Opinion » Maxed Out

A season to remember


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On Monday morning — the last one, not the next one — the snow base at Pig Alley was 259 centimetres... on Whistler Mountain... which was closed for the season. There was not insignificant snow in the forecast for later in the week. There were a number of ski areas around the northern hemisphere that would have killed for a 259-centimetre base, any time during the season past, which for most of them ended long ago.

I'm not sure what all that says about the state and future of skiing and boarding. The report of the sport's death has been greatly exaggerated for the last 20 years. The demographic shift has been to older participants. Tell that to the boys and girls who kicked it up on gaper day. And the ones who dutifully slapped their 49 bucks down on next year's pass, Epic or otherwise. The ones who now have a season notched into their bases and are scrambling to figure out a way to add a second. The ones who will be celebrating their 30th season 29 seasons from now.

Although it's a stretch to convince anyone in Tiny Town of the fact, spring has sprung. Somewhere there are people wearing shorts, gardening, golfing, tanning. And then there are Whistleratics. Still pulling on long underwear. Still waxing skis and boards. Still heading up into what, at any other time of the year, would pass for a winter blizzard. Still feeding the beast. The addiction.

It's years like this that make it hard to believe, not to mention infuriating, that Whistler closes before April ends. That Blackcomb goes into semi-retirement — shorter days, fewer lifts, closed restaurants. It being understandable doesn't make it any less hard to believe. Bike park prep, lift maintenance, feeding the other downhill beast red meat, dwindling numbers.

But Whistler's closing is an unavoidable diagnosis of the terminal nature of the season. And there's nothing like staring mortality in the face to take stock of what's come before. And so, the perennial question arises: What kind of season was it?

Any other year, I'd probably say epic. This year, that word has been debased and rendered as meaningless as, oh, sustainability. This year, we've been epicized, infiltrated, bought and sold by carpetbaggers from the south. We're beholden to a new corporate massa. We're a cog in their machine. Number 487 of 832 in their Borg. We were wooed with more cash than we were worth by someone with ledger ink for blood and an unshakable religion that prays at the alter of Bigger is Always Better. Better for who is a question unimaginable to them: For the shareholders and senior management of course, silly.

It was a season when I rode a chairlift with a gent from Australia. A tourist, not an itinerant local. He was an Epic passholder. He was stoked to be in Whistler. He said, in an unthreatening way, "Ya know, mate, with Vail buyin' this place up, you're bound to see a lot more Aussies."

You're kidding? There's more?

It was a season when a gent from Mexico, another Epic passholder, said he'd come to Whistler instead of Vail because he didn't feel welcome in Trumpville. And he didn't need a visa to come to Canada any more. I asked him if he was a rapist, murderer or drug dealer. He understood the joke.

But I digress. What kind of season was it?

Memorable. Highly memorable. Historically memorable. This season is one that'll be talked about in the future. It's the season the next really good season will be compared to. It's the season those of us who are getting, well, old, hope we see again before we stop buying wax in bulk. It's the season we've been waiting for since 1994, the last season we trotted out to compare — unfavourably — recent good seasons against.

I don't know if this season was, overall, as good as that one. But it doesn't matter. It was great. It didn't start early but when it started it came out of the chute like an electrified Brahma bull. There was snow and snow and snow. It fell in cold weather just like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it would. It reminded those of us who served time back east of Quebec snow — cold, dry and squeaky underfoot. Not the 'wet' coast powder we know and love.

It stayed cold through the Christmas holiday and well into January. It provided the perfect gift for locals. A mini season all to ourselves before the crush of tourists arrived. We whooped our way through the best conditions on the least-crowded slopes we saw again until earlier this month.

When the inevitable juicy Hawaiian weather system brought liquid snow to the highest elevations, it seemed to do less damage than usual. It visited once or twice too often but such is life in the coastal rain forest.

The season's simultaneous high point and low point was this month. April. While the rest of the ski world put their toys away, we skied through full-on winter. Howling blizzards and frozen Easter eggs. Knee-deep powder and deeper still. The only thing April failed to bring was spring skiing. Didn't exist. Hasn't yet. Ain't in the forecast. How will we ever gracefully enter summer without goggle tans? How can my season end without at least one day of shorts under ski pants? Maybe in mid-May. Maybe not.

If there was an off note to this season, it was less a disappointment, more of a harbinger of things to come. It was the 32,000+ day between Christmas and New Year's. Manoeuvring around either mountain was like driving (sic) L.A., freeways. It had all the cachet of venereal disease. It was the skiing world's equivalent of safe sex. The Tokyo subway system on snow.

And it was exactly what the new owners want. Every day, thank you. Therein may lie the epitaph for the 2016-17 Whistler ski season. The last best season before the storm of people descend on Tiny Town.

This is not a roll-up-the-gangplank rant. Growth is inevitable. Vail didn't overpay for WB because they like Canadians. They want a return on that investment and they have a plan to achieve it and that plan is totally wrapped up in more people on more days, every day of the year.

So remember this season fondly. Give it a high mark, say, nine out of 10. Hope some day you can talk about it all misty-eyed to your grandchildren. Some day when our destiny is owned by some other corporation. Maybe one with real ties to whatever's left of this community and the proposed water park is a historical footnote, a reminder of how businesses become infatuated with this year's pet rock.