November 25, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

Making a Mountain (Wo)Man 

Exploring Whistler's ski-town archetypes

  • illustrations by Claire Ryan

Opening Day. Is there a more celebrated occasion in ski-town folklore? Every year, the Whistler winter season begins with a blank canvas of rocky, grassy slopes. Before long, the first coat of white primer arrives from the sky, heavily doped by high-pressure water cannons on the ground. The layers of snow form and consolidate, building the foundation of a ski season. Then, when it's finally time, the floodgates open to thousands of frothing skiers and snowboarders.

It may be the Opening Day of our dreams, just like 2017-18's magnificent curtain-raiser, or it may be a complete wash, like a few other years we'd rather forget. But regardless of the snow base or terrain that's open on Day 1—or considered "good to go" by overzealous locals—the collective appetite for sliding on snow is never short of voracious. People miss clicking into their skis and strapping on their snowboards. People miss bombing runs with their friends. People miss winter.

To celebrate the first chair (or more accurately, first gondola) of the 2018-19 winter season at Whistler Blackcomb, Pique has profiled seven of the most commonly spotted ski-town archetypes. How many will you spot this Opening Day?


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The Van Dweller

The ski-town Van Dweller has been around about as long as ski resorts themselves, though their population and lack of personal hygiene is still eclipsed by the ski bum's distant cousin: the rock-climbing, gravel-pit Van Dweller. Whistler's rise in vehicle inhabitants in the last few years is mostly due to the a lack of affordable housing, yet there are those who would still prefer their "own space" in a modified Dodge Caravan over bunking with a snoring Aussie in Staff Housing.

For the obvious lack of creature comforts, Van Dwellers actually experience a lot of perks. Instead of losing the majority of their paycheque to renting a double bed next to a stranger, Van Dwellers are able to afford a season pass, a gym membership (for showers a couple of times a week), a surprising amount of ski equipment, paying occasional parking tickets and the odd 12-pack of Pilsner. The Van Dweller's personality is one of gratitude for the simple life they're able to live with just a few meagre possessions.

"There's a bit of adventure involved with moving your life into a vehicle," says Dan Cudlip, who lived in a converted school bus for a little over 12 months. "You're striking the societal norm of paying rent and freeing yourself of that monthly expense. As romantic as the lifestyle is, the strongest motivator for people is generally to save money. I had an ideal situation of working at a restaurant, so I had free meals and didn't really have to cook that much. I also got terribly sick one night with the stomach flu and was on the floor of the McDonald's bathroom at four in the morning. But on powder days, rolling out of the bus and onto the lift was always awesome. If someone is in a housing situation where moving into a van or bus might have to be their next move, I won't try to talk them out of it. But when a room in a house became available after 12 months in the school bus, I was ready to return to renting."

Usual haunts: Blackcomb Gondola lift line (formerly the Wizard Chair lift line) before 7 a.m., the Whistler Public Library (for free Wi-Fi and phone charging), Day Lots 4 and 5.   

Favourite Runs: Anywhere with good powder, as long as they get there before you.


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The jaded Local

Unlike the self-proclaimed "locals" that have lived in Whistler for a year or two, Jaded Locals pride themselves on the fact they haven't left town in over a decade. Why would they? The skiing sucks everywhere else by comparison, anyway. Crotchety and cantankerous, the Jaded Local will blame most of his or her problems on capitalism and/or Vail, including but not limited to: the Whistler housing crisis, the associated labour shortage, lift breakdowns, long lift lines, traffic and supermarket opening hours. The Jaded Local did not vote in last month's municipal election.

There's two things that do get the Jaded Local in a good mood, though. One is powder days, when the only things to get angry about are the number of people getting in the way of fresh tracks. The other is marijuana, to which the recent Canada-wide legalization is met with a curt "about time."

Usual haunts: Occasionally an après ski bar, but more likely a stop at the liquor store on the way back to the basement suite.

Favourite Runs: They could tell you, but then they'd have to kill you. You probably don't deserve to ski there anyway.


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the (sometimes jerky) ski dad

Hero and master of the universe (or more accurately, his office environment and his own family) Ski Dad knows how to deliver. Whether it's closing that multi-million-dollar deal while riding the Big Red chairlift or rewarding the munchkins' passable behaviour at ski school with a massive plate of nachos, weekends and holidays up at Whistler Blackcomb belong to Ski Dad.

His gear is of the highest calibre, matched only by his ego. Skis and boots are race-ready and tuned to perfection. Outerwear is expedition-ready, or so the sales associate said. And man, those Oakleys...

Generally, the Ski Dad will have a pleasant demeanour. Unless you:

Cut off one of his kids when cruising the groomers.

Drop in on his line after he's been talking about it for the last five minutes.

Try to sell him gear suitable for his actual ability level.

Are a snowboarder.

"We'd have a guy walking into the shop and the first thing he says is how his ski experience pre-dates all of the staff in the room being born," says Zach, a sales associate whose real name Pique has agreed to withhold for fear of compromising his job. "The attitude was that we couldn't possibly comprehend how specific his gear had to be for his amazing level of skiing. And it's skiers. Always skiers."

Usual haunts: Bars with $12 bottles of import beer. Occasionally the GLC to mingle with the locals.

Favourite Runs: Dave Murray Downhill, Shale Slope (if it's a powder day), pretty much any run under a chair.


