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King of the Mountain - Ski Mag

King of the Mountain

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It's a snowy Saturday morning in late January, and Whistler Village is buzzing and streaming with life. The snow started falling midweek and has only occasionally let up since. Such weather would be unremarkable here in the land of 400-inch winters, except that a rare 17-day run of unbroken sunshine came first. Now, suddenly, there's powder again, and plenty of it, and every powder-crazed nine-to-fiver within a half-day's drive has rushed to Whistler for the weekend, swelling the normally manageable late-January tourist crowds to Christmas-level heights.

You name it, they're here: Old people and young ones. Loggers and lawyers. Asians, Latin Americans and Brits. People sporting Prada and people who are pierced.

Happy vacationers are everywhere, busily getting to the business of enjoying themselves. The largest contingents hail from Seattle, Wash., and Vancouver, B.C., but there are abundant East Coast Canadians, Americans from all points of the compass, and plenty of Aussies and Kiwis, too. They stream through Whistler's nouvelle Alpen pedestrian village with all the bustle of Grand Central Station, juggling coffee, toddlers and gear, coordinating with each other on cell phones, and flowing, like a busy human river, toward the lifts.

Why Whistler? Why the throngs? What makes this place so special? There are as many answers as there are people who've had a remarkable time here. Certainly the cornerstones of Whistler's current success are rock solid: huge, stunning mountains, lots of fresh snow, standard-setting service, and a diverse and well-developed array of the proverbial something for everybody, on the slopes and off. In short, what other ski resorts only claim to have, Whistler actually delivers. And it delivers every bit of it infused with its own distinct personality: big, high-energy, gorgeous and moody. Never imitating, always innovating. Family-style in the most clean-cut Canadian way. Wicked like a sinuous pack of go-go dancers covered only in body paint. Exotic yet somehow restful. And very, very complete.

The list of what you won't find in this big mountain playland is far easier to detail than what you will. There is no hot air ballooning in Whistler. There is no place to ride a bob-sleigh or luge. There was a place to go bowling, but it closed. There is also no curling. Cultural events are on the rise, but they don't hold a candle to what's happening in Aspen. Glorious sunshine is never guaranteed in Whistler, and though it does show up quite frequently, you absolutely cannot plan your vacation around it. Most importantly, if you're looking for an undiscovered place where life is languorous, the ski slopes are nearly deserted, real estate can be had for a song and everything is infused with funky small-town charm, go elsewhere. In short, the Whistler of yesteryear (much to the chagrin of those who loved it) is long gone. Yet after five winters here, I can tell you with great certainty that Whistler's magic-that ineffable special something coursing through the entire place-remains and brings even longtime locals under its spell every day.

But on this particular Saturday morning in late January, there's too much happening to ponder topics like ineffable magic, or how big and diverse the Whistler experience is, or even whether or not swarms of humans this thick obliterate a ski experience this great. Because above all else, Whistler is an action town and there's plenty of action on tap today. World Cup freestylers are battling it out on Blackcomb. A big-time charity fundraiser is in full swing on Whistler. Aussie Day celebrations are gaining steam in the village. And with all that fresh snow up top, it's definitely a day for skiing.

On the way to the lifts, I hear the sound of music drifting through town. In true Whistler style, it's about as close to Julie Andrews as Iggy Pop. Outside the Longhorn Saloon, a large and casual group of people is singing loudly and in unison, wi Australian accents and great fervor.

It seems they are waiting for the Longhorn to open and for its infamous Aussie Day party to begin. Most are already drinking, despite the early hour. Their song carries out over the lift-bound throng. Two cute Aussie snowboard chicks striding toward the gondola grin knowingly and begin to sing along. When the crowd outside the Longhorn finishes its chorus, revelers raise their beverage cups and howl. The snow simply continues to fall.

At midmountain on Whistler, the wind is gusting strongly and the flakes are really fat. I'm with a friend who has been here nearly 20 years. We pull up our hoods and head for Franz's Meadow to see what kind of fresh tracks we can find in the trees.

