Tag Archives: Canada

Whistler Blackcomb: Chasing the Snow

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Changes in weather patterns can bring risks, or even hardship, but can also bring opportunities. 2017-2018, in some ways, can be thought of as a peculiar winter in Western North America. Storms kept impacting the same region over and over again. Some areas received over twice their normal precipitation, while others received less than half.

Weather cannot be controlled, and, probably shouldn’t be. It is possible, however, to make adjustments to make the most of the weather. While this was not a stellar snow year (compared to average) in places like California, Colorado, and Utah, conditions made this season a perfect time to visit North America’s largest ski resort: Whistler-Blackcomb. Located 120 km (75 miles) north of Vancouver, Whistler-Blackcomb is the 11th largest ski resort in the world.

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As is the case with many of the other largest ski resorts in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb is the result of a merger between two mountains. Once competitors, the two mountains merged 20 years ago. To connect the two adjacent resorts, they built the Peak to Peak Gondola. This 11 minute ride brings skiers/boarders between the midpoint (and fairly high on the mountain) of one mountain and the other. It covers a distance of 2.73 miles (4.4 km) over a deep valley that separates the resorts. At its midpoint, it is 1430 feet (436 m) off the ground!

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Just getting to Whistler-Blackcomb, before even reaching the mountain, is an amazing experience! The drive from Vancouver International Airport takes about two hours along highway 99 through the heart of Vancover.

There is no limited access highway that connects Vancouver International Airport to downtown. This adds time to the journey, making what should take little more than 90 minutes take closer to two hours. However, it is interesting for visitors to actually see the city. Vancouver is quite dense, with a very urban feel (as opposed to some sunbelt cities that feel more suburban in nature). The two things that stand out the most about the city are..

  1. Despite the fact that rains, on average, 161 days out of the year (notice the rain in these photos), cycling appears to be extremely popular, with bike lanes and bike shops everywhere!
  2. Literally, every nationality of food can be found in downtown Vancouver: Portuguese, Peruvian, Malaysian, you name it, it’s there!

This is followed by a drive along highway 99, also known as the “Sea to Sky” highway.

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The drive itself is quite exquisite and unique. The road winds northward, adjacent to a bay, from which tree covered islands pop out periodically on the left. On the right, the coastal cliffs are quite dramatic, and periodically rocky.

If caught while the sun is shinning, which is common in the summer but quite rare in winter, the views of the mountains can be quite amazing!

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The mountain itself is spectacular, and steep! With a 5,280 foot vertical drop, it is surpassed, in North America, only by Revelstoke Mountain, a significantly smaller resort. For comparison, Vail has a vertical drop of 3,450 feet, and there are plenty of ski resorts whose vertical drops are only a little over 2,000 feet that are talked about quite positively (Grand Targhee, Alta, Stowe, etc.).

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Ski trails at Whistler Blackcomb can be steep and long. However, there are trails of all kinds here, as to be expected.

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Highlights include the top of Whistler Peak.

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Finding a place to make fresh tracks in the snow.

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And, of course, the Dave Murray Downhill, where the downhill competition took place for the 2010 Olympic games.

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These experiences can commonly be hampered, however, by the weather. In particular, on a typical day, layers of clouds often form somewhere about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way up the mountain.

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Many skiers and boarders chose to stay either above or below this layer of clouds. Traversing through this layer of clouds is a unique, albeit stressful, experience.

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As is the case when driving through dense fog, it requires moving slowly, and it is very easy for groups of people to lose each other in this thick set of clouds. Let’s just say, there is a reason this picture was taken on the lift ride up and not while skiing down the hill.

 

Whistler Blackcomb is in bear country, and they appear proud of it! On the Peak-to-Peak gondola, the information signs, in addition to pointing out its the length, speed, and height, of the gondola ride, mentions the fact that the forest it traverses over is home to over 60 bears.

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A major part of any ski trip experience is the town, where travelers go for food, amenities, shops, and other forms of entertainment. Not all ski towns are equal, as some provide a more active and others a quieter ski experience. Whistler’s experience is definitely middle of the road with respect to the quiet and cosy vs. active and loud experience. However, there is some variance here too.

There are two parts to Whistler village, an upper village and a lower village. Both connect to the mountain via gondolas. The main village is a bit larger and more active than the upper village, with a variety of food options and even several clubs.

Outside the village, there are plenty of ski-in/ski-out resorts, which is quite convinent. As is typical of any ski town, lodging can be expensive, and finding a place to stay at the price range most people are looking for can be a challenge.

