Best Day of a Bad Season; Working the Winter in Whistler

Words by Pat Baldwin
Pics by Sam Baldwin
Published April 2006

Pat on Whistler Peak

Let’s set the scene. It’s my first ever winter season and I’m in Whistler, Canada, supposedly the best ski resort on the planet. Except, right now, the opposite is more true. It’s mid February and the snow gods are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s the rain demons haunting us that have made this season the worst on record for 50 years.

January brought little but sunshine and February, normally Whistler’s best month for snowfall offered nothing more than days of gloomy rain, rain and more freaking rain! I learned a new hatred for rain in Whistler and that’s really saying something. I am no stranger to rain, after all, I’m English.

It was tough times for Whistler. We painfully watched raindrop after raindrop dissolve an already shallow snow base revealing nasty rocks and tree stumps that we’d forgotten existed. Many friends cut their losses and relocated to whiter pastures. Holidaymakers ended up drinking their sorrows away, and the rest of us just held our breath and prayed that the Dear Lord would open the skies and bless us with some white stuff.

Well, he took his time, but one day in March we finally got our big break. Over the period of a few days we got about 50cm of beautiful, lovely, glorious snow. Whistler was ablaze with ecstatic faces. It’s amazing what a drop in two degrees centigrade can do to a village full of people. Now, I’m relatively new to all this powder talk, so up until now I’d sat and listened enthusiastically to dozens of skiers and riders recount their tales of balls-deep, bottomless, champagne crystals.

Some told of dropping 30 foot cliffs and effortlessly gliding away. Others claimed that riding powder was better than having sex. Whatever the story’s content, it seemed that this powder stuff was worth experiencing and I couldn’t wait to get on it. Eventually my day came and it was time to see what all the fuss was about.

It was a Thursday special. Thursdays were the one day of the week when me and four good friends got to spend all day ripping up the slopes. We were of similar skill levels so riding with these guys was awesome (excuse my Canadian!). Snowboarding as a tight pack meant we were continuously pushing each other for speed and height but in a friendly and relaxed way. Don’t get me wrong, we were all competitive but if someone pulled out a beauty of a trick they would get the deserved amount of praise. Compensating for all those rainy days, we always made the most of the mountain on Thursdays. Every roller, drop, kicker, tree stump, sign post, mogul and unstrapped snowboard we could find would be mercilessly jibbed repeatedly by our group of snow starved shredders.

Pat takes on a pic-nic bench combo, Blackcomb terrain park
So being a Thursday and my first powder day ever, we assembled extra early at our favourite café before the crowds started clogging up the village. Wolfing down a breakfast of egg and bacon bagels followed by a round of hot coffees, we were soon ready to let the action commence. Jumping into the nearest gondola I looked at my friends’ faces; each one of them was truly excited and charged full of adrenalin. I was already observing the effect of powder snow on the human body and we hadn’t even got out of the lift yet!

The 20 minute gondola ride to the top of Whistler mountain felt like two hours and by the top, five grown men had morphed into five excited school children who had just broken up for the summer holidays.

Having all waited so, so patiently wondering if this day would ever come, it was now grinning at us like a Cheshire cat on B.C.’s finest bud. Finally, after three long, wet, dreary months, Whistler’s promise was about to be fulfilled.

With no time to waste, we hastily strapped in and headed straight for a tree run. Wow! This stuff was great! I floated effortlessly in a straight line through a pine coppice and put in my first ever powder turn - a wide arc through a narrow section, and wham! I ended up face down, inside a ball of airborne powder.

As the air cleared I looked up the slope to see two of my friends in a similar situation - on the deck chuckling away! I tried to get up, but experienced a new challenge. It took a good five minutes of flapping around, digging and falling over to get back on my feet. A mate who was already back on board swept past, showering me with a wave of powder and shouted:

“Lean back and keep your tip up!”

Ah ha! So that’s how you do it. Re-educated, I set off again and made my way through that narrow section with more success this time. We all met at the bottom of slope howling, hugging and high-fiving. Now I’m even more amazed at the effect this powder has on people.
Next up we head into the alpine zone, at the very top of Whistler mountain. We’re going to explore all the bowls that have only just opened, having been closed by ski patrol due to lack of snow until now.

We drop into a large bowl that only has a handful of skiers and riders so there’s plenty of lines to go round. We each pick a path; some prefer the drops and rollers, others opt for the pure thrill of speed. We regroup at the bottom and chitter-chatter at how shit hot that last run was. Then, Dave’s eyes are drawn to a suspicious looking rock. It stands about 15 feet high in the base of a gully.

