‘It’s puking snow up here again today,” said Anton Horvath, Whistler’s avalanche forecaster, peering out of his office window on Wednesday last week. “If you took off your skis outside, you would literally sink up to your armpits. I’ve been here for 35 years and I’ve never seen a storm cycle of this intensity in my career.”
Skiers love to talk about huge dumps of snow, epic quantities of powder – it’s their equivalent of fishermen’s tales – but what’s happening in Whistler, British Columbia, at the moment really is something special. By Thursday last week, more than 540cm of snow had fallen in November, more than in any month since records began in 1979. To put that into perspective, it’s more than half the snowfall the resort usually expects during the entire winter season, from November to the end of April. It’s already more than Zermatt in Switzerland got during the whole of last season (which was a good one).
All that snow, and Whistler’s season is only just beginning. The resort opened fully for the first time on Thursday, when lifts started running on Blackcomb mountain, one of two peaks that make up the resort. The other, Whistler mountain, was opened two weeks early, on 14 November, and since then staff have been fighting a round-the-clock battle to deal with the weather, often literally having to dig lifts out of the snow.
“I’d say there’s never too much snow, but it does provide challenges,” said Horvath. “We’re trying to open up the lifts and the runs for the new season but so much snow makes it hard. It’s going to take two full days for snowcats [caterpillar-tracked snow moving machines] to dig the top station of the Peak chairlift out of the snow, and it took another two days to knock all the ice off the Harmony chairlift ready for this weekend.”
Developments in Whistler are being eyed enviously by ski resorts on this side of the Atlantic, where conditions hang in the balance. Early snowfalls in most Alpine resorts have been wiped out by warm weather, though the outlook is looking better for next week. But then Whistler was due a bit of good luck.
Last season the situation was spectacularly reversed. Europe was enjoying the best early-season snow in more than an decade; Whistler was struggling against a snow drought. Worse, the Canadian resort had chosen that moment to invite more than 200 journalists, from as far away as Australia, Mexico and Europe, to witness the opening of its brand new £28m Peak 2 Peak cable car. The assembled press found a resort with just a handful of icy pistes open, and had to take the cable car back down at the end of the day because there wasn’t enough snow to ski to the village. Worse still, a couple of days after the gala opening, a pylon on another lift buckled, causing two gondolas to bounce off the ground, injuring 13 people. It was a PR fiasco.
But if the dress rehearsal was a disaster, the stage is now set for a triumph. The fabulous conditions have arrived just as Whistler gears up to host the Winter Olympics, from 12-28 February. Bagging the games is the realisation of a 50-year dream for senior managers at the resort, and will seal its reputation as North America’s leading winter sports destination.
Traditionally, hosting the games has been a mixed blessing for ski resorts – their prestige gets a boost, but actual visitor numbers often fall, as people stay away, fearing piste closures, building work and congestion. So should you go to watch? Whistler promises that 90% of pistes will be open to the public throughout the event, and there’s an argument that with everyone watching the races, the rest of the mountain will be deserted. But unless you’re a winter sports fanatic you’d be mad to go during Olympic fortnight, when a room, if you can get one at all, will cost three times the normal price.
Better to go as soon as possible. Ironically, fear of the Olympics putting people off has led to some excellent early-season deals – the five star Fairmont Chateau is offering free room upgrades and vouchers to spend on food and drink, many firms are offering two or three free days’ lift pass if you stay for more than a week, and Inghams has a week’s trip to the newly refurbished four-star hotel Aava from just £609, including British Airways flights and transfers. “This year we’ve seen the best deals ever,” said Michael Bennett of Ski Independence.
So the best deals and the best snow – but is it the best resort? As in many resorts in North America, service at Whistler is excellent and the standard of piste-preparation is top-notch, but the village is not exactly brimming with charm. Whistler’s centre is modern and purpose-built, with apartment blocks and hotels that ape Alpine architecture in a vague and slightly twee way. Where it differs from almost every other North American resort is in the scale and scope of its ski area, which comes close to some of the top European resorts. Whistler has 38 lifts and a vertical drop (from highest lift to lowest piste) of 1,635m. Few resorts anywhere are so well suited to a broad range of abilities. While many US and Canadian resorts are fabulous for beginners and intermediates, Whistler has wide gentle cruising runs, but also steep expert terrain.
The new 4.4km Peak 2 Peak cable car is an attraction in itself, slung between the two mountains, with a 3km span in the middle from the last pylon on one side to the first on the other. Two of the 28 gondolas even have glass bottoms, offering dizzying views of the forested valley 436m below. Not that anyone’s getting much of a view at the moment.
“There’s snow today and snow tomorrow, and the forecast is that the storm cycle looks set to continue,” says Horvath. “There’s no end in sight.”
France – The Alps have had a few weeks of warm, dry conditions, but snow did arrive in some French resorts last week. Val d’Isère and Tignes opened yesterday, after 20cm of fresh snow. Val Thorens is also open and saw 10cm, with the rest of the Three Valleys due to open on Saturday. Hopes are high for a big storm that’s due to hit tomorrow.
Switzerland – Saas Fee and Laax are open, but others are struggling. Arosa has delayed opening by a week until Saturday. Big snowfalls and cold temperatures are forecast for this week.
Austria – St Anton was due to open this weekend but has had to postpone. There’s good skiing on the Hintertux glacier, but only light snow fell elsewhere last week. Snow is forecast, but less than in France.
Italy – Cortina and Livigno have a few lifts open but Alagna has had to postpone. Big falls of up to 60cm are expected this week.
North America – Western Canada is enjoying fabulous conditions, but the eastern resorts are faring less well and have yet to open. The western US resorts have average conditions for the time of year.