It doesn't take too many powder days to realize that making decisions at a busy ski resort with more than 20 centimetres of snow on the ground is a bit like navigating the stock market.
High-risk gambles can pay off in thigh-deep dividends, or catastrophic losses. Playing it conservative will keep you moving, but powder gains are all the more incremental, picking through leftovers of more aggressive investors. Then, there's the ever-destructive herd mentality of skiers and snowboarders.
Take the morning of Sunday, Jan. 21 here in Whistler (otherwise known as "the deepest day ever, bro"). People woke to the snow report reading 52 cm on their devices, so they mobilized quickly knowing that a weekend powder day would coax even the laziest of ski bums out of bed early.
Investor Tip 1: When the "too-much-snow" blessing cuts the other way and threatens the lifts opening at all, Blackcomb is always the safer bet.
The lift line at the Wizard Express began to swell uncontrollably around 7:30 a.m. Rain fell in apocalyptic proportions; a wise few opted for the plastic-bag poncho and clearly enjoyed the last laugh over their optimistic Gore-Tex-shielded peers. People abandoned their gear in the corral en masse to take shelter from the elements and warm up with coffee and breakfast burritos.
Then, the rumours began to circulate.
"They're not gonna open 'til 10:30."
"The alpine is a wash. They don't even know if Solar Coaster is gonna open."
"It's raining so high, all we're gonna ski is elephant snot."
The usual opening time of 8:30 a.m. ticked by. Morale was low, but bullish optimists knew there was powder ripe for harvest somewhere up there. The bearish pessimists groaned as the news rippled through the crowd, some going as far as collecting their belongings and trudging home.
Investor Tip 2: If you've committed to the early-powder-day start, stay committed. You've got nothing to lose except a few hours of comfort.
After more than two hours of doubling down in the rain, the lift light flicked from red to green. Dozens were caught off guard, thinking their neatly stacked equipment would still hold their place in line this late in the game. My friends and I — having stuck it out the whole time — proudly trampled over abandoned gear and finally got on the chair.
The first risk had paid off. Solar Coaster did open, the roughly 70 cm of snow that had accumulated by that point enveloping skiers and snowboarders alike in its depths.
Investor Tip 3: On powder days more than 35 to 40 cm deep, keep your budget for the steeper slopes. Don't get stuck flailing on the flats.
It was time for another decision: lap back to Solar Coaster or opt for the quicker turnaround of the Jersey Cream chair? I'm personally inclined to the latter, but everyone has their strategy. It wasn't long before the masses had arrived at mid-mountain and the waiting game began again, this time with a slow, but sure, shuffle through the corral.
The Joker wildcard of Blackcomb is the Crystal Ridge Express. The pre- 2013-14 season, fixed-grip, three-seater which stood in its place for decades was always a sure bet. It was out of the wind and its turtle speed kept vertical-value hunters at bay. Now, the high-speed quad is exposed to ridge wind, making it hard to predict whether it will open or not on the blustery days such as Jan. 20. I've made the right call many times over the years to leave the mess of Jersey Cream behind and line up in hope of a surprise Crystal opening. Alas, I didn't make that call on Jan. 20 and bent to peer pressure to revert to the far glades towards 7th Heaven.
Investor Tip 4: Trust your instincts on powder days. Consider the reward of being in the first 50 people as opposed to the first 1,000, but be ready to walk away empty handed.
It wasn't until later that day that I saw phone footage of the panicked charge when Crystal Ridge Express opened. The green light triggered a literal Jersey Cream Stampede, skiers and snowboarders alike skating madly, like their lives depended on it. The rush across the flats then funnelled everyone into a Chinese Downhill to the intermediate (but not very wide) Crystal Glide run. Concerns of personal safety were jettisoned in favour of getting the goods before everyone else.
Herd mentality is one of the main causes of stock market crashes with investors getting swept up in public opinion and not looking at the facts. It isn't quite as black and white on a Blackcomb powder day, but it always seems to be the experienced few who profit the most from higher-risk bets.