I came to BC because to me it has two definitions: British Columbia and Back Country. The two are synonymous when I think of this place and its endless snow-covered peaks. They just go on and on for days, weeks, months, years. A backcountry skier could spend a lifetime here and never thirst for another place. I’ve come craving this place.
It was the place I learned about backcountry skiing on a trip to Red Mountain last year. After earning an engineers salary in Chicago for a few years I was finally able to afford the gear I needed to venture beyond the resorts and into the untamed, untracked mountains.
But first, I needed to get into Canada… I noticed too late that my passport is expired, and I didn’t have time to renew before crossing the border. I discovered online that I can use my expired passport as proof of citizenship, and along with a valid driver’s license I should be able to cross. As expected, the expired passport was a red flag for the customs agent and I was sent for inspection. After a long line of questioning, they said I was inadmissible to Canada and would be turned away. Totally bummed, I started asking lots of questions trying to find some alternative. Eventually the patroller came around and said he could grant me a temporary residency permit that would be good for one border crossing and a limited stay in Canada. The fee was $200. Still determined to get here, I decided it would be worth it and I could cut the costs in other ways. I made it.
My first stop was Whistler. I arrived around noon picking up a hitchhiker along the way. He advised me on where to park and start out. Hitchhikers can be great sources of information. I found the free parking and hit the slopes, first dollars saved.
My next stop was the ticket counter. At $99 per day and no half-day rates available, I quickly concluded this is where I needed to make my next bit of savings.
I saw a snowboarder passing by looking like he was headed to the bus. He had a lift ticket on his jacket. I asked, politely, if he was done using his lift ticket. He let me have it no problem. It was the sticky ticket type so I had to peel the sticker back and re-attach the wire, but in the same time it would have taken me to spend $100, I was riding the lift with no hassles.
It was sunny and warm. Although no snow had fallen in several days, the snow quality was great. The snow was firm but forgiving enough to let me lay deep trenches on each turn. I went straight to the top, a journey that included 1 gondola, 2 high speed chairlifts, and 1 T-bar over the course of 45 minutes. Wow, what a huge mountain this is. I ended up on Blackcomb mountain on the same glacier that I visited for summer ski camp at High North years ago. This time, I had my eye on the steep chutes that I’d heard about back then, a run called Sudan’s Couloir in particular. This became my first run, and after loving it, my second run also.
It was steep and narrow with rocky outcrops you had to jump over in places. A fall would mean big trouble in places, but the snow was very secure and falling was avoidable through jump turns and cautious speed control. I saw a skier fall on it while riding the lift. He took a wide line, fortunately, because he fell at the very top and lost his skis. Once in motion, he couldn’t stop until the steepness relented several hundred feet below. He tumbled and slid over several rock outcroppings doing countless cartwheels on the way down. He was totally fine, but it was dramatic to see. This reminded me to ski cautiously without falling.
I view falling in skiing as mostly controllable. I remember being amazed that my dad would go for years without falling. But now I realize that he simply chose not to push it to the point of falling. For me, I would always push it as hard as I could, falling every single day I went skiing. I wouldn’t fall just skiing the slope, I would fall trying something hard, like a tiproll over a mogul or something. But I’ve found that nowadays I can ski at a high level without falling if I hold back just a little bit from the edge of my ability. That’s important in some terrain where falling could be hazardous.
After the light went flat in the steeps, I found the terrain park. This is the Whistler I knew as a high-schooler, when I traveled here to learn new tricks from the pros. Back then, I would spend each morning building jumps at Seven Springs (PA) and each afternoon hitting them. But in Whistler, they had world class terrain parks and other people built jumps for you. This is the place where I learned backflips and railslides, corked 540’s and how to ride a halfpipe. I got to ride with pros like Shane McConkey, Shane Szochs, JP Auclair, Peter Olenick, JF Cusson, and the Three Phils.
