Opinion » Alta States

Peering into WB's Future

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'The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."

- Helen Keller

I love edges. I love exploring edges. You know, where the sea meets the shore, where the highland forest meets the alpine's rocky soil... or even (at its most extreme) where the wild of nature takes over again from our all-too-human efforts to subdue it. But until I met Californian architect Eldon Beck I didn't know why these special edge-places held such a powerful attraction for me.

Remember Eldon? Combining equal parts wisdom, artistic whimsy and a highly disciplined work ethic, the soft-spoken landscape architect was the man who brought a human touch to the (originally unworkable) Whistler Village Master Plan. I don't remember exactly where or how we met... I think it was at some design forum in the early 1980s. But from the very beginning, his words resonated with me.

"Good mountain design," he'd say, "is all about experiencing the senses.

"Successful mountain communities celebrate that fact. They find ways of connecting with their natural environment — rather than trying to overwhelm it." He would pause at this point. "Nature is a great teacher," he would then say. "All the answers are there... You just have to ask the right questions."

And he wasn't trying to be glib. "What we're seeing in modern culture," he once told me, "is how all this high-tech 'stuff' is drawing us away from our natural surroundings. Mountain resorts, by their very nature, offer a relief valve from the intense technological pressures bearing down on city dwellers. The greatest value we can provide them is a natural setting not overwhelmed by city-inspired designs."

Which brings us to Eldon's concept of "edges."

"I remember back in 1972," he'd recount, "sitting beside Gore Creek in Vail Village and being fascinated by the richness in the interface of creek and shore. That's when it struck me — there was real power, true enchantment, in these oft-overlooked micro-zones."

Beck uses the term "ecotone" to describe such habitat edges. And it's his belief that an ecotone features a richer environment than either of its compositional parts. It makes sense. Whether river estuary or subalpine fringe, Eldon's edgy "ecotones" certainly feature more diversity than do their monotone neighbours. "It's all about texture," he'd explain. "And natural ecotones offer a richness of texture that is very appealing to human beings." Think about it, he'd say. "If we really want to encourage people to re-connect with their wild surroundings, then the challenge is to create the same kind of textural richness in the interface between man-made development and nature."

Hang on to that thought.

Skiing isn't just a business. It's a sport. A culture. For some it's even an art form. Indeed, there are few outdoor activities that offer such a diversity of experiences as sliding on snow in wintertime. From dropping weightlessly into a big pocket of powder to riding a perfect edge on impeccably-groomed hard-pack — from spinning 720s in the park to smacking gates at the Olympic training centre — skiing is the closest thing to wingless flight most of us will ever know.

There's also an aesthetic to skiing... a fact that often escapes the more monetary-minded. You see, it's not just sliding down the hill that counts. It's the scenery, the ambiance, the unique perspectives that high-country travel provides — the fierce majesty of white-ringed peaks looming in the distance, the striking beauty of a suspended snowflake pierced by the rays of an early-morning sun, the sensual lines of a lone track weaving through a glade of storm-frosted firs. It's the feeling of being blessed for having the good fortune of finding yourself in the midst of all these wonders. And wanting to share that wonder with others. Skiing, in other words, is a lot more than "bums on chairlifts."

Still, it's the bums on chairlifts that pay the bills. For better or worse, the community's continued prosperity is still very much entwined in the financial viability of ol' Whistler Blackcomb. At least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I decided to download two massive PDF files from the BC Ministry of Lands, Forests and Natural Resources Operation (now there's a governmental mouthful).

Produced by Whistler resort-design firm Ecosign, the two downloaded Master Plans are, in essence, the working blueprints for the future development of Whistler Mountain (on the one hand) and Blackcomb Mountain (on the other). At over 700 pages of text (combined) — replete with graphs and tables and numbers and stats and enough acronyms to make your head spin — it's seriously heavy sledding. But if you're curious about the future, it's worth the slog.

I know. I know. WB put on the full dog-and-pony show last week at the Chateau. An actual Open House with all the pictures and drawings and graphs and tables and numbers and stats you could ever want. They even had the "Big Wigs"out to answer questions. Fair enough — but I prefer trudging through the documents on my own and teasing out the plans' various narratives.

My conclusions? Frankly, I'm underwhelmed. Were these plans written in 1993, they might be considered lightly progressive. But this is 2013. A whole generation has come and gone since those heady days when people thought there'd be no limits to Whistler's growth. But now we know better. Most of us understand that bigger doesn't always mean more successful.

Most of us. Remember Eldon's ecotones? Well, if the B.C. government accepts WB's new Master Plans, they'll soon be pushing lifts out to the very edges (and possibly beyond!) their current boundaries with zero texture between their (inbounds) terrain and the (uncontrolled) terrain outside their borders.

Forget re-connecting with nature. Forget ecotones altogether. If these plans are approved, the WB ski experience is going to be hard-edged techno all the way.

Whether it's the two lifts they've designated for the Flute Peak zone (sigh — I remember Bob Dufour telling me they'd never expand beyond the Symphony Lift), or the high-speed quad that completes the full colonization of Blackcomb Glacier Park (something Blackcomb management solemnly swore they'd never do when they finagled their "last" concession from BC Parks bureaucrats), or even the trio of new lifts they intend to stick in the Khyber/West Bowl/Grande Finale area (an already-too-busy ski zone despite its limited access) — it's just too much. Too urban. Too industrial. Totally unsustainable.

Yeah. Yeah. I know. They say they have no current plans to build these lifts. It's all for a future, they insist, that may or may not manifest itself. Besides, they explain, that's what the master planning process is all about: ask for the stars and hope for the moon. But consider this factoid: when the company got pushback from the BC Federation of Mountain Clubs over its proposed incursion into current park lands, WB made what they said was a huge concession and promised not to expand further into the provincial park — until the year 2020. Note: that's only six years away...

What really bothers me about WB's latest round of big-time planning, however, is how its authors missed identifying one of the most significant shifts in ski culture in the last five decades! And that, my friends, is the incredible growth and development of self-propelled skiing. This is the nature-based tourism phenomenon (winter version) that we're being told millennials everywhere are embracing. So how the heck did Ecosign (and WB senior management) miss it?

Seems a no-brainer to me. Given the recent proliferation of mountaineering gear on resort-skiers' feet — not to mention the explosion in split-boards among lift-riders — one has to assume a steadily growing demand for hike-to terrain in the next few years... but with a caveat. I think there's an incredible opportunity to develop new "inbounds" (and, by extension, avi-controlled) terrain that isn't groomed or otherwise managed... and takes a few minutes to walk to.

And it could have huge returns for Whistler... almost as big as the mountain biking revolution (if we play our cards right). Don't laugh: compared to the skinny sticks I grew up on, today's super-fat mountain boards offer a much easier off-trail riding experience... something that few mountain resorts have really exploited yet.

This is where an understanding of ecotones is vital. Rather than building lifts right to the limit of their property (and creating a really hard edge between inbounds and out-of-bounds riding), tomorrow's successful snowplay resort will figure out ways to feather the edges — to create texture if you will — between the "controlled" sectors inside their boundaries and the "uncontrolled" wilderness beyond their boundaries.

Sadly, there's nothing even remotely close to that in the current Whistler and Blackcomb Master Plans. And when those alpine lifts are built, in 2016 or 2021... or whenever management decides, well, then it will be too late to reconsider. Fortunately, nothing's been approved just yet. That's why I encourage you to check out the plans for yourself. Here's the link: www.for.gov.bc.ca/mountain_resorts/resort_plans/proposed/index.html#whistler.

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