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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Whistler, BC

It’s about 4 p.m. on a bright sunny day in the spring. You’ve had about 6 or 7 good runs. You took a break for lunch at the crowded Roundhouse. You saw people sunning themselves outside the restaurant perched on hay bales. The air is pure and you feel both refreshed and a bit tired at the same time. You can feel the warmth of the reddened skin on your face. It has been a good day. Everyone you see seems to be enjoying themselves. All is right with the world for the moment. It is time for that one last run, the one that will take you right to the bottom of the mountain. As you make your way down the road that is the ski out you follow the gradual turns and notice the shadows of the evergreen trees. You are just minutes away. You know what to expect when you get to the bottom. The cool dudes and gals with their sunglasses are having a few cool ones outside of the Longhorn Pub watching the skiers as they make a few esses to slow themselves down and then there is that one last sharp cut that makes the snow or slush fly like a final touch to a glorious day. You ARE too cool for school!

The first time I ever set foot in Whistler was about 40 years ago in the winter of 1973. A friend I had met in Banff the previous winter who was from Toronto was out in Vancouver for a visit and we decided to check out the slopes 80 miles north. The road up to Whistler was pretty treacherous and it would be years before they really got serious about fixing the highway in preparation for the 2010 Olympics.

Back then most people were day skiers. By that I mean very few people stayed overnight. They would get on the road shortly after daybreak, drive for about 2-1/2 hours, on the hills by about 11:00 a.m., get in a half dozen runs or so, stop in somewhere for a couple of pints, head back to Vancouver as the darkness of night approached.
It was the real diehard skiers who owned or shared ski cabins back then. In later years some of them struck it rich when property values went through the roof.
We stayed at the Christiana Inn on that first trip. I remember that the room was very cold and there was frost on the floor by the windows. The window curtains were discoloured. The only other hotel I can recall at Whistler was the Highland Lodge. We skied for two days. There wasn’t much in the way of nightlife back then. The Boot (or Ski Boot?) was kind of wild and woolly place. A lot of the locals who worked on the lifts hung around there. The only other drinking spots that I can recall were two other joints, one that was kind of a cocktail bar around the corner from the Husky gas station that I think was called PJ’s and there was another place called Après Ski that was at the foot of the mountain.
The Husky gas station was kind of the center of things back then. I’m not positive but I think this was the spot where the bus from Vancouver dropped their passengers off. The train station was a couple of hundred yards away. Another place of note was Nester’s grocery store a few miles down the road.
I was kind of familiar with ski resorts having spent time working in St. Sauveur, Quebec and Banff and Jasper in Alberta. I was never an avid skier but more of a casual one. Skiing was mostly an every now and then thing for me although I did once go on a ski trip to the US that included Snowbird in Utah, Sun Valley, Idaho and Aspen, Colorado. I never had much style nor did I ever take any lessons. The skis I owned were Fischers. I was never totally comfortable with my ski boots on. They always hurt.
One of my early memories of skiing at Whistler is the number of times the chairlift would stop just before the last crest at the end of the line. Usually the stoppage was because someone down below had gotten tangled up trying to get on the chair. Back up at the top the chair would go up and down like a yo-yo for a few minutes. Once that stopped and that thrill was completed there was the long waiting for the chairlift to start up again. Then the cold brisk winds coming over the ridge hit you hard and you just couldn’t wait to get off the damned thing.
Over the next several years I moved around BC a bit and didn’t get back up to Whistler until about 1977. By this time things had changed dramatically. The Sea to Sky Highway (#99) was improved somewhat but it could still be a hairy road. Almost every time I drove up to Whistler I would see a close call in traffic or red flashing police car lights where someone had totalled their car. Mostly these accidents seemed to happen where two lanes merged into one and some goof thought he could squeeze in.
Whistler was starting to look like other more established ski resorts. The new place to hang out at night was the Keg restaurant. The mountain had a really long ski out. Sometimes it could get pretty slushy at the bottom of the hill and a few poor souls did a face plant in the icy slush.
Ski cabin shenanagans.
The land rush was on. New resorts opened up. Sharing a cabin with 20 or so other folks became more and more popular. The “Village” was still a few years away. I got married in 1981 and my wife at the time had been a cabin member previously at Whistler so we coughed up the fee for the winter season. We were living on Bowen Island at the time and for some reason or another we only used the cabin twice that winter. It wasn’t exactly a good investment.
