Opening day at Whistler Blackcomb is arguably the most anticipated day of the year in Whistler.
With all the weather pundits pointing towards a third La Niña year in a row, WB decided to try a new approach with their "Embedded" campaign. Mike Douglas spent five days before official opening (including his birthday) camping in the patrol shack atop Whistler Peak. His daily videos were shared all over the social networks, building an unprecedented level of anticipation in the days before lifts began to turn for the 2011-12 winter season.
And like a gracious mountain host he was there to welcome the keeners who had slept out in the gondola line up to be first up.
The competition to be the first member of the public to upload on Whistler Gondola has become fiercer than ever. Students of Whistler Secondary School (WSS) were at the forefront of the "Occupy Chairlifts" movement, camping out in front of the G1 gondola building 22 hours ahead of the scheduled opening time. It was a cold night, but the kids knew what they were getting themselves into.
"Last year we were so cold we took turns sleeping in the hotel lobbies," said 15-year-old Liam Measure of WSS.
"We kept getting kicked out, but later that morning they brought us hot chocolate," he said.
This year the kids came prepared. Dragin King-Prevost,15, was one of the first of his Grade 10 classmates to arrive at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17. Throughout the day his friends began to trickle in, bringing tents, sleeping bags, extension cords and space heaters. Parents came around 7:00 a.m. to collect the equipment and bring the boys breakfast.
Almost the entire first section of the gondola corral was full of Whistler Secondary School students. Not surprisingly, opening day has the highest absentee rate of the year at the school. Of the 370 enrolled students at Whistler Secondary, there were 170 absences. For 30 of those absences parents gave reasons unrelated to skiing. The average number of absent students on any given day is 20.
"If a student is going to be away, all we need is notification," said Bev Oakley, principal of Whistler Secondary School.
"People don't have to lie, we just ask that parents give us a quick email or phone call. If we don't know that the student is excused, it takes a long time for our secretary to contact each household."
According to the B.C. Ministry of Education, each school is allowed up to six non-instructional days per school year but trying to schedule one of these days to coincide with opening day can be extremely challenging.
"We never know when the mountain is going to be open," said Oakley.
"We can guess, but all collaboration days have to be planned in April of the previous year."
With just under half of Whistler Secondary students being absent, the community seems to have made it clear that skipping school on opening day with a parent's permission is acceptable.
"The numbers speak for themselves," said Oakley.
The kids at the front of the line on Opening Day were not just there to ski fresh lines, they were making a statement - I skied the mountain first, before all of you.
Some will be here every year for the opening, no matter the conditions. Most are born and raised in Whistler and are quickly becoming the new generation of hardcore locals.
For the other young adults in the line it's more about being the first to lay down tracks on Whistler Mountain. Choosing to sleep in their own beds, many arrived as early as 4:00 am.
Snow on opening day (particularly if its early opening) is different from all the other days of the season. There has been no skier compaction, so the powder feels bottomless. There are no moguls, no traverse tracks and no bomb holes. The mountain is a clean canvas ready to be scribbled on.
This week has brought a strong storm to the Coast Mountains with several feet of snow falling in the last few days. While this is an excellent start to the season, avalanche danger hit Extreme on Tuesday and Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol is cautioning everyone to stay out of dangerous terrain.
"Right now the snow pack is presenting a lot of challenges," said Bernie Protsch, Ski Patrol Manager.
"We've got buried surface hoar, depth hoar, ice crust and rain crust in the layers. Pick your terrain according to the hazard. Check the Canadian Avalanche Centre bulletins, be familiar with self-rescue techniques and carry a fully charged cell phone. Be prepared."
Professional skier Jamie Pierre was killed in avalanche last week when snowboarding in closed terrain at Snowbird resort in Utah.
During the 2008/2009 season, two skiers were killed by avalanches in two days on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. Both victims were skiing by themselves outside the temporary boundaries set by ski patrol.