The quest for Whistler's success — are we asking the right questions? 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MICHEL BEAUDRY - Defined by weather: This sunset shot I took on the coldest day last week. As soon as the sun moved below the horizon, the thermostat I had dropped 20 degrees! Quite inspiring to be up there when everybody else was inside.
  • Photo by Michel Beaudry
  • Defined by weather: This sunset shot I took on the coldest day last week. As soon as the sun moved below the horizon, the thermostat I had dropped 20 degrees! Quite inspiring to be up there when everybody else was inside.
"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not be false to any person."

- William Shakespeare

It's almost been like living in the Alps. Sunny skies, hard (and mostly man-made) snow, sparse crowds, near-empty lifts: the riding conditions at Whistler this year have verged on the hallucinatory. Even in the backcountry... the current cover is like nothing I've seen in the forty years I've played back there.

Wind and solar hammered over the last three months, some slope aspects look (and feel) like vertical skating rinks. The other day I went out and bought a set of ski crampons (rarely-needed ski-ascent tools in the past) and during the five minutes I was in the store encountered two other ski-touring groups buying the very same item. We all smiled a little self-consciously. Nodded in recognition. "Weird, eh. Never seen anything like it..."

And yet — please don't roll your eyes — I've been having the time of my life. In fact, I kinda rediscovered inbounds skiing all over again this month. Sure, I had to re-acquaint myself with narrow-waisted skis. Had to get my head around riding hard surfaces rather than the soft stuff we'd come to take for granted.

But geez... I mean, c'mon, man. Carving turns from peak to valley — a full five thousand vertical! — while riding a pair of razor-sharp late-model GS skis... with a big, fat sun leering over your shoulder... on a perfectly-groomed slope serviced by a state-of-the-art snowmaking system... Heck, I could do non-stops like that all day long.

My visionary board-designer friend Serge Dupraz says snowriding is all about "le plaisir de la courbe," the pleasure of the curve. And for me, that's exactly what the last few weeks have been all about.

The rush of finding your boards' sweet spot and feeling those g's build as your skis bend through the turn... the buzz of acceleration as you complete the arc and get propelled into the next one... aaah, there's just no other feeling like it.

And then there's the social version — what I call super-g touring. Here's the concept: starting at Creekside (the resort's extreme south) you and your posse try to ski as many top-to-bottom groomers as you can find while slowly working your way to Blackcomb's new Crystal Chair (the resort's extreme north). Once that's accomplished, you turn around and ski back the way you came... hopefully using a different route on the return journey. Pit stops along the way, of course, are encouraged. After all, it's part of the adventure. I like to think of it as Whistler's version of the Dolomites' Sella Ronda tour. Maybe not quite as circular as the Italian classic, and obviously not so drenched in history... but the view and the riding are just as stellar. If not more so.

And that's my point, dang it. Whistler is a mountain-resort town. It's not a powder-resort town. And some of us have forgotten that. For years, we've promoted this place as a deep-snow Jerusalem. "Wow! Are we ever good. Look at how much snow we've received." But now — when it's the mountains we need to promote (because we don't have what we thought was our "deserved" snow), we've lost our touch.

How about working on a promotion like, "It's always better up high?" Or Magic in the alpine," or 'There's no bad days on the mountain... just bad attitudes." Or... I don't know, something about how otherworldly soulful it feels to be on a high peak on a clear day; to sit in a quiet grove at timberline and watch the sun go down; to share that moment with friends and loved ones.

It's not that complicated. Whistler's competitive edge — the thing that differentiates us from every other resort product out there — is the vast and majestic environment of B.C.'s Coast Mountains. It's not our hotels. It's not our restaurants. And it's certainly not our shopping mall, er, village.

They're all added value of course. And they've enhanced Whistler's reputation... for sure. But strip out the mountains from the picture, baby, and this place really doesn't have much to offer that's distinctive... or unique.

Take the last few weeks. A trip to the alpine during that time was a virtual feast for the eyes. From the Tantalus range in the south to Wedge and Mount Currie to the north, the air was so clean and clear that the peaks looked like their outlines had been hand-cut out of the sky. So much beauty. Such splendour. And I couldn't help myself — I sat for hours and basked in their glory.

And it wasn't just me. Dozens of people lingered in the alpine after closing during our freaky warm spell in January. Countless stayed up high after sweep to watch the sun go down. It wasn't about powder, or performance or being a pro rider dude. It was simply about hanging out in the snow, in the mountains, with your buds. Old folk and young, newcomer and veteran — they were all there. It was the kind of spontaneous partymaking I remember from the 1970's. Nothing fancy, nothing too organized... just high-energy, on-mountain fun.

And indeed, that's what ties Whistler's present to Whistler past. Whether you got here in the '60s, the '80s or you just arrived last month, that giddy feeling of being in the presence of something much bigger than yourself — the environment, the weather, the spirit — is one of the most common reasons for setting down roots in this place.

That's why I get really nervous when I start hearing people talk about "weatherproofing Whistler" after one dry winter start. Weatherproofing Whistler? Really? To me, it's as absurd a statement as "child-proofing Disneyworld." Know what I mean?

Seriously — how many people wanted to "weatherproof Whistler" last summer when everyone was so busy patting each other on the back for our endless stretch of sunshinny skies? The numbers were way up; the place was bustling. "Our marketing is working," crowed the bureaucrats. But was that marketing or weather? Hmm...

In my opinion, it's a no-brainer: weather defines Whistler. Good, bad or cataclysmic, it is an intrinsic part of our story. Ask any visitor. The first (or maybe the second thing) they'll talk about is the extreme weather they experienced while they were here. Mountain life, lest we forget, is all about embracing the wild things nature has to offer. Else why come to the high country in the first place?

Besides, building more stuff here is not the answer. Transforming Whistler into the West Edmonton Mall is not going to solve our problems (consider why that mall was built in the first place — there's nothing else there!). We need to get back to basic principles.

And to do that, we have to ask the right questions. Like my friend, GD Maxwell (Pique's sage on the back page), I think our leaders are afraid to address the elephant in the room. To whit: Whistlerites were suckered (bribed?) into allowing too may commercial beds to be built in this valley. It's a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario. And the sooner we acknowledge that paradox, the sooner we'll be able to find reasonable solutions to our problems.

"To thine own self be true," cautions Shakespeare. And I think that's where Whistlerites need to start.

Who are we? What do we stand for? Do we really want this place to be ruled solely by supply-side economics? Do we actually believe that our fate is to attract tens of thousands of new guests each year simply to fill an arbitrarily-set number of hotel rooms? Or is there a greater value here that we need to uncover and celebrate?

Whistler was once known for being innovative and irreverent, bold and saucy and yes, happily non-conformist. So what does Whistler stand for now? Has the community become as bourgeoi,s as some of our critics have made us out to be? Or do we still have a bit of a naughty edge to our nature?

It may have started snowing again by the time you read this story... at least that's what the forecast suggests. And for some people, that means the crisis will have been averted. We'll go back to selling powder to our clients and everything will revert to the way it was.

And yet... What happens if it's just a snow sprinkle and the season remains a dry one? What happens if we don't get any big storms for the rest of the year? Or even scarier: what happens if next winter is dry and sunny too? We need to talk...

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