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Opening the Mountain Flood Gates

Winter's official start marked by lift line reunions

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Every year in November, the base of Whistler Mountain becomes the centre of the ski universe.

High school kids cocoon themselves in sleeping bags and slumber the night away at the base of the gondola to be the first to carve turns on opening day. Early risers brave the dark with camp chairs and blankets. The corral spills Gore-Tex clad skiers and snowboarders out into the plaza, their equipment haphazardly arranged as they stomp boots to shake out the morning cold.

The sun won't rise for another two hours.

Opening day for Whistler Blackcomb is about as anticipatory as it gets in this town. Every employee in the valley is puckering up to their supervisor begging for a few hours off for the morning of the big day, and the legions of hard working, summer ski bums have thrown their jobs to the wind.

It's time to ride.

Feeling snow under the boards may be the primary reason for hundreds of people to shiver for hours waiting for the Whistler Gondola to load its first cabin, but for the veterans it is, as much about the people they will see on opening day. Friends unseen since spring — who had scattered across the valley for summertime activities — greet each other in the lift line like it was only yesterday they were last heading up the mountains. Stories of that first run of the season are swapped and one-upped as everyone debates which zone to hit next.

The Roundhouse is bustling at lunchtime, as freshly recruited food and beverage workers struggle to keep up with the queues. Handshakes, high fives and friendly backslaps can be seen in every direction.

Whistler's largest community has reconvened.

To delve into the experiences of opening d ay and what means to the local ski and snowboard culture, Pique caught up with several athletes who call Whistler home, all whom rarely miss the first opportunity to ski the resort on its first day of operations.

Here's what they have to say about their perfect first day on the slopes — and a few tips for our visitors.

 

Derek Foose

Rabbit Hill's most extreme Canadian

There are few working skiers who can say they have a gig as good as Derek Foose. Splitting his time between coaching steeps with Extremely Canadian and leading the next generation of pro skiers around the mountain with the Whistler Freeride Club, Foose spends every work day in technical terrain and if conditions allow — sending it big. The 36-year-old now has two children, and though fatherly responsibilities take up more time than ever before, Foose says hitting the mountain with his four-year-old son, Mason, is as rewarding as it gets.

Pique: Where and when did you learn how to ski?

DF: I learned to ski at Rabbit Hill in Edmonton, Alberta when I was three. I grew up ski racing there and coached for a year while I was at university and I came out here just to take a year off, your classic Whistler story. Within about a week I knew I was never going back — once I was here it was over.

Pique: What do love most about your job, besides getting paid to ski every day?

DF: It's the reward of showing people what it is that brought us all here and kept us here. I like coaching and I think it's really rewarding developing skills and helping make people better, but I love just giving them that little insight into our lives and sharing the passion. It's nice to take some of the guesswork out of it too. It was definitely a bit of a bumpy process learning your way around Whistler and Blackcomb in the '90s, there was nobody showing you the way.

Pique: What does opening day mean to you?

DF: I missed last year, but if circumstances allow with the kids I'm up there for sure. I'm still frothing like a little kid over it. The main thing is that you get to ski again, but there's a bunch of subplots going on too. In the summer there's a whole bunch of things to do so everybody just scatters. People are mountain biking, climbing, fishing or hiking. In the winter the whole town is concentrated on the ski hill so you see people you haven't seen all summer. For me it's the beginning, summer is just something to get through. Winter is the thing, the passion. It's on now and I know exactly what I'm doing every day for the next six months.

Pique: Where is your go-to zone on Opening Day?

DF: That definitely depends on the situation. There's a lot of (people who ski) Pale Face (then traverse) over to the Goat Path, but that's a bit of a risky one. You can get stung over there falling into open creeks and I work pretty hard to not be the guy who ends his season the same day it starts. The last few years they've been really good at allowing us foot access to the Peak. Maybe one or two laps on the Green Chair then hike up to West Cirque and link up to Christmas Trees.

Pique: What is your favourite run or favourite zone?