Whistler and Blackcomb are best understood if you think of them like two free-standing three-layer cakes. The side-by-side peaks, which have been operating as a single ski resort since 1997, meet only in the heart of the village. Each one delivers more than 5,000 vertical feet of skiing (double the rise of, for example, Alta, Utah). Together they offer 7,071 skiable acres, more than 200 trails, 12 bowls and 33 lifts. It's a bit daunting at first, but the three-layer cake analogy helps. The top third of each peak is the high alpine, composed of huge treeless basins separated by windblown ridgelines that are encrusted with cornices, ramps and chutes. The midmountain third is where trails of all different kinds (bumps, glades, cruisers, etc.) are cut through trees. (The midmountain woods also hide all sorts of treacherous tree-skiing that locals love.) The bottom third's broad cruising boulevards bring everyone back to the base.

"It is the only European skiing experience outside of the Old Country," says Bob Nunn, 40, a successful California entrepreneur and ski fanatic who logs a solid 50 days per season. Nunn, who also has a home at Squaw Valley and a U.S. Ski Team Gold Pass, can (and does) ski anywhere in the world-but more often than not, he heads to Whistler/Blackcomb. "It's the expanse of it all," he explains. "The mountain is so varied that my 'favorite' spot is constantly evolving. Currently it's the terrain off the Peak Chair. That one chair services thousands of vertical feet and 360 degrees of aspect variability. Steep pitches, cliff ledges, trees, wide-open bowls and a high-speed chair to service it all." But, as Nunn points out, you have to know how to ski Whistler to make the most of it. "I have left fuming, uninformed buddies at the base, who were upset because of valley rain, only to call them losers at the end of the day because I skied knee-deep powder in the trees in the middle of the mountain only 2,000 feet higher."

The midmountain is a wise choice when it's blustery up top. Today, the snow in Franz's Meadow is feather-light and shin-deep. It whiffs apart quietly as we ski. My friend and I laugh out loud with delight and charge downward through the well-spaced trees. We spin a few laps midmountain, waiting for the wind to abate and the high alpine lifts to open.

By late morning, all the snowing and blowing has sent the maximum capacity Saturday crowds into the Roundhouse for an early lunch, but we're still at it and feel the wind stop. Sure enough, the Peak Chair is moving. Astoundingly, the whiteout around the Roundhouse is so thick that we are the only ones who have figured it out.

As we reach the summit the sky suddenly clears. It seems like something a fevered skier might dream. More than 20,000 skiers and snowboarders are sprinkled across Whistler/Blackcomb, searching for their own bit of sweetness, and voilà , the clouds part, the day is brilliant, and we have the Peak Chair-Whistler's finest-all to ourselves. We dive straight down the Peak's steep 1,300 vertical feet without pause, tearing big arcs through Surprise in knee-deep untracked. We skate straight onto the Peak Chair again and whoop through another round before the cloud lifts from the Roundhouse and the swarms inside wake up like bees from the hive. On our third trip up, the chair quickly fills in behind us. In less than three minutes, the line is well outside the maze. Our eyes are wild with glee as we slap high five on the chair. Whistler is Canada's Las Vegas, and we just hit the jackpot.

Twenty-five years ago, this teeming mountain resort phenomenon was barely a blip on the winter tourism radar. Its lone ski area, Whistler Mountain, was a true skiers' mountain-big and challenging, with high alpine bowls like Alta's and an abundance of midmountain tree-skiing like no one had ever seen. But the Whistler of then was slimly financed and family-run, with a tiny cluster of unassuming A-frames and a hearty hippie community at its base. Vancouver skiers flocked to Whistler on weekends as they had since the early 1960s, hazarding the treacherous gravel road. Except for a few international ski bums who heard stories they had to check out, the Vancouverites and locals were alone.

