Note: This page was written in Feb. 1999.
People have been encouraging us to go skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb ever since we moved to Redmond. We finally went, so here's a summary of our 2/13-20/99 trip. "I" or "me" below refers to Dave.
Whistler is about 125 km north of Vancouver, BC. It's a 5-6 hour drive from Seattle, depending on how long it takes to get across the border and through Vancouver. The drive is fairly pleasant, and the segment from Vancouver to Whistler is very scenic, assuming the weather cooperates.
There are two ski adjacent ski areas: Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb. Lift tickets are good at both areas and run about $CN 58 (Canadian) per day or $CN 324 for 6 out of 7 days, which is what was included in our package.
The operative word for both areas is gigantic. Both areas have over 3,500 acres of terrain and over 5,000 feet of vertical drop. By way of comparison, Alta has 2,200 acres and 2,020 vertical feet. Blackcomb's lift capacity is 29,112 skiers/hour, and Whistler's is 26,295 skiers/hours. The Whistler gondola alone can move 2,650 skiers/hour. Compare that to Snowbird's Tram, which can move 750 skiers/hour (assuming 6 trams/hour). There are a total of 31 lifts, including 3 gondolas and 10 high-speed quad chairs.
The base elevation is 2,214 feet, and the peak elevations are 7,494 (Blackcomb) and 7,160 (Whistler). The weather on the top parts of the mountains can be completely different that at the bases. Indeed, it's apparently common for it to be warm, wet and even raining at the base and cold, dry, and snowing up high. One day (Wed.), it drizzled at the base and was quite cold at mid-mountain. It snowed 5-10 cm almost every day (or night). It can also be bitterly cold and windy on the upper mountain, which closes the upper lifts. The visibility can also be poor. We had one day when the Peak Chair at Whistler opened late. It's interesting that the peak elevations, which are well above tree line, are below the base elevations of Alta (8,530') and Snowbird (7,900').
There are about 115 hotels, lodges, and condos with over 5,200 rooms. Needless to say, it was very busy during the President's Day week.
In a word: fantastic! We skied 3 days at each area, and stayed on the mid- and upper mountain (above about 3,300 feet). Both areas have every kind of imaginable terrain; for details, see the trail map (see also http://www.skimaps.com/).
At Blackcomb, the best terrain is off the highest lifts: the Glacier, Jersey Cream, and 7th Heaven high-speed quad chairs. There are also two T-bars, Showcase and Horstman, which access, respectively, the Blackcomb Glacier bowl and some expert runs around Secret bowl. Almost all of the express quad lifts rise about 1,500 to nearly 2,000 vertical feet, and thus they access long runs.
We spent quite a bit of time on the runs off the Glacier and Jersey Cream lifts, which access bowls, bumps, and cruisers. The Glacier chair and the Showcase T-bar gets you to the Blackcomb glacier, which is a open bowl on, well, a glacier. It's intermediate skiing and very scenic. Like nearly all of the 12 bowls, this one is hugemuch larger than, say, Peruvian Gulch at Snowbird. We skied it after about 10 inches of new snow, and it was terrific; we easily found some pitches of untracked powder. The only downer is the road out: It's 2.9 miles from the bottom of the bowl back to the Excelerator chair. Thus, the entire circuit requires riding 2 chairs and a T-bar.
The Glacier express also accesses Spanky's Ladder (after a hike), which leads to four gigantic, steep, northeast-facing bowls that drop onto the Blackcomb glacier. These bowls were similar in spirit to Alta's Backside (Yellow Trail, Greeley), but bigger and with a lot of "cliff" signs. Of course, the run out is the same as above. The Glacier chair and the Horstman T-bar (and the 7th Heaven chair) access what appear to be the steepest runs on Blackcomb in the Secret Bowl area. These runs also had some of the best snow. One, Couloir Extreme, reminded me of Great Scott at Snowbird, but it was easier to get into and longer.
The 7th Heaven chair accesses a large set of northwest-facing runs, including another bowl. This lift may rise nearly 2,000 feet, and much of the terrain is above tree line. The terrain served by this lift is larger than some entire ski areas. The snow here was a bit different that, say, in Secret bowl, probably because of the exposure. This lift, and the Solar Coaster chair accessed some of the best intermediate cruisers we've ever skied. These runs are long and have a uniform pitch, unlike the undulating intermediate runs found elsewhere. Except for 7th Heaven, the lift lines for the chairs that served intermediate runs were often long, perhaps because the intermediate terrain is so good. We never encountered long lines on 7th Heaven.
There were "easiest" runs from even the highest lifts on both mountains, although some of these were wide cat tracks. On a clear day, the scenery, however, is worth the ride and the annoyance of skiing a road.
The Whistler gondola rises 3,800 vertical feet (in about 16-18 minutes) to 6,069 feet. From there, it's downhill to 4 high-speed quads, 2 triples, a double, and 2 T-bars. Many of these lifts terminate at the 6,069-foot level, and some go higher. There's a huge restaurant at the top of the gondola (The Roundhouse); we found that carrying our ski boots with us and changing at the Roundhouse worked quite well. We also skied down the midstation (at 3,300') and rode the gondola down the mountain at the end of the day. This strategy avoids the crowded lower runs (remember, there are thousands of skiers here), which were invariably wetter or icier or both.
