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Opinion: Why that first black-diamond run hits different

'You have to get out of your comfort zone, or you’ll never learn.'
Shuffling down a cliff in the Symphony Amphitheatre trees.

A few weeks ago, I finally crossed the threshold from the blue squares into the black diamonds, accomplishing one of the primary goals I set for myself at the beginning of ski season.

I’ll never forget my first-ever attempt at a black-diamond run. It was at my hometown ski resort, Sun Peaks, and I was still in the very early stages of learning to ski. In my late teens, I learned to ski on rentals on the rope-tow at the family-run Harper Mountain and beginner runs at Sun Peaks without a lesson or anything. My dad taught me the pizza, and I taught myself the rest. In hindsight, a lesson or two would have been a good move, which I will come back to.

It was my first year of university, and I decided to get into the sport all on my own. I bought a student pass for Sun Peaks. Then an old pair of boots and long, skinny skis that were much too long for me, for about $100 from the local thrift store. Those long skis were somewhat awkward, but they were cheap, and I was a poor university student—so where there’s a will, there’s a way, and after a few weekends, the green runs were becoming a breeze with turns and all.

Near the end of the season, I felt comfortable on most of the easier intermediate runs on the ski hill, and found my favourite spots in the mountains. Until one day a wrong turn sent me down my first black diamond.

I believe I went down the Juniper Ridge run off Sun Peaks’ Burfield Chairlift. I can still remember how it wasn’t that bad at the beginning, but then it quickly got steep, and I began to question all my life choices. It didn’t take long until I lost control, crisscrossing my skis and flipping over. My skis detached and attempted to finish the run on their own while I tumbled down in the worst wipeout I’ve ever had. The brakes on one of the skis didn’t kick in, so down it went until some trees caught it further down the run. The other ski was located up the mountain, keeping my poles company.

It was a quiet day on the mountain, and no one was around to help me, so I endeavoured to gather up my equipment, still dazed from the fall. Long story short, I couldn’t get my skis back on, so I shimmied down the mountainside through waist-deep powder, carrying all my gear until I reached a connecting intermediate run. Sweating, wet, and exhausted, I vowed not to do another black diamond—at least until I got better equipment.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m living in Whistler, a few years out of practice from skiing due to moving towns a few times and the pandemic. So with brand-new skis and boots, I felt like this was the year to get better at skiing. Few places on Earth have as much varied topography to learn the sport. About 20 per cent of Whistler Blackcomb is beginner terrain, 50 per cent intermediate, and 30 per cent expert.

A lot of it came back quickly, like riding a bike, and with modern, wider skis, it was a blast to explore the mountain and get better at skiing. I felt comfortable doing groomed, intermediate runs when my friend from the U.K., who had worked as a ski instructor at Cypress Mountain, came up for a ski day.

Before long, we were heading to the Symphony Amphitheatre, a part of the mountain I had yet to explore up to that point. From there we went to the Flute Bowl, my first experience doing off-piste skiing. I could handle the alpine, the conditions were prime, and there was much room to manoeuvre. Challenging but doable.

Then we went into the trees, where my lack of lessons kicked in. The run required threading through trees on steep terrain, super tight turns, and even a cliff we had to climb down. Yet, with lots of patience and an impromptu lesson on off-piste tree skiing from my friend, we made it to the bottom of Symphony without any crashes. Later that day, I did the Saddle, my first groomed black diamond, and although I was much slower than my friend and it’s one of the more straightforward expert runs on Whistler, there were no crashes!

I’ve done a few more expert runs since, and I finally see the appeal. There’s such a feeling of accomplishment, and I can understand why some people want to blitz through clifftop couloirs. As my friend said, “You have to get out of your comfort zone, or you’ll never learn.”

Just a couple of weekends ago, I successfully skied Arthur’s Choice on Blackcomb, named after Whistler Councillor Arthur De Jong. While it was awesome, and crossed off one of my primary objectives of the season, it won’t be my last expert run. Next on the list is the famed Spanky’s Ladder (or maybe even Air Jordan). Wish me luck!

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