Whistler Municipality's first "official" child in fact — Sara has always marched to the beat of her own drum. A world traveller, political activist, adventurer and committed environmentalist, she first set her compass on global causes. But then she realized a few years ago that her own community needed her assistance as much as anywhere else in the world did.

So Sara moved back to Whistler. She took the job with the food bank — even though she didn't drive a car. Adopted a baby — even though she didn't have a partner. Bought a condo — even though she wasn't sure she believed in private ownership.... And then proceeded to lend her considerable energy to countless worthy Whistler causes.

I've said it before but it bears repeating. Sara Jennings makes Whistler look good. Think about it. The municipality's "first" child a social activist and counter-consumerist? Says a lot about the community she grew up in... no? As for her work — it's not sexy, it's not exciting, but it's vitally important to the people she feeds. "Whistlerites just don't realize how tough it is for those in want in this valley," says Sara. "Donating to the Food Bank — whether by providing food, funds or as a volunteer — is one sure way to make a positive and immediate difference in our community."

Hmm... The beginning of a new year. The annual rite of resolution-making. Nudge, nudge... this is where the light goes on and you realize you could donate to your local food bank as one of your New Year's resolution. This is where you think: "Wow! That was easy... Maybe I'll donate again next month."

Have a great year everyone!

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