Without a word he quietly unstraps and climbs his way to the top of the gully. We watch with bated breath. Here he comes, he’s picking up some good speed towards this wall of very, very hard stuff. As he approaches the base of the rock he leans back. Now we see that Dave is not trying to commit suicide because we’ve had so much rain, he’s actually trying to ride up the side of the rock! The theory is approved by our team of judges. Unfortunately for Dave, the practice is a different story; he side plants into the wall, scoring low on style, but high on entertainment value.

We’re then drawn to the fact that there is a way of climbing this rock. Paul’s already half way up the icy scramble when Tom asks if I’m going up.

 “Not a chance in hell mate” I reply, stubbornly.

Home for the season
Three minutes later I’m standing next to Paul on top of the rock looking 15 feet down at the rest of the group, who are now safely sitting on snowy, but stable ground. It didn’t look so scary from there, but when you’re up here it’s a different story. There’s no going back now, that we both agree on, but the subject of who’s going down this intimidating scary steep rock first is not so clear cut.

The Paper, rock, scissors game provides us with a quick resolution to the problem and unluckily for Paul he’s the guinea pig. Without hesitation he jumps off the rock and flies down into the transition then “wham”, arse-checks really quite hard. He says it hurts but wants another go. Now it’s my turn.

“Bollocks! What am I doing here?”

It takes me five minutes to get myself together before I drop in. Down I go, it’s looking good then “wham”, my arse also greets the ground in a painful way. I amaze myself as I find I’m clambering back up with Paul for round two. We both try again, certain that it’s not as hard as we originally thought. Negative. To our dismay, but our friends’ joy, we both end back on our arses in more pain, temporarily defeated, but vowing to return another day.

We head back down to the nearest lift line where even the boring part of queuing provides some entertainment. As we wait patiently all eyes track a suspicious looking snowboarder, who’s perched on top a very scary looking cliff, known to all of Whistler as “Air Jordan”.

The name comes from the serious amounts of air taken, as you drop the 30ft cliff and almost immediately after, a second 40ft cliff. The recent snowfall has made a softer landing and many of the more extreme riders have been waiting patiently for this day to arrive. The whole lift line goes crazy with applause as we watch a handful of skiers and riders chance their lives away. Some make it, others end up rag-dolling out of view. It’s one hell of a spectacle and we can’t decide whether these guys are really brave, really talented or just insane in the membrane!

After a few more runs down we decide to build a nice sized kicker in a bowl that no one else can see. We set to work using our boards as shovels, shaping the jump and packing down the fluffy snow into a solid, well engineered snow structure. The democratic system of paper, rock, scissors to pick the guinea pig has been abandoned. The unanimous group vote is to send the English boy up.

Up I go hiking quite a steep bank that’s going to provide the speed to hit this jump. I strap in at the top and speed my way down. It’s a good one, a nice run-in, and a launch pad that shoots you out 20ft into a lovely powdery landing. And so the frenzied session begins, each one of us trying to out do the other. Everyone’s getting good air, so we start throwing some tweaks and grabs into the equation. Tom face plants hard and retires to camera man. Things hot up when Ant pulls a real nice floaty backside 180 grab, and the rest of us are desperate to get a rotation down. Dave goes for the 360 multiple times but frustratingly never quite lands it. I land a couple of front side 180s and Paul gets some nice grabs in.

All this hiking through deep snow is making us tired so we chill for a bit, take in the awesome views and enjoy the company. We all agree it’s been the best day yet and decide to do a couple more lines before heading to the mountain-top bar. We sit around sharing a couple of cool pitchers of the local lager – Kokanee – and watch the footage we recorded of the day. Its been an absolute blinder, and it’s made every raindrop worth it.  We all feel so lucky just to be out here, being part of the Whistler experience.

The rest of season carried on with a mixture of snow and rain. Towards April the season picked up again and the snow gods were out in force. We ended on a high - three weeks of great snow, without too much competition from powder hounds and tourists.

Jam sessions were always a popular way to spend evenings
So – that was my season. Yes – it was the worst season on record for 50 odd years. Yes – it rained for two months solid, but would I change it? Well, I wouldn’t have said no to a little more snow, but I discovered that doing a season is not just about the slopes. It’s about the people you meet, the places you see, and the experiences you collect, and I wouldn’t change The Thursday Sessions for anything.

Pat Baldwin is a keen snowboarder and mountain biker from England. After a season in Whistler, he is now back in the UK, planning his next great escape.