Tag Archives: winter sports

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!


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.


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!



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.).


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



Highlights include the top of Whistler Peak.


Finding a place to make fresh tracks in the snow.


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



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Winter’s MidPoint (in the Central Rockies)


Although we talk quite frequently about “seasons”, the concept of a season is actually far more abstract in nature than the manner in which it is typically discussed.  Consider this: while the most frequent discussions of seasons refers to a portion of the calendar year, a “season” can also mean a series of sporting events, TV shows, or plays, or even a chapter in someone’s life.  I’ve personally been involved in “seasons” that have lasted as short as three weeks, as well as “seasons” that persisted longer than a decade!

Even when referencing a “season” in its most common manner, to reference a portion a year, there is significant variance in how it manifests.  For a lot of people “seasons” means winter, spring, summer, and fall.  However, there are parts of the world where the year is far more accurately broken out into a wet season and a dry season.  Others even create seasonal references based on specific considerations, such as “mud season” or “typhoon season”.  In a way, every group of people has developed their own way to reference seasons, based on their lifestyle, location, and interests.


While some groups of people have defined specific dates for the start and end of each season, for most, a season is more of a feeling.  There are plenty of years, where, on a day like March 25th, someone in Minnesota may feel as if it is still winter for them while someone in South Carolina may feel firmly into the Spring season.  Likewise, year to year variance has made November in Colorado feel like winter in some years, but feel like early autumn in others.

For winter as a season, just like a season for a sports team, or a chapter in one’s life, it matters less when the technical mid-point is defined.  It is more significant to reference a middle section, or a “hey-day”.  This is the period of time after most people have fully adjusted to the season, but before the end is in sight.


In the Central Rockies, this is the time after most skiers and boarders have worked out their early season jitters, (and the resorts have gotten pretty much all of their trails open, which usually takes until January) but before spring becomes eminent.


It is at this point in the season, where, I believe, skiing actually becomes more fun!  First of all, snow conditions get better.


As winter progresses, the snow pack gets deeper and more consistent.  It becomes far less likely to find bare spots, which often form in the areas where skiers and boarders make turns around trees, or in open areas where wind can blow a lot of snow around.


Also, as winter progresses, temperatures begin to warm (making it more pleasant), and the sun stays out a bit longer.  There are plenty of places in the Central Rockies, like Vail, where, according to local CO-OP data, December is actually the coldest month of the year.


With mountains blocking the afternoon sun, in December, many of the ski trails become completely shaded sometime around 2:30 P.M.  By the final weekend in January, the sunset is about 45 minutes later, and the sun angle is higher, adding roughly an additional hour before the trails become completely shaded.

This is the start of the best of the best, the best time to ski at some of the best ski resorts in the world.  The trails are all open, the sun is shining upon us, skiers and boarders are doing their best skiing and riding of their lives, and towns are celebrating with additional winter fun.

When a “season” is a positive one, like a fun ski season, a good music or sports career, or even a very positive experience at a University or a job, there really is nothing like that period of time in the middle.  Everything starts to feel right.  We begin to move about our days and activities with a greater efficiency, and, in some cases make a lot of progress in a short period of time.  Memories are being created, and, in most cases, we are making gains in the all important battle for our own individuality and/or sense of self worth.  We’re at our best!


But, alas it cannot last forever.  The happiest and the saddest, the most reassuring yet the most unnerving thing about the world is the fact that all things have a beginning and an ending.  Even the greatest of experiences must come to an end, as, well, continuing to do the same thing will eventually lead to stagnation, and a creeping feeling of dissatisfaction.  The only thing we can do in periods like this is be greatful that the “season” we are currently in is an enjoyable and/or rewarding one, and do our best to make the next one positive as well.

Winter Fun in the Mountains


Winter fun in the mountains is about more than just skiing and snowboarding.

