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A sacred ritual to respect

By Michel Beaudry Opening Day. To most Snow-eaters, that’s like Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, July 1st and Halloween all rolled into one. And nowhere is that more evident than in Whistler.

By Michel Beaudry

Opening Day. To most Snow-eaters, that’s like Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, July 1st and Halloween all rolled into one. And nowhere is that more evident than in Whistler. No matter the conditions, no matter the weather, the moment the lifts start running is the moment people come out to play. Fortunately, Ullr was particularly generous last Saturday…

Which brought Whistler Mountain revellers out in the kind of numbers we haven’t seen here in a long time. Whether Aussie newcomer or Vancouver veteran, tweener, teenager or silverback, the local Snow-eaters tribe was extremely well represented on the slopes this year. “This has got to be one of the best Opening Days in history,” said a jubilant Scott Fennell as he kicked out of his bindings at the bottom of Creekside. A 30-year Whistler resident, Fennell was highly impressed with the day’s offerings. “What a great time. I can’t believe I was riding top to bottom powder all day. This felt just like a continuation of last year’s conditions…”

His celebratory words were echoed by Philippe Lavoie. “It felt like mid-winter out there today,” said the ever-smiling Franco-Columbian (also known as Guy). “I had to make a lot of stops this morning to pick up all my son’s friends before I could get to the mountain. But I still made it in time to be among that first group up the Creekside gondola…” A rider who loves nothing more than pointing the nose of his board straight downhill, Lavoie admitted he was expecting to pay dearly for the early opening. “I thought we’d be paying a much higher price physically for today. But it’s been so easy. I’m hardly sore at all… and my board is barely scratched.”

Maybe it’s a payback for the tough times Whistler has experienced in recent years. Maybe it’s a karmic reflection of the regime change at Whistler-Blackcomb. Maybe it was just our turn. Whatever. From peak to valley, from Seppo’s to Franz’s, Whistler Mountain was covered in a thick, comfy blanket of white. And though things got a mite warm later in the day, the skiing remained good to the valley till the lifts closed.

“No question,” said Bernie Protsch, Whistler Mountain’s Pro Patrol boss, “this is an outstanding way to start the season. We just got dumped on the last few days. In fact, we have a deeper snowpack now at our Pig Alley weather station than many other resorts get all season long. And it doesn’t look like the storm patterns are going to change anytime soon…”

You can dismiss Opening Day as a childish ritual where people go out and damage their skis and hurt their bodies in a premature rush to re-connect with their favourite obsession. You can scoff at all those kooky people lining up patiently (and impatiently) in the lift queue from 6:30 a.m. on, hoping to be one of the first to set their tracks on the mountain. You can wait until conditions stabilize and the snow cover is more consistent before getting your first turns in. You can even go to Maui to escape the November blues and ignore all the local hoopla. But if you’re going to live in a ski town — and until people tell me differently, I’m still going to consider Whistler primarily a “ski town” — getting into the swing of Opening Day should be a top priority in your life.

Heck — if I were the mayor of Whistler, I’d push to make Opening Day (whatever its date), an official town holiday. Pull the kids out of school if it happens to fall on a weekday. Encourage the chambermaids and maintenance crews and kitchen staff and office workers to get out and experience what this mountain resort is really all about. For you won’t see more smiles — more genuinely happy faces — in this valley than on Opening Day…

That is, of course, unless you were one of the thousands of skiers and boarder who had to stand in line for hours to get their mountain pass Saturday morning. “I can’t believe they didn’t have this situation better sussed out,” said an irate season’s pass holder from Seattle with whom I shared a chairlift ride later in the day. “There should have been twice as many staff here this morning to handle the rush. My idea of a great ski day isn’t standing in line waiting to get your pass…”

Those sour notes aside, there were few negatives in a day that augurs very well for the coming season. “It couldn’t have been any sweeter,” said Whistler-Blackcomb’s Operations VP Doug Forseth. “We had great snow and it settled so well! Mother Nature really spoiled us this year — we’re off to a great start.”

Indeed. But for many of us, Opening Day is much bigger than mere snow conditions and weather patterns.

Ever since I was a little kid growing up at Mont Ste. Anne in Quebec, Opening Day has been a special time for me. Good weather or bad, great snow or lousy conditions (and usually they were the latter), early December invariably saw me pulling out a pair of rock skis and braving whatever fate (and the snow gods) had in store for me that year. I can remember Opening Days where my buddies and I would surf the grass between the patches of man-made snow — hanging desperately onto the tails of our skis and hoping that we wouldn’t get snagged on a rock and pitched over the handle bars… or worse. I recall lots of tears and sobbing explanations to parents about wrecked gear or torn ski clothing or injured body parts.

Mostly what I remember, though, are the smiles and laughing mugs of my friends. Re-connecting with the magic of skiing. Sharing a passion. Celebrating a way of life…

When I moved to Whistler in the early 1970s, Opening Day took on a whole new meaning. For here in the wild winter weather of the Coast Mountains, the first skiing day of the year could mean belly-button deep powder snow on Lower Insanity — or picking through the nasty pebble gardens off the Green Chair.

And I’ve experienced both enough now to know that Opening Day is special no matter what Ullr decides to throw at you. Sure — a great snowpack helps start the year in a great way. But that’s really just the icing on the cake. Opening Day is about getting back on your skis — or your board — and flying again. It’s about shrugging off gravity’s shackles and getting a freeride down the mountain — and remembering what you’ve been missing all summer. It’s about hooking up with old friends. Laughing at those first-day blunders: a broken binding, a ski with an edge torn out, or discovering that your ski boots were home to a family of mice during the off-season. It’s skiing full-tilt into a still-uncovered drainage ditch or finding that one exposed boulder in a deceptively clean-looking snowfield. It’s sore thighs at the end of the day. Sharing a beer at Dusty’s or Merlin’s.

Opening Day is all of that — and more! And I wouldn’t miss it for all the diamonds in the Northwest Territories.

Admittedly, I haven’t missed a lot of Opening Days at Whistler in the intervening decades. I do my best to make sure my travel plans, or my business plans, or my family plans are sufficiently flexible at that time of the year to accommodate Ullr’s often-unpredictable moods. “I can’t — it’s Opening Day…” has been a much-repeated refrain in our house. It’s my one dependable “get out of jail free” card. And I never, ever take it for granted…