Pleasure and pain: tree skiing at Whistler

The 2010 Olympics ended nearly eight years ago but the party carries on. The hills and streets echo with languages and accents from around the globe

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Florence prepares for a day of skiing outside chez Russ and Barb - Photo by Gerry Feehan
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Gerry FeehanI was navigating a black-diamond run at the end of our last day in Whistler. The path dropped through a steep mogul field, then narrowed to a single track in thick forest. I veered hard right through a tiny opening between two Douglas fir trees. I emerged blindly from the dark boughs. Terra firma vanished. I was hurtling off a 10-metre cliff, in free fall.

What was I doing here?

My date with this Whistler precipice had its genesis in – of all places – a golf course in New Zealand. We were teeing it up last March in Nelson, on the South Island, when a fellow duffer approached us on the first tee. He was solo so Florence and I asked him to join us. He introduced himself as Russ, from Vancouver. We played a pleasant nine holes together, shook hands and parted ways.

Two weeks later – and a thousand kilometres distant – we were hiking Mount Maunganui on the North Island. As we arrived huffing and puffing to the summit, there stood Russ and his wife Barb, chatting affably with a fit young Kiwi. We laughed at the coincidence, commented on the fine austral weather and moseyed off.

Two weeks distant – and another thousand kilometres removed – we were examining a cross-section of New Zealand’s biggest and oldest tree – a 3,000-year-old kauri – at the aptly named Kauri Museum in the tiny west coast village of Matakohe, when who to my wondering eyes should appear but good old Russ.

“This is just too weird,” said our fellow Canuck. “Let’s have lunch.”

So over flat-white coffee and whitebait (a hideous Kiwi delicacy consisting of fried egg and a worm-like fish), the four of us sat, laughed and marvelled at the wonders of New Zealand – and our trifecta of coincidental encounters.

The Feehans were – as usual – travelling without reservation, flying by the seat of our pants and scrambling daily for nightly accommodation. Russ and Barb were at the other end of the organizational spectrum. They were happily bunked in just two spots during their entire two-month sojourn to New Zealand. As members of www.homelink.ca they had exchanged their house in Vancouver for accommodation Down Under.

Russ and Barb travel in a sphere of gratis lodging, swapping their Vancouver abode – and Whistler condo – for digs the world over.

I pondered the merits of our pleasant home in Red Deer and looked at Russ, wondering whether he and Barb might enjoy a holiday in frozen, flat central Alberta. But Russ didn’t look like he’d been born yesterday.

Then I remembered our condo in Kimberley. It’s a great spot in B.C.’s lovely Purcell Mountains.

And that’s how we ended up in a quaint ski chalet for a week on Nita Lake, in Whistler. In return, Barb and Russ will be golfing and biking the Kootenays for a week in September chez Feehan.

We haven’t signed up for Homelink yet – but what a great concept: why leave your home vacant and idle, spending a whack on hotels, when you can swap for free domicile across the pond (or at Whistler)?

My only previous Whistler experience occurred in 1984, and although the ’80s weren’t exactly the ’60s, still I recall very little of that trip. I do remember a wild and crazy Doug and the Slugs concert, performed al fresco in the Whistler Village common. And I recollect that Bill Johnson won the World Cup downhill in 1 minute 54 seconds. (Billy was the quintessential American bad-boy. The great Franz Klammer derisively referred to him as a “nasen-borer.”)

We skied that same downhill run with our friends from Saskatoon in January. It took me just under nine minutes top to bottom – and I cheated, stopping the clock each time I paused to rest my weary legs or discreetly probe my proboscis.

Whistler is slightly more sophisticated than sleepy Kimberley. Kimberley’s Northstar Mountain has five chairlifts. Whistler and her sister mountain Blackcomb have 37, including the incredible Peak 2 Peak gondola that spans 4.4 km and whisks skiers between the two resorts in a matter of minutes. It is the longest and highest lift in the world.

The lift capacity at Whistler Blackcomb is an unimaginable 65,507 skiers per hour. At that rate, the entire population of Red Deer could be boosted to the top of the mountain in about an hour and a half.

Snow conditions throughout B.C. have been fantastic this year. Each day, tens of thousands of stoked skiers shared Whistler’s terrain with us. The 2010 Olympics ended nearly eight years ago but the party carries on. The hills and streets echo with languages and accents from around the globe.

Our Saskatchewan friends, Joe and Carla, are gung-ho: first in line for the 8:30 a.m. gondola opening and last down the hill for après ski festivities. They frequent the blue runs (easily logging over 20,000 vertical feet in a day). I enjoy these cruising runs but find I lack speed restraint – and my aging bones aren’t up for a high-velocity crash. My new passion is tree skiing, a slower but more rewarding, methodical way of descending the hill.

And so, back to my encounter with the precipice.

Arcing headfirst, I careened off the snowy cliff-face, employed an unintended somersault and landed flat in the middle of a cat track. I lay still, a puddled mess, piecing together the previous few moments of my existence.

Miraculously, I was unscathed. My skis and poles were jammed part way up the cliff, deeply scathed. I climbed up, retrieved my battered equipment and tentatively skied down to the chairlift where my Saskatoon acquaintances awaited. It was they who had suggested I might enjoy that treacherous black trail.

“How was the run?” asked Joe.

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” I said, emptying snow from inside my goggles.

That night, we relaxed in front of a roaring fire, enjoying the view across Nita Lake and the glowing mansions fronting Whistler. In the morning, we bid adieu to our prairie friends and our Whistler digs, packed the Subaru and, avoiding the congested Vancouver corridor, took an alternate route home, north up Hwy 99 through Pemberton and down the narrow, perilous pass into Lillooet and thence back onto Hwy 1 at Kamloops.

En route, I had a rather close call with a cliff. But that’s another story.

Troy Media travel writer Gerry Feehan, QC, lives in Red Deer, Alta. He can be reached at gnfeehan@gmail.com.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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