Opinion » Alta States

Celebrating Whistler mountain culture — kudos to those who make it happen



"Truly, it may be said that the outside of a mountain is good for the inside of a man."

- George Wherry

Sigh... It finally happened. Snow drought. All those winters that we patted ourselves on the back for our good weather fortune... and naively dismissed other places for their lack of the white stuff. The Alps, the Rockies, the Sierras even... what a joke, we thought as we grabbed our fat skis and headed out for yet another day of perfect pow turns.

But that was then. This is now. Suddenly we're not so smug anymore. Some of us are getting a little desperate even.

Where's the snow? What happened to the powder? This is so not Whistler! For the newcomers to the valley, our current conditions are nothing short of catastrophic. But for those of us who've been around a while, well, let's just say we've seen worse.

This is what I wrote last year at this same date:

"I'm not sure I totally believe in karma. But if it does exist, Whistler residents must have led some seriously virtuous lives in the past. Know what I mean? How else does one explain the bounty of white stuff that fell on our slopes in 2012?

Think about it. From the crazy-good March skiing last winter to the snow-Nirvana that visited us this past month, Whistler has been sumptuously blessed by Ullr in the last year. I'm not complaining mind you, just pointing out an interesting phenomenon."

Well, Ullr isn't smiling down on us so much this season. As for his blessings, they've been scant and short-lived. Which means that it's been up to us, mere humans, to make the Whistler winter season start as good as it can be.

And that got me thinking. Seeing as this is the giving time of the year, why not single out individuals and groups who have made a difference in this tough winter start? Call it the Whistler Mountain Culture Awards (WMCA), if you want. But these are the people and organizations that really make our little mountain community exceptional. Read on:

The W/B snowmaking and grooming crews: Back in the dark ages (before the advent of snowmaking), a slow winter start like this one would have spelled instant disaster. Think about it. We'd still be downloading right now... as for tapping the higher mountain terrain, it would be seriously slim pickings.

Thank goodness that's not the case anymore. Still, it bears reflecting on just how hard Doug MacFarlane's mountain crews have been working in recent weeks. The cold snap helped of co `urse. But it was the work-crews' (and their bosses') sense of urgency that really made things happen. Yes, it's artificial white stuff. And no, it's not powder, nor is it particularly soft. But what it does deliver — to both locals and visitors — is the chance to enjoy the rush of gravity-powered snowplay in a year where that might not happen otherwise. Great work team!

The W/B Lifties: They come from everywhere — Australia and Wales and Quebec and South Africa and Sweden and Scotland and... young men and women who travel from the four corners of the planet for a chance to spend a season (or two or three) living and working in Sea to Sky country. And they end up employed in what could be the most thankless job on the mountain.

Imagine spending the bulk of your day watching others do what you love doing most in the world. Imagine having to paint a smile on your face while listening to the powder raves of customers racing back up the mountain for yet another go at the goods. It's torture... there's no other word for it.

And yet — most of them still smile at our silly antics. I mean, there's nothing more welcoming on a stormy, wet morning than a liftie's genuinely happy face. I know. I know. They can get grumpy at times and some can even wax unfriendly at the end of their shifts. But generally speaking — wow! Their bonhomie and joie-de-vivre conquers all. This is one group of Whistlerites who can never get enough thanks.

The Whistler Mountain Ski Club: Doesn't matter what the weather does — or whether there's a foot of new snow or just a trace — the coaches and athletes of the WMSC hit the slopes at first light (and most don't get off until it's dark). Meanwhile, the club continues to develop top performers on the world stage. Whether Olympic medal hopefuls like skicross diva Marielle Thompson and cowboy downhiller Mannie Osborne-Paradis, or up-and-coming talent like the Pridy brothers and Tyler Murray, WMSC alumni have long shone the spotlight on their home community. And they've been doing it since the club's inception more than forty years ago! Dave Murray, Rob Boyd, the Janyk family (to name but a few) — they've all contributed to the Whistler "legend." Frankly, it's the kind of international brand development that doesn't get enough attention from local marketers. But I digress...

What's even more important, at least to me, is that the WMSC creates lifelong riders! There isn't a day on the mountain that I don't see a former club member ripping down the slopes. Good skiers all, they seem to have a more passionate, more-involved connection to Whistler-Blackcomb than their non-racing peers. And it doesn't matter how old they are. Indeed, as the baby boomers slowly retire from the ski runs, the club's old-timer alumni are becoming ever-more visible on the mountain. Again. Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose...

Whistler's artists, actors and filmmakers: While council and muni staff were falling all over each other to accommodate Michael Audain's "free"art bequest to Whistler last year (sigh, when will our town burghers ever learn that nothing is free?), the community's real artists continued to entertain us with local plays and shows and happenings and all sorts of other grassroots programming — and mostly without remuneration.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again — Whistler is blessed to have so many creative people willing to do so much... for so little in return. Heather Paul, Angie Nolan, Binty and Cheryl Massey, Lisa Geddes, Steven Vogler — these are the outstanding (and exceptional) leaders in our little mountain art community. And if they ever stopped and counted the volunteer hours they gave to the "art cause" each week, well heck, they might just throw up their hands in defeat and walk away. Fortunately for us, they're all too busy to do that. Besides, they believe in the power of creativity too much to ever expect proper financial incentives for their work. And for that, everyone in Whistler should give thanks.

Former Pique editor and publisher Bob Barnett: Never in Whistler history has there been a more committed, more knowledgeable or wiser observer of local affairs than this quiet-spoken former ski racer and wordsmith. Barnett's front-of-the-book editorials were must-reads for anyone aspiring to understand Whistler politics. Never shrill or aggressive, always balanced and expertly fact-checked, Bob's missives dug deep into his subjects' back-stories to extract what the real issue was. The result? Pique readers could cut though the bull instantly. Still, it was his humour — oh-so-dry and subtle — that really sealed the deal for me. That was the spice that gave his stories their edge.

Bob's shyness is legendary. Coaxing him to utter more than a dozen words at a social function is like pulling teeth on a grizzly bear. And yet, when it came to defending his writers from the lash of unhappy readers and organizations (and given his choice of contributors, that happened on a regular basis), Barnett was as fierce as, well... a grizzly bear. Which endeared him to those of us who couldn't help tweaking the tail of authority from time to time. I can still remember sitting in his office after one particularly irate group had threatened to pull their advertising over something cheeky I'd written. I thought I was being called in for a serious reprimand. But that wasn't the case at all. "They'll get over it," Bob told me, smiling. "Now what are you planning to write for next week?" And that was that.

The Pique will endure. The new ownership group is professional and the magazine's staff totally committed... which is great news for the community. But Whistler will never have another voice like Bob Barnett's. Thanks for the memories my friend, and may your next adventure be fun and fulfilling.

Happy New Year everyone! May all your wishes come true.