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Whistler Blackcomb overwhelmed — Sea to Sky needs a new ski area

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." - Playwright George Bernard Shaw The snow finally came... as everyone knew it would (eventually).
More thrills, less frills at Silverton Colorado

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."

- Playwright George Bernard Shaw

The snow finally came... as everyone knew it would (eventually). And what a blast! Nearly two metres' worth in ten days... cold and light... with great cover from peak to valley. It was like someone had taken our usual November storms, stored them in a cellar for two and a half months, and then in one continuous burst, had delivered back to us what we'd so dearly missed.

Powder. Oodles of it. Clogging up your goggles, running down the inside of your parka, creating smiles with every offpiste turn you made. Suddenly all those kids on their new banana skis didn't look so silly. Phew — we were back in business... the powder snow business.

And Whistler Blackcomb was quick to seize the opportunity. To whit: I received three press releases in six days telling me exactly how much snow had fallen in the local mountains. It even got to splash it across its Olympic advertising on TV. The message was obvious: "You can come back now. We have snow again."

Skiers and riders responded. Egad! Did they ever respond. I've never seen so many people on the mountain over a ten-day period. It's almost scary. No, it is scary. Crazy, in fact.

Whether it was getting stuck on the highway behind buffoons too arrogant to winterize their cars (no snow tires!), or standing in endless lift queues (filmmaker Christian Begin claims it took nearly two hours for him and his child to get to Whistler Peak on a recent Saturday), or finding your favourite powder line hammered by young goofs who think that sideslipping is actually riding (point your nose down the fall line, dammit!), or even worse, watching these same goofs, er youth, venture into seriously terminal terrain, well, it seems to me (and many others) that Whistler has reached some kind of new tipping point.

We're turning off as many people as we're turning on. And sadly the ambiance on the hill reflects that fact. These days, it's all about getting as much as you can get... and getting it as fast as you can get it. Forget control — forget knowing how to carve a turn even — the only goal is to get there first (wherever "there" is). I mean, riding at WB is like driving your car in downtown Vancouver. No quarter, baby... let your guard down and someone's gonna be riding up your backside before you know it.

And lest you think this happens everywhere, think again. As a well-travelled French visitor told me recently: "There's nowhere in the world where skiers are keener to 'hit the powder' than in Whistler. I've never seen this kind of aggression before. Never seen a mountain get so hammered so quickly! But then I've never come across so many self-styled 'experts' either... not even in Chamonix or St. Anton."

This, my friends, is what happens when you try to stuff as many people as possible into a finite chunk of high-country terrain. Reminds me of an experiment scientists did with rats in the 1950s. But I digress.

Alas, our "visionary" leaders seem entirely content with that strategy. Consider the ski area's recently-approved Master Plan: over the next ten years, they think they can stuff even more people into the same restricted area. A lot more people. And they want to do that by adding even more lifts to the mix. How will it end? Well, the rat experiment was terminated when the rodents started eating their young...

Which leads me to only one conclusion: the Sea to Sky corridor needs a new snowplay area. And it needs one fast!

Hold on. Before you go jumping to conclusions — before you start accusing me of seditious behaviour — let me assuage your fears. I'm not suggesting building anything even remotely similar to what we've already got. Au contraire. What I believe this region needs is an alternative to what's already in place. A B.C. Silverton, if you will; a West Coast La Grave... In other words, an old-school day-use operation that bridges the sport's self-propelled roots with its post-modern users' desire to develop a more personal relationship with the untamed wild.

Let me make one final disclaimer: this is not a challenge to WB or its financial agenda. If that's the path its senior managers want to take, there's nothing you or I can do to change that. Besides, the die has already been cast. WB's urbanization process is virtually irreversible.

Fortunately, this region is blessed with a plethora of beautiful mountains. From tidewater to alpine, this place boasts some of the most dramatic and exciting high country on the planet. This is what seduced Alta Lake's early pioneers. This is what got Whistler Mountain built in the first place.

But that was nearly a half century ago. Surely the world has changed in that time. Surely mountain users' needs are different now. Which begs the question: who will reprise Franz Wilhelmsen's role this century? Who will have the brass to challenge the status quo and develop a completely new ski area concept?

Park your scepticism for a moment, and come with me on an imaginary journey. It's a beautiful day in late February and Whistler Blackcomb is doing well: loads of new skiers, lots of happy faces, and endless programs designed to make entry to snowplay easy and fun. Creekside comes into view — your usual stomping grounds — but you don't stop there, you keep driving south. Your destination? Mt. Future.

Twenty minutes down the road, you see the sign. It's modest — obviously handcrafted — and offers minimal information. Still, you've come this far, might as well keep going. You turn right onto a gravel road, and before you know it, a parking lot appears. There's not much else there: a small daylodge, a patrol shack and an old (and slow) fixed-grip chairlift (the only lift Mt. Future owns). There's no village, no hotel, not even a sushi restaurant.

But you knew that. This is skiing's version of the slow-food movement... artisanal, uncomplicated, respectful of the environment and totally committed to high-mountain safety and education.

Which is why you're here. You love ski touring; you love walking up the hill as much as you like riding the fluff. But over the years you've seen too much carnage in the backcountry. Face it: you're afraid of avalanches (a not unreasonable response to a very real danger). It's a love/hate relationship that you've had trouble reconciling. You're fit and strong and able to leap tall mountains in a single bound. You can ride anything from wind-whipped chowder to knee-deep elephant snot. But slides still scare you silly.

And this is where Mt. Future shines! Instead of spending money on needless infrastructure, the area's owners decided to invest heavily in a state-of-the-art avalanche control program. They hired the best patrollers in the business, bought the most advanced remote bombing systems on the market and gave their mountain pros an unparalleled amount of autonomy in setting up their organization.

The result? A genuine mountain experience. And once the (oh-so-slow!) chair drops you in the sub-alpine, you know exactly why all your friends have all been raving about this place. It's so quiet here. So peaceful. Friendly even. Over there — a group of five is busy putting skins on skis. One of its members circumnavigates the group, making sure everyone has their transceiver on. He notices you. Smiles. "I see you're alone," he says. "Wanna join our bunch?" He laughs. "We're a pretty accommodating crew."

But you demur. You've hired a guide for the afternoon, you say. He smiles even more. "Well then," he replies, "your timing is excellent. I'm your guide and this is the group you'll be skiing with today."

Which disappears in a cloud of powder turns, pleasant uphill walks, stunning mountain scenery, and surprisingly interesting conversation from your skiing mates. You can't believe it: Mt Future is as good — no, better — than your friends and acquaintances had promised. And by the end of the afternoon you're totally spent. And completely happy. This, you realize, is what mountain play is really all about.

Pie-in-the-sky? Unworkable, naive and silly? Maybe. But I still think it's important to dream. Besides, those are pretty much the same words sceptics used back in the 1960s to dismiss ol' Franz W's plans to install ski-lifts on a monster of a mountain lost in the wilds of B.C.'s remote Coast Mountains. Fortunately for us he didn't listen...