ROGER COX Gallery images

White Stuff

Published: The Scotsman: (Section: TSMAG) 04 Mar 2006

DON’T look at the trees, look at the gaps between the trees,” advises snowboard pro Jim McMahon, my guide to the off-piste delights of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. “If you start looking at the trees … well, that’s when you start hitting them.” And with that he adjusts his goggles, carves a lightening-quick turn around a conifer and disappears into the woods. The rental board I’m riding – a Burton Baron replete with cushy Mission bindings – is worth the best part of GBP 500. Foolishly, I opted not to take out the insurance policy I was offered in the shop, so any mistakes could be costly. Still, as I set off after Jim I decide that if I do find myself out of control and heading straight for a tree trunk I’m going to make sure my board makes contact before I do.

Whistler Blackcomb is consistently voted the best ski location in North America and it’s surely the closest thing earth has to a snowsports paradise. It’s due to host a large chunk of Vancouver’s Winter Olympics programme in 2010, and with good reason. Between them, the two neighbouring mountains that make up the resort offer an immense 8,171 acres of rideable terrain served by 18 chairlifts, three gondolas and 12 tows. Both can boast an hourly uplift capacity of almost 30,000 skiers, but because the place is so vast it rarely feels crowded.

You want to learn to ski or snowboard? There are huge “go-slow” areas set aside especially for you, not to mention an army of friendly, well-qualified instructors at your beck and call. Cruisey pistes more your thing? There are so many intermediate runs here it would take years to get bored of them, and they even provide grooming maps to show you where to go for the smoothest rides on any given day.

Airheads will be in their element, with four parks and two halfpipes to choose from, while folks who feel the need to refuel regularly between runs can take their pick from a grand total of 17 mountain restaurants.

It is as an off-piste destination, though, that Whistler Blackcomb really comes into its own. Both mountains offer a truly mouth-watering array of bowls to drop into on powder days and, as demonstrated by Jim, alongside every straightforward-looking piste there’s a demanding tree run just itching to teach you the true meaning of the term “bark sandwich”.

And that’s not all: last year Intrawest, the company that owns the resort, opened up a 1,100 acre area known as Flute Bowl just behind Whistler. You still have to hike for about half an hour from the top of the Harmony Express chair to get there, and the hike out at the bottom takes another 15 minutes. The key thing, though, is that the area now counts as “in-bounds”, so if something goes wrong you won’t end up having to part with a small fortune when the ski patrol turns up to haul your sorry ass off the mountain. You get a real backcountry experience, in other words, but with less of the potential pitfalls of true backcountry skiing or boarding.

Day one starts out overcast but bright, and Jim decides we should head straight to Flute Bowl. It’s the snowiest January in Whistler since records began 25 years ago, and there has just been another 20cm dump, yet, incredibly, although there are around 15,000 people on the mountain today hardly any of them seem to have found their way to this enticing part of it. On the slog up to the top of the bowl we encounter no more than a dozen wheezing souls, and by the time we reach Jim’s favoured take-off spot we only have a trio of tentative skiers for company.

After an icy drop-in and a short traverse to the left, we suddenly find ourselves up to our knees in snow. We pause for a moment to look down – a steep wall of untracked powder lies directly beneath us, tapering into a silent valley in the distance. The plan is to put in a few turns then traverse to the right, scoot over the top of a rocky bluff and drop down into what Jim assures me will be another slope similar to the one we’re looking at now.

It’s a real “pinch me” moment. A little more than 24 hours ago I was sitting in the main lounge at Gatwick Airport, beset on all sides by screaming children; now I’m surrounded by some of the best snowboarding terrain I’ve ever seen. Trying not to think too hard about how cheap air travel is killing the planet, I pick a line a little to the right of Jim’s and, as I start to gather momentum, I swear I can hear my board purring with every turn.

Having already handed over a fair bit of their hard-earned cash just to get to Whistler, many people then proceed to pay serious money to experience this kind of perfection, either by booking themselves a place on a heli-skiing trip (from CAN670/GBP 335 for three runs) or joining a Snowcat tour (CAN450/ GBP 225 for six to eight runs). If you know where to go, though, and you get lucky with the conditions, you can score all the powder you want for the much more modest price of a lift ticket.