A couple we knew bought a chalet near Alta Lake. I think they got the place for a steal as the previous owner was a lottery winner who was running out of funds. One summer weekend when we were up there for a weekend by ourselves I built the owners a coffee table. I wonder if it is still intact or was put to good use in the fireplace. I remember the owner of the chalet renting his place out for the summer and not being able to get the tenants out in the fall. Apparently he paid some nearby construction workers in cases of beer to help with eviction.
One summer weekend we were up at the chalet with a bunch of other people we knew and ended up spending the day at a beach on Alta Lake. Somebody had a wind surfer board and I asked if I could use it and was given the OK. I had done some sailing when I was younger but didn’t have much of a clue about how to use a wind surfing board. I ended up at the other end of the lake. I ditched the board and started on the long walk back to the beach. The easiest path was across the new golf course. I was carrying the life vest in my hand when I was approached by a marshal in a golf cart. “Excuse me sir, but are you playing golf?” he said to me with what sounded like a German accent. I thought the life vest might have been a clue. “Would you please leave immediately!” was the next thing he said. When I got back to the beach I found out that a search party had gone looking for me. I can’t recall who recovered the board.
My ex and a couple of pals.
My ex-wife and I skied up at Whistler about 2 or 3 times a year back then. She knew some people who had a lot of cash who were what one might call “the fast crowd”. One guy gave all his friends elaborate looking daggers one Christmas that were used to cut the ends off of champagne bottles. We often hit the disco at night. At the time there was an older guy who dressed himself up in a silver lame suit complete with a cape. He would toss out silver foil wrapped candies to people on the dance floor. Why I have no idea.
We once went to a wedding of a couple of my ex’s friends in Whistler. The wedding was catered by two European guys, Ted and Jan who owned a delicatessen in Whistler. I had met these two guys a few years before when I sold them a cash register for a lunch restaurant they were opening on Howe Street in Vancouver called The Scanwich. It never dawned on me that they were both gay. A number of years later Ted Nebbeling became the mayor of Whistler and went on to be an MLA.
We visited another couple my ex knew that had a chalet a few times. The only reason I am mentioning this is that I left a cigarette burn on their furniture not once but twice. The first time was while holding their baby and my cigarette fell off of the ashtray burning the dining room table. The second time I burned the living room coffee table after getting too stoned in the hot tub.
The last time I skied in my life was in 1987 at Whistler when I was 40 years old. I’m not sure if I quit because I didn’t want to press my luck and break something. I think it was also about the whole production, the long drive to the ski hills, getting the gear out of the car, putting the boots on, trekking hundreds of yards across parking lots to get to the chairlifts with skis over my shoulder, the long ride on the chairlift, the white-out at the top of the hill. Who knows?
Our twins were born in 1989 and even if I wanted to, buggering off to Whistler was out of the question. I’m kind of glad they didn’t get hooked on skiing at a young age because of the costs. My son did get into snowboarding in his mid-teens.
When the kids were about 3 and 4 years of age we took them up to Whistler a number of times in the summer. We stayed at the Lake Placid Lodge a few times. We went for a walk after breakfast one day and I told my ex that I would go and get the car that was parked some distance away. As I was walking back to the car I looked over my shoulder to see where they were and saw a black bear heading straight towards them. The thought crossed my mind that I might have to defend them. Fortunately it was a garbage bear and it past by them as if they weren’t there.
My ex and I split up when the kids were about 5 and over the next several years Whistler was where I would sometimes take them on summer weekends. We usually stayed at the Holiday Inn. We went to The Old Spaghetti Factory one night never to make that mistake again. The kids rang the bell at the top of the rock wall climbing thing and we often rode our bikes around the golf course. To be honest, I prefer Whistler in the summertime.
I have a friend who owns a condo in Whistler and I was invited up a few times. I had helped him out along with a sales rep who worked for me on doing some basement work on his house in Vancouver and as a reward he offered his condo gratis for a weekend. The sales rep brought his girlfriend. We got pretty drunk at Buffalo Bill’s one night and I took the liberty of telling my sales rep that he could do better than the girl he was with. I don’t think it went over well. I think New Orleans Is Sinking was playing when I told him.
Buffalo Bills became the place I would always end up in in the 1990s. The odd 40-50 year old gal could be found there unlike places like Tommy Africa’s. One winter weekend I brought my kids up to the condo. A deal was made that the guys could go out for the night and my pal’s wife would watch the kids. The next morning I remember taking my kids to a virtual reality kind of place that was very noisy and having about the worst hangover ever. I guess it was the price that had to be paid.

