There is a bit of fire amid the snow as the battle for big mountain bragging rights heats up.
In the early '90s, Whistler/Blackcomb, located 75 miles north of Vancouver, popped to the top of the resort ratings that had been dominated by Aspen and Vail.
Snow Country, Skiing and Ski magazines all rate the resorts, some categories by reader poll, others by staff experts. But the category of "favorite" or "best" all-round resort falls into the poll area.
Of a possible 27 firsts in the '90s before this year, Whistler/Blackcomb came out on top 11 times. And this year's winner is Whistler/Blackcomb again, at least in Ski and Skiing magazines.
Whistler/Blackcomb's prominence caught some skiers by surprise when it first hit the top in 1991, but it is on everybody's radar now.
And why not? Whistler/Blackcomb is a big hit.
Big smiles everywhere.
So it was time to find out if Whistler/Blackcomb was just a huge resort or a whole lot more.
Although often simply called Whistler, the resort comprises two mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb) and three base areas (Whistler Village, Upper Village and Creekside).
The drive from Vancouver along the Sea to Sky Highway to the resort area is unmatched for beauty and grandeur. Once out of the city, the mostly two-lane highway is sandwiched between soaring hemlocks on one side and open vistas of the glistening Pacific on the other. About halfway to the resort, the ocean views are replaced by more alpine terrain, with mountain peaks poking up above the evergreen shroud.
The gorgeous scenery of the 2 1/2-hour drive should help reinvigorate visitors from Chicago whose senses have been dulled by the four-plus hours aboard a plane to Vancouver. Wrap up your first day with a walk around Whistler Village and dinner at one of the numerous restaurants. There is a cuisine and price range to suit every taste.
I have spent more than 25 years in the West (primarily Colorado) searching for the perfect snow on the perfect mountain in the perfect resort. No perfection yet, but I have developed several standards for measuring ski areas.
How does the mountain compare with the glade skiing in the Colorado resort of Steamboat, 25 inches of downy powder in the Back Bowls of Vail, the bumps of Ruthie's Run on Aspen Mountain (Ajax Mountain when I first skied it) or the challenge of Taos?
Does the resort offer a wide choice of food and night life? Are there economical places to stay and eat as well as temples of haute cuisine and prices?
It was time to find out how Canada's decorated two-mountain complex measured up to the top resorts in the U.S.
Whistler and Blackcomb originally were two separate ski areas. Whistler is the older; it opened in 1966, built in an old logging area by a group of Vancouver businessmen. In 1980, a subsidiary of Aspen Skiing Corp. opened Blackcomb on the slope facing Whistler as a competitor to the older area.
For the next 17 years the two mountains expanded their facilities and their skiable terrain. Despite their different origins, the mountains turned out to be remarkably similar. Whistler's trails are rated 25 percent expert, 55 percent intermediate, 20 percent easiest. Blackcomb's are 30 percent expert, 55 percent intermediate, 15 percent easiest.
Whistler Mountain has two bowls, Sunset and Whistler, to satisfy the powder hounds. Blackcomb offers glacier skiing on Horstman and Blackcomb Glaciers.
In 1991, Ski Country magazine named the two mountains the top ski resort in North America while they were still technically competitors.
It wasn't until the 1997-98 season that the two resorts actually were under the same management. By that time, the two-mountain area already had been named the top resort by Ski, Skiing and Snow Country magazines eight times.
The two mountains comprise more than 7,000 acres of lift-served, skiable terrain. In comparison, Vail's 1999-2000 expansion will bring its skiable terrain to just under 5,200 acres.
The Whistler/Blackcomb complex has more than 200 trails with at least one trail longer than 7 miles on each mountain. The entire four-mountain Aspen complex has 320 trails; Vail has 174.
Since I was staying in what is called the Upper Village on Blackcomb Mountain, I skied that mountain on my first day. The morning brought clouds and light snow to the mountains already covered with near-record bases (116-inch base from more than 300 inches of snow when I visited in January). The temperature was minus 1 celsius; that was 30 fahrenheit, but get used to seeing metric measurements everywhere. Breaks in the clouds allowed lift riders glimpses of Blackcomb Peak more than 5,700 feet above.
Two high-speed quad chairlifts whisked skiers two-thirds of the way up the mountain in just 23 minutes. A web of runs fanned out below, almost all of them intermediate cruisers.
The knots of skiers at the top of the lift dissolved quickly as they dispersed among the 18 runs that are fed by the Solar Coaster Express lift. Two of the runs take skiers to another lift that feeds another 10 runs on the north side of the mountain.
Skiers yo-yo-ed up and down these runs as the snow continued to drift down through the trees, the fresh flakes making them forget they couldn't get to the top of Blackcomb.
Above these tree-sheltered runs, the weather was radically different. The wind was howling and the snow blew horizontally. The lifts to the top were closed; the boom of the avalanche guns reminded skiers there is a vast portion of the mountain still waiting to be explored. Little did I suspect that the storm would keep the top of the mountain closed for this day and the next two days and four of the five days of my visit.
