Destinations

Heli-skiing in Whistler

Whistler Blackcomb is supersized – two mountains, twin resorts, hundreds of ski runs – but sometimes too much isn’t enough. David Matthews turns on his avalanche beacon and heads for the Canadian backcountry.

By David Matthews
A skiier on the Easy Cut run, Blackcomb

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.

Four Seasons Resort and Residences
Four Seasons Resort and Residences

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. "The first thing," he says, "is to have tight boots. Otherwise you're going to be working really hard."

We tighten up, but before we ski off another instructor, about 60, with a glint in his eye, catches Philippe's attention. Doc has returned after injury, and looks like he lives and breathes the mountain. "I'm this close, Philippe!" he shouts, pinching his thumb and finger together. "I'm down to three lives, but I'm right on the edge."

"The edge of what?" asks Philippe.

"Excellence."

Doc has the bug. He's been here about eight years. Philippe's been here 30. Whistler isn't a one-season kind of place. The terrain is so vast that even Philippe, who might ski every day, can find himself on a run that he hasn't skied for years. "Be careful here," he smiles. "You might be addicted."

Peak 2 Peak Gondola
Peak 2 Peak Gondola

We track through mid-mountain slopes, alternating groomed runs with heavier snow. The impulse is to shift onto our edges, but these skis are designed to float, rather than grip. We're trying to keep our weight even, making long, rounded turns, but it's not quite coming together. Practising powder skiing on groomed runs feels fake, like learning to fly-fish on an oval. We need something more real.

So we head up Glacier Express, which reaches 2,137 metres, and drop into Blackcomb Glacier. It's windy and though we can barely see, the snow feels deeper here.

"Don't fight the snow, let it happen," urges Philippe, and we try, but it's thick and crusty. It's tough-going. The visibility is so poor that I don't notice I'm skiing uphill. I fall over. "It's not easy, like skiing in a glass of milk!" shouts Philippe, but I can't see him.

With a sense of relief, we break out of powder mode, heading in and out of trees and over bumps. Whistler Blackcomb has more than 200 runs spread over 3,300 hectares. This, along with 37 lifts, makes it the largest ski resort in North America. There's capacity for about 70,000 skiers on the slopes, yet we run laps without queuing once.

At the base, the village population of 12,000 swells to about 40,000 during peak season and yet it retains an almost sleepy feel, with pedestrian-only streets and trees strung with lights. But there are places like Longhorn Saloon that blast tunes up the mountain and encourage dancing on tables or, like Sushi Village, dole out pitchers of Sake Margaritas. There are kids tobogganing behind a set of Olympic rings still standing from 2010, and there's the flipside of high heels clopping through snow, Champagne sabrage, and couples discussing crypto-currency in hot tubs. Often these elements meet somewhere in the middle, with an undercurrent of Canadian hospitality and maple-infused whisky keeping it local.

View of Whistler
View of Whistler

At the base of Blackcomb, we spend après over jugs of beer and plates of nachos heaving with cheese at Merlin's, a bar decorated with vintage snowboards and a salvaged gondola. There's no stomping on tables yet, but there will be, and as the band, the Hairfarmers, belts out AC/DC and Bryan Adams covers, a few tables begin throwing back shots from glasses lined up on skis.

That night we head to the heli-skiing office to sign our waivers, but we're here more in hope than expectation – it's been snowing for days and flights have been cancelled. Still, a sense of excitement hangs in the air – tomorrow could be the day. "It's gonna be deeeeep," says the operator. "Pack your snorkel."

The morning is still. There's been 40 centimetres of snow overnight, but the call comes early: we're clear to fly. While we wait, Chloe, one of our companions, expresses a sentiment we all share: I hope we get an experienced guide.

"Hi, I'm Pete."

Chloe looks dejected. Pete's maybe 20, a babyfaced 25 at best. He apologises for yawning; he's still jet-lagged. On the bus he radios back to base to say he grabbed a large women's jacket from the equipment room instead of his own. He struggles to get it over his shoulders. We grit our teeth.

At the heli-field the weather clears a little. Four helicopters are perched on an icy tarmac. Behind them, trees roll back into the distance. In the pre-flight hut, maps give a better sense of scale, with hundreds of lines, representing runs, criss-crossing mountain after mountain. Heli-skiing began here in the late 1940s, and by the end of the '60s had expanded into a viable business. Whistler Heli-Skiing, operating since 1981, has the largest claim of any of the helicopter companies, with access to 475 runs.

We're itching to go. Watching groups load before us, there's a fear that 175,000 hectares isn't enough, that if we're not quick then somehow it'll all get skied out. But Mike, our second guide, puts the brakes on: "We're gonna do the avalanche talk first."

We head outside and play hide-and-seek with our beacons, burying them in the snow, probing with our probes, digging with our shovels. It's a lot of fun, totally incongruous with the prospect of actually having to use this equipment. "When you're under the snow, you want the transceiver turned on," says Pete. Check. How do we know what a human would feel like? "When there's an avalanche, and we're looking for the bodies, you'll know. It'll feel squishy." I worry that Pete keeps using the word "when".

Helicopters stand at attention
Helicopters stand at attention

We pack into the helicopter, knees pressing against its fuselage. The blades kick into gear, then whir and we lift away. The world recedes into contours. Glades of trees become clumps interspersed with patches of white. Through the cockpit I see a valley open up before us, clouds hanging low in the centre, peaks rising behind. We head for them, and touch down with a thunk, then tumble out, ducking the blades as the chopper lifts and shrinks into the distance. And then we're alone.

This doesn't look like a ski run. This looks like a mountain. No trees, just rocks, ice, snow, wind, a stake in the ground, four Australians, a New Zealander, two Dutch snowboarders and our guides.