DF: I'm probably 60/40 ratio Whistler to Blackcomb and every year that ratio gets more towards Blackcomb. I worked for Whistler Mountain when I first got here, when they were still separate companies and I think that formative time is why I still see Whistler as my home mountain. My favourite lift by a long shot is the Peak Chair. West Cirque to Christmas Trees to me is a classic. If all things are equal and I had the opportunity for an untracked powder run that would be my choice.

Pique: How has your winter ski time been affected since you became a Dad?

DF: I'm not freeskiing as much as I used to, but since he was two I'm putting time and effort into Mason's skiing, which is amazing. Now he loves it. He had his first year of Valley Kids in ski school last year and every day he came home just over the moon and stoked on skiing. I'm loving being a parent of a ski kid. We go skiing together now, which is like a dream come true.

 

Eric Hjorleifson

professional shredder and mad ski scientist

Popularly referred to as "Hoji" by friends and fans, Eric Hjorleifson has evolved over his career as a freeskier. With roots in the Canadian Rockies, Hjorleifson had a timely introduction to ski movie juggernaut Matchstick Productions in the early 2000s and was soon travelling and skiing all over the world for film segments. He has his own line of skis with Salt Lake City-based company 4FRNT and has helped design boots and bindings for European ski mountaineering company Dynafit. While still catching the occasional heli or cat for film shoots, the majority of his backcountry skiing is now self-propelled.

Pique: Where and when did you learn how to ski?

EH: I was born in Banff and my parents lived in Canmore my whole childhood, so they got me into skiing when I was very young. They put me on skis for the first time since before I was two years old, I don't even remember the first time. I've been coming out to Whistler for almost 12 years primarily with summer camps work and I've been living here in the winter full time for about seven years.

Pique: You tend to ski a lot before the lifts turn, where have you been in the last few weeks?

EH: I did some skiing in early October when we got that nice snow. That was actually the earliest powder skiing I think I've ever done early season. I was on the Whistler Blackcomb heli skiing day on Oct. 1, but I had already gone up on my own power a few days earlier. I actually went up (again) that morning and had some really good turns... The morning was actually the much better skiing but the helicopter was already booked. You gotta be early!

About a week and a half ago I went up to the summit of Wedge (Mountain), that's a good early-season mission. We also did a day on the Duffey and a couple days in the Rockies when I was there last week. It's a good way to get the season rolling if you can get up high enough It's just a little punishing on the body. I like to do the missions with a bike if possible.

Pique: You've got this image of yourself with skis strapped to your bike. How effective is that set up for getting up the mountain? Do you bike in your ski boots?

EH: The ski boots I use for that style of thing are pretty lightweight so I can throw them in my backpack for the way up. Most of the time I'll bike down with my ski boots on, it's just easier. I got a nice mountain bike last year so this summer I built a new bike rack for it. It's incredible to be able to go on those styles of mission and not have to walk the whole way and carry skis and boots on your back.

Pique: With all the early season skiing you get to do, what does opening day mean to you?

EH: Obviously it's super fun to get back up there, see everyone again and just cruise. Some of the years I've been here it's been instantly game on, which is pretty incredible to have some of the best skiing on the coast in November. When it's kind of all right, like I predict it to be this year, I get a bit nervous because everyone is so amped and they're sending it on not much (snow). I try to remove myself a bit mentally from that full-on, giving'er attitude because I really don't want to break my leg on a stump or something on the first day. But it's contagious; it's like a double-edged sword. The energy of all our friends pinning it, you end up getting caught up in it sometimes. It's interesting, but always exciting.

Pique: What is your favourite run or favourite zone?

EH: For years I was super-focused on Blackcomb just because of all the alpine options up there, but last year I started skiing Whistler a bit more and certainly had a lot of fun. I think it's hilarious how people get focused on one mountain or the other when there's two really good options and (with the Peak2Peak Gondola) you get double powder days. It's condition dependent where I really like to go skiing, but as far as alpine access to glaciated terrain and expansive alpine skiing I don't think you can beat Blackcomb anywhere in North America. Obviously Europe is a whole other different level, but that's one of the things I like about this area is from the ski hill you have so much access. From the top of Glacier Chair, Spanky's is the go-to zone because you're getting the most variety, the most fall line. I'm usually racing for Ruby Bowl high entrance.

