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Spring skiing hits the sublime

Gaper Day, WSSF, sunny park laps, unexpected powder all part of the spring experience

Wendy Brookbank has no idea how many days she skis on any given year. She doesn’t actually care about her vertical feet or whether or not she skied more this year compared to last. 

That’s not how she measures her winters.

“In my mind, I’ll know—have I skied enough, or have I not skied enough?’

“I’d rather have one amazing heli run than plug in 20,000 vertical feet.”

Of course, Brookbank, 53, is the anomaly. With her long and storied career at Whistler Blackcomb, coaching with Extremely Canadian, racing the Colouir (read on for more on that), among other things, Brookbank pretty much skis every day. But her point remains: skiing isn’t really about the numbers; it’s all about how it makes you feel.

These days, our ski seasons are laid out before us on the Epic Mix app. But the stats are just one piece of the puzzle. Sure, Epic Mix might tell you how many chairlifts you’ve ridden, how many days you’ve logged and your highest elevation. But what about all the things the app doesn’t tell you? It doesn’t tell you, for example, how many off-the-charts powder laps you skied, how many beyond-the-boundaries adventures you had. And it certainly doesn’t tell you what it feels like to progress in the sport—that feeling of landing the 360, finally figuring out how to float on powder, of hiking up Flute and sharing a picnic looking out over the Coast Mountains, or of staring down the uncomfortable edge of West Cirque and finding the grit to commit.

Whatever the numbers, at the end of every season, even winter 2022-23, Brookbank always feels the same.

“I never have regrets.”

Which is saying someth ing as she speaks from her Whistler home, recovering from a broken leg, her season ended in an instant.

It begs the question: How does your ski season stack up this year? Any regrets?

There is no better time to make up for lost time than right now as the ski season begins its final hurrah and spring skiing kicks into high gear. Don’t pack away your skis just yet; there’s still lots of season left, and for many, the best is yet to come.

Spring snow

Any skier or snowboarder will tell you, there are distinct and separate parts to every ski season: the build-up to the season’s start, opening day, the Christmas chaos, the January storms punctuated with heavenly powder days, the March Break madness, followed by the gradual slide into spring. If the storms and powder of January are the heart of the season, then spring is arguably its soul.

Longer days bathed in sunshine, a chilled-out vibe, surprise end-of-season powder days. Ask any skier or rider and they’ll tell you—this time of year is good for the soul.

“In the winter, we’re so concentrated on getting up and getting powder and … getting a parking spot,” laughs Brookbank.

That’s no joke. It can be stressful in the race to the top during the winter. Highway snarls, parking woes, ears trained to the avalanche bombs in hopes that alpine terrain will open.

“By spring, we’re done with that,” muses Brookbank.

There’s no rush. And the skiing often gets better as the day goes on. 

Freestyle skier and X-Games gold medalist Simon d’Artois, who grew up in Whistler, explains the spring ritual.

“The mornings are bulletproof,” he says.

In other words, no need to set the alarm. By late morning, things start to soften up. 

“It’s the best time to shred,” he says.

That’s when the snow transforms into corn snow, that granular snow caused by alternate thawing and freezing. Corn snow, with its sugary sweet sound underfoot, is softer, more forgiving. The steeps are less intimidating in the corn snow, the slushy bumps more forgiving. It gives you a freedom of sorts to charge a little harder in the sunshine.

“There’s a playful aspect to it,” says d’Artois.

All the better to straight-line, agrees Gaper Day mastermind Jamie Bond, who has dedicated part of his life’s work to celebrating, embracing and defining mountain ski culture.

He perhaps sums up spring skiing best.

“It’s almost beach weather combined with the best sport on earth,” he says.

Does it get any better than that?

This season, in particular, has been a little tricky.

It was a funny start to the year with a persistent weak layer to the snowpack, deterring skiers and riders from heading into the backcountry. For Bond, that meant more in-resort skiing. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing when your home ski resort is Whistler Blackcomb. Bond rediscovered old favourite runs, long forgotten in the push to explore beyond the boundaries. He says there’s still some pent-up demand, more so than other years perhaps, for late-season adventures.

“I think people are starting to get into slightly bigger adventures now.” 

