While a lot of work has been done in recent years to improve grooming and increase the number of beginner and intermediate runs on Whistler and Blackcomb, the mountains still remain inaccessible to many people.
According to Guy Auger, one of the founders of Sno-Limo, about 15 per cent of visitors to Whistler in the winter months do not ski or snowboard, and for a variety of reasons such as age, time, opportunity and past injuries are not able to learn.
This year, using special sleds designed by Sno-Limo Mountain Ecotouring, trained chauffeurs can take anyone almost anywhere on the mountains via green and blue runs. You can even bring your Grey Poupon.
"The idea came from my brother, who is the president of the company and has 20 years of experience as a ski instructor, the last 10 of them in Whistler," explained Auger.
"There are a few types of person we can see using this service. There are people who cant ski and would like a tour of the mountain, and we can take them to the most scenic places as well as give them a sense of the history and ecological makeup of the area.
"Then there are people that come here with a group of skiers, who dont ski themselves and want to be able to keep up."
Another example of someone who can benefit from Sno-Limo is Augers mother, who was used to test the prototype of the sled. By using the service she was able to come up the mountains and watch her grandchildren ski.
Other potential users include spectators and officials who need to get to on-mountain competitions, film and video makers who need to keep the camera steady for action shots, and the Whistler-Blackcomb Ski Patrol who will use the sleds to rescue stranded skiers and boarders.
Whistler-Blackcomb is the first ski company to give Sno-Limo the thumbs-up after the sleds passed the test. Grouse Mountain is also considering the service. Other mountains in B.C. and Alberta have shown interest, and are watching to see how Sno-Limo is received.
"This has the potential to be at every ski area in North America and Europe," said Auger.
There are two parts to the company: the first manufactures the sleds at a fabricator in Quebec for sale to other mountains and Sno-Limo services. The other side is the tour company, which will open at other resorts and offer franchises in co-operation with ski operators.
The original concept is about five years old, but Auger, his brother and other partners have been working on the idea full time since February to launch for this winter. "As soon as theres snow on the ground and the chairs are running, well be open for business," said Auger.
The sleds are designed to be easily loaded and unloaded from chairlifts, using the same basic principles as adaptive skiing devices. They are also designed to be stable, easy to steer and easy to stop for the chauffeurs, and have been tested on green and blue runs.
A typical guided tour on Whistler will run for half a day and will include a trip up the Peak Chair, a few laps of Harmony and Burnt Stew, or Highway 86 to the Red Chair. "But we can go anywhere," said Auger. "If they want to check out a race or take a look at the terrain park we can do that, or if they just want to keep up with a group of skiers or riders we can do that too."
Sno-Limo will start the season with 10 sleds, five on Whistler and five on Blackcomb. The company already has 30 sleds built, and Auger is anticipating that they will go fast once the ski industry realizes the opportunity to market the mountain experience to non-skiers.
"Whistler-Blackcomb always leads the way, theyre always open to new ideas how to make the mountains more accessible to more people. For a lot of non-skiers the only way to get that mountain experience in the past was to take some kind of motorized transport up and down the mountain, but weve come up with an environmentally friendly way that they can get around like everybody else," said Auger. "Were really excited about it, and we think it fills a need that is out there.
"We did the research, and nobody else is offering this."
Sno-Limo will not have a presence in the village at first, but will rely on referrals from concierges, tour operations, and Whistler-Blackcomb, as well as advertising and promotional materials. They also have a website, www.sno-limo.com .