The winter review, or Whistler’s first quarter report

The Victoria Day Weekend used to mark the end of the ski season, a time when all the Vancouver skiers – there wasn’t any other kind at Whistler prior to the 1980s – came back for a few last turns and to board up the cabin for the summer. There’d be a few parties, the annual Great Snow, Earth, Water Race and the wet T-shirt contest at the Christiana, and then it would all be over; the valley abandoned to the few year-round residents who worked in construction, until the following November.

Today the Victoria Day Weekend doesn’t so much mark the end of the ski season – the skiers quit last month, it’s only the boarders, God bless ’em, who are still riding – as the start of mountain bike and golf season. Instead of the Great Snow, Earth, Water Race, last weekend was marked by the first Crud to Mud race. Whereas the Great Race competitors screwed handles to their skis and glued Vibram soles to the bladders of their ski boots so they could run down the mountain when the snow ran out, Crud to Mud competitors jumped on $5,000 mountain bikes when the snow became thin.

There’s not much about Whistler that’s jury-rigged or left to chance any more, which is for the most part a positive thing. It was only six months ago that the ski season opened with lots of snow and lots of questions: who was going to visit this winter, how often would they come and what sort of business would Whistler do in the first season after Sept. 11.

I can’t comment on what kind of a winter season it was, other than friggin’ busy. Tourism Whistler admitted (after winter was over) it expected visitor numbers to be down as much as 15 per cent, as measured by hotel room nights. They were down about 2 per cent. Intrawest says skier visits are within 2 per cent of last year’s numbers. This is a testament to the job Tourism Whistler and Whistler-Blackcomb did in marketing the resort between Sept. 12 and the ski season, with the help of a weak Canadian dollar and plenty of snow.

It also shows what a different era we’re in from the days when the season wrapped up with the wet T-shirt contest and the Great Race. Even those who espouse they are "true to the original Whistler" and only here for the skiing/boarding/riding/climbing can’t ignore the fact that Whistler is a more complex – and in some ways more entertaining – place than it used to be. And this winter showed that.

The debate over the World Economic Forum, which in some people’s minds boiled down to "what Whistler is all about," was perhaps the best example that we’re not in the ’70s anymore. Love it or hate it, you couldn’t ignore it. When some residents decided they needed more information they created a Web site. In the absence of a clear channel for public input, Whistler residents pushed their way into the debate. And if the whole exercise accomplished nothing else, it created an understanding that a better process for public input is required.

The bid for the 2010 Olympics finally came to the fore this winter as well, as more details about the bid became available. The Olympic bid also prompted a Web site.

One of the key details about the bid that some people in Vancouver finally grasped this winter is that it is their city that is leading the whole thing and will be hosting most of the Olympic events if the bid is successful, but that’s another story.

What may have an even longer-term impact on Whistler than the WEF or Olympics is the Comprehensive Sustainability Plan that got underway this winter, although it got off to a rough start when "the people’s choice" for consultants was rejected by council and the process modified.

The Whistler. It’s Our Nature sustainability initiative was also launched last fall and through the winter with a series of speakers.

The important thing in all of these initiatives and events of this past winter is that people cared enough to speak out and participate in the debates, many of which are ongoing.

The Crud to Mud race, the Big Air competitions at the World Ski and Snowboard Festival and huge dumps of snow still help define what Whistler is all about, but Whistler residents are also part of an active community and a thriving resort. On all those fronts, this was one of the busiest winters yet.


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