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The Outsider: Who’s first?

Outsider 28.47 by Vince Shuley athlete is Dan Cudlip IMG_20211119_200230_181
Early season skier extraordinaire Dan Cudlip submitting evidence of his spoils in November 2020.

First turns of the season are always a hoot. Sliding and whipping from edge to edge takes a couple of seconds to brush the cobwebs off before the all-too-familiar sensation of skiing kicks in.

Some years the first turns on our beloved ski hill, Whistler Blackcomb are an icy, scratchy, rock-dodging affair. Other years when November storms cooperate, it can be an overhead pow surfing, rock-dodging affair, the difference being you can’t see most of the recently covered, jagged surfaces ready to tear your gear—and your body—apart. The point? Today is the official opening day of Whistler Blackcomb and I hope the exuberant youth get to enjoy their après at the bar, not the medical clinic. Inevitably, people let their excitement get the better of them. Their first day of the season can turn into their last day, or at least their last day for a while.

And I get it. Strong opening conditions have us all sniffing out the potential of putting first tracks down a line, boosting that natural hit, ducking ropes (boundary ropes, not closure ropes, of course) to get the fresh stash no one else was willing to take a risk on. I’ve uploaded on many an opening day with the attitude of “yeah, gonna take it real easy today” only to get caught up in the excitement on my first lap because: a) I can’t believe I’m skiing again, and b) the conditions look so inviting that I immediately start skiing faster without knowing what the coverage is like on the other side of that rollover.

I’ve had many close calls in early season conditions over the years and have witnessed many more. But it wasn’t until I actually—with a minor injury that could have been very major—threatened the rest of my season with foolhardy skiing behaviour that I realized that the rush of first turns doesn’t happen without some self-inflicted psychological manipulation. In other words, my own lizard brain got in the way.

American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean theorized the following back in the ‘60s: “...the basal ganglia and a number of the surrounding structures within the base of the forebrain are responsible for ‘species-typical’ behaviours, which are present in aggression, dominance, territoriality, and ritual displays.”

If those species-typical behaviours don’t conjure up images of local Whistler skiers on a powder day, I’m guessing you haven’t skied a lot of Whistler powder days.

Being first to ski for the season is a big driver for people. Flocking to backcountry areas after the first sizable storm now feels like more of a rite of passage than just a day of skiing. For many of the enthusiastic folk, being able to tell everyone they were the first one to ski that season is the biggest driver. Stake your territory, assert your dominance, let everyone know about it. Makes sense. 

But what’s the value of being first, anyhow? I understand the idea being at the front of a pow day lift line; get it before someone else does. But backcountry snow doesn’t require the same hustle as Whistler Bowl to Shale Slope. And early season skiers aren’t really first anymore anyway. That honour goes to the dedicated souls who—for better or worse —ski every month of the year, hiking for hours to shred the dwindling September snow patches. 

The October storms this year presented a unique opportunity to go skiing with convenient vehicle access up forestry roads and hundreds of people managed to get pre-Halloween turns in. And that’s great. I personally passed on that opportunity (assuming it was going to be busy) and chose instead to ride my mountain bike on one of the last weekends before more snow and heavy rains returned. That decision would have me drowning in FOMO back in the day. Now I’m content to patiently wait for the conditions to improve to a point where I get more skiing for the time and effort I’m willing to put in.

But with opening day this past week, Whistler Blackcomb becomes the great levelling field for all skiers and snowboarders. No longer is skiing in the Sea to Sky corridor a matter of who suffered up to the alpine first and who posted about it. Now it’s just about going skiing. Grab your mates and bomb some groomers. Talk shit on the chairlift. Remember what skiing is really about: having fun.

See you on the hill.


Vince Shuley wishes you all a very happy opening day. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email [email protected] or Instagram @whis_vince.