Owen Owens, age 91, wears bib number 1. At 11 a.m. on a crisp Friday in high winter, he tips out of a steep race start into the treeless pitches of Whistler’s high alpine, kicking off the annual Peak to Valley Race. Onlookers clack their poles, whoop and cheer. Owens is lean, agile, and practiced—a 30-year veteran of this race—but what lies ahead is no small challenge: 179 giant slalom gates dot a 5.5 kilometer course dropping more than 4,500 vertical feet from the Saddle on Whistler Mountain to the finish line at Dusty’s Bar.
“It’s a long time to be skiing without a stop,” says Chris Milne, 59, as Owens flickers past. “The fast guys will do it in under five minutes, but for us slow guys it’s a straight eight-minute run.”
The next day at 1:40 p.m., the last racer, Luca Mai, 19, will finally get his crack at the course. Between the first racer and the last, the eldest and the youngest, a total of 320 competitors of both genders will trip the timer to see how fast—or even whether—they can finesse what is reputed to be the longest giant slalom race in the world.
But leg burn and bragging rights are not what make the Peak to Valley Race so special.
“Peak to Valley is part of the culture of Whistler,” says Sebastien Fremont, Manager of Events for Whistler Blackcomb. Little known outside the region, the event is an annual highlight for the mountain’s ski community, and a celebration of things distinctively Whistler.
Started in 1984 by Dave Murray, a renowned Canadian downhiller who became Whistler Mountain’s ski school director, Peak to Valley marries signature terrain to grassroots local ski culture in a one-of-a-kind challenge that emphasizes camaraderie and love of the sport. “Every age and every capability skis the same course, and everybody says they’re having a great time,” says Peter Young, who launched the event with Murray and kept it going after Murray’s early passing from cancer. “Skiing is a lifelong sport. That was always Mur’s thing.”
Racers compete in mixed gender teams of four. Race divisions are calculated by the team’s cumulative age. Fun is the main thing, but strategy helps. “Stay on the shiny side and try not to dump speed,” Milne advises. “Stand up before the roll-overs, take a deep breath and get your gas back,” says another man. “I don’t know what the trick is,” admits an athletic woman in her early 40s, “but I keep hoping this will be the year I finally ski faster than the 70 year olds."
That’s easier said than done. This reporter clocked in at 7:34:23. Owen Owens missed a gate, hiked up to keep his team from disqualifying, and still finished with a time of 8:07:36. Robbie Dixon, recently retired from the World Cup downhill circuit, laid down this year’s fastest individual time at 4:56:67.
“It was a blast!” says Dixon, 31, likening the Peak to Valley leg burn to the World Cup’s longest downhill at Wengen. “But knowing what I know now about the course, I think I could have gone faster.”
At Saturday night’s loud and lively post-race banquet, almost everyone says exactly the same thing. “So much fun, but I could have gone faster!” There’s always next year—whether here or at the handful of other one-of-a-kind competitions that pair what’s most distinctive about a mountain with what’s most essential to its skiing community’s spirit.
Susan Reifer Ryan lives outside of Whistler, B.C., where the emotional scars of her mediocre college-racing past did not keep her from enjoying the Peak to Valley race.