Then, in 1978, the newly incorporated town, called the Resort Municipality of Whistler, approved plans and obtained key government backing to build a central resort village. Separately, but at exactly the same time, Fortress Mountain Resorts, Ltd., got the green light to develop Whistler's twin peak, Blackcomb. The road to Whistler got paved, and the boom began.Today, Whistler is quite simply one of the most popular and successful mountain resort destinations in the world. Twenty-thousand people regularly swarm the dual mountains' massive 7,000-plus acres on any given day. The skiing itself is best compared to that in the Alps, but with efficient lift systems, friendly service and lots of snow. The resort has berths for more than 45,000 people to sleep (10,000 of those are for year-round locals) and sells out on a regular basis. Prince Charles, William and Harry spent a recent ski holiday here-not in Verbier, Klosters or St. Moritz. Bill Gates is only one of many rich-and-famous who owns a Whistler home. The local restaurants win awards, the day spas are plentiful, and the nightlife is legendary for its hipness, lovely women and decadence.

From squatters' rights to multimillion dollar homes in 25 years is big growth by any measure. The community now faces the same challenges that have faced every other resort that has held sway as No. 1-particularly the conundrum of a skyrocketing real estate market that has made it impossible for most who live and work in the community to buy single-family homes. What Whistler has not faced is the widespread Vail-style problem of "cold beds" or vacant second homes at the village core. The solution?

Innovative local real estate laws that designate that certain properties-such as the Westin Resort and other condominium-hotels-can be used by their owners (or their owners' guests) only for a total of 28 days during winter and summer and must be available for rental during the rest of the tourist season. These so-called Phase Two properties-which account for some 50 percent of Whistler's nightly rental pillows-have also encouraged development by allowing individual units in most hotels to be presold and privately owned (thus shifting building costs from developers to private buyers).

What this innovation has not done, however, is keep a lid on local real estate prices. Nor has it made putting down roots in the resort more affordable for those who actually work there. "We bought in Pemberton (20 miles north of Whistler) because we could get more for our money," explains Jill Dunnigan, 31, co-owner of Extremely Canadian, a successful Whistler-based adventure tourism outfitter. "Five years ago, $225,000 (CND) bought us a 1,700-square-foot three-bedroom, with two-and-a-half baths, a double-car garage, backyard, fireplace and deck. In Whistler we would have been in a studio or one-bedroom condo with about one-third to one-half the living space and no parking or storage.

"People can afford to live in Whistler ahe swarms inside wake up like bees from the hive. On our third trip up, the chair quickly fills in behind us. In less than three minutes, the line is well outside the maze. Our eyes are wild with glee as we slap high five on the chair. Whistler is Canada's Las Vegas, and we just hit the jackpot.

Twenty-five years ago, this teeming mountain resort phenomenon was barely a blip on the winter tourism radar. Its lone ski area, Whistler Mountain, was a true skiers' mountain-big and challenging, with high alpine bowls like Alta's and an abundance of midmountain tree-skiing like no one had ever seen. But the Whistler of then was slimly financed and family-run, with a tiny cluster of unassuming A-frames and a hearty hippie community at its base. Vancouver skiers flocked to Whistler on weekends as they had since the early 1960s, hazarding the treacherous gravel road. Except for a few international ski bums who heard stories they had to check out, the Vancouverites and locals were alone.

Then, in 1978, the newly incorporated town, called the Resort Municipality of Whistler, approved plans and obtained key government backing to build a central resort village. Separately, but at exactly the same time, Fortress Mountain Resorts, Ltd., got the green light to develop Whistler's twin peak, Blackcomb. The road to Whistler got paved, and the boom began.Today, Whistler is quite simply one of the most popular and successful mountain resort destinations in the world. Twenty-thousand people regularly swarm the dual mountains' massive 7,000-plus acres on any given day. The skiing itself is best compared to that in the Alps, but with efficient lift systems, friendly service and lots of snow. The resort has berths for more than 45,000 people to sleep (10,000 of those are for year-round locals) and sells out on a regular basis. Prince Charles, William and Harry spent a recent ski holiday here-not in Verbier, Klosters or St. Moritz. Bill Gates is only one of many rich-and-famous who owns a Whistler home. The local restaurants win awards, the day spas are plentiful, and the nightlife is legendary for its hipness, lovely women and decadence.

From squatters' rights to multimillion dollar homes in 25 years is big growth by any measure. The community now faces the same challenges that have faced every other resort that has held sway as No. 1-particularly the conundrum of a skyrocketing real estate market that has made it impossible for most who live and work in the community to buy single-family homes. What Whistler has not faced is the widespread Vail-style problem of "cold beds" or vacant second homes at the village core. The solution?