The last time I got really drunk in my life was at Whistler. My friend and I were up by without family and I ordered a round of shooters at Buffalo Bill’s. Nobody seemed into it and I ended up drinking most of them myself. That was 15 years ago and I haven’t been drunk since. On another night I kind of lost track of my friend and only found out that he had been tossed out of Buffalo Bill’s the following morning.
I hadn’t been up to Whistler for about 10 years until a brief visit early last winter in the middle of the week. My friend was doing a few touch ups to his condo and invited us up. Linda had never been to Whistler before. She went off and took a gondola ride on her lonesome. I took a pass on joining her. It was nice to see the snow but for me personally ski towns are now all about the memories of actually skiing and the nightlife. I’m a little too old now for both.
Thinking back about spending time in ski resort areas I have mixed thoughts. There is no doubt that the mountains wherever ski hills are located are spectacular. The amenities are always first class. I have always had some admiration for those that seriously enjoy skiing, the folks that just love powder. The way they have formed long friendships with others who are like minded.
Most who work at ski resorts are only in town for a year or two. Kind of like a pit stop in life before they have to get more serious and find a real job. A few decide to stay on permanently and become a part of the community. For many who are just there for a season or two they will never forget the memories of those perfect days and hazy nights.
Having said that, there is to me at least, always a kind of plastic artificialness about ski resorts. There seems to be a lot of posing. It is a place where rich people like to spend time and there are plenty of places that cater to them. If you want to buy some $10,000.00 sculptures or some expensive jewelry or spend a few hundred bucks on dinner or rent a suite for the night for a thousand bucks you won’t have trouble finding these things in most major ski resort towns like Whistler, Banff or Aspen. If you let it, you can become a bit overwhelmed by it all. Different strokes for different folks I guess.
I used to be a bit mystified about how really wealthy people could own property in a place like Banff considering that the town is in a national park. I also remember a number of years ago that almost every store in Banff had Japanese signs in the window when the Japanese economy was humming away and as soon as things went in the dumper for them the signs came down.
Today in Whistler it seems like more than half of the workers in town are Australian. Canadians dream of sandy beaches and bright sunshine in the winter and Australians dream of snow-capped mountains and cold weather I guess. Who knows?
If you don’t already know, Whistler has the longest ski runs in North America. Whistler is also rated at the top as far as ski resorts go. What you might not know is that it is a great place to spend time in the summer. The town has some really great golf courses and whether you are spending time there as a couple or as a family there are a lot of things to do and see.

If you are thinking of visiting Whistler I heartily recommend a condo that my friends Laura and Rory rent out year round at reasonable rates. The place sleeps 7 and is close to everything.
As a matter of fact,….if you are looking for an affordable place to stay in Vancouver, minutes away from downtown, Laura and Rory rent out a very comfortable basement suite. They also rent out a gorgeous waterfront chalet on Lake Okananagan complete with a boat dock.
Tell them Colin sent you.


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