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Whistler Blackcomb ‘in a good spot’ ahead of opening day: COO

Mid-mountain chairlifts set to open Nov. 25, as events make a comeback
Whistler Blackcomb opening day groomer  by Fitzpatrick_Christie_July5202111-06357
A groomer works to prep terrain on Whistler Mountain on Tuesday, Nov. 23 ahead of opening day on Thursday.

After two consecutive ski seasons cut short due to COVID-19, the stoke is running high ahead of Whistler Blackcomb’s Nov. 25 opening day. 

But despite the heavy precipitation the Sea to Sky corridor has experienced over the last two months, conditions on Thursday are expected to be “kind of in the middle” of the road, said Whistler Blackcomb chief operating officer Geoff Buchheister three days before lifts were due to start spinning.

“It’s not unbelievable snow up there. We had some really good snowfall right before and during the atmospheric river event, and it held up pretty well the higher up you go,” he said. “Certainly it still is going to be a little bit of early-season conditions and we’re going to groom out as much as we can.

“The grooming will be, I think, very dependable and everything that’s groomed will be really quite good,” he continued. “We’re looking at some more storms coming in so the picture could change a little bit in terms of what it’s like on opening day, but I think we’re in a good spot where we’re going to have really good skiing and several lifts and runs open on each mountain for opening day, so that’s a positive.” 

Staff expect to have Emerald, Red and Garbanzo chairs open on Whistler and Catskinner, Jersey Cream and Excelerator on Blackcomb available on Thursday and into the weekend. Ski outs to the valley will remain closed for the time being, with guests asked to download from mid-station. 

“Like early season every year, you’ve got to keep your eyes out,” Buchheister said. “We’ve got a long season ahead of us. We’re going to be going all the way through May and so the first couple of days isn’t necessarily the time to, you know, flex your most awesome move.”

Thursday’s forecast is calling for periods of snow or rain and a high of 3 C in the valley, with strong winds and a freezing level of 1,800 metres (slightly lower than the Roundhouse’s elevation). Whistler Blackcomb’s weather report is predicting an accumulation of 17 to 28 centimetres. 

Come opening day, on-mountain operations will again look different than in previous seasons.

“One of the things that I’ve really kind of tried to lean into through this pandemic is that nothing’s ever really going back to the way it was,” said Buchheister. “I think pieces will, but I think it’s important that we understand that … we’re going into another year where we’ll have impacts from the pandemic and we want people to be respectful and kind and understanding of each other.” 

Gone is last year’s mandatory reservation system and physically distanced lift loading procedures, though in accordance with B.C.’s current provincial health order, skiers and riders must still wear face coverings indoors and while riding gondolas. Guests aged 12 or older are also required to show proof they’ve received two doses of a vaccine in order to access on-mountain dining facilities.

“We’re going to go back to a more normal capacity model, so we’ll be loading lifts with other people, which is something that will definitely change the dynamics that we had at base areas last year, in terms of the longer line-ups,” noted Buchheister.

Whistler Blackcomb parent company Vail Resorts has also implemented a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine requirement for all staff members. 

One aspect of Whistler Blackcomb operations that will return to (almost) normal are the events that were largely put on pause last season, added Buchheister. That includes initiatives like the North Face winter kick-off, the CIBC-sponsored Never Ever Days and Santa Ski Day. 

Stakeholders are also expecting to see a busier start to the ski season than last year’s. “Bookings for opening weekend and December are pacing well ahead of 2020, with strong demand coming from the B.C. market,” explained Tourism Whistler president and CEO Barrett Fisher in an email. 

It’s yet to be determined what impact current restrictions will have on visitation, as British Columbia remains in a state of emergency following the recent “atmospheric river” event that caused devastating flooding and infrastructure damage to some areas of the province. Most B.C. residents who are not operating an essential vehicle are currently limited to purchasing a maximum of 30 litres of fuel per gas station visit, until at least Nov. 30, while an order restricting non-essential travel along severely damaged highways remains in place. The order applies to Highway 99 between Mount Currie and Lillooet, but not to the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and Pemberton.

For Buchheister, opening day marks an opportunity to return to the open spaces Whistler’s mountains offer. 

“I think these mountains fuel a lot of us in this town. The last couple years have been tough for everybody and so to know that we can get up there and find a little bit of ourselves; that’s the thing I’m looking forward to,” he said.

“Knowing that there’s a lot of folks across our province that are struggling right now that were impacted by the weather events ... we’re going to open and we’re going to ease into this, but we’ll be ready when they are, and we certainly want to be respectful for what they’re all going through.”