On Thanksgiving Day, the snow on the toughest section of Whistler’s Dave Murray Downhill course is especially firm. It’s undoubtedly pillow-soft compared to the mandated Olympic running surface, but by any normal skier’s measure, it might as well be a marble dance floor, frozen over and tilted at a ridiculously steep angle.
The transition from the upper mountain’s soft-pack is an abrupt surprise. Most of us end up slip-sliding down the midmountain raceways’ steepest sections, skis and boards perpendicular to the fall line. A few seasoned locals meet the transition with something approximating grace. They manage to hold their edges enough to bend into the sweeping contours and wicked g-forces that make Whistler’s men’s and women’s downhills among the best in the world.
Overhead, puffs of dragon’s-breath clouds blow across craggy summits that rise well above treeline. Their highest reaches hint of early winter alpenglow.
Fifty years ago, when the idea of Whistler was born from an Olympic dream, the tilt of these big Canadian mountains, the abundance of world-class terrain and the stunning landscape were much the same as they are today. In the intervening decades, however, much of the rest of what makes Whistler both so distinctive and so exceptional has changed. What was a rugged fishing retreat known for its rainbow trout and wilderness beauty is now a sprawling, cosmopolitan mountain megaresort on the scale of Zermatt, Val d’Isere and other ski kings of the Alps.
Moody and magical, seductive and exasperating, urban and untamed, Whistler is a complex place with a rich history and a vivid personality—a place that takes a long time to know well. What one experiences in a day or a week or even a season is only a sliver of its whole. While it can seem at times like an artificial land of leisure coated with a glossy (and Aussie-accented) vacation veneer, Whistler is, in fact, a small mountain town that has evolved step by step into a global ski city, powered in large part by its locals and their love of the mountains. Luxury residences shelter visitors such as Richard Branson or Saudi princesses and their white-gloved retinues—but scrappy squatters still live in shacks secreted in the bush.
Whistler in 2010 may defy easy summary, but it has come of age. And at its core remains one constant: the brawny, snow-blessed mountains where Olympic visionaries first staked their dreams.
In 1960, a group of Vancouver businessmen who loved to ski returned from the Winter Olympics at Squaw with an idea as wild as the one that built that resort: They would develop a site in British Columbia to host the 1968 Winter Games. They ran reconnaissance first by air and then by foot, eventually selecting a Coast Mountain summit located about 70 miles north of Vancouver in a rugged region without utilities or roads.
London Mountain (eventually renamed for the whistling marmots that frequent its heights) rose above an idyllic summer resort community called Alta Lake, which had been popular with vacationers since 1914, when a young couple from Maine opened a fishing camp. By the time the skiing dreamers showed up in 1960, the valley held a smattering of summer camps, a few trappers and loggers, a sawmill or two, a small farm, a rail line that dropped summer visitors at the lakefront and little else.
The visionaries, led by a Norwegian immigrant named Franz Wilhelmsen, formed Garibaldi Lifts Limited with the twin goals of hosting the Winter Olympics and building lifts on London Mountain. Willy Schaefler, who had designed Squaw’s Olympic runs, did the feasibility report. His opinion: Whistler was “a perfect ski mountain,” with terrain for all levels of skiers. A sign went up: “Canada’s Most Modern Ski & Tourist Centre to Be Constructed Here. Lots For Sale.” Shares in the lift company were sold for $500. Grenoble, France, won the 1968 Olympic bid, but the dream lived on.