Few things are more heartwarming than the annual mid-summer ritual of Whistler Blackcomb’s (WB) reopening. Depending on the magnitude and reach of the previous winter’s pandemic outbreaks, climate change catastrophes, and global social unrest, the actual date can range anywhere from May to August. But no matter when the rope finally drops, rest assured that legions of hiking-, biking- and sightseeing-starved tourists and locals alike will descend upon these two majestic peaks in the Coast Range to reclaim their outdoor entitlements. In fact, the wife and I did so just yesterday. Let me tell you how it went.
On an uncharacteristically sunny day of somewhat blazing heat (meaning, somewhere north of the mean June-uary temperature of 15˚C) we arrive at Blackcomb Base to challenge the formidable Ascent Trail and ride the lift back down. This will require picking up previously ordered passes at Guest Services. Finding our place in the physically distanced, 100-metre-long lineup of creatively masked humans vying for both passes and lift-ride day tickets, we settle in for the hour-long wait. This lasts all of two minutes. With the trail tantalizingly close, it seems more to the point of exercise, enjoyment and Shinrin-yoku to forgo any illusion of slothful lift-riding in favour of just hiking up the damn trail to whatever point our jellied limbs can manage, then turning around and walking back down. By then, the pass line-up will be reasonable and we can rejoin it. A friendly, masked WB employee staking out the several-kilometre-long lift corral concurs with this brilliant strategy and up we go.
Upon our first steps into the cool of the forest, the magic of nature-bathing is rekindled. Our nostrils flare at the primitive miasma of dirt and detritus, our eyes wander up and down the vertical bricolage of bark and greenery rooted in a mossy carpet that was once—before the now biblical annual rains of March, April, May and June—well-fossilized by this time of year.
There are other plants as well, manifold in their variety, at least according to the PlantSnap app I point at several unfamiliar leaf clusters. (Did you know we have service-berry in Whistler?) Wildlife cavorts around us—slugs, blackflies and crows all immersed in their respective natural rhythms of sliming their way toward a meal of animal feces, attacking foolishly exposed neck veins, and screaming righteous indignation at our presence. Only the large brown-coloured-black-bear we encounter reacts differently than the non-reaction we expect: looking up from where it grazes clover in the chest-high grass of a meadow linking chunks of between-ski-run forest, the bear pricks its round little ears and nose toward the offensive sounds and noisome smells we doubtless emit as if to say, in the well-understood body-language of bears who’ve been deliriously free of loud, intrusive humans for months, What the flying f*ck?
Also during open grassy breaks, we spot the patient gentry who’d waited in line for lift-tickets, now slung overhead. As they zip past in their COVID-bubble groups some can be seen pointing at us in the time-honoured way of sightseers everywhere that says: Look—people are actually walking down there!
We beam with pride. Not to make too much of it, but this gesticulation means that all is suddenly right with the world (at least here) as the natural balance between tourists and locals has been instantaneously restored.
Upward we forge, perhaps taking more pleasure in having circumvented both a lineup and the presence of fellow humans than we should. That is soon shattered by a group of six non-physically distanced teenagers who are genuinely worried that the fearsome sound of a WB lawnmower-cum-bushwhacker that just roared to life was actually a bear. Moving off the trail to avoid their chattering slipstream, we assure the wide-eyed, out-of-element pilgrims they are safe, and loved, and that the real bear we have just passed would never deign to make such a noise. Oddly, this seems to deliver little comfort.
No matter, it’s a lovely day in the trail’s womb-like enclave and after reaching its midpoint, we snack on dried thingies recovered from the bottom of a pack where they’d been stashed during a previous pandemic survival blitz, and then continue—at a much greater pace now—back down the marvellously maintained trail with its well-constructed stone and wooden steps, quaint bridges over charming bogs, and informative interpretive signage. Occasionally we encounter huffing, Grouse-Grinder types—like a shirtless, running Adonis showing off his quarantine abs, and a couple training with ski poles no longer used for skiing. They all seem equally happy to be sprung from Netflix hell by the coincidental opening of WB and the sudden reappearance of the star at the centre of our decaying solar system.
Back at the bottom, we happily join the now much-shortened pass line, chatting amiably (albeit muffled) from behind our buff/homemade-mask combo with people wearing their own duct-tape creations, purchases, plexiglass visors or surgical handouts from WB staff—the latter whom must be commended not only for jaunty mask wearing and hand-sanitizer distribution (much like the intake at the Whistler Health Care Centre) but a friendly, conversational and helpful manner in the face of the inevitable cranky or pushy post-lockdown customer.
But of course, these folks are pros in dealing with the restless human energy of opening day—whenever it might come.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn’t like.