If there was any doubt about spring’s popularity, one look around the village will put that to rest. Just gauge the goggle tans around town, that yearly badge of honour, proclaiming to the world just how good it is on the slopes. There’s a lot on display this year; the spring skiing is that good.

And while the skiing begins to change as the snow begins to creep back up the mountain, uncovering beloved mountain bike trails metre by vertical metre,

 some things remain sacred, for Bond at least: Death Before Download, especially on Gaper Day.

 

(Editor’s Note: Skiing out is not recommended, particularly this year. The ski-out is also dangerous on Whistler Mountain as work begins on the Fitzsimmons Chair upgrade. That work has also impacted the ski-out to the village on Blackcomb Mountain.)

Gaper Day

Like some of Whistler’s legendary adventures before it, Gaper Day has made its mark on the local spring calendar. The last day of operations on Blackcomb Mountain is a time to celebrate all that’s awesome about Whistler in the spring. Mark your calendars this year for May 22.

Among other advice, like dressing the part and basically not being a jerk on the day, Bond shares his credo for Gaper Day.

Be prepared to ski out, over swatches of mud, patches of grass and whatever else the mountain lays at your feet. You always ski out.

“That has big implications on what gear you chose,” advises Bond. “You really need to pick your weapon with that.”

Bond is credited with what is arguably Whistler’s most notorious ski day, inspired by the partiers he met while on a ski-bum season in Europe more than 25 years ago. Gaper Day was fringe in those early years, becoming “an unstoppable beast now,” says Bond, noting that it’s not just a Whistler phenomenon. This is a party celebrated at resorts throughout North America.

“At the end of the season, you just want to let loose, have a good time, and maybe ignore a few rules,” he jokes.

Gaper Day is all about fun, a send-off to another winter season for the books. Skiing has perhaps become a little too serious these days, says Bond. Gaper Day is the antithesis of that, as the ridiculous outfits can attest. Gone are the expensive waterproof ski jackets, the high-end, heated gloves, the top-of-the-line skis. Anything goes for Gaper Day—neon one pieces, jeans, wigs, the more ridiculous, the better.

Bond has made one addition to his ever-changing outfit in the last decade that he swears by—a helmet.

He recommends it for all “even if you put on dinosaur spikes.”

The season send-off for winter 2022/23 is shaping up to be another grand finale Gaper Day, coming on the heels of two recent seasons that ended in an instant due to the pandemic.

Bond adds: “COVID tried to crush it but I think it’s going to be back and in full force.”

Going big
’til the end

For d’Artois, it doesn’t get much better than whiling away the spring season in the terrain parks at Whistler Blackcomb. 

“It’s my favourite time of the year to ride the park,” he says.

You see it all when the sun comes out, because there’s time and inclination to stop and watch. 

“It’s a pretty fun and casual vibe,” he says.

But, at the end of the season, you’ll also find skiers and riders tossing big tricks.

“It has this high energy to it,” he adds.

The park perhaps best captures that quintessential ski vibe of the past—relaxed, fun, a place to see and be seen, with the chance to see superstars such as d’Artois showing the kids just what an X Games gold medalist can do on his skis.

Going big is the name of the game, too, for spring’s most notorious ski race—the Saudan Couloir Race Extreme.

Brookbank has raced it a few times.

“Every single time I’ve done it, it’s been a totally different course,” she says, from the year it was groomed to the top, to skiing in a huge dump of powder.

The race wasn’t always in the spring but, now part of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF), it is key component of the official send-off of the season.

It used to be just another race, says Brookbank. Now it’s a different vibe; the WSSF has raised its profile, has let people know just what it takes to race down the Couloir, billed as one of the steepest at Whistler Blackcomb.

“It demands a lot of attention,” says Brookbank. “Once you’ve raced it, you’re in this group of people who have raced it.” 

And there’s no better feeling than crossing that finish line.

If throwing down tricks in the park or racing the steepest race on Earth isn’t really your thing, there are other ways to go big in the spring.

One look at the skiers and riders enjoying the sun at the Umbrella Bar at the Roundhouse patio sums up the spring vibe and mountain culture in an instant. 

Sunglasses replace goggles; Gortex jackets give way to T-shirts; sunscreen is arguably the most important part of your ski gear.

Spring’s promise of summer hangs in the air, more adventures just around the corner.

Bond adds: “It’s easier to have a tailgate party when you’re not freezing to death.” 



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