 

nadia samer

revving into stardom

Growing up on Vancouver Island and frequenting Whistler at any early age, Nadia Samer had a childhood that many locals would envy. But she also grew up tough, asserting her independence early, which she demonstrated when she hitchhiked from Whistler to Vancouver for her first ACL surgery and returned on the bus, all at the age of 14. Now 25 years old and 11 knee surgeries later, Samer is in a comfortable niche of sled-assisted big mountain skiing and continues to push her own limits in the male-dominated world of snowmobiling.

Pique: Where and when did you learn how to ski?

NS: My first time on skis was on Blackcomb; my parents had a condo here that they bought in the late '80s. My dad had been skiing Whistler since 1969, my siblings and I all did kids camp and after a few years of that we just chased my dad around the mountain. So I've been skiing Blackcomb since I was one and a half years old. We were living in Campbell River at the time, so we'd be over once a month or so to Whistler, otherwise we would spend the weekends skiing Mt. Washington.

Pique: When did you get into snowmobiling and what was your motivation to make that investment?

NS: I bought my first sled when I was 18 and still racing ski cross and competing in big-mountain competitions. I saved up money for, like, three years and paid in cash, it was like watching three years of construction, painting, blood, sweat and tears being handed over the counter.

I really enjoyed big mountain skiing and I felt like I needed to get (into the backcountry) to get the big lines. I really like a challenge and it seemed like all the guys doing film and photo work were using sleds to get to the tops of lines in the backcountry. It seemed like the natural progression. I'd say about 60 per cent of the time I'll have skis with me, sometimes when it's super deep and storming you're not going to have the visibility to go after big lines on skis. With a snowmobile you can mess around in the trees and flatter areas and still get that "riding pow" experience even if it's flat or uphill.

Pique: What does Opening Day mean for you?

NS: I've been lining up for opening days for longer than I can remember. When I was working construction my site superintendent was a real passionate skier, and we would always get opening day off if it were on a weekday. In the past few years since I've been going to university, luckily it's lined up that I can get to class later that afternoon or not have classes scheduled at all.

It's the start of a milestone; it's right before my final exams and I have this whole build-up of work, stress and dealing with sponsors and film companies. I really don't have much of a social life around school, so on the opening day line-up I like to be there really early and hang out in the corral. It's the first time (for the season) that I get to see all my winter friends, all my ski friends. It's like a reunion of sorts.

Pique: What is your favourite run or zone?

NS: I ski Blackcomb 99 per cent of the time, unless I'm with snowboarders who happen to want to be on Whistler, or if I want to hit Air Jordan I'll line up at the Peak Chair super early. I love Chainsaw Ridge and I love Spanky's Ladder. I love long, steep runs and like to open it up with big Super-G turns on open faces where you can come screaming out the bottom.

Pique: What's on your radar for this season?

NS: I'm involved with the Pretty Faces all-girls ski movie, and I'm also shooting Shades of Winter 2. I have four girls coming over from Austria to film here in Whistler for two weeks in February and March. It will be some in resort, but a lot of it will be sled-ski based. I'm stoked to get them out on sleds. I also just bought a speed wing so I think I'll be bringing out the skis a bit more this year because a parachute makes everything more fun.

Pique: Speed wing? Explain.

NS: It's where you take off with a parachute smaller than a paraglider, and you can take off cliffs or steep runs with the chute open. You touch down, lift off and ski off cliffs. It's huge in Europe and it's just starting to blow up here. I went a few times last spring and it changed everything. All the lines that don't go, suddenly work.

 

holly walker

revving into stardom

In the last 10 years Holly Walker, 32, has skied on most continents, has attempted to summit North America's highest peak Denali (6,168m/ 20,237ft), and is currently preparing to cross the world's largest non-polar glacier in Tajikistan. Working many jobs over the summer and spending her winters skiing and working as a ski patroller on Blackcomb, Walker has dedicated her life to skiing as many different mountains in the world as possible.