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the backcountry tool

The backcountry is cool, unless it's with Backcountry Tool. Named in honour of a caricature in Mike Hattrup's former Powder Magazine column of the same name, Backcountry Tool has all the gear and the risk-management skills of Evel Knievel. A proud shredder who has taken their requisite avalanche courses, a lack of responsible decision-making is made up for by an overzealous quest for backcountry powder and skiing sketchy lines in sketchier conditions.

Backcountry Tool used to ski the resort and will still do so when the storm rolls in. Otherwise, it's backcountry time, all the time. All those who have yet to set foot outside a boundary rope are regarded as unconverted infidels. Backcountry Tool also measures his achievements—either knowingly or unknowingly—by the amount of risk he subjects himself, his party and other backcountry travellers to.

"There's a lot of prize trophy lines that are part of the 'circuit' out in the Spearhead Range and people don't always give these lines the respect that they should," says non-Backcountry Tool Mikey Nixon of Sherpas Cinema. "If those lines rip out and slide, some of them can kill you. It gets frustrating on those dangerous days when you and your friends have practiced prudent backcountry travel and made the decision to ski conservatively, only to hear someone at the bar loudly gloating about the big exposed line they skied that day. It makes you want to punch them in the face. The macho culture out here (in Whistler) can be pretty toxic sometimes, it blinds people to how dangerous these lines are and the risks they're taking."

Usual haunts: Upper Village après venues, ski-movie premieres.

Favourite Runs: DOA, Husume, She's Tight.


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the splitboard champion

A polar opposite of Backcountry Tool, the Splitboard Champion is determined not to let splitboarders get tainted with the irresponsible punk behaviour that laid the first foundations of snowboarding itself. Splitboard Champion has tried many splitboards, most of which have not performed to their liking, spurring many late nights of tinkering and modifying equipment to get it up to snuff for a big day in the backcountry.

"You'd think splitboards, which have been around for 30-some years, would get better with age," says Steph Nitsch, Splitboard Champion and founder of Salt Lake City-based Pallas Snowboards. "Then again, I'm 30-something and, well, same shit, different century. Brett Kobernick's splitboard prototype from 1991 is probably on par with most homemade splitboards still being made. I rode a DIY split before I started manufacturing my own boards. And yeah, no wonder everyone was cynical and angry in the '90s. I would be too if I were still riding that tank."

Despite gentle suggestions from friends to switch to two planks and make backcountry travel easier, Splitboard Champion will never go skiing. Ever.

"Honestly, I don't care if snowboarders switch to skiing when they get into the backcountry," says Nitsch. "The gear is more expensive, the boots suck, and you're probably really bad at skiing, so I'm really not offended."

Usual haunts: Anywhere with a good craft-beer selection.  

Favourite Runs: Preferably a link up of lift-accessed backcountry slopes with the least number of transitions.


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the freestyle fashionista

When it comes to freestyle and park skiing, it's not just what you wear, but how you wear it. The Freestyle Fashionista can throw down an impressive list of tricks on jumps and rails, but pulling that off while wearing snow pants three sizes too big and cotton tall tees hanging around their knees is a true display of skill and agility.

Fashion ebbs and flows, and ski-resort terrain parks are no different. Marshmallow man-style oversized garments are less popular in recent years, making way for tight-fitting pants (more in the vein of skinny jeans). These days, it's not uncommon for masks or goggles to be replaced with a simple pair of shades under a ball cap or helmet, sometimes just shades with no hat at all. Waterproof hoodies are in, despite their inconvenient pullover style. Headphones are omnipresent and ski poles are optional.

The Freestyle Fashionista circulates around the same few chairs that service the terrain parks: Emerald and the new (gasp!) high-speed quad at Catskinner. Chairlift conversations revolve mostly around an incomprehensible slur of freestyle tricks and when to have the next safety meeting.

Usual haunts: El Furniture Warehouse.

Favourite Runs: Terrain parks, obviously.


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the corduroy cruiser

With an inclusive pass to dozens of ski resorts in their back pocket, the Corduroy Cruiser will travel across the globe in search of the world's best groomed runs. Many Corduroy Cruisers will migrate seasonally to Whistler when Europe and the continental United States are gripped with unfortunate snow droughts. Ideal days will have a blue sky (for the mandatory photo next to the Olympic rings and Inukshuks), no new snow (wouldn't want to blemish that great grooming with powder and moguls!) and a comfortable -4 Celsius. The Corduroy Cruiser will often get caught in the maelstrom of lineups for the chairlifts and Roundhouse cashiers, but they know the wait is worth it.

Chairlift rides with the Corduroy Cruiser are often pleasant, with plenty of questions about how to navigate other areas of the mountain, how steep the blue runs are here and what it's like to live in Whistler. Often skiing in a family pack, the Corduroy Cruiser is one of those skiers or boarders that just can't get over how polite Canadians actually are.

Usual haunts: Longhorn, GLC, Dusty's, Merlins  and wherever other fine patio space is found.

Favourite Runs: Groomed runs around Emerald, Big Red and 7th Heaven Chairs. Peak to Creek (when it's groomed).

There are, of course, many skiers, snowboarders and even the occasional monoskier that weren't included in this satiric list of ski-town archetypes. The culture of skiing has grown so vast—especially in a world-class destination resort such as Whistler—that listing them all would fill the pages of an airport novel. But whatever you choose to wear, wherever you choose to ski or how you choose to treat your fellow winter enthusiast, the love of sliding on snow unites us all.

Happy Opening Day to you and yours.

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