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Feature - In search of Whistler’s other

If early explorers couldn’t bring themselves to name a mountain, they named the mountain after the marmot

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Living in Whistler, it can be tempting to overestimate our town’s actual standing on the world stage. On any given day, the place can seem like some sort of prototype for Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village as Ski Town, with representatives from most if not all continents here to blow their bucks and have a blast in our fair resort municipality. We built it and they came. Soon they came in droves, to Whistler.

Sure the town’s name has been dropped from the "official" bid for the 2010 Olympics, but everybody knows rainy Vancouver wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in Kits at getting the IOC’s OK if it weren’t for wintery Whistler providing the white stuff for the Games’ marquee outdoor events.

But with all of Whistler’s world-class this and world-class that, the hill for which the town is named is actually only one of three Whistler Mountains located in Western Canada, with the other two situated in Alberta’s Rockies. Donating my truck to help a friend relocate from one mountain town to another provided the excuse to go and explore the other two peaks belonging to this trio of treeline-toppers.

The first stop of this peaky pilgrimage was to a mountain that overlooks historic Jasper, a small town justly famous in its own right. It too is a tourist town with a healthy per capita percentage of ski bums but the differences are many: Churches are everywhere but there is as of yet not a single Starbucks. There are many more moustaches but no monster homes. (In fact, because the town is located inside a national park, homeowners can only own the dwelling itself, not the land, and so most houses are refreshingly modest.)

Jasper is also very much a company town but the Employer is Parks Canada, not a multinational mega-corporation. The local bars feature Happy Hours, not nightly drink specials, and not a single one is without a prominent selection of the severed heads of indigenous wildlife – usually those once belonging grizzlies, moose, wolves, bighorn sheep, caribou, wolverines and elk – staring blindly at patrons through the ever-present haze of cigarette smoke. The prudent soon learn to avoid roaming gangs of elk on the streets at night, not drunken, bejewelled thugs from the Lower Mainland. And locals here don’t wear cowboy hats just to make a fashion statement.

There seems to be some confusion over the spelling of the mountain that overlooks Jasper, which is known alternately as either "Whistlers Mountain" or "Whistler’s Mountain", depending on who you talk to. As with Whistler, B.C., it too is named for the distinctive shriek of alarm given by the hoary marmots who call the mountain home. The potential prey of just about any passing mammal hungry enough to be bothered with it, the hoary marmot ( Marmota Caligata ) has become known for the shrill, whistling cry it gives when danger is sensed. They are commonly referred to as "whistlers". For a grey-haired rodent that spends a full eight months of the year in hibernation, it probably beats being nicknamed hoaries.

With a top elevation of 2,469 metres, Jasper’s Whistler peak is taller than the Coast Range’s Whistler by a good 247 metres, but falls well short in terms of accessibility. For starters, the gondola only runs from April to October, not the other way around, much to the chagrin of those who arrive porting poles and planks each winter looking to finally ski Whistler. According to the preternaturally perky Jasper Tramway rep who escorted our jampacked, 30-person tram up towards the summit, most are none too pleased to find out there isn’t a Blackcomb Mountain nearby either.

(Fortunately, a nearby ski hill – the serendipitously named Marmot Basin – has 1,500 acres of terrain and a 3,000 vertical foot drop to help ease their pain.)

Built in just eight months by Germans in 1964, the longest and highest aerial tramway in Canada is located just 7 km south of Jasper on Whistlers Road (natch) off the Icefields Parkway. It only takes seven minutes to climb nearly a thousand metres to the upper terminal, where you find expensive eats and eye-popping views of the six different mountain ranges that surround Yellowhead Pass, an early fur-trade route across the Continental Divide that first drew white men to the area. The Columbia Icefields can be admired to the south and Mount Robson, the highest Rocky of them all, can be seen 100 km to the west. Oddly enough, the town of Jasper, when seen from this altitude, resembles a giant letter J as it sweeps along the Athabasca River.

It takes about 45 minutes to follow the boot-packed trail the remaining 200 metres to the summit. It seemed very strange, and more than a little sad, to be standing atop "Whistler" on a gorgeous spring day surrounded by acres and acres of untouched powder and unable to exploit the opportunity. Not a fresh track could be seen in all directions. Alas, not only can "Jasper Tramways not be held accountable for adverse weather conditions" but they also do not allow skis or snowboards onboard.