But for the first day, there was more than enough terrain to delight any skier without a trip to the top.
Runs such as Ridge Runner, Springboard and Zigzag gave the skiers ample time to get reacquainted with their skis and the feel of whistling down the slope. And Stoker Bumps and Freefall drew the skiers who couldn't find enough challenge on the intermediate trails.
At the end of the day, skiers sipped beers or margaritas at the base of the mountain and marveled at how they didn't find themselves stopping on the mountain gasping for breath because of lack of oxygen. One of the few small things about Whistler -- its altitude -- paid early dividends. The peak of Blackcomb is 8,000 feet; the bases of several resorts in Colorado's Rockies are higher than that.
Midwestern skiers who frequently are hit by altitude sickness their first few days in Vail or Aspen find that is not a problem at Whistler. The lower altitude and proximity to the ocean also meant warmer temperatures. That apres ski drink could be enjoyed outside in the middle of January even if the sun wasn't shining.
I checked the restaurants in the Upper Village area that night and my choices ranged from burgers to Thai to steak to French with a Mediterranean flair. Thai One On turned out to be a fine choice and easy on the wallet.
Whistler Mountain was the next day's target, and the results were much the same: miles of runs, acres of fresh snow and a storm on the top of the mountain. The avalanche guns were playing the anthem of the week.
The fastest way up the mountain was the eight-person Whistler Mountain gondola, one of three lifts at the resort. It took about 10 minutes of waiting time and another 26 minutes on board.
The two-thirds of the mountain that was open had plenty of skiing for the day. At least 13 trails spread out from the gondola dropoff at the Roundhouse, and they feed perhaps 30 others. That is enough skiable terrain to dwarf some of the smaller Colorado resorts. Still, it is starting to feel a bit like a trip to Vail without being able to get into the bowls: This is all great, but where is the piece de resistance?
And despite the similarity of the type of terrain, each mountain has its own personality. Blackcomb's runs seem narrower and more protected. The heavier tree cover makes Blackcomb the better mountain in poor weather or very flat light. Whistler's broader, open runs encourage more speed, and (I discovered later in the week) a sunny day makes the snow softer and more forgiving.
Whistler's runs also seemed less predictable; with more varying pitches and the turns more irregular. The expert runs frequently ran parallel to the intermediate and fed from the same source. Skiers need to watch the trail signs carefully to avoid sliding down a slope that exceeded their ability.
The Whistler Village area is much livelier than the Upper Village. It has more restaurants, more bars and far more stores. The food choices here range from the inescapable McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken to exquisite dining rooms such as Araxi or Val d'Isere.
Reservations are needed for favored places like Bear Foot Bistro and Araxi, but the Keg proved you don't need reservations to get a great steak.
Entertainment choices abound, ranging from the soloists at Brasserie des Artistes to the loud bands featured at the Longhorn Saloon.
Day 3 brought conditions that skiers dream about: 11 inches of snow overnight and a bright blue sky.
Lift-line times soared as the locals joined the vacationers trying to get up the mountain to cut fresh tracks through the powder. My plan was to sample the runs on both mountains before the snow was chopped up and while the sun was out.
Quickly up Blackcomb and over to the area called Seventh Heaven. This massive, open snow field offers runs to suit every ability level, and it is so big that there is fresh snow for everyone after a major storm. Intermediate skiers can rip down runs such as Cloud Nine and Southern Comfort, then hop on the Seventh Heaven quad chair for a return trip to the top. Xhiggy's Meadow is a not-too-difficult black diamond, and Couloir Extreme is just what its name implies.
That "big" term comes back into play here: Seventh Heaven is about 800 acres of snowy playground. The Big Burn at Snowmass is 464 acres.
The morning was so much fun I regretted the need to sample Whistler in the sunshine, especially since I had to go all the way to the bottom to get over to Whistler Mountain.
After a quick, early lunch at the Garibaldi Lift Co. at the base of Whistler Mountain, I discovered the day's only drawback -- the lift lines. Since the top had been closed for three days, the primary lifts to the peaks were jammed; at 1:30 p.m., the Harmony Express quad chair had a 35-minute wait. Whistler/Blackcomb brags that it has the largest number of high-speed quad lifts (12) in North America, but even this huge capacity staggered under the volume of skiers who all wanted to ski the untouched powder at the top.
I finally reached Whistler Peak about 50 minutes later and acres more of terrain, so much that even the crowds hadn't been able to cut up all the fresh snow.
From the top of Whistler, most of the runs are expert trails, but a good intermediate skier still has a couple of options. The Burnt Stew trail is an easy run that winds down the backside of the mountain. Skiers forgo thrills of speed and bumps for breathtaking views. Nonetheless, an intermediate will find more options on Seventh Heaven.