Again, the intermediate terrain of the Emerald, Franz, Big Red chairs is impressive, but not as impressive as on Blackcomb. The Harmony chair, however, must be seen to be believed. It serves Harmony and Symphony bowls, which may be even bigger than the bowl on Blackcomb glacier. The Symphony bowl is nearly all intermediate skiing, but it's a blast, because it's so big. The run out is fairly short and thus isn't as tedious the run out from the Blackcomb glacier. Harmony bowl has something for everyone: Lots of steeps, chutes, and trees as well as intermediate runs.
But there's more! The Peak chair terminates at the top of Whistler Peak and serves Glacier, Whistler, West, and Bagel bowls. It's an impressive (and quick) ride. We skied Whistler Bowl to the bottomperhaps 3,000 vertical feetand it was perhaps our favorite bowl. The run out was tolerable, and it was only two rides on high-speed quad chairs back to the top. The Peak chair looks like it serves only advanced terrain, which is why it never had a line, but there are green and blue routes down from the top. The Peak also accesses The Cirque, which is reportedly the steepest run with a 50-degree pitch. Didn't seem that steep to me... It would be easy to spend an entire day riding just the Peak chair.
Whistler seems to have a better beginner's area, called Olympic, because it's higher. The beginner area at Blackcomb is at the base and thus suffers from both traffic and wet conditions.
Both areas advertise their "glade skiing". There are numerous runs (all "advanced") through thinned forest. I remember skiing the trees in powder on Shadows at Steamboat Springs about 10 years ago and having a great time. That was before snowboards; the glade runs at Whistler/Blackcomb weren't as much fun because they were full of bumps. Think of a bump run with trees growing out of every 3rd or 4th bump. Maybe it would be more fun after a fresh powder dump. These runs were also below tree line (duh!), and thus not as spectacular as the high alpine terrain.
There are several large restaurants high on both mountains. We were impressed by the attention to detail in these buildings, especially given the crowds. Most had 4-6 doors divided between entrances and exits. The floors of just the entrances were metal grates, which helped remove snow from boots. In the newer buildings, the restrooms were on the same floors as the entrances, and the restrooms were very large and well-stocked.
The chairs in all of the eating areas were steel and wood, and they had a metal wire rack under the seat, halfway down the legs for stowing gloves, etc. This design is obvious after you see it, but we've never seen it elsewhere. The restaurants all used real plates and silverwareunlike Snowbird, which seems to love paper and plastic.
During the crowded times of the day, there were attendants in the serving areas and elsewhere directing people, etc. On one day, an attendant controlled the flow of people into the serving area so it wouldn't get too crowded. Nice touch.
The food is nothing to write home about, but the prices were reasonable, especially given the current exchange rate.
People, people everywhere. President's Day week is notorious for crowds at ski areas, and Whistler/Blackcomb is no exception. The biggest problem is getting up the mountain in the morning. We usually got out between 9 and 10am and then stood in lines.
On Blackcomb, the only ways up are to ride to the alpine are the Excalibur Gondola and the Excelerator chair, or the Wizard and Solar Coaster chairs. We did the latter route our first two days (Sun. and Mon.) and it took us about an hour to get up. It was better on Mon., but it still took well over half an hour. I rode Excalibur (from the village) and Excelerator chair on Thu. and was up in a little over half an hour, at least 10 minutes of which was spent in the gondola line.
On Whistler, the only way up is the Whistler Gondola, unless you're staying near the Creekside base (a couple of miles from the village), in which case you can ride the Creekside Gondola and the Big Red Express chair. The Whistler Gondola is a major choke point; the line is huge (at least around 9:30am). On Fri., we waited over half an hour, then it's another 18 minutes or so to the top, so it was again about an hour to get up. We heard people say it was less crowded at 8:30am, but we didn't get moving that early. The upper lifts close between 3:00 and 3:15pm, and the rest of the lifts close at 3:30pm, so it's probably worth starting earlier. Some of the lifts (Excelerator and Wizard at Blackcomb, Emerald at Whistler) stayed open until 4:00pm, but that may have been a temporary closing time, in force just for this week.
The other problem is getting to the lifts. We stayed at the Marquise, which advertised ski-in/ski-out to Blackcomb. However, they meant that first you walk a bit, then ski-out. It was easy to ski in. We quickly tired of the walking. To get up Blackcomb, we had to walk 10 minutes the ski down a hundred yards or so to the Wizard chair. To get to Whistler, we had to walk, ski down to the amazingly slow Magic chair, ski down to the Whistler base, remove our skis and ride up the Whistler gondola. A similar route would get us to the Blackcomb gondola. After doing this 3 times, we switched to riding the free bus, which came every 10 minutes just outside the Marquise and dropped us at the plaza in front of both gondolas. Once we figured out that we could put on our boots at the top of the Whistler gondola, that was the end of the walking. I did the same thing on Thu. to ride the Blackcomb gondola, except I wore my boots because the Blackcomb gondola doesn't terminate at restaurant where I could change. We never ran into a crowd on the bus, but we heard grumbling from others about full buses.
Getting back to the Marquise was easier. On Blackcomb, we simply skied back, or rode the Blackcomb gondola down to the midstation and skied back. On Whistler, we rode the gondola down from the midstation, walked the short distance to the Blackcomb gondola, got off at the midstation, and skied in.
The moral is stay as close to the gondola base as you can, or ride the bus (and thus stay somewhere close to a bus stop).
Except for the crowds in the mornings, we had a great time. We'll go back.