Then again, if you don’t know where you’re going, things can go very wrong very quickly. On my second day I get a chance to explore Whistler on my own, and within about an hour I’ve lucked into more deep, untracked powder at a spot called Back Bowl. Then, joining the queue for the Harmony Express with the intention of giving the Flute Bowl another try, I get talking to a local snowboarder called Jeremy. He kindly offers to show me some out-of-the-way runs he knows, and, swayed by visions of more virgin snow, I agree to come along for the ride.

The first time I get an inkling that Jeremy might not be entirely sure where he’s going is when we pass a sign that says “DANGER: CLIFF AREA”. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”, I ask. He pauses for a moment, peers down over a rocky ledge and says “well, I’m gonna go for it”. Common sense dictates that I should simply turn around and hike back up the way we’ve come; politeness and national pride, however, dictate that I should shut up and follow him.

Bad move. For a hundred metres or so we sideslip down a steep, narrow gully without too much difficulty, but then the gully becomes more of a chute. It’s too narrow for snowboards, so we take our boards off and keep going on foot, clinging on to whatever rocks and tree branches we can find. Eventually Jeremy comes to a halt about 15 metres beneath me, where the chute seems to disappear into thin air.

“How’s it looking?” I ask. “Ah, bad,” he says, “can we climb back up?” With some difficulty I turn around and look up. Between us, we’ve managed to strip away all the fresh snow from the slope above, leaving nothing but bare rocks and ice. It’s not really the kind of mountaineering project you’d choose to undertake with a snowboard tucked under one arm and soft, squishy snowboard boots on your feet. “No way,” I tell him, “why – what’s it like down there?” There’s a pause. “Ah, it looks really bad,” comes the reply.

It is not a pleasant moment. After a short, slightly strained conversation we come to the conclusion that the only way out is down and end up performing protracted, involuntary gymna- stics routines over what can best be described as uneven terrain. Neither of us is seriously hurt, but we ride down to the ski shop at the nearby Roundhouse Lodge (to replace lost gear) feeling a little wiser and a lot humbler.

If you want to be humbled at Whistler Blackcomb, there’s really no need to go exploring out of bounds. Simply head over to Blackcomb Mountain and take on one of the double black diamond runs that start at the top of Spanky’s Ladder, a short, sharp climb up an icy staircase from the top of the Glacier Express chair. Garnet, Sapphire, Diamond and Ruby Bowls will test the best, although if you are thinking of attempting any of these descents, make sure you plan your route carefully before you go.

Alternatively, there’s a stomach-churning spot called Blowhole located at the top of Blackcomb Glacier. Take the Showcase T-Bar to the top of Horstman Glacier and then follow the marked trail. You’ll know you’re in the right place when all the people ahead of you start veering off on to the right-hand side of the path, away from the near-vertical drop to the left.

If, like me, you decide that Blowhole is “one for next time”, however, simply carry on past it and on to the glacier proper. As a rule, the further across the glacier you’re prepared to trek, the more likely you are to find fresh snow, so it’s worth going that extra 100 yards. But whatever you do, make sure you stop for a breather when you get to your take-off spot: it’s a thigh-shredding 11.5km from the top of the glacier to the Excelerator Express chairlift at the bottom. sm

FACT FILE WHISTLER BLACKCOMB

How to get there

Zoom operates regular flights from Glasgow to Vancouver. For more information, visit www.zoom.co.uk

WHERE TO STAY

Roger Cox travelled to Whistler with Inghams. Stay seven nights at the four-star Summit Lodge on a room-only basis, with prices starting from GBP 602pp, based on four sharing. Prices include direct return flights from Glasgow to Vancouver with Zoom and resort transfers. Visit www.inghams.co.uk

AND THERE’S MORE

A six-day adult lift pass starts from GBP 174; ski and boot hire, GBP 65; snowboard and boot hire, GBP 79.

Scotsman reader holidays offers a seven-night break to Whistler departing 15 April from GBP 899. Tel: 0845 310 3030 (quote Scotsman) or visit www.holidays.scotsman.com

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