Opinion » Maxed Out

The season that was ...



Cold and dry. That's the way it started. Cold and dry. We rolled past Halloween with gardens still, well, if not in bloom, at least still largely green. We watched the jet stream drive storms south of us. Watched Washington state get blanketed in snow while we waited ... waited ... impatiently.

American Thanksgiving came and went in its usual, bountiful excess and with some small fraction of the mountains open to slide, cheek-to-jowl, on man-made snow. C'est la vie. It shall come.

Newbies were jumping out of their skin. Some were mining the shavings behind the ice rink at Meadow Park and hauling it to wherever they could to make features they could slide on. Jaded old-timers just shrugged their shoulders and marked the passage of time, trying to get used to toking without concern, now that pot was finally legal.

People far and wide make plans for their Christmas ski holidays. Epic Pass holders, Eprechauns—I was going to dub them Eppers, rhymes with lepers, but my former Pique editor, Bob Barnett, had, as usual, a better idea—couldn't wait any longer and since the old country, Colorado, finally had early season snow, gave Whistler a pass. Their loss; our gain, since the snow finally came, and came, and came in early December, after they'd booked their flights and hotels, giving us a number of days of relatively peaceful sliding between Christmas and New Year's.

When the snow came, the hills came alive ... with the sound of joyous abandon. Since Vail Resorts had an absence of groomers—self-inflicted wound—we had the heretofore unknown experience of skiing the now abandoned Springboard in snow above our knees. Alright, it wasn't a completely unknown experience, but you had to tap into the collective memory and recall the earliest years of Blackcomb to remember a time Springboard, the mountain's premier intermediate run, experienced that much snow without a grooming machine whipping it into submission.

That Springboard was empty was due, largely, to the fact that skiing it is a pain in the keester without the Solar Coaster lift to ride back up. If you kept a keen eye out, you could cut across to the new Catskinner chair about two-thirds of the way down and if you hadn't noticed the Breakdown Gondola wasn't yet in operation, you could head down and grow older waiting at its midstation, something any number of people did even after it opened.

Yes, it was an, uh, interesting year. And it's become even more interesting now that Blackcomb is shut down for the season and, like days gone by, we're able to ski Whistler's north-facing slopes in the spring. And, of course, we excitedly look forward to what Whistler Blackcomb's (WB) communications director refers to as a "unique" package as spring springs forward and mountain bikers begin plunging downhill.

Once the bike park opens on May 17, we'll be able to load the same lifts as them. And sightseers. Yes, WB is graciously recreating that old Coke commercial where we all hold hands and live in peaceful harmony—bikers, skiers, snowboarders, sightseers, the whole world's welcome. While I'm not certain it's actually unique, I can understand how WB sees this as an asset ... while others may see it as a pain in the asset.

All of this palaver is, of course, by way of introduction to the perennial question: What kind of season was it?

It was, and this is unique, three kinds of seasons. Yes, for the first time ever, I find it impossible to give a highly subjective, totally meaningless, single number from one to 10 to rank this season.

The first element, and crucial it is, to understanding this season is the weather. It was cold. For the most part relentlessly cold. I wore my heaviest ski jacket more days this year than I have in the decade or so I've owned it. Heck, I even broke down a few days and wore a muffler to keep my lower face from falling off.

The upside of cold, coupled with the mean jet stream tricks, was we only experienced a smattering of those juicy, Hawaiian days of liquid snow to the top. While my clothing barely kept me warm, it kept me warmer than my rain gear keeps me dry and that is a huge benefit of cold. So let's call this aspect of weather an 8.7. Cold good; wet bad.

The second element was, just to make things more confusing, also weather, specifically, snow. There wasn't much of it. Fortunately, it always seemed to come in the nick of time, that time being about the time I was beginning to think positive thoughts about a warm-weather holiday, something I find almost as appealing as planning a dinner party for a group of lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, veganish teetotallers.

While the moguls grew larger and more precipitous, off-piste became more challenging, and I had to keep reminding myself of the grammatical difference between the phrases, "Skiing is good" and "The skiing is good." Skiing was good, just to make things more confusing. This may have had something to do with almost breaking my foot off at the ankle before the season started and being relegated to mostly groomed runs until some time in January, but it was fun to get reacquainted with carving skis and tight turns.

So while last season won't be remembered for its snow, it wasn't bad, not bad at all. Call it a solid 7 with hope for something better next season.

The final element that made this season's scoring uniquely more complex was operations. Operations was, at times, so shaky it led me to research whether there had ever been a scoring system that allowed negative numbers! From the inauspicious start—and stop—of the new gondola, to the inability to get even lifts that worked running within a reasonable time after opening, to grooming that was, at times, more like a game of hide and seek, operations seemed singularly challenging this season. I don't know why and, really, it's not important since I'm certain even Vail Resorts' centralized management would prefer operations to be better than they were.

The highly touted new lifts seemed to have something to offend everyone. There were comical, spontaneous cracks about the centre-pole foot rest (sic) on the new Emerald Express Chair, especially from snowboarders, several of whom required orthopaedic intervention after a couple of rides trying to find a way to use them comfortably. There was at least one gentleman who dubbed the approach to the new Catskinner Chair as the Death Crossing for Children, due no doubt to the confluence of family-zone beginners, park rats and people who could ski the bumps of Upper Catskinner.

So, with optimism for the future, let's call ops a 3 ... ironically, Vail Resorts' comfortable ranking among North American skiers. Hmmm....