Innovative local real estate laws that designate that certain properties-such as the Westin Resort and other condominium-hotels-can be used by their owners (or their owners' guests) only for a total of 28 days during winter and summer and must be available for rental during the rest of the tourist season. These so-called Phase Two properties-which account for some 50 percent of Whistler's nightly rental pillows-have also encouraged development by allowing individual units in most hotels to be presold and privately owned (thus shifting building costs from developers to private buyers).

What this innovation has not done, however, is keep a lid on local real estate prices. Nor has it made putting down roots in the resort more affordable for those who actually work there. "We bought in Pemberton (20 miles north of Whistler) because we could get more for our money," explains Jill Dunnigan, 31, co-owner of Extremely Canadian, a successful Whistler-based adventure tourism outfitter. "Five years ago, $225,000 (CND) bought us a 1,700-square-foot three-bedroom, with two-and-a-half baths, a double-car garage, backyard, fireplace and deck. In Whistler we would have been in a studio or one-bedroom condo with about one-third to one-half the living space and no parking or storage.

"People can afford to live in Whistler and work here, but you make a lot of sacrifices. You forgo retirement savings. You drive a crappy car. You work insane hours and sometimes go on extended stints of not being able to afford anything but Kraft Dinner." Even for those who don't want to own, the market is tough. "The $10 million second homes are great for providing many of the best amenities of Whistler, like the parks, green spaces, community rec center and trail systems, but it also drives up prices so that affordable rentals for seasonable workers are scarce."

Whistler as a community has tried to make affordable housing a priority but there are plenty of people who work three jobs to cover their rent.Meanwhile resort developers-and redevelopers-all over the planet are scrambling to duplicate Whistler's success. But is Whistler a formula that can be duplicated? Does it really just come down to building a master-planned village and telling visitors what to believe about it? Many, particularly those who haven't spent much time here, think Whistler's astounding success is as simple as that. But those who have been enchanted by Whistler's magic, and especially those who have found a way to make their lives here, know there is something wholly inimitable about the Whistler mix.

On the western shore of Alta Lake, where dogs lope alongside skate skiers and the occasional slap of stick against hockey puck can be heard from across the ice, three tiny log cabins and the remnants of an even tinier shack mark the spot where Whistler's first resort developers swung off their horses and knew they'd found "the place." The reasons were amazingly simple. Here was a lush and pristine lake-dotted valley, where bears and snow geese made their homes and rainbow trout ran thick. The valley was deep and magnificent. On either side, the earth rolled and jutted upward for thousands upon thousands of feet, rising up, up, up, past treeline, into expansive high alpine meadows and then higher still, to the inspiring summits of a dozen gargantuan peaks, most crowned with glaciers. Whistler and Blackcomb, Wedgemount and Rethel, Fissile and Black Tusk and more. As great mountain landscapes go, this one was exceptional. And nowhere was that panoramic grandeur more apparent than the spot where Myrtle and Alex Phillip laid their claim, in 1911, for the site of Rainbow Lodge. Even now, it commands the best view in town.

From the quiet of 1911 to the bustle of today, one factor has remained true.The magic at the heart of the Whistler mix derives from these mountains themselves. They are so huge and awesome-rising five, six and seven thousand feet above the valley floor-that unless you see them from bottom to top on a clear day (or unless you've lived in Valdez or Chamonix) you really cannot conceive of their mass. But far more important than their size is their spirit. These are mountains that thrum with wildness and soul. And everything else follows suit.

After a late lunch in a near-empty Roundhouse, we strap on our transceivers, grab our packs and head to the top of Little Whistler Peak. We check the patrol advisory, then skate out through the backcountry gate into the easy-access wilderness of 481,000-acre Garibaldi Provincial Park. The first hump is called Piccolo, an avalanche-prone crest that rises above Whistler's Symphony Bowl. As we're skinning up, thick white clouds quickly descend. We stop and wait, knowing the backcountry is too dangerous to attempt in this kind of disorienting soup. We stare into the whiteness, stymied, until we notice a bright spot up high.