Pique: Where and when did you learn how to ski?

HW: I learned to ski when I was two on Blackcomb Mountain. My parents were both members of the Blackcomb Ski Club, my dad was the president one year and I ended up doing the Nancy Greene Ski League and we would have races against Whistler Mountain. When I was 10 years old my family moved to Australia, but I stopped racing because it was too expensive there. I didn't really start skiing again until I joined the ski team at the University of Washington in Seattle. I relearned how to ski race there and rediscovered my love of being in the mountains.

Pique: You tend to travel a lot these days for your ski trips, how did that start?

HW: During a summer break at university in 2002 I worked an internship at the U.S. embassy in Santiago de Chile. I sat at my desk every day and would scope out ski areas in Argentina and Chile and I found one resort with lots of double black diamonds called Las Leñas. After booking a trip I showed up to an apartment there and met a whole gang of Whistler dudes, and we skied together and became great friends. After I graduated I moved back up to Whistler and had friends there again. Chile was the first time I had travelled abroad for skiing and I got hooked. I started doing trips to Europe, and went to Gulmarg solo and partnered up with people I met there. I'd always had the travel bug because my family travelled around the world a bit, but that season in Chile combined the two loves of travel and skiing.

Pique: When did you start looking towards backcountry? What was your motivation for getting out there?

HW: I started heading out of bounds when I was in Las Leñas and I started realizing I needed to know what it means to be travelling in avalanche terrain. Whether I was going backcountry here at home out to Decker Mountain or to remote peaks in Gulmarg, I needed to have that knowledge should something happen. I also have a tendency to be around some sketchy scenarios sometimes. In Gulmarg there was a speed flyer that crashed whom I helped to evacuate to a hospital. I did the same for a base jumper in Las Leñas. This was all before my ski patrol days, but seeing that happen around me made me aware of the exposure you can have in the backcountry.

Pique: You just returned from Mexico, but not from the usual vacation that Whistler folk travel there for. What were you doing there?

HW: It was a pretty ridiculous trip. I went down for a ski expedition and hooked up with a couple of buddies. We were going to ski Pico de Orizaba, but with the 5,636m (18,491ft) peak elevation we had to acclimatize. We ended up hiking three other volcanoes first — Nevado de Toluca, La Malinche, and Iztaccihuatl — to get used to the altitude gain before attempting our goal of summiting Orizaba. A few days later we climbed Orizaba with skis on our backpacks, and at the top we ran into two Mexicans who had climbed up the south face. We took some photos with them and they laughed at the fact that we had skis with us.

Pique: How was the skiing?

HW: The snow was firm. We started later than mountaineers normally would so the snow would soften in the sun a bit. There were some patches where you could carve some turns but I didn't expect powder in Mexico, that's for sure.

Pique: What does Opening Day mean for you every year?

HW: For me it's the official switch of seasons, I just spent the summer working my butt off and I'm pretty excited winter is here. But the biggest thing for me is that I have so many friends that I just don't see unless it's in a lift line or on the mountain. It's like a party. Everyone is catching up on each other's lives over the summer and shredding lines together. There's a huge part of the Whistler community I only see five or six months of the year.

Pique: Where's your go to zone on opening day?

HW: If patrol allows it I like to hike Pika's Traverse. I'll bring my backpack with avalanche gear just in case, if you can get to the top that's where the best snow will be. When Blackcomb alpine opens I like to hit up Diamond Bowl in Spanky's, it's got so many great options.

Pique: Any plans for this winter yet?

HW: I'm heading back to ski patrol on Blackcomb but in a week I'm going to Sol Mountain lodge in the Monashees. In the spring I'm heading to Tajikistan for a month to cross the Fedchenko Glacier, skiing in the volcanoes in Mexico was a part of preparing for that. Otherwise I'll be out ski touring whenever I can.

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