Ski special: Canadian gold rush

Whistler and Vancouver will host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Tam Leach enters a snowboarder's dream
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The Independent Travel

Early January, 2005. The start gate above the World Championship snowboardcross course on Whistler Mountain bustles with quiet industry. Bibbed snowboarders from every Alpine nation jostle past a group from New Zealand; officials check starting lists; workbenches wobble in the snow as technicians wax and sharpen. The scent of the wax hangs heavy in the cold, dense air. A coach - stout, red-bearded, buccaneer-like - walks his athlete away from the crowds, edging along an icy incline out to the side of the holding pen. They pause as a rippling hush signals the start of a heat; the silence of concentration broken as the starting pips klaxon across the slopes and four bodies shoot out of the gate. A sharp scraw echoes as the racers jostle through the first icy corner with ferocious speed; then the racers are gone.

The coach finishes his pep talk. Zoë Gillings, one of Britain's great snow-white hopes, pulls on her full-face helmet and walks back to the gate. She takes a last, sweeping look out across the course, to where slower, saner skiers swoop and falter down the massive mountain to the village of Whistler below. In 2010, this renowned resort (along with Vancouver) will host the next Winter Olympics. Right now, Zoë's just concerned about making it to the 2006 Games intact.

As the starter chimes and she launches out into the stratosphere, her teammates are just making it to breakfast. Fitter than you or I ever shall be, determined to avoid even a whiff of a Vic's inhaler, and usually reasonable about watching their alcohol intake, Team GB are still young, still travelling, still out to enjoy themselves. Their halfpipe competition is a week away. And Whistler is a party town.

It is also a snowboarder's dream, a tourist's highlight, a powderhound's paradise. The towering slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb have hosted more international contests than Terry Wogan, and the resort is regularly voted into the top spot by the world's media. Whistler Blackcomb boasts the largest skiable area in North America, the greatest vertical drop, and the only resort glacier skiing.

There's no shortage of places to eat breakfast, either, with almost 100 restaurants in Whistler Village; compared with the average Alpine resort, dining options are refreshingly eclectic. Even the bus station has a sushi counter. Unfortunately, Team GB don't get the choice. FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), the regulatory body for international ski and snowboard competitions, has a system: competitors pay a flat fee for a low-priced accommodation and meal package, with the nations rotated through the town's family-style steakhouses and pasta restaurants for dinner.

Still, Team GB aren't complaining. They finish eating and start pulling on hats and gloves. At the next table is a huddle of navy: the Japanese in uniform, stylish but restrained. Waiting in line are the Italians, all racing striped; over by the coffee urns are a cluster of eastern Europeans, in bold geometrics. On the World Cup circuit, the Brits don't wear uniform. Without the financial support of their sponsors - however meagre - these overlooked athletes would still be on the dry ski slopes back home.

Craig Smith - the red-bearded coach - arrives with news. Zoë has made it through her heat and will race again later. Now: why the hell don't they get their butts up to the terrain park and start practising? Before he became a coach Smith roped young horses in Calgary. It shows. Perhaps the psychology involved in the two jobs isn't so different; though most of the team got their start late, on plastic or Scottish slush, they aren't doing half bad. Off they trot, looking stoked rather than chastised.

There are four terrain parks and two halfpipes in Whistler. You could spend all day, every day of a week's visit just in the parks and not get bored. You could also spend that time pottering down different blue runs, or off-piste without ever going over the same ground twice. Unless, of course, it rains.

Whistler looks unlikely to have problems with preparations for 2010. Only 40 years old, the resort has never shied from development, with multi-million dollar improvements to the ski area occurring almost annually; the next few years will see the expansion of the Whistler-Vancouver highway, the construction of Nordic and sledging arenas and a new ice rink. But rain is the one thing that the Organising Committee can't plan for. And by the time that the team return from practise, the wet weather is kicking in.

Generally, the region benefits from moisture-rich storms. An average year sees 360 inches of thick powder fall here. Thus far in 2006, Whistler's base measures around eight feet, compared with two feet in Tignes. Unfortunately, the same geography plus an unusually warm front can occasionally result in rain - and lots of it.

Even before the halfpipe competition gets going, the village is ankle deep in water. Team GB ride on regardless. Lesley McKenna scores highest of the pipe riders; she was the only British snowboarder to qualify for the 2002 Olympics. Dan Wakeham (see interview, page 10) and Kate Foster will also represent Britain in the Olympic halfpipe in 2006. But this time it's Zoë who places best.

She takes the 14th spot. Not as good as her first place in Chile, when she joined McKenna as the only Brits to ever get a first in a FIS World Cup. Still, perfectly respectable. Enough to guarantee that she'll be joining Lesley, Dan and Kate in Bardonecchia next month. And at just 20, it's not unlikely that she'll be back in Canada in 2010, when Whistler's shot at the Olympic circus rolls around. Just so long as it snows.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly from various UK airports to Vancouver on Air Canada (0871 220 1111; www.aircanada.ca), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Zoom (0870 240 0055; www.flyzoom.com), as well as a range of charter flights. Many operators offer package holidays to Whistler.

The 70-mile drive along Highway 99 from Vancouver to Whistler currently takes two hours, though the pre-Olympic widening project should speed this up. A car is unnecessary if staying in Whistler Village. Bus transfers from downtown Vancouver on Snowbus ( www.snowbus.ca) or Greyhound ( www.greyhound.ca) cost around C$37 (£18) - cheaper than taking one of the direct transfers from the airport. Day tickets are priced from C$73 (£35); six-day passes purchased online come to C$394 (£190). Significant savings are offered through tour operators. Discount lift and lodging packages can also be booked through the resort; see www.whistlerblackcomb.com for more information.

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