FEELING FOR SNOW
David Matthews straps on his avalanche beacon and heads for the Canadian backcountry.
I’m 436 metres above the ground, trapped in a metal box. Condensation rolls down the gondola windows, fog obscures the valley below. I grip my poles, palms sweating. I can feel us dipping down, then up, tilting and swinging, and then, finally, the mountain is upon us. There’s a whir, a lurch, then a clunk and a wobble and the doors fly open. I step out, heart racing. This was meant to be the easy part.
Whistler doesn’t do things by halves. Want one mountain? Take two. Want powder? Have bucketloads. It’s a place where bears roam the streets, where tsunami warnings come as readily as avalanche warnings, where locals give up salmon-fishing because it’s too easy. Between Vancouver and Whistler, about 125 kilometres apart, the ranges are cut through with old gold, silver and copper mines. Cedars and Douglas firs have been felled from these slopes, slid down to the water and tugged south for almost two centuries. Everything here is big and bountiful, a land of abundance and grand scale.
Whistler Blackcomb is no different. Separated by a valley, the mountains are hit by snow that forms when storms roll in off the Pacific, hit the Coast Mountains and shoot upwards, generating nearly 12 metres of snow on average every season. Each mountain had a resort; they’re now joined by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which traverses the 4.4-kilometre high-wire that has just made my stomach lurch.
Today we’re skiing Blackcomb. We’ve been loaded up with powder skis; the plan is to seek out deep snow in preparation for tomorrow, when we’ll drop right into the middle of it. Though the queues at the base aren’t long, Philippe, our French ski instructor, fast-tracks us up the Wizard Express chair, halfway up the mountain.
Want one mountain? Take two. Want powder? Have bucketloads. It’s a place where bears roam the streets, where tsunami warnings come as readily as avalanche warnings.