The sun has barely risen, but the usual suspects are already milling around the front of the corral.
The ex-racer, dressed in slim and obnoxiously bright outerwear, stamps too-tight plug boots and shakes out cold from armoured hands. A sleep-deprived local quietly suffers through a hangover, earbuds blasting something resembling drum and bass. A couple of young seasonal-worker roommates jabber about the gnarly line they so deftly skied the previous day, oblivious to eyes rolling around them. Still uncaffeinated, the rest of the early birds stand content in their silence. With 25 centimetres of fresh snow overnight, the wait will be worth it.
Groups begin to appear, taking turns for toilet breaks and coffee runs. A lone anxious skier keeps checking her phone to see why her friends aren't there yet. Bodies now bursting from the corral, new arrivals curse their own tardiness before sauntering to the end of the line. Loud greetings, fist bumps and small-talk conversations begin to hum over the crowd of hundreds. Two friends spot one another over the swelling sea of helmets and quietly salute, acknowledging each other's ditching of work this powder morning.
Realizing his own mistake of sleeping in, a snake lurks on the flank, scanning for prime lift-line real estate. His first attempt is deflected by a trio of stubborn locals intent on maintaining ski-town canon. A second attempt succeeds and the snake wriggles into the line while distracting surrounding parties with his best impression of a Jedi mind trick.
The lift operator nervously pretends to look busy, well aware of the hundreds of eyes constantly glancing in his direction. A loud beep emanates from the lift shack and the vanguard stirs. The action ripples throughout the mob, conversations halting as everyone panics and clicks into their skis.
False alarm. The throng collectively groans like a slumbering beast, patience wearing thin by the moment.
Boredom sets in. A dissident lobs a snowball towards the front, provoking swift retribution. A hailstorm of snowballs ensues. The rank-and-file snoweaters lower goggles and raise hoods, keeping one eye on the sky as they wait for the barrage to subside.
Ski patrollers arrive covered in powder, ignoring friendly jeers as they upload for one more round of avalanche control. It can't be long now.
The cold has bitten into fingers and toes, a painful numbness spreading throughout the extremities. (Should have worn that extra layer.)
Hoots and hollers sound again, this time with more conviction. The lift operator proudly lifts the barrier and the vanguard triumphantly loads the first chair. A frustrating, frigid morning of discomfort evaporates instantly. The gridlock releases and conversations immediately turn toward second and third run strategy.
The ride up couldn't feel any slower, but the unload station is in sight. The first-chair champions speed under the still-ascending audience, waves of powder washing into the air with every turn. Cheers erupt down the line from quad to quad. Well earned.
Finally we're at the top. The crew gives a smiling nod to the waiting lifty as they stand and slide down the unload ramp. Final gear checks. One crew member yells at the rest to hurry up, conscious of encroaching riders that threaten to plunder the fields of white gold for themselves.
The procession falls in, picking their way down the ridge where gnarled chutes await full of snow. Two chutes, four skiers. There's no time for debate, so a single round of rock, paper, scissors ensues for each pair. The victors bellow in glee as they drop in, their runner-up friends not far behind.
Powder-covered pie holes greet each other at the bottom of the chutes. More gloved fist bumps before the group carries on to the next set of terrain features.
She's never gone this big, but if there were ever a day to try, it's this one. The remainder of the crew—one who launched the cliff and two that didn't—stand off to the side with phones out and gently offer their encouragement.
"You got this," she says to herself, echoing her friends before taking a deep breath and sliding off the cliff.
For a split second, time seems to slow down. But it's over in a blink. She touches down on her feet, snow from the soft landing bursting into the air. She holds it together for a few metres before succumbing to her minute imbalance tumbling through the powder. Her friends let out a collective gasp. Before they can slide over to pick up the pieces, her dusted helmet surfaces with an ecstatic screaming laugh. The crew surrounds their hero of the day, high fives making the rounds.
Vince Shuley wrote this story after an exemplary powder day in Whistler. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org or Instagram @whis_vince.