Trail Of The Unexpected: Two peaks united at Whistler
Saturday 13 December 2008
It's Thursday morning in Whistler and I'm living the dream. Just for once, it's got nothing to do with "epic landscape", "bucketloads of powder" (there is none), or any of the other excitable hyperbole that normally gets spouted in relation to Britain's favourite Canadian ski resort. All I've done is get on a cable car and cross from one mountain to another.
However, this is not just any cable-car ride. It's the new Peak 2 Peak gondola that links Whistler Mountain with its craggy sibling, Blackcomb. For over a decade it has been the dream of Intrawest, the resort's owners, that skiers would be able to mix it up on both mountains without having to go the long way round by bus – as has been the case until now. This weekend, their dreams are due to come true.
If all goes according to plan, 28 cabins – each carrying up to 28 people – will now be able to ferry a total of 4,000 skiers every hour from one side of the resort to the other.
The Peak 2 Peak was first envisaged 11 years ago by Intrawest's senior vice-president, Hugo Smythe, on a skiing trip to the Swiss resort of Zermatt. Gazing up at a tram connecting the village to the mighty Matterhorn mountain, he hit upon the idea of linking Canada's two most famous mountains at their respective summits, sealing Whistler's reputation as a North American "super resort".
A similar project was undertaken in Europe five years ago when the French firm Compagnie des Alpes built the 1.2-mile long Vanoise Express, linking Les Arcs and La Plagne to create Paradiski. This, however, is more than twice the length, covering a total distance of nearly three miles. It took 18 months to build, at a cost of about £35m, with Swiss engineers hammering two giant stanchions into the solid rock on each summit in order to feed the 28km of steel cables. The gap between each pylon is an astonishing 1.8 miles.
Look closely as you go over and you'll see a tree sprouting from the top of one of the pylons; this is not some prank played by brave environmentalists, but a Swiss tradition known as "topping". Apparently, it brings good luck.
Maybe they should have done a snow dance instead. The last time I came here, in 2005, the weather was awful, with the worst snowfall for 30 years. This time the white stuff is just as thin on the ground as I shuffle along, snowboard in hand, to make the inaugural journey to the other side.
If nothing else, though, the view as you make your way across is something special. Stretching out before me are the jagged peaks of the Coastal Mountains, sugar-coated under a massive blue sky. My cabin is one of two with glass bottoms, which allows you to look down at the land rushing past, 436 metres below. Eleven minutes is all it takes to move between the mountains, which immediately adds another 3,000 acres of immaculately groomed pistes to your day.
In total, Whistler has more than 8,000 acres of ski runs, spread across both mountains, but until now you had to pretty much pick one at the start of the day and stick with it. In a way, there was nothing wrong with that: both offer excellent terrain to suit all abilities, and it almost felt as if you were getting two ski resorts for the price of one. So, aside from all the impressive stats and a few new records set, what difference will it make for the average skier?
"It cuts out a lot of hassles when you're skiing in a mixed group," says Lynn Gervais, who works at the Fairmont Hotel. "Whistler Mountain is generally better for skiers and Blackcomb is more for boarders, which creates problems when you're all trying to stick together. Now, though, we can mix it up and ski whatever terrain we prefer and just meet up at the top on whichever mountain we choose."
Of course, your enjoyment of this relies on having the fitness to make the most of it. Which, unfortunately, I don't. After a summer spent slumped on my sofa, it takes just half a day on the slopes to develop a dose of the jelly legs. Oh well, if all else fails at least I can spend the rest of the day enjoying the view from the gondola.
Matt Carroll travelled to Whistler with Inghams (020-8780 4444; inghams.co.uk), which offers seven-night packages from £829, including return flights from London Heathrow, resort transfers and accommodation at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. For more information on Whistler, see whistlerblackcomb.com
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