It is possible, just maybe, that there's nothing sadder than seeing Whistler Bowl silently silhouetted against a perfectly clear, deep blue, spring sky the morning after the last day of its season. No little specks of pepper people winding their way through the fields of moguls, no movement of Peak Chair, no paroxysms of joy. Just the sight of Whistler peak, impassively, silently, melting in the April sunshine while attention turns to Blackcomb for the season's finale.
I could be wrong about this. I have not conducted a scientific survey, nor randomly sampled the local populace. My margin of error may far exceed ±3 per cent 19 times out of 20. But I don't think so. In a town where certified adults refuse to grow up, where we still live our lives out on rhythms learned when we were short and the world was tall, where the "year" starts for many of us in autumn and ends in spring as it did for the oh, so endless years we passed time in neat rows, looking at the backs of other children's heads, the last day of the season shares the excitement and letdown of the last day of school. The rhythm of life just missed a beat. The band slipped a slow number into a raucous set.
Except, of course, on the other side of the pass where the beat goes on. Blackcomb is the public school doppelganger to Whistler's private school schedule. They're still hard at it while their unemployed counterparts are facing mornings of infinite, albeit unstructured, possibilities. Many of them — I won't be drawn into the argument about slow learners versus highly motivated overachievers — are already gearing up for summer session, a continuance of the experience, variations on a theme, bikes instead of boards. By the time they face their own morning-after-the-season-before experience, summer will be squealing its tires in a mad dash to VacationLand and we'll be pondering what havoc the thugs from Surrey hath wrought over the May long weekend. Go Fest; Go Hard.
And so, the perennial question is posed: What kind of a season was it?
On one level, it was the penultimate season of Whistler and Blackcomb's long incarnation as ski mountains. If all goes according to plan, by 2017 we'll slip out of our grungy Gore-Tex and slip into whatever cute uniforms befit an Entertainment Conglomerate. We'll have something for everyone, year-round, weather be damned as we segue into an uncertain future where the Myth of Global Warming leaves the lower mountain in earthtones all year long and the Bike Park is part of the strategy for diversified offerings 12 months out of 12. Everybody in the pool; the water's fine.
It was an El Niño kind of year. Still is. By now there's no need to explain the name El Niño is Spanish for "the Niño." So I won't. Perhaps it would only be fair to compare this year with others of its ilk. But to do so would require one of two things: either careful, balanced research into the qualitative assessments of other El Niño years, or a better memory than I have left. After all, I live in Whistler, frequent the village and breathe the air. I could no more remember what the last El Niño year was like than I could remember, say, what I was doing last Tuesday.
But hope springs eternal in the heart of snow sliders and El Niño was coming. Waited for in rapt anticipation. It was as though your mother's half-crazed, black-sheep brother, the tramp steamer captain who'd been all over the world, had a tattoo of a naked coochey-coochey girl on his chest who did a striptease when he flexed his muscles, and who, family legend had it, had once had a cannibalistic encounter on a life raft going nowhere fast in the Doldrums, was coming to visit. It was either going to be epic or brief.
But the El Niño of today seems no longer like the El Niño of receding myth. The weather phenomenon has taken on the aspects of your best, bipolar friend. Sometimes awesome, sometimes insufferable. This year at least started out on a manic upswing. I was absent during the early-early season but by the time I rolled back into town on unsteady sea legs the second week of December, the skiing was, in a word, awesome. Cold, dry, well-covered terrain even managed to overcome my usually guarded, I-can-wait approach and I found myself picking my way down Zhiggy's before the end of the year. My bases paid the price of my enthusiasm, naturally.
About the time we were fooling ourselves into hoping, believing even, this perfect storm of snow, cold and crisp weather might last forever, that pathetic, juicy Hawaiian weather system whose name shall never be uttered on this page visited with a vengeance. We never fully recovered. Oh sure, we had some wonderful powder days, some sunshine, long cruiser days when fat skis lingered in the rack, rollicking après sessions with a Hairfarmers soundtrack but what we hoped would be a season long talked about in reverential tones turned into, well, average — a good dump of snow followed by some moisture, creating some crusty moments with a side of wind slab. Average.
Not that average is bad. In Whistler, average is very, very good. Average is outstanding after last year's stinker of a season and the almost-as-stinky season the year before that. Average is also outstanding when weather patterns around the world leave Torontonians playing golf well into winter, icicles growing on citrus in Florida, wildfire season starting in the former rainy season and weather forecasters wondering why they didn't choose another field of study.
If this is as good a season as we ever get, none of us will be less enthusiastic about sliding down the mountains. Whether you're a firm believer in man-made climate change or a virulent denier who believes shit happens and it can all be blamed on natural cycles, the unseen hand of God or the cosmic muffin, the ski season we've just wrapped up is orders of magnitude better than what much of the world is experiencing.
Having grown up far from Lake Wobegon, I've rarely enjoyed above-average in my life. Average is good. The tallest trees attract the most lightning strikes. Average is the perfect cup of black coffee in a world of no-fat, no-foam, caramelized lattes. I'll take it any time. Especially in a town so far above average.