There is a trail that leads up from the Jasper International Hostel, just down the road, that staff say takes most people seven to nine hours to make a return trip. Anyone thinking of hiking up and taking the gondola down should be advised that they still check tickets on the return and it will cost you $10 one-way.

The next Whistler on the list is located down near Crowsnest Pass, by the American border. Driving through the Rockies is best done during the day so as to enjoy the incredible scenery. This may sound obvious but it only really sank in when the ability to travel at night was abruptly taken away. There I was, cruising along and minding my own business when suddenly, out of the blue, something large and furry loomed in the road ahead.

D’oh! A deer. A female deer. Splat, she went across the hood. Sadly, Bambi was a writeoff but the truck only suffered the loss of headlights and other minor injuries, enabling the trip and the long drive south to continue.

Upon arriving in the nearest town of any size, Pincher Creek, I set out to ask the locals for advice about climbing this final Whistler. The local roadhouse (as they call pubs in these parts, where the skies are big, the music is country and the country is western) seemed quite full for a midweek night, especially with no Canadian team at this point left standing in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I soon learned the place was so busy because today was the day news broke that Mad Cow disease had arrived here in Canuck cattle country. While SARS is what gives economic forecasters the willies in Whistler, B.C., it is BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) that will affect the long-term financial outlook in this neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, none of the locals I spoke to (including a park ranger) had any idea there was a local hill called Whistler, let alone why it is so named. I had hoped it might be for a hoary old tale involving a coalminer or firewatcher named Whistler. Or perhaps the name was given by an early surveyor who was an admirer of the art of James McNeill Whistler, whose 1871 portrait of his beloved ma reclining in a rocking chair – ‘Whistler’s Mother’ – has since gone on to become a veritable American icon. (In case you don’t know it, it’s the one defaced by Mr. Bean in his big screen adventure and is also the inspiration for the clever logo belonging to Whistler’s Other Video in Creekside).

Or possibly this peak was so pegged for some other reason: Crowsnest Pass, at 1,360 metres above sea level, is one of the lowest routes though the Rockies and is regularly blasted with warm winds coming from the deserts of the B.C. Interior. Winds of 160 km/h have been recorded and they have been known to push boxcars as far as 24 kilometres.

Back in the olden days, residents used to use a measuring device that was made up of a steel ball suspended by a chain from a high pole. When the old ball and chain pointed straight out, they used to say it was a "fair wind."

While being inspired by a whistling wind seemed a fairly good explanation for the name, it seems likelier that the usual suspect is once again to blame. Slogging up the side of this particular Whistler’s northern ridge, I was once again assailed with the distinctive whistles of the ubiquitous marmot. No real surprise here – it is often referred to as the common marmot, after all.

This final Whistler was also the hardest to find. Located in the Rocky Mountains’ eastern Border Ranges near Beaver Mines Lake Recreational Area, there are no official trails leading to its 2,163-metre summit and most hikers only come to explore the more scenic Table or Castle Mountains. It isn’t even mentioned on trailhead signs and I could only pinpoint it – at latitude 49° 20' 00" N and longitude 114° 17' 00" W – after poring over a detailed map designed for snowmobilers at a gas station. If you go, take the right hand turn down the dirt road a few kilometres before the recreation area. It’s the one to the southwest.

I drove along the sad excuse for a road as far as my battered truck could make it before continuing on foot until a reasonable-looking ridge presented itself. Be advised that hiking up the loose limestone slopes can be tricky and slides are frequent. This isn’t far, after all, from the site of the infamous Frank Slide of 1903, when 82 million tonnes of rock slid down the side of Turtle Mountain, killing 70 people.

As with Jasper’s Whistler, no plaque or cairn commemorates the summit. All there is at the top of this Whistler is the remains of a few lingering centimetres of snow, a long-abandoned fire watch station, and more stunning views.

So there you have it: three mountains similar in size but extremely different in character. But what’s in a name, after all? A mountain by any other word would be as steep. Although they share the same name and the same population of whistling rodents, you could say that each of these mountains is truly in a range of its own.

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