Opinion » Alta States

Alta States

Me and a pika and Arthur De Jong A sunset walk in the alpine




"In the new economy it's imperative to... deliver a product that meets the enchantment test. Is it DICEE? Deep, intelligent, complete, empowering and elegant.

- Guy Kawasaki, Garage Technology Ventures


There he is. Lounging on a rock - his wind-ruffled fur already beefed up for the cold months to come. Looks like he's been there for a while too. Doesn't seem concerned at all that his afternoon sunbath is being interrupted by a couple of human interlopers. Indeed, it's almost as if he were waiting for us.

We are standing on the edge of Blackcomb territory, in that magical zone between timberline and alpine - what eminent architect Eldon Beck calls "one of the mountains' most distinct ecotones." And this early fall weather is spoiling us rotten.

Across the valley, Whistler peak shimmers in the late-afternoon sunshine. Feels for a second like I could just reach out and touch it. Further left, beyond the Musical Bumps thrusts the daunting form of Fissile. A thin ribbon of snow runs down the north-facing couloir, like a scar cut into its face. Next to it, I can almost detect the shape of a white-coated dragon in Overlord Glacier's icy contortions. Makes me want to cry out in recognition.

Meanwhile our alpine rodent friend sits and watches us. Animal satori. "Talk about a well-placed mountain ambassador," I say. "How much are you paying this guy?"

Arthur De Jong shakes his head. "No. No. I'm not that manipulative," laughs WB's environmental prestidigitator, as he reaches for his camera. "This is a total coincidence."

At the sound of his voice, the old marmot lazily turns his head around and gazes straight into De Jong's lens. Rays of light play hide-and-seek through his mottled fur - the lichen-covered rock on which he's splayed a perfect backdrop for the shot. Click-click-click goes the camera. "This is a keeper," the big man says, a grin splashed across his face. "It's almost like he knows what we're up to."


And I can't help but smile. We are barely into our hike - not even past Arthur's "first ring" yet - and already he has me enchanted. DICEE indeed...

"We should get going," he finally says. "There's so much I want to show you today." He packs his camera away and looks at me searchingly. "We still have a long walk. Are you sure you're up for it? You know, we don't really want to get caught out in the dark back there."

I nod. "You lead. I'll follow. If it gets too tough - or too painful - I'll let you know. Don't worry. I'm not going to suffer in silence." I try to laugh. Cackle instead. "I'm not the guy you once knew Arthur. I've had the ego beaten right out of me these last few months." He looks at me in quiet disbelief. Yeah right. Beaudry without an ego. That would be something to see.

But things have changed. I'm damaged goods. The weak link. The guy you have to keep an eye on now to make sure he stays out of trouble. Still, it's a foreign feeling for me. And I'm not yet entirely comfortable in that role.

But what can I expect? I've been out of the mountains for an interminable five months. And it's been tough as hell. Babying my new bionic knee, holding back on the hard stuff, and hoping that all my aches and pains will magically disappear with time (and no, I don't believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny). Still, I want to believe this isn't the end of my mountain adventures. That there are still a bunch of years left before I have to hang-up my hiking boots and backpack.

Hence this late afternoon walk-and-talk session. "We should really get going," repeats Arthur. And then he takes off. I have to scamper to keep up to his giant steps. Clearly, this is a man used to ranging in the high country. And I can only chuckle at his energy.

To be honest, I don't really know how I'll fare on the hike. Happy to be back in vertical terrain, no question. Happy to be spending a little quality time with Arthur, for sure. But confident in my abilities? Somehow, no. I feel like I am still in the process of learning to walk again (on a number of fronts). Silently, I mouth a little mantra to myself. I just hope I won't stumble and lose face up there...

There are few people living in this valley who embody "Whistler style" as well as Arthur De Jong does. When it comes to leading both the community and his WB bosses into the post-industrial age, he has no equal. "Don't think it's easy," he warns. "Because it's not. It's both a blessing and a curse..."

It can also get complicated. How do you square helping an American-owned corporation raise shareholder value, for instance, while trying to keep it environmentally honest? Easy, he says, you focus on changing what you can change. "The sweet spot in mountain design is where conservation and economics overlap," he's told me time and time again. "Really - it's all about celebrating the true value of your surroundings..."

Which is exactly what we're doing today. As he leads me past our sun-tickled marmot onto a well-trod single-track trail, we fall into our normal banter. We've known each other for a long time, Arthur and I, and we've agreed to disagree on a number of issues. But on one fundamental principle, we both stand squarely in the same spot. It's the mountains, stupid!

"The grandeur of Whistler's alpine is our greatest asset," he says. "More than anything, it's what distinguishes us from most other North American resorts."

He understands my concern about the unchecked growth of infrastructure on our local mountains. And as stand-alone machinery, he agrees that capital projects like the eat-to-eat gondola are tough to justify. "For that investment to succeed, people need a 'destination,'" he insists. "And that's our goal: to develop destinations in the alpine that celebrate the high-mountain experience."

Meaning? Arthur and his crew have been busy building new trail circuits - imagine concentric rings - that radiate out from the gondola. "The inner rings," he says, "feature easily-accessed trails - just like the one we just took - you know, with a people-friendly design style and some thoughtful signage." These, obviously, are targeted at first-time guests and the less-mobile set.

"We want the casual visitor from Cincinnati to have a transformative experience up here," he explains. "We want him to go home thoroughly enchanted."

As the distance increases from the lifts, the trails become more demanding. "Ultimately," he says. "I would love to see multi-day tours in the far outer rings with a hut-to-hut hiking network from peak-to-peak." He laughs. "But I'm not alone. Seems like a lot of people are working on that right now..."

A couple of hours have already flown by. We're now off the trail system and negotiating a sea of tippy boulders on the flank of Trorey Mountain. Tricky stuff. "This," says Arthur, "is the beginning of the third ring. As you can see, we're into serious terrain now. Not for everyone..." As he climbs, he keeps looking behind to make sure I'm following. The concern in his eyes makes me wince. Do I look that helpless?

Still, I'm not going to get fooled into upping my pace and risking a fall. Slowly. Slowly. And I can't help but giggle at what my long-suffering physio would think right now. This little walk is definitely not on her list of approved activities.

We reach our destination just as the sun begins its descent behind the Tantalus. A band of blood-red slowly seeps across the horizon. The drop to the valley floor from here is sobering. Big vertical. Tiger country, Arthur calls it. From where we're standing it's clear there's no easy way down. "That's where I'm going tomorrow," says Arthur pointing vaguely downhill. "I'm working on a new route to Russet Lake." And in the same breath, "We should go back soon."

But I demure. Suddenly I'm filled with a sense of profound peace. I'm back. I'm in the mountains. I'm home. Sure, my gait is like a three-legged goat's - and my lower limbs are stewing in a sea of pain - but it all seems somehow manageable. I don't want to think of the hike home yet. I just want to be a marmot and enjoy the moment...


Next Week - A raucous lunch with those wild MacLaurin folk across the tracks.