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Alta States

Whistler’s changing face – are we doing enough?



"Evolve or die..."

- Charles Darwin


Summer is finally here. I know. I know. Doesn't look like it. Last winter's snow is still licking the edges of the lower slopes. Powder can still be found on high north faces. And the frigid morning temperatures in the valley of late make me think of late October rather than of late June.

But summer-like or not, this is one season where Whistlerites will be tested to their utmost.

Meaning? This is the beginning of the rest of our lives. The Olympics are behind us, challenging global weather and economic trends are ahead of us, and the engine that has always driven this community - frenetic real estate development - is slowly winding down.

So what do we do? We innovate. We re-invent ourselves. We diversify. We become the all-season mountain town that we've always wanted to become.

Let's be realistic. There isn't a mountain resort in the world - not in France, not in Austria not even in the US - who wouldn't trade their summer physical plant for ours. And I'm not poopin' ya. Four lakes on the valley floor. The ocean less than a half hour's drive away. A panoply of mountain peaks at our fingertips. A network of bike trails that is the envy of the planet's two-wheeled set. Garibaldi Provincial Park right at our doorstep. Oh yeah, and tons and tons of empty hotel rooms just begging to be filled. Heck, we live in a summer vacation wonderland.

And yet we've barely begun to exploit our riches. But all that is quickly changing. Seems like people are finally getting a sense of urgency around here. Whistler Blackcomb, for one, has had its senior staff burning the midnight oil in recent months in a concerted bid to turn its summer amenities into shekels.

"Our greatest natural asset," Arthur De Jong told me last week, "is our alpine terrain. And we're finally unveiling it with all its summer trappings." He smiles. "And that gets me really excited. Devoid of its benign carpet of snow, the summer alpine delivers a whole new kind of mountain experience. And it's one that I think our guests will truly appreciate."

The architect for much of the alpine trail development at Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, de Jong is adamant that the high-mountain experience needs to be presented in a coherent fashion. He explains: "Two years ago we allowed ATV tours on the mountain. But we decided to shut that down because we didn't think it meshed well with the experience we wanted to offer our guests up there."

The same happened to WB's on-mountain helicopter tours. "That was a very conscious decision made by senior management," says De Jong. "It just didn't fit in with our philosophy of summer mountain tourism."

But a summer alpine tube park? Bring it on!

At least that's what the mountain's Brain Trust has decided. And they're clearly waxing lyrical on what they've come up with. "This summer is shaping up to be one of our most exciting yet," says Rob McSkimming, Vice President of Business Development at WB. "We have a lineup of activities on the mountain this summer that are perfect for the whole family."

I guess I'm gonna have to see it to believe it. But for the first time ever, WB will be opening a tube park in the alpine on Whistler Mountain (I'm assuming somewhere on Glacier Bowl). Guests, says the WB press release, will have to walk to the top of the three sliding lanes so snow boots and proper attire are highly recommended. Tacky? Okay maybe just a little. But if you're up there with the right group of kids, it certainly could be fun...

And yes Martha, that's just the tip of the glacial offerings.

You'll also be able to snowshoe on Whistler Mountain this summer. Yippee! But don't get too carried away. Looks like your travel will be seriously curtailed by your guards, er your guides...

As usual (but for how long, nobody can tell), Horstman Glacier will continue to host a variety of ski and snowboard camps this summer. Fortunately the glacier is still big enough to provide a wee bit of space for those who like their riding free of coaches' comments.

A quick aside here - after five years of writing Alta State stories, it never ceases to amaze me how many Whistlerites got their first taste of the mountain during its "off-season" months. "I came here just for summer camp," they'll say. "But I couldn't leave. The place had worked its magic on me."

But I digress.

My personal favorite - the R2R (restaurant-to-restaurant) gondola - will also be in full swing this summer. But if you're looking to access the 50km of alpine hiking trails spread across both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains (Arthur's pet project) you're going to have to wait a bit. Most of those trails are still buried under 15 feet of snow.

But that shouldn't stop you from having fun. Instead of hiking, you can feed your face at Christine's, where the chef proposes "mountain comfort dishes" suitable for the whole family (I love cuisine talk). If that doesn't turn your crank you can hang out at the Roundhouse (the "other" restaurant accessed by the R2R) for an evening BBQ with live music and a natural light show (presented by the local alpenglow).

So many choices. So little time. But will the tourists come?

"Good question," says de Jong. "Still, we had our best summer ever last year on the mountain. This year shouldn't be any different. Especially given all our new offerings."

Ahem. Am I the only one? Or has anyone else noticed that last summer's weather was diametrically opposed to this one? By the end of June 2009, we'd already had two extended heat waves. Citizens of the usually-sodden Puget-Fraser Basin (our primary summer rubber-tire market) didn't even have to consult the local weather forecast before making travel plans.

And yes, summer travelers are just as influenced by the weather as winter travelers. And while skiers and riders check the Internet for the latest on the white stuff, campers and hikers and other summer vacationers check it for the big yellow smiley face. Know what I mean?

Alas, that big yellow smiley face has been decidedly lacking on the local front. Still, there's no point in predicting doom and gloom here. Rain or shine, sleet, hail and/or even snow, the folks who visit us this summer will be far more influenced by the way Whistlerites interact with them than whether or not there's a blue rent in that perpetual carpet of grey above us. Let's hope we can all give them the most positive mountain experience we can...


An Alta States news flash : In what can only be considered a no-brainer decision (duh, what took 'em so long?), Alpine Canada announced this week that the country's governing body for all things ski racing finally found a way to draw the fast-growing discipline of ski cross into its fold. "We believe this partnership makes the most sense for the athletes," says Chief Athletics Officer Max Gartner. "Integrating Ski Cross and Alpine will enable the smoothest transitions for athletes who are possibly making the switch. Ultimately, it is aimed at maximizing our ability to create champions in each respective discipline."

Ironic. Isn't it? Here's a sport that was dismissed for years by Canada's ski racing leaders (Ken Read et al) as undisciplined, wild, and ultimately far too dangerous to be taken seriously. Could it be that Alpine Canada is now so desperate to make itself relevant again with youngsters that it is ready to eat crow and allow the ski crossers some respect? Maybe. But I'm sure it also has to do with a certain young ACA alumni from Whistler with an Olympic gold medal around her neck (and the resulting Own The Podium money associated with all things gold). This will be a great "marriage" to follow.

And yes, it could be a stormy one - especially given the independent nature of the current crop of ski cross athletes. After all, let's not be naïve here. Most of them dropped out of ski racing for a reason. Stay tuned...