We creep toward it, up and around Piccolo's shoulder, where, in a flash, the heavens part for the second time that day. In a breath, a circle of gigantic peaks and glaciers surround us, vast and quiet under a crystal clear sky. Dragon's breath clings reluctantly to a few lower slopes. A raven banks silently over our heads. From behind Blackcomb Peak, the full moon begins to rise.

By the time we're on top of Flute, eveerything is bathed in the surreal rosy hue of alpenglow. We check the snowpack for safety, then glide over a roll into a steep, virgin expanse of heliski-style snow. The powder is thigh-deep, bouncy and light. It baps up into our faces as we dive in. We fly down, down, down, flowing like cascading water over the contours of the mountain, hearing only the whoosh of snow being parted by our skis. Once we're well into the trees, we stop to catch our breath and let the tingles of bliss subside. No one else is around. The full moon casts ever brighter shadows in the forest, as we pick up the Singing Pass Trail and begin the seven-mile glide home.

Back in the village, things are teeming. Every après joint in town-from the Cinnamon Bear and its comfy easy chairs to the Dublinh Gate and its Guinness pints-is S.R.O., and restaurants are filling up, too. At the Longhorn, Aussie Day has taken a turn for the worse. Outside, a scantily clad blonde girl straddles a scraggly guy, pinning him to the wall as they make out. Two very drunk girls try to comfort a third one who is sitting on the ground, inconsolably weeping. Across the way at Sushi Village the wait is more than an hour, even for regulars like us.

We throw our skis over our shoulders and start heading through the village to Tapley's, where we can get pub food without any fuss. Families and couples stroll up and down, up and down, stopping in shops and restaurants, laughing, throwing snowballs, looking relaxed. Soon the snow will start falling again, families will return to their hotel rooms, and Whistler's famed DJs will take over the night. For now, the full moon simply continues to rise. work here, but you make a lot of sacrifices. You forgo retirement savings. You drive a crappy car. You work insane hours and sometimes go on extended stints of not being able to afford anything but Kraft Dinner." Even for those who don't want to own, the market is tough. "The $10 million second homes are great for providing many of the best amenities of Whistler, like the parks, green spaces, community rec center and trail systems, but it also drives up prices so that affordable rentals for seasonable workers are scarce."

Whistler as a community has tried to make affordable housing a priority but there are plenty of people who work three jobs to cover their rent.Meanwhile resort developers-and redevelopers-all over the planet are scrambling to duplicate Whistler's success. But is Whistler a formula that can be duplicated? Does it really just come down to building a master-planned village and telling visitors what to believe about it? Many, particularly those who haven't spent much time here, think Whistler's astounding success is as simple as that. But those who have been enchanted by Whistler's magic, and especially those who have found a way to make their lives here, know there is something wholly inimitable about the Whistler mix.

On the western shore of Alta Lake, where dogs lope alongside skate skiers and the occasional slap of stick against hockey puck can be heard from across the ice, three tiny log cabins and the remnants of an even tinier shack mark the spot where Whistler's first resort developers swung off their horses and knew they'd found "the place." The reasons were amazingly simple. Here was a lush and pristine lake-dotted valley, where bears and snow geese made their homes and rainbow trout ran thick. The valley was deep and magnificent. On either side, the earth rolled and jutted upward for thousands upon thousands of feet, rising up, up, up, past treeline, into expansive high alpine meadows and then higher still, to the inspiring summits of a dozen gargantuan peaks, most crowned with glaciers. Whistler and Blackcomb, Wedgemount and Rethel, Fissile and Black Tusk and more. As great mountain landscapes go, this one was exceptional. And nowhere was that panoramic grandeur more apparent than the spot where Myrtle and Alex Phillip laid their claim, in 1911, for the site of Rainbow Lodge. Even now, it commands the best view in town.

