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The Outsider: Uphill travel, revisited

While I’m still finding my fitness groove for ski touring season, I always believe the best way to get some momentum is to throw myself into the deep end.
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EARNING TURNS Early season turns were above satisfactory the weekend before Whistler Blackcomb’s (WB) opening day, as this photo, which was not taken on WB’s terrain, shows. Photo by Vince Shuley

While I’m still finding my fitness groove for ski touring season, I always believe the best way to get some momentum is to throw myself into the deep end. Not in terms of objectives or testing sketchy avalanche conditions, but just getting out and walking up mountains, logging roads and pretty much any route that passes for good ski touring travel in early season conditions. 

Having only dabbled in the backcountry thus far in the 2020/21 winter, this past weekend a friend and I decided to sign up for the All You Can VERT! virtual ski touring challenge. This was a pretty grassroots event organized by the folks behind the Darkside Skimo Race, which I’ve entered for the two years it has run. Like everything else in 2020, the ski touring race on Blackcomb was cancelled back in April. 

The format for All You Can VERT! was pretty simple. Ski tourers, split boarders and runners signed up for either the “Race” or “Citizen” category (Race for spandex and skimo race equipment, Citizen for everyone else) then everyone had the weekend to log a three-hour block of activity with the goal to climb as much vertical as possible, all logged with GPS watches or Strava apps. Winners of the Race category would bring home a nifty pair of skimo bindings with draw prizes for the rest of the pack. 

My friend and I didn’t have any delusions about entering the Race category (I’ve seen what those guys are capable of) but we were looking forward to seeing what we could muster in three hours. Starting at the top of Jersey Cream chair on Sunday morning, we lapped the yet-to-open 7th Heaven zone as many times as we could, enjoying groomed runs for the up and the down. Sweaty and triumphantly exhausted, we came in at what we thought was a respectable 1,873 metres in two hours and 58 minutes (my timing error for stopping us early). For context, the top Race entrant at time of writing this clocked 2,997 m.

Skinning uphill is something I enjoy, even when it feels like harder work than it needs to be. It also gives me the opportunity for great chats with my friends, but I also like the quiet time where I get to think. Not surprisingly, one of things I was thinking about while skinning up runs outside of the temporary boundaries on Blackcomb was how cool—and appropriately timed—it would be to have a dedicated uphill travel route this season.

Before I go any further, I wrote about this exact subject in an Outsider column back in February. I made a mistake in that column by writing that Whistler Blackcomb (WB) doesn’t have an uphill skiing route or policy in place yet, which wasn’t the case. I apologized (through the PR department, as media does) for the mountain operations feathers that I ruffled and my editor corrected the story that there are certain uphill skiing routes in place, which are mostly for backcountry access and none of which originate at the base of either mountain save for access to the Singing Pass Trail from Whistler Village.  

Uphill routes at resorts have been rising in popularity across North America, mostly down in the States and in Quebec. Resorts in Western Canada have been the most resistant to making it a part of their operations. If we localize to Whistler, there’s probably a few ways it could work, none of which include a flash mob skinning up Sunset Boulevard during operational hours. 

Reservation days are working well except for those who miss out on a reservation. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have an uphill-ski option for those who have a pass, couldn’t reserve in time but are willing to walk? No stinking up the gondola cabins or on-mountain restaurants, just skin up, ski down and repeat if desired.

Outside of the resort, the Whistler Valley doesn’t have the easiest access to ski touring, with motorized assistance or otherwise. Uphill skiing at Whistler Blackcomb would add a feather to the cap of an already acclaimed ski resort known for the best terrain and some of the best snowfall.

I can appreciate that WB has its hands full this season staying open, staying staffed and keeping the good times rollin’. But demand for uphill travel isn’t going away. 

Over to you, Mr. Buchheister, WB’s COO.

 

Vince Shuley is appreciative that his local mountain is open and doing great work during a difficult time. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.