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THE OUTSIDER: Whistler or Blackcomb? ‘The Outsider’s’ choice

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CHOOSE WISELY Which ski and ride mountain do you like best, Whistler or Blackcomb?

An age-old question: One asked for over a generation ever since the mountains were two competing factions. Ski school versus ski school. Patrol versus patrol. Snowboarders allowed versus snowboarders banned. The old “Dual Mountain” prank, memorialized as the name of a local dry cleaning service. 

While Whistler Blackcomb has been under singular ownership since 1997 and the leadership preaches unity, the divide runs deep. Nowhere is that partisanship stronger than with locals. Sure, everyone skis the other mountain, but deep down, everyone has their favourite. If a meteor, volcanic eruption or some other natural cataclysm were to destroy one of these mountains (heaven forbid) and you were offered the choice of which one was allowed to survive, which would you choose?

Before I even made it to this town I was being educated on the choice. Crashing on a friend’s couch in Vancouver in the fall of 2004, he told me that, “Whistler is more of a skier’s mountain.” Unsurprisingly, he was a snowboarder. I later learned that that statement was crap; Blackcomb is equally as awesome for skiers. Whistler just has more flat spots and traverses where snowboarders need to scootch across.

Let’s start with the lifts: The best alpine chair is undoubtedly Whistler’s Peak Chair. The steeps you can access make it arguably one of the best chair lifts in the world, at least in its class. Blackcomb’s answer is a combination of Glacier Express, Showcase T-Bar and since the slow demise of the Horstman T-Bar (RIP), the 7th Heaven Express. 

Alpine terrain: The Blackcomb alpine may not have a lift to the summit, but its terrain is just as formidable. Saudan Couloir, Chainsaw Ridge, Gemstone Bowls (colloquially known as Spanky’s Ladder) all add up to a class of their own, it can just take a few more steps to access than simply sliding right off the chair as one does on Peak or Harmony. On a pow day with good visibility, Whistler’s alpine is hard to beat. And then there is Khyber Pass, the real peak-to-creek run, which if you catch on a low, freezing-level storm day can be the most powder-filled vertical this side of Revelstoke.

Mid-mountain terrain: This is where we get stuck when the heavy storms roll in, so the choice here can make or break a day. And with its fall-line runs and more acres of skiable trees, Blackcomb has a clear edge. Whistler does have its closely guarded mid-mountain zones, but it’s hard to compare those to the awesomeness accessible from Crystal Ridge on Blackcomb.    

Operations: The teething problems of the Blackcomb Gondola notwithstanding, over the years I’ve found Blackcomb to be more reliable. The terrain is more naturally funnelled, allowing ski patrol to cordon off sections of the mountain and conduct avalanche control faster. That means you can be on your third Spanky’s lap while everyone on Whistler is still jostling for room on the Goat Path. Blackcomb lifts (with exception of 7th Heaven) tend to be a bit more wind resistant, too. That’s why Blackcomb is my storm skiing mountain of choice.

Backcountry access: The Musical Bumps area off the boundary of Whistler’s Flute Bowl is awesome, especially for ski tourers looking for chill powder days (the impatient souls who ascend the avalanche-prone “suicide skin track” up Cowboy Ridge need not apply). As physically taxing as Singing Pass can be (especially for snowboarders), it can get you home faster than most backcountry exits in the Sea to Sky. But it’s no Spearhead Range. Blackcomb has one of the most convenient access points to hundreds of steep, skiable lines, all within a couple hours’ walk. Know before you go.

On-mountain food and beverage: I’m going to glaze over this category as I rarely eat on the mountain anymore. But I have sampled the impressive dining experience at Christine’s, which is pretty good by North American standards. Seppo’s Bar in the Roundhouse is by far the best place for an on-mountain, post-pow-day beer. That Umbrella Bar is pretty good too, I’ve heard.

Search and Rescue calls: Cake Hole on Whistler. Enough said.

We really are lucky to have two of the best ski mountains in the world side by side, now joined by a valley-spanning gondola that is a tourist attraction in itself. But if I had to choose, I don’t need to go much further than my gut feeling. I choose Blackcomb. Dark Side forever.

Vince Shuley chose the Dark Side. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.