Pete starts out. Slowly, we follow. As I turn, the snow rises up past my feet, my ankles, my knees. At this depth, if your skis cross or if you shift too heavily you'll either get stuck or find out how deep it really is. It's tough work, and though we try to follow Philippe's advice ("don't fight the snow"), we're preoccupied with the burning in our thighs.

Fitzsimmons Creek
Fitzsimmons Creek

Pete is floating ahead. I look back, and count the group. We're missing two. I spot Mike back up the valley, then a jumble of limbs. Our New Zealander has taken a tumble. He struggles to his feet, knocks the snow out of his boots and slowly pops his skis on. Ten metres, a wobble, and he's down again. Mike radios the helicopter. Our New Zealander has called it – he's out.

Later I ask Mike how accurate people are at gauging their ability. "That depends," he says. "You might get an Austrian guy who skis every weekend who'll say, 'I'm intermediate' – it's all relative. We try to screen people, but we don't want to screen out people who can do it. If you're struggling and you're not fit, that's the hardest. If you're a weak skier, but you're fit, you can get away with it; same if you're a strong skier but you're not fit."

Rob, a big, tanned, middle-aged Dutch snowboarder in a lime-green ski-suit, falls into the skilled, not-fit category. He's been chopping through the snow with his board, cutting big tracks. By the time we make it to the pick-up point he's sweating. A lot. "They say it's cold here!" he shouts, stripping down. "It's like, plus-30! I'm sweating my pants off." I pray it gets colder.

Skiing Blackcomb
Skiing Blackcomb

We stack our skis and crouch in a huddle. The sound of beating blades grows and the helicopter appears. There's a rush of wind as it touches down barely a metre away – a "hot pickup" – rotor spinning as we pack in. We wipe our goggles and head for the second drop zone.

This run follows a ridge then drops between rock faces. The snow here is fresher and lighter, and soon each turn starts flowing into the next as we glide through the powder instead of catching on it. Bounce, turn, bounce, turn. There's still a thigh-burn, but the exhilaration holds it at bay. I'm sure we'd all be whooping and high-fiving but for the threat of avalanches. I check my transceiver.

Both runs have been on the glaciers connected to Spearhead Range. Our next flight is longer, taking us over ridges and down through a bowl. Eventually we reach a cliff face. The chopper drops us at the top, then veers away. We ski along the ridge then down through a grove of rocks. Halfway down we sink into the snow for a roast beef sandwich and a cup of tomato soup, staring past the delivery helicopter and across a basin, Vista Bowl, behind it.

We're the lowest we've been all day and the trees are beginning to thicken, but there's still a way to go. Here the trees funnel the snow into drifts and dropoffs. I push my pole in to check the depth. When it reaches my elbow I pull it out.

The remoteness is arresting. The bowl envelops us, clouds press down, mountains surround us. There's no sense of a world outside. It's as if we're skiing in a terrarium. When the bowl flattens we spot the marker. In comes the helicopter, we load up, and we're out.

Sproatt Cabin on Sproatt Mountain
Sproatt Cabin on Sproatt Mountain

"My name's Dion. Like Celine Dion. But everyone calls me Trigger." All beardand Australian accent, Trigger stands in front of a row of snowmobiles, better known as Ski-Doos. Though we're heading to the backcountry again, this time we've left our skis at home.

Trigger hands us helmets and gestures towards a Québécoise who introduces herself as Turbo Jen. We're on the lower fringes of Mount Sproatt, the site of an old gold mine. The plan? Ski-Doo a fire trail, stop by a frozen lake, then ascend to a log cabin where we'll have breakfast in the style of the Yukon, the region north-west of British Columbia.

The training starts on the snowmobile. Within minutes we're putting along in file. The machines are big and a little clunky, but after following Jen up, down and around, it starts feeling natural. Just as we build our confidence, we pass another group trying to flip a rolled Ski-Doo. It's an eerie throwback to the drive up from Vancouver when we'd passed a Toyota lying prone on the side of the road, crushed against the bank. We feel our confidence waning, but Jen pre-empts it. Rolls are common, she says, the trick is to hang on and tuck everything in, then it'll be a soft landing.

As we climb, the landscape changes. Up here it's all old growth, one of the few areas in these mountains that hasn't been logged out. We chug past cedars and firs with gnarled trunks more than a metre across, some with deep fissures and immense branches that droop under the weight of the snow to form hooped skirts. Through the groves is a cabin, or at least half a cabin – the first floor is buried under the snow. We enter past a whisky jack that chirrups in welcome, and settle with pancakes, whipped butter, maple syrup and a hash of Yukon Gold potatoes cooked on the wood stove. Mountain food.

Jen tells us that she moved here five years ago to learn English, and stayed. Jordan, the cook, came six seasons in a row from Ottawa, before settling permanently. We nod in understanding, and pour more syrup on our pancakes.

On our last day we're back on the mountain, riding the gondola through the fog to ski Whistler. We speed through Dave Murray Downhill, the Olympic run. There's heavy snow, and silence engulfs us. When it's this heavy, the tracks you make on one run have filled by the time you run past again. Free refills, they call it.

Up top we take a T-bar with Philippe to a section of untracked powder, even deeper than we experienced in the backcountry. All week the sun had only threatened to shine; on this last afternoon, the clouds pull back and the mountains are revealed in full against clear blue. We look across to Blackcomb, see the gondola hanging in mid-air, and the white of the snow below us.

Philippe looks down. The man who'd corrected our every turn, he stops and takes in the scene around him. In that moment it's perfectly clear why he's spent 30 years skiing Whistler. Before he turns away to carve another fresh track he looks at us, pauses, and with a sense of satisfaction in his voice says, simply: "Don't think."

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  • Author: David Matthews