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There are some out there that wish to never have the weather, or some other kind of external event change their plans. Its an unwelcome inconvenience to have to research something new, make a different plan, spend money, and have to travel when not expected. However, sometimes these changes in plans, whether forced by weather or a different external factor, are the driver for creating new, different, and sometimes life-changing experiences.

Some would say this has been a peculiar winter, but, on a larger scale, there has always been variance in weather patterns. The average temperature is not the temperature experienced every day and the average precipitation is not the amount of precipitation experienced every year. It is normal to differ from the average, from year to year. These variations may be getting close to causing danger in some places in the West this year, but that is also fairly typical.

Whether people traveled north to experience better snow to ski on, or traveled south to get some sun, the variation in weather patterns this year, while inconveniencing many, also created its fair share of memories.

Niagara Falls: Where My Journey Begins

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For most visitors to this iconic location, Niagara Falls is the ultimate destination.  It is the place one travels to, spends some time at, and then subsequently travels home from.  When I think of Niagara’s typical visitors, I think of a family from a place like New York, that made the grueling six hour drive to get there, and will make the grueling six hour drive home.

I guess my sometimes fanatical quest to not be like “normal people”, whatever that means, is working.  I certainly do not feel normal.  My day, which began with an 1:15 A.M. flight out of Denver, involved traveling from airport to airport carrying not luggage or a back pack of sorts, but two panniers, one in each hand.

In a way my journey actually began at a tiny bike shop in Niagara, NY called Beeton’s Cyclery.

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I need to give this place a serious shout out.  I shipped my bike here.  It arrived on Friday, June 24th.  I told them I needed it by Monday, and they were able to get the bike assembled (to package a bike for shipping, the pedals, handlebars, seat, and front tire must be removed) and apply new handlebar stripping in time for me to arrive late morning Monday and start my voyage.

I brought my passport, knowing that I wanted to visit the Canadian side of the falls.  Anyone who has been to Niagara told me that the Canadian side was “better”.  I wasn’t sure what that meant.  The contrast between the two sides is quite stark.  Niagara, NY is sort of depressing.  I had trouble finding a place to grab a snack, while I gazed ahead at tall buildings and casinos on the other side.

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Still, I wanted to see the falls from the U.S. side first.  The plan was to meet up with my friends on the other side and spend the evening there.

On the American side, the view of the falls is somewhat awkward.

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Well, it is from he riverfront. There is this overlook, where theoretically the view is spectacular, but it costs like $18 to go on it, so I didn’t.

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Getting to the falls on the Canadian side involved going over the same bridge that cars travel over.  The toll for bikes is only $.50 (I believe cars is $3.50), but I still had to wait in the same traffic cars wait in to cross into Canada.

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Once I crossed the border, I realized why most of the tourist attractions, hotels, and buildings and such were on he Canadian side of the border.  By happenstance of geography, the views from this side of the river are better.

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This includes both falls that make up what is called “Niagara Falls”, the American Falls, which are on the U.S. side of the river, which splits around an island, and Horseshoe Falls, which are on the Canadian side.  Both falls are magnificent.  Horseshoe Falls is more powerful, but I actually prefer American Falls, particularly the way the water hits he rocks and sort of foams up.  Both falls are best viewed from Canada.

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I’ve always loved waterfalls for some reason.  Much like one’s taste in music or art, it is not something that can be explained.  Waterfalls just feel natural to me, they feel peaceful and even sometimes graceful.

In the world of waterfalls though, Niagara Falls is pretty much the opposite of any of the waterfalls I typically view out West.  Waterfalls in the west, such as the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, tend to be tall and skinny, falling a much greater vertical distance, but carrying much less water.  Niagara is high volume but the vertical drop is actually less than 200 feet.

I also could never imagine waterfalls in the west being as commercialized as these.  In addition to the $18 charge for getting on the overlook in the New York side, the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario is filled with every establishment one would expect to find in a tourist trap packed together at a density I have only seen in one place before; Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

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Gatlinburg, like Estes Park, is outside a popular National Park.  The hotels, mini golf, and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, are miles away from the iconic natural beauty that made those places worth preserving through the National Park system.  All of these places in Niagara Falls are within a mile or so of the falls.  In fact, one can get another perspective of the falls by riding a ferris wheel next to the mini golf course across from the laser tag.

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Tomorrow a long journey by bicycle begins.  Tonight, I get to continue to savor these falls, as they are lit up at dusk as part of a nightly illumination. This, like the rest of town, adds a man made touch to a natural phenomenon.  Some love it, some hate it, most find a way to enjoy it regardless of the opinion they expose.  As for me, my focus turns to the days ahead, for unlike most of the others watching the illumination, my journey is only beginning.