On my annual trans-Canada drive back east that kicked off Sept. 13, I also got my annual dose of winter-in-September in Rogers Pass — a strange brew of snow on the peaks, flakes in the air, ice pellets on the road, and, oddly, smoke pouring up from the valleys of the Purcells. While an unusual concatenation, it still had the usual effect: it made me start pondering the upcoming season. And for some reason, those thoughts of skiing redemption also wandered back into my personal history with the resort.
The first time I came to Whistler, which I think was in late February 1977, none of us knew anything about the place. Friends and I had driven over from Banff, where we'd been wintering amongst the icy fingers of the Rockies, hoping to visit a university friend who was ski patrolling (naturally, he still lives here). We'd made our way across from Alberta, down the sketchy Fraser Canyon and through Vancouver in our crappy, broken-down van, then up the coast along an even sketchier Highway 99 and into the cloud-bound valley. We parked outside the UBC youth hostel, took cold showers, and skied for a day on sloppy snow in fog so thick we could barely see each other let alone the mountain. We left having no idea where we'd been or what we skied, but with a strong sense there were discoveries to be made.
My next few times in Whistler weren't much different. Telemark racing on the Canadian and North American circuits in the late 1980s, I attended a couple of races held on Blackcomb, both of them in howling snowstorms, again leaving me devoid of sensations or vistas. All I knew was that you had to ride lifts an awfully long way to get to the race courses, which were still on mid-mountain runs lined by trees. I had yet to make it into the alpine when, in 1996, I finally caught a sunny break in Whistler on assignment for Powder magazine. And what I saw, experienced and skied in those five days left the kind of wondrous impression on me usually reserved for childhood first-time-encounters with The Tooth Fairy. Which is fitting because now, having lived in Whistler some 18 years, I still feel like a child every day I'm on the mountain — excited, with occasional trepidation.
On that trip, I saw Whistler in all its glory. It had just snowed 50 centimetres, so powder was everywhere you cared to look for it. And look for it I did, with my new friends from Extremely Canadian showing me the ropes of in-bounds and out-of-bounds stashes. Not only were the views from the top of both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains outstanding and unique in North America, but so were the runs, the glacier skiing, the sheer scope and diversity of terrain, and the easily bootpacked off-piste gems. I returned again and again over the next few years, making many more friends, exploring further each time, skiing ever-deeper snow (I think I travelled here four times over the epic winter of 1998-99), and enjoying everything listed above. I also got a sense of the community here and its connections to the rest of global ski culture, which as a chronicler of the sport created a flowerbed of context from which I still draw on to this day.
But there was another thing about Whistler that hooked me — and it might have been the decisive one. The vibe here in those days before the millennium was different than at any other resort on the continent, or perhaps anywhere else in the world, as a critical mass of ski bums, pros of every discipline, filmers, photographers and other creative types literally poured into the place at the same time both the big-mountain and progressive freestyle scenes of "new-school skiing" were exploding around the edges of snowboarding's zenith. It was as if a microcosm of the entire snowsports universe had been planted in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia and grown quickly into its centre. The skiing was great and the events unbeatable, but it was that evolving critical human mass that convinced me I wanted to live here and feed off that same energy. Today, the anticipation before every season and before every big storm feels vaguely similar to the anticipation I used to experience about making a trip here, or even moving here.
Today when I ski in a fog or a storm by myself, I still get lost poking around on the mountain. These peaks with all their options and secrets and moods still seem awfully big after all this time, and I still find something new to ski every time I go out. But I don't mind now if I can't see, because I know what I'm surrounded by. And somehow, that information, that constant sense of potential discovery that is Whistler, makes the wait for a new season every bit as novel as that first reveal.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.