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Thoughts from the Alps: A French journalist visits Whistler

I’m always intrigued by the first-time impressions of a newcomer to Whistler. And never more so than when they happen to come from a French journalist.

I’m always intrigued by the first-time impressions of a newcomer to Whistler. And never more so than when they happen to come from a French journalist. Why? Simple — boasting the most dominant big-mountain tourism economy in the world, France makes our own inroads into that business seem quite modest by comparison.

Am I exaggerating to make a point? I don’t think so…

Consider: in the great Tarentaise Valley — a piece of French mountain country roughly stretching the same distance as from Pemberton to Squamish — there are 10 different resorts the size of Whistler-Blackcomb. Ten. And that’s in just one Savoyard valley! Add in the Chamonix resorts that ring Mont Blanc or the ones in Portes du Soleil or even the monster-sized ones south of Grenoble (not to mention the smaller operations in the southern Alps and the Pyrenees ad the Massif Central) and you have an industry that serves millions of skiers and riders — per day!

Now we speak quite highly of our vertical drop at Whistler. And by North American standards, it is indeed impressive. But in the French Alps, a vertical drop of less than 2,000 metres is ordinary by comparison. Heck, you can ski over 8,000 vertical feet right off Chamonix’s Aiguilles du Midi tram. Same thing goes in La Grave…

Sure, some of you might argue that snow conditions rarely render the lower elevations skiable anymore in Europe. Still, when the snow is good from peak to valley, there are few places in the world that can compare.

So what the heck would a young French ski writer be doing at Whistler? Why would someone so blessed at home travel halfway around the world to experience what we have here? When I asked Mathieu Ros these questions, the 32 year old just laughed. The editor of the newly-refurbished Ski Francais Magazine, Ros is a die-hard big-mountain rider. But he’s also crazy about what the French call VTT. And according to him, there’s no better lift-accessed mountain bike riding in the world than Whistler.

“I’ve never been to Whistler in the winter,” says Ros almost self-consciously. “That’s because in Europe — and the French Alps in particular — Whistler is most associated in people’s minds with summer mountain biking. My expectations were very high before coming here. Like every other French VTT rider I had visions of great coastal forests and manicured trails — of riding on endless wooden bridges and dropping big vertical…”

He laughs again. “Whistler is, without a doubt, the international VTT gold standard. Among the people that I hang out with, there are those who’ve ridden Whistler and there are those who want to ride Whistler. Among the former, no opportunity is missed to drop a mention of it in conversation. Among the latter, it is an object of total desire.”

But it goes even further than that, says Ros. “When I got home from Canada I was invited to speak with a group from a major resort in the Alpes du Sud about their recent foray into mountain biking.” He pauses for just a beat. “When they heard that I’d just come back from Whistler, it completely changed their attitude. They started drinking up my words like thirsty men in a desert…”

So did Whistler live up to his expectations? No question, he says. “From my very modest first run down Crank it Up and all the way to my more confident descent of the legendary A Line. The quality of the trails (layout, general maintenance and attention to detail), the quality of the hosting and the quality of the organization (as opposed to the more chaotic style of Latin countries) allowed me to concentrate on the riding without worrying about the details. It was everything I could have asked for.”

Given his positive interaction with Whistler, I was curious to hear more. What struck him most about the place? “The trip up from Vancouver was amazing,” he says. “To drive up next to the sea with those islands in the background — that blew me away.” But the biggest surprise to him was how empty the country was from Vancouver to Whistler. “In France, when you drive up to a resort, it’s rare not to cross a village every few kilometres. Here I had the impression that the forest stretched to infinity. That really made a big impression on me…”

And the bears. Don’t forget the bears, he says. “I think I photographed just about every bear sign in the village,” he tells me, only half in jest. “But seriously, we just don’t have that kind of wildlife anymore in the French Alps. And that also had a big impact on me.”

Seems like he was seduced by the ambiance at Behind The Grind too. “That’s where I had all my breakfasts,” he says proudly. “By the end of my visit, I almost felt like a local there. For me, it was the one place in town that didn’t seem to be out to gouge me for all I was worth.” He smiles. Adds: “Except for an ‘A-Line’ T-shirt, the only other thing I brought home from Whistler was a Behind The Grind mug.”

So what displeased him most? “I broke my thumb on a stupid crash,” he says. “But that was all my fault.”

But seriously? “I’d heard that Whistler Village was pretty artificial,” he says. “In France, people joke about its Disneyland aspects — you know, the insincere, ‘theme park’ aspects of some if its buildings. And in that regard, I have to say Whistler lived up to its reputation. To me, stuff like the man-made creek with the little faux-bridge over it: it’s just too much. It takes away from the magic of the place.”

He pauses for a moment. Searches for just the right way to articulate his point. “There’s a slightly schizophrenic aspect to Whistler, if you know what I mean. On the one hand, you have this great all-encompassing wilderness with forests and lakes and bears and glaciers and endless mountains. And on the other, you have this overly-manicured, overly-managed village that makes you feel like everything has been calculated to make sure that you and your money are quickly parted.”

He smiles (if only just a bit sadly). “I’d heard stories about how expensive life was in Whistler. But I dismissed them as the exaggerations of exasperated travellers — that is until I got there. I was blown away: the cost of living for young people in this town is outrageous!”

So let me get this right. The riding was fantastic, the surrounding mountain wilderness was enthralling, but the village experience was less than satisfying. “That about covers it,” he says. Still, he wants me to understand where he’s coming from.

“I grew up in the relative flatlands of southwestern France,” he explains. “When I was a kid, my family would go to the Pyrenees for their winter holidays. But I was never much impressed by it. It was too small, too commercial and way too busy. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I had what I consider to be my first real mountain experience. I had a Swiss girlfriend at the time and she invited me to spend Christmas at a small resort in the Valais region. There we were, 15 or 20 young people all living together in an old wooden chalet only 50 metres away from the lifts. I fell in love with the whole package: the rough-hewn hospitality, the fresh, untracked snow, the forests of yew and the old lady at the grocery store speaking her valley dialect. It was totally authentic, entirely soulful. And I was smitten.”

Given his tastes for the more “traditional” aspects of skiing, would he ever consider coming back to Whistler in the winter?

He doesn’t answer for a long time. “You have to understand,” he says, “that Whistler’s winter reputation in the Alps has nothing to do with lifts and resorts and fancy hotels.”

He laughs at my questioning glance. “It’s not really about Whistler per se that French riders dream about,” he explains. “It’s more about the potential for wilderness skiing throughout British Columbia — it’s your wild forests, your long winter seasons, your untouched snow. You see, we have all the lift-accessed skiing we need in France. What we don’t have is the kind of backcountry that you guys take so much for granted.”

Another pause. “It’s funny you know. Among my contemporaries, people don’t really speak about travelling to B.C. to go skiing or riding at Whistler. Rather they talk about going to B.C. to ride snowmobiles.” He smiles. “In fact, there’s a whole coterie of pro riders in France who boast about renting garages in Canada just to store their snowmobiles in the off season…”

So Whistler’s new mid-to-mid gondola isn’t going to make a big impact with French visitors? He just laughs. “I don’t think so,” he says. And adds at how surprised he was at all the hype surrounding its construction this summer. “They built one of those from Les Arcs to La Plagne a few years back,” he concludes. “It’s been closed for repair since the first season it opened…”