From the quiet of 1911 to the bustle of today, one factor has remained true.The magic at the heart of the Whistler mix derives from these mountains themselves. They are so huge and awesome-rising five, six and seven thousand feet above the valley floor-that unless you see them from bottom to top on a clear day (or unless you've lived in Valdez or Chamonix) you really cannot conceive of their mass. But far more important than their size is their spirit. These are mountains that thrum with wildness and soul. And everything else follows suit.

After a late lunch in a near-empty Roundhouse, we strap on our transceivers, grab our packs and head to the top of Little Whistler Peak. We check the patrol advisory, then skate out through the backcountry gate into the easy-access wilderness of 481,000-acre Garibaldi Provincial Park. The first hump is called Piccolo, an avalanche-prone crest that rises above Whistler's Symphony Bowl. As we're skinning up, thick white clouds quickly descend. We stop and wait, knowing the backcountry is too dangerous to attempt in this kind of disorienting soup. We stare into the whiteness, stymied, until we notice a bright spot up high.

We creep toward it, up and around Piccolo's shoulder, where, in a flash, the heavens part for the second time that day. In a breath, a circle of gigantic peaks and glaciers surround us, vast and quiet under a crystal clear sky. Dragon's breath clings reluctantly to a few lower slopes. A raven banks silently over our heads. From behind Blackcomb Peak, the full moon begins to rise.

By the time we're on top of Flute, everything is bathed in the surreal rosy hue of alpenglow. We check the snowpack for safety, then glide over a roll into a steep, virgin expanse of heliski-style snow. The powder is thigh-deep, bouncy and light. It baps up into our faces as we dive in. We fly down, down, down, flowing like cascading water over the contours of the mountain, hearing only the whoosh of snow being parted by our skis. Once we're well into the trees, we stop to catch our breath and let the tingles of bliss subside. No one else is around. The full moon casts ever brighter shadows in the forest, as we pick up the Singing Pass Trail and begin the seven-mile glide home.

Back in the village, things are teeming. Every après joint in town-from the Cinnamon Bear and its comfy easy chairs to the Dublinh Gate and its Guinness pints-is S.R.O., and restaurants are filling up, too. At the Longhorn, Aussie Day has taken a turn for the worse. Outside, a scantily clad blonde girl straddles a scraggly guy, pinning him to the wall as they make out. Two very drunk girls try to comfort a third one who is sitting on the ground, inconsolably weeping. Across the way at Sushi Village the wait is more than an hour, even for regulars like us.

We throw our skis over our shoulders and start heading through the village to Tapley's, where we can get pub food without any fuss. Families and couples stroll up and down, up and down, stopping in shops and restaurants, laughing, throwing snowballs, looking relaxed. Soon the snow will start falling again, families will return to their hotel rooms, and Whistler's famed DJs will take over the night. For now, the full moon simply continues to rise. ute, everything is bathed in the surreal rosy hue of alpenglow. We check the snowpack for safety, then glide over a roll into a steep, virgin expanse of heliski-style snow. The powder is thigh-deep, bouncy and light. It baps up into our faces as we dive in. We fly down, down, down, flowing like cascading water over the contours of the mountain, hearing only the whoosh of snow being parted by our skis. Once we're well into the trees, we stop to catch our breath and let the tingles of bliss subside. No one else is around. The full moon casts ever brighter shadows in the forest, as we pick up the Singing Pass Trail and begin the seven-mile glide home.

Back in the village, things are teeming. Every après joint in town-from the Cinnamon Bear and its comfy easy chairs to the Dublinh Gate and its Guinness pints-is S.R.O., and restaurants are filling up, too. At the Longhorn, Aussie Day has taken a turn for the worse. Outside, a scantily clad blonde girl straddles a scraggly guy, pinning him to the wall as they make out. Two very drunk girls try to comfort a third one who is sitting on the ground, inconsolably weeping. Across the way at Sushi Village the wait is more than an hour, even for regulars like us.

We throw our skis over our shoulders and start heading through the village to Tapley's, where we can get pub food without any fuss. Families and couples stroll up and down, up and down, stopping in shops and restaurants, laughing, throwing snowballs, looking relaxed. Soon the snow will start falling again, families will return to their hotel rooms, and Whistler's famed DJs will take over the night. For now, the full moon simply continues to rise.

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