Specs that Matter
Location: Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
Vertical: Whistler Mountain, 1530 Meters. Blackcomb Mountain, 1565 Meters.
Snowboardable Terrain: Whistler, 4575 acres. Blackcomb, 3414 acres.
Runs: More than 200 combined.
Longest Run: Approximately 11 km/7 miles on each mountain.
Lifts: 38 combined with 4 gondolas, including Peak-to-Peak gondola.
Average Snowfall: 10.22 meters/402 inches per year.
For years, enthusiasts have described Whistler Blackcomb as a snowboarder’s paradise. I had the chance to confirm these claims on a February, 2007 and a November, 2009 visit to the resort. As an east coaster, I’m simply amazed by the mountains and general terrain available for snowboarders in the west and Whistler definitely does not hold back in that sense. The scenery you get to see on the drive up from Vancouver to Whistler is absolutely breathtaking and the closer you get, the more this beast begins to materialize in the distance. Two gigantic mountains, hundreds of crossing trails, powder-covered peaks, bowls the size of small African countries, and enough snow to make you weak in the knees. Seeing all this from a distance, you’re hands are already touching your feet in an effort to buckle up non-existent bindings.
Intrawest didn’t hold back in designing the village either. Tons of hotels, restaurants, shops, and cafes with that special “Christmasy” feel to it all in an effort to get you to spend as much money as possible while you’re there. Whistler has been described by many as one of the most expensive resorts in the world. In many cases that is true depending on when you plan on going and where you stay while you’re there. If you live on the east coast, some European destinations might work out to actually cost you less.
The conditions during both of my visits to Whistler varied drastically. In February of 2008, my week-long stay had been mainly icy due to the lack of snow while we were there and several days before we had arrived. As big as the mountains were, without any snow it was definitely hard to enjoy any of it. Whistler prides itself in giving riders the “backcountry” experience in a way that is safe and accessible but when there’s no snow, you’re limited to groomed paths down the bowls and even in the middle of the runs (most trails are very wide).
My visit this November was a completely different experience. Whistler received record-breaking amounts of snow during this month and there was more than plenty of it during my two-day stay. There was a lot more traffic than what you would expect for November but with the buildup to the 2010 Olympics, you could tell it was only going to get worse and worse. A lot of people I talked to came to get their annual visit out of the way before things got really crazy.
My first day was on Whistler mountain and it was absolutely phenomenal! Conditions were amazing, temperature was just right, sun was out, and there was powder everywhere. I wanted to catch some of the virgin powder on the bowls behind Whistler mountain nice and early, so I took the Whistler Village Gondola, did my first run down to the Harmony Express chair and took it all the way up to the backside of the mountain. From there, I went across the peak on Burnt Stew Trail to the Flute Bowl gate, unstrapped, and start doing the hike up the edge of the bowl. Here’s part of the trail map that shows part of the Whistler backcountry I’m talking about:
The hike to the peak of Flute Bowl will definitely be the workout of your life but it’s a small price to pay for the feeling you’ll get when you plough through meters of snow coming down this thing. I must have spent at least 20-30 minutes S-lining down because it’s hard to not just stop and marvel at the view and scenery around you every once in a while. Looking around you and not seeing anyone, makes you feel as if you’re truly isolated in the backcountry with nothing but you and your snowboard. The bowl ends at a tree line and eventually you have to unstrap and do the hike with other boarders and skiers back to Burnt Stew Trail, which leads you back to the Harmony chair. After a few more times up and down the backcountry of Whistler mountain using the Symphony and Harmony chairs, I had an early lunch at one of the restaurants on the front side before some more riding!
The first half of my day was spent mainly exploring the top half of Whistler’s alpine terrain where most of the bowls and open areas are. With powder on the ground, it’s hard to limit yourself to conventional trails when you can stay up there and do whatever you’d like basically. The bowls on the front face are just incredible to go down, particularly Whistler bowl if you catch it all the way from the peak. Out of all the resorts I’ve been to, nothing has come close to the bowls you can hit up in Whistler without a helicopter or snowcat ride.
Eventually when my quads and calves started to give out a little from all the steep slope action, I found myself funneling down with a lot of other boarders into the highly-acclaimed Nintendo terrain parks. As far as parks go, it’s all here folks. From tiny jumps and rails to ramps leading into 485-foot vertical drops. The Jolly Green Giant lift services this area and you can easily find yourself spending the whole day doing this very varied and impressive park.
Later on into the day, I checked out some of the standard trails on the lower half of the mountain. Even in this respect Whistler outclasses other resorts with wider trails and a lot more features that would appeal to riders. The terrain is a lot more natural and you really get that feeling as if you’re just boarding through wilderness rather than through a resort.
Conditions were very good the second day with some snowfall overnight. I decided to start out the day on Blackcomb mountain even though I prefer Whistler much more. I knew I had the option to go back to Whistler with the resort’s relatively-new peak-to-peak gondola that takes you between both mountains. The name of the gondola may be a little deceiving here since the gondola really takes you closer to halfway through both mountains. I started the day making my way to Blackcomb Glacier, essentially the backside of Blackcomb mountain where all the backcountry action is. The terrain here is a little choppier than Whistler’s backcountry and more difficult to get through because it’s steeper in some areas and more rocky with less open areas. Nice and early on a powder day, you can catch some spectacular riding here though.
I didn’t even bother with the lower half of Blackcomb before heading back to Whistler around mid-day. I really wanted to do Whistler bowl again and spend some more time in the gigantic park.
The Other Stuff
The Whistler resort is generally expensive but very comparable to other resort destinations. You can get by here on groceries from some of the stores in the village or on fast food from your typical chain restaurants. Fine dining will cost you but you should try at least one of the specialty restaurants there. There’s always something going on in the village in terms of shows, festivals, parties, and concerts. A lot of the staff and locals will tell you what’s good to do on any particular night.
When comparing to a lot of the popular destinations in Europe, the U.S., and Canada, it’s hard to say that really anything beats Whistler Blackcomb. With so much terrain for a North American destination, a lot of it has been tailored for snowboarders alongside skiers making sure you get the ultimate experience. Some popular resorts I’ve visited in Europe are much more attuned to the needs of skiers. With the wide open spaces, powder bowls, and features found all over these two mountains, it really is a snowboarding mecca.
The downside to this resort is definitely the cost. Airfare and accommodation will cost you an arm and a leg. A good way to get good prices is to simply book early. Some people I’ve come across had their trips booked for more than a year before their actual visit. That being said, my two experiences have shown me that this resort is something when there’s snow and something else when there isn’t. As much as you might save on booking early, you might end up going in a time with really shitty conditions. An alternative would be to stay in Vancouver and take a shuttle up to Whistler early in the day and back into the city later at night.
Here are some photos from my ’07 trip to Whistler with some friends…
I’m sure you may have a lot of questions about Whistler that I didn’t even touch on here. If you do, please don’t hesitate to contact us!