Not much has changed. Whistler still has epic terrain parks, surely on par with any other place in the world. But nowadays, the kids are all going huge and throwing down so hard. The biggest change is that the average terrain park rider at Whistler is now as talented as the top pros were when I was training here. Everyone can throw cork spins and zero spins. Everyone can ride switch effortlessly. Everyone can throw 270s onto rails. No big deal. I spent two midweek days in the terrain park, usually off times for throwing down. I saw huge tricks constantly, stuff that would have been well beyond the top of my ability when I was training for it. I saw one guy throw a 1080 over one tabletop, stomp it, throw his hands in the air shouting in excitement for sticking it, then throw a second one over the next tabletop stomping it and shouting again. Another kid threw a switch 1080. Corked spins were commonplace, typically 720s and 900s both forwards and switch. I was blown away. I’ve never seen so much talent. This place is completely void of gapers.
I had a good day taking it easy and just tasting some big air again. Since living in Chicago, I’ve hardly skied in the past 3 years. For the first time in my life, I felt out of practice at jumping. I was rusty. Sure, I could still float a 720 over these perfectly manicured booters, but I was having trouble getting my grabs down and controlling how many rotations I ended up with. I landed several jumps in between 360 and 540 skidding the last bit around. I also had some surprising trouble taking off switch. I could do it, but it wasn’t comfortable like it used to be. These were all signs to just take it easy. I made as many laps as I could before the lifts closed sticking to tricks I knew I could pull off. I tried to perfect them rather than step it up. This is how I’d like to approach terrain parks these days. If I feel the need to throw something huge its going to be in the powder.
I decided two days in Whistler would be good on my limited trip to BC. So today I spent the morning blogging and hit the base area at lunchtime to clip another ticket. Another $100 saved 🙂
Today was pretty much the same as yesterday, except I felt a lot more comfortable on both the steeps and the jumps and held back a little less. I charged a steep line called Spanky’s Ladder that included a cliff drop into a huge bowl. It was awesome. After looking back up I realized I had picked the perfect line, as the other routes had big rocks exposed that would surely damage the skis.
I ventured to the terrain park again for more practice. I’m slowly getting my comfort back. I managed to pull off a new trick I hadn’t done before, 540 genie grab. I intended to do a 360 but underestimated the size of the jump. I like to do tricks no one else is doing, which usually involves some rare grabs or some blend of old school and new school. These kids still have a few things to learn.
I managed to ski Whistler 2 days for free. The only money I spent was on snacks at the coffee shop so they would let me use their internet and electrical outlets for free. I also skied near the top of my ability, but held back just enough to avoid falling. I’m pretty stoked that I can do that now. I like to keep it safe these days.
I have to add a bit to this post since I had a funny night out after writing it. I figured Friday night in Whistler might be interesting, so I ventured into town in search of some live music. I found some at a local tavern, acoustic guitar and drum kit. At first I wasn’t feeling it – lots of people paying way too much for drinks, somewhat of a rich crowd, not really my type. The band went on set break right when I arrived, bummer. I decided to grab a drink while waiting. The cheapest mug of beer was $5, more than my typical meal costs these days. Those are precious dollars for me and I begrudgingly paid for it. Bummer, it’s like paying 5x too much for PBR. Oh well. The cool part was every screen in the bar had on a ski or snowboard movie, and the lines they were riding were sick. I was getting sucked into one when I noticed some people playing a game I recognized, bite the bag! Except it wasn’t a bag they were going for, it was a $5 bill. If you don’t know, bite the bag is where you balance on 1 foot and try to pick up a standing paper bag with your mouth and stand back up without falling over. Once everyone does it, you fold down the bag, making it shorter and harder, until there’s a winner. A dollar bill is about the lowest anyone can go, since it’s basically just a few inches from the ground. It’s pretty tough, but I was feeling confident. After watching many people struggle for 15 minutes or more, I stepped in. I nailed it 3rd try, like a pro. BAM! I won $5 back, making my trip to the bar a freebie 🙂