Walkers wander through Whistler's winter wonderland.
What is it about the Olympics that turns perfectly rational folks into sportcrazed fools? For me, it's the theme music. I hear those opening drums and I'm ready to take on anything. Even the Dave Murray Downhill.
Not a trail for the faint of heart or weak of quad, the Dave Murray will host the men's alpine events when the Winter Games come to Whistler, B.C., in 2010. Fueled by gold medal dreams, the Olympians will streak down Whistler Mountain at breakneck speeds. My descent, on the other hand, was a break dance of serial recoveries. Still, when I tune in to watch the Games, I'll be able to boast: "Hey, I skied that!"
Visit this winter, and you can ski it too. Or make your plans now to watch those Olympic racers up close and personal when the time comes.
Developers created Whistler, an alpine resort town tucked into a pocket of the Coast Mountain Range two hours north of Vancouver, with an eye to holding the 1968 Olympics there. That bid failed, but the place kept building and bidding, and finally Whistler-Vancouver got the nod to host the world in 2010.
The town has used those 40 years to perfect its welcome. More than 2 million people come to Whistler every year to relax, shop, and play: skiing in winter, and biking, hiking, golfing, and boating in the warmer months. Three villages form an easy-to-navigate miniature city at the base of the resort's namesake peak and adjacent Blackcomb Mountain. Connected by ski lifts, roads, walkways, and bus service, the villages offer accommodations that span the budget spectrum from hostels and condominiums to boutique inns and a Five Diamond hotel, the Four Seasons Resort. Burger and java joints mingle with gourmet restaurants and ethnic eateries, and pubs and nightclubs abound. Some 200 stores cater to grocery shoppers, souvenir hunters, extreme sports practitioners, and fine art connoisseurs.
The twin peaks of Blackcomb and Whistler deliver humongous bang for the buck—a whopping 8,171 skiable acres, the most of any resort in North America. The expanse includes every type of terrain, from sun-soaked bowls to gladed cliff drops. Blackcomb's 5,280-foot drop is the second highest on the continent, after Revelstoke Mountain Resort's 5,620, also in British Columbia. (Whistler's 5,020 isn't too shabby, either.) You'll have more than enough room to explore, even if you visit during the Olympics, when less than 10 percent of the runs will be closed to the public. On the free mountain orientation tour (offered daily) my guide told me that, having skied the resort nearly every day of the season for 10 years, he still had plenty to discover.
So do I, yet I keep returning to favorites such as the wheeeee–here–we–go Peak to Creek cruise, a 3.4-mile swoop down Whistler's full vertical. It wraps around the summit, delivering views of the iconic Black Tusk rising from a wilderness of snowy peaks, then ebbs and flows to Creekside, the village at the base of the Olympic runs.
Creekside is sure to be frenzied during the Games, but typically the hub of the hubbub is Whistler's Main Village, a pedestrian-oriented network of culs-de-sac and squares at the foot of Whistler Mountain. A lighted walkway through the woods connects Main to the smaller Upper Village at Blackcomb's base.
The architecture mimics the landscape. Peaked and gabled roofs cap stone-and-timber buildings sheltering restaurants, hotels, condos, galleries, and shops. Enlivening the outskirts are Millennium Place, an arts and performance venue, and the new Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, devoted to the traditions of local First Nations peoples. Whistler's bustling arts scene earned it the designation Cultural Capital of Canada for 2009.
The deck of the Garibaldi Lift Company Bar and Grill, located above the Whistler Gondola's base terminal and overlooking Main Village, is the place to people-watch. It's also one of Whistler resident Rob Boyd's favorite haunts. Over burgers washed down with Kokanee beer, the former Olympian and current speed coach for the Canadian women's team told me he scored his most satisfying and memorable World Cup victory on the Dave Murray Downhill. But Boyd, the father of two young boys, says that despite its racing trails, Whistler is actually the gentler of the two peaks, with wonderful beginner terrain. "Blackcomb is steeper and more extreme," he says. "It's better suited for thrill seekers."
Whistler's thrills aren't limited to the slopes. On a Ziptrek Ecotour I played Flying Wallenda, whizzing from treetop to treetop, sometimes 200 feet above the ground. My harness was suspended from cables crisscrossing Fitzsimmons Creek, which flows through the coastal rain forest separating Blackcomb and Whistler mountains. I grew more relaxed with each zip, and finally got brave enough to look down at the dense forest edging the creek to admire the filtered sunlight dancing off the waters raging below. Unlike some of my fellow zippers, I didn't push my limits by twisting upside down.
Our guide pointed out the site of the new Peak 2 Peak Gondola bridging Whistler and Blackcomb. The trip between the two mountains is an 11–minute journey into heaven—or, for the vertigo afflicted, hell. At 1,427 feet, the lift is nearly as high above the valley floor as the Empire State Building is tall, and the 2.73–mile span is longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. Two of the 28 gondola cars have glass floors. Gulp. Ah, but the views! Gaze out across distant peaks, or look down and perhaps glimpse a sled careening along Blackcomb's Olympic sliding track.
After indulging in so many of Whistler's exhilarating ways to exhaust oneself, by the last night of my stay I was beat. I collapsed into my seat at the Sushi Village restaurant. No one gave me a medal—I settled for a combo plate and a lime sake margarita—but as I contemplated the Dave Murray Downhill, I still felt like a champ. And I vowed that next time I would waltz down it with grace. Cue the Olympic theme.
Photography by Leanna Rathkelly/Tourism Whistler
This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up the Western Canada & Alaska TourBook and the Alberta & British Columbia map. For more information, contact Tourism Whistler: (888) 869-2777, www.tourismwhistler.com. OLYMPICS AND PARALYMPICS Whistler and Vancouver will host the XXI Winter Olympic Games Feb. 12–28, 2010, and the Paralympic Games Mar. 12–21, 2010. For details, visit www.vancouver2010.com. Remaining event tickets go on sale to individuals in February. In the United States, tickets may be purchased through the CoSport division of Jet Set Sports: (877) 457-4647, www.cosport.com. GETING THERE Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler, the Sea to Sky Highway, is undergoing a $600 million upgrade due to be completed by next fall. Buses travel between Vancouver, Vancouver International Airport, and Whistler year-round. The Whistler Mountaineer train runs between Vancouver and Whistler from late April to mid-October: (888) 687-7245, www.whistlermountaineer.com. Seasonal helicopter and floatplane service is also available.