On the morning of the fourth day of my visit, the avalanche guns were booming again. Although the top of Whistler was closed (and would stay closed for two days), the top of Blackcomb was open -- but just barely.
Whiteout conditions prevailed, and the snow stung my face as I skied down toward the tree line. When I dropped into the shelter of the trees, the wind disappeared and the snow changed to fat flakes that softened the groomed runs among the pines.
About halfway down the mountain, conditions shifted again. The snow stopped, but a cloud shrouded the slopes. The temperature dropped just enough so the moisture from the cloud coated the runs with a layer of ice. The chatter of my skis over the slope made me remember learning to ski on the icy slopes of Indian Head in the Upper Peninsula.
Another 1,000 feet down and the cloud yielded to hazy sunshine and much warmer temperatures. The packed snow on the bottom portion of the run had begun to turn to slush.
In all my years of skiing, this was a unique run, dropping almost 5,000 feet in the course of 6 miles and going through four radically different sets of weather and snow conditions.
As I rode back up on the lift, I spoke with another skier who turned out to be a long-time resident of Vancouver who owns a vacation home in Whistler. These were not unusual conditions, he told me, especially for January when the waves of storms come through the area.
(The prodigious amount of snow that forced the closure of the top of the mountains during my stay -- 67 inches for the week -- is not unusual, although the '98-'99 season set a record of 55 feet. Average annual snowfall is 360 inches.)
After my fifth and final day, when with both peaks closed I went back to exploring the runs on the lower portion of the mountains that I'd missed earlier, I was ready for the question:
Is Whistler/Blackcomb the best ski resort in North America?
It is -- undoubtedly -- the greatest VALUE in skiing. The Canadian dollar was worth about 65 percent of its U.S. counterpart when I was there. That meant that my five-day, $285 lift ticket showed up later as a $191 charge on my credit card bill, and that fabulous $27 game entree at Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler Village was only $18. At Aspen and Vail, on the other hand, five-day tickets also are $285 -- but that is in U.S. dollars.
Whistler/Blackcomb also is certainly the BIGGEST resort in North America, with more lift-served terrain than Vail and Beaver Creek combined. And you can't ski from Vail to Beaver Creek as you can between Whistler and Blackcomb.
In fact, Whistler/Blackcomb is so large and has so many intermediate runs that they never are crowded, except for the proverbial herd run that haunts every ski area at the end of the day.
As for vertical drops, Blackcomb's is 5,280 feet, 2,000 feet more than Aspen and 800 feet more than Snowmass.
But then there's the snow. At Whistler/Blackcomb, where temperatures rarely fall below 20 degrees fahrenheit, it is WET. The fluffy powder of the Rockies is a rare treat, so do your thigh strengthening exercises before you go; pushing around 13 inches of Whistler powder is harder than gliding through twice that much in the Back Bowls of Vail or on High Rustler in Alta.
All in all, I'm not sure anything can live up to the amount of hype bestowed on Whistler/Blackcomb, but I didn't find anything missing.
The mountains were spectacular. The snow was reliable and deep. The night life and dining were sophisticated and varied. The prices were great.
Even with the tops of the mountains pretty much closed four out of five days when I was there, I got in plenty of skiing, both intermediate and expert slopes. Not double black diamonds, most of which were at the top of the mountain, but challenging enough for somebody who goes big mountain skiing only once or twice a season.
The geography and topography that make Whistler/Blackcomb a ski complex of huge vertical drops and monster snow depths also can create special challenges on the mountains. The mile-high vertical can foster several "micro-climates" on a single run from the top.
This variety in conditions produces great skiers among the regulars at Whistler/Blackcomb, and visitors should take the opportunity to strengthen their skills. The ski instructors know the changing conditions are tricky, and they bring an easy-going teaching style that softens all the tumbles you take.
The glad-to-help attitude seems to be everywhere in the area. With the exception of a couple of the high-end, big-reputation restaurants, egos appeared to have been left somewhere else. The fur-coated tourists share tables with the be-jeaned locals and their dogs outside such eateries as La Brasserie des Artistes.
So IS this the best ski resort in North America? It certainly is a contender.
DETAILS ON WHISTER AND BLACKCOMB
It is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Vancouver airport to Whistler/Blackcomb resort, depending on weather. All major car rental companies are located in the Vancouver airport. Perimeter Whistler Express offers shuttle service nine times a day from the airport to the resort at $66 round trip.
All levels and types of lodging are available. Rates (subject to change) are given for the start of the ski season, per room, per night, and in U.S. dollars. For the economy-minded, the Holiday Inn Sunspree ($75; 604-938-0878) in Whistler Village and the Shoestring Lodge ($54; 604-932-3338) in the Upper Village are good choices. If you want to splurge, try the Pan Pacific Lodge ($118; 604-905-2999) in Whistler Village or the Chateau Whistler Resort ($121; 800-606-8244) in the Upper Village. There also are several charming bed-and-breakfasts in the resort.
800-WHISTLER or www.whistler.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times