People who take wintertime vacations are typically drawn to one of two categories of vacations; Vacations people take to escape winter, and vacations people take to enjoy winter.  The former includes tropical resorts and beach towns in places where a 45 degree evening is considered grounds for remaining indoors.  The later, of course, typically involves mountains, with skiing and snowboarding being the most common activities.

In North America, the winter fun season lasts generally from the later part of November through the end of March.  Based on anecdotal evidence (the people I know and have talked to), the peak time to visit the mountains in winter occurs sometime around the middle part of February.  By this particular part of the year, enough snow has generally fallen to produce some of the best snow conditions of the year.  Also, temperatures have recovered a bit from their mid-January lows, and are a bit more pleasant.

With all of the visitors, not only from all over the country, but from all over the world, other events, and other activities are bound to follow.  In the middle of winter every year, the Village of Breckenridge hosts the International Snow Sculpture Championships, which features snow art from artists from various places around the world (from local artists, to places as far away as Argentina).  These sculptures can commonly be viewed the final week of January through the first week of February.

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Events in the middle part of the winter also include family activities, Mardi Gras celebrations, and random parades through the village, such as this one at Keystone, which features Riperoo, the mascot for Vail Resorts, which owns eight of the top Western U.S. ski resorts in California, Colorado, and Utah.

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And the events that take place in the ski villages throughout the peak part of the ski season are not just limited to family friendly activities.  With the number of visitors that come to the area, high class villages like Aspen, Jackson, or Vail, are able to draw some fairly well known acts to preform during the evening.

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Those with enough energy can ski all day long, and party all evening in many of these western villages (although there might be a limit to how drunk you can get in Utah).  There is even a T-shirt commemorating this type of day.

While the ski resorts themselves are the main draw, and the main reason there are as many visitors to the mountains as there are at this time of year, wintertime activities are not limited to only the resorts and the villages that support them.

As I wrote about last year, there are plenty of outfitters in the mountains that offer dog sled tours.


Many of these outfitters also offer snowmobile rentals and tours, and many are quite close to ski resorts and resort villages.

Due to geographical features, it is not hard to find hot spring throughout the West.  One of the most popular hot springs in the country, Strawberry Park, is located in Steamboat Springs, less than 10 minutes from the ski resort.

And, with frequent spells of warmer weather, it is quite possible to find a day, even during the peak part of ski season, where it is possible to just take a hike in the woods (that is, if you can handle hiking over a little bit of snow).


It is a story repeated in many different places throughout the country.  In any place where you have large amounts of visitors, many other activities and events, often catering to all different kinds of people, pop up in response.  This is why we see tons of miniature golf courses, boat tours, and even night clubs pop up in places like Orlando, “Down-East Maine”, and the Wisconsin Dells.  In each case, a primary draw (like water parks, or ocean front) brings people to the region, and then the other amenities follow.  However, in many of these places, the area has become quite congested with people.  Those who have either sat in traffic, or spent a small fortune on strips such as International Drive in Orlando, or the Smoky Mountain Parkway in Pigeon Forge, will refer to places like these as “tourist traps”.

But are these places “tourist traps”?  It is, after all, quite easy to spend a small fortune in Vail right after sitting in major traffic on I-70 to get there.  However, despite the similarities between the “tourist traps” of the East and the mountain resorts of the West, there are still some major differences, with the primary one being the balance between natural and man-made attractions.  Theme parks such as Disney World and Six Flags are completely the creation of humans.  And, although we have lifts to carry us up the mountains, and a nice pool to cover the Hot Springs, the main attractions here are still the natural features that first brought us here.  So, until a roller coaster pops up adjacent to Park City, mini-golf courses start to line South Lake Tahoe, and Dillon Reservoir becomes covered with bumper boats, the mountain west has not become a “tourist trap”, at least not in the same way as the “tourist” traps had developed in these other places.

With that being said, it is still important to remember that there is way more to wintertime in the Rockies than skiing and snowboarding.  And, while there are some visitors who do little else but ski on their visits to the mountains at this time of year (spending most of their remaining time in their condo), there are others that take part in a lot of other activities and attractions in the area.