Last week's opening day for Whistler Blackcomb (WB) was one I'll remember, though not for the same reasons as our stellar 2017-18 season opening last year.
"Worst opening in 15 years" was the word around town. Yet despite the challenging temperature inversions that crippled this year's pre-opening snowmaking efforts, I'm not ready to accept that this will be a repeat of the disastrous 2004-05 season; my first winter in Whistler.
To give a bit of perspective to those who weren't here, '04-'05 was considered the worst season in the 30 years leading up to it. Pre-2010 Olympic snowmaking infrastructure was nowhere near the level that it is today, so there was limited artificial help on that front. The kick in the guts was that it was too warm to make snow anyway for most of the season. The weather scientists referred to it as a "Tropical Punch," a super-strong series of Pacific Pineapple Express weather systems brought to us by the worrisome and often bad-tempered juvenile, El Niño. It rained most of November, December and all of January. In February, the sun came out and gave us two strange weeks of early spring before returning to rain. The Crystal Zone never really opened, nor did the ski outs on either mountain. WB would hand staff hockey sticks and pay them to ski down the cat tracks and slap shot rocks off the side.
Then, on March 22, 2005, the storms finally came and dumped about three metres of snow in a little over two weeks. Many locals had simply written off the season by then, but as a first-year seasonal worker making the most of skiing terrain parks and dodging lurking sharks under a thin layer of snow in the alpine, I rejoiced. It was late, but it came.
When you've had a few decent years in a row, there comes a time when your region has to take one for the global snow community team. Europe has had its share in the last few years, as has most of continental U.S. In this age of climate change, the statistics are stacked against us more and more.
WB's (and in turn, Vail Resorts') decision to not let staff and their dependents ski on opening day and opening weekend wasn't received particularly well, inciting a sort of opening-day uprising (a digital revolt, mostly). I get why people were upset. Being told—not asked—to stay off the mountain when it matters most to them (for some folk, anyway), is rough. But such a decision probably wouldn't have been approved unless the situation was desperate. When I've interviewed WB mountain operations managers in the past prior to opening day, they always assured me that, "if it doesn't snow or we can't make it ourselves, we've got plan B, C, D, E, F and G." Pulling staff ski privileges a few days out sounds like a plan F or G to me.
WB boss Pete Sonntag may have been on the receiving end of a lot of passholder frustration lately given the delay to the opening of the new Blackcomb Gondola as well as the fickle weather. But this a guy who managed to pull the Tahoe Vail Resorts operations through some of the worst droughts in California history. So I doubt he's losing too much sleep over the current snow conditions and inevitable construction delays. Still, I can't imagine the call to pull employee ski privileges at the 11th hour was an easy one.
WB employees had to take one for the team for opening this year, partially for safety reasons and partially to ensure guests are getting the best ski experience they can in the challenging conditions.
Locals took one for the team—skiing on a single white ribbon dodging people of every ability is like skiing in Australia. Only down there it can end up like that for most of the season.
The first-year seasonals took one for the team. They scrimped and saved, tried their best to find housing and put all their stock in the '18-'19 winter. But here is the thing—while slow starts to the season will seem like an impossible wait sometimes, it will be worth it in the end.
The destination visitors who booked early-season skiing took one for the team as well. They only get a couple of weeks skiing a year after all—let's hope they return to see Whistler in all its glory in the future.
When I spoke to my mother the other day—half a world away—I told her about the lacklustre start to the season. She offered some of the infinite wisdom that only mothers seem to have: "The snow will come. Just be lucky you're not going through the same thing as those poor people in the California fires."
Vince Shuley has yet to put his mountain bike to bed for the winter. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.