There are a number of reasons why skiers might not want to go to Whistler, in British Columbia, on Canada's west coast. It's thousands of miles away, for a start: Vancouver is a 10-hour flight from Heathrow and the onward bus journey to Whistler takes a couple more hours. The resort is also notoriously damp. Clouds full of moisture are blown in from the Pacific, so rainfall is frequent in the resort and snowfall on the mountain is often heavy and sticky. And the resort base is a sort of sprawling pedestrian precinct, convenient but without charm.
But skiers are curiously deaf to the downside of Whistler Blackcomb, to give the place its full (but rarely used) name. No other North American resort is so popular among Britons. Why? Michael Bennett, managing director of Ski Independence, the UK tour operator which - according to the resort - routinely brings the most skiers to Whistler, has many answers to that question. The resort “ticks every box”, he says - except to Canadians, who are apparently unfamiliar with the idiom.
First and foremost is the lodging: “The very good four- and five-star hotels are incredible value by comparison with other North American resorts,” he says. Then there's the ski area, the biggest in the Americas: “It's vast and has glacier skiing, back-country off-piste and every other type of terrain, plus an impressive vertical drop”. The top of the ski area is almost a mile higher than the base. Other items on Bennett's list are Whistler's reliably heavy snow, plus its snow-making capability, the range of ski-in/ski-out accommodation and “the continuous, massive investment in improving the resort”.
During the summer all winter-sports resorts aim to improve their facilities for the following season. But Whistler's record of creating new reasons to visit, year after year, is unequalled. You could stay away for a while and still recognise the place on your return; Whistler's identity remains consistent. But you would certainly find it much changed.
Consider its landmark developments since the millennium. In 2000 it built a completely new village at Creekside, the original base for the ski area. In 2004 it increased the size of the ski area to 8,171 acres by adding 1,100 acres of “back-country” terrain in Flute Bowl; and two years later a new four-seat lift was installed in it.
From 2008, the rate of change accelerated, with a trio of ambitious projects in successive years. First came the 2.7-mile-long Peak 2 Peak gondola, connecting high points on its twin mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, and making civil-engineering history with its record unsupported span (1.8 miles) and gondola height (1,500ft above the ground). Next was a hydroelectric project which harnessed the Fitzsimmons Creek - which runs down the valley spanned by the Peak 2 Peak gondola - producing enough power to fulfil Whistler's year-round needs. Finally the resort hosted the Alpine Skiing and other events of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Having tried and failed to get to Whistler just before the Olympics (it's a long story, beginning with a train from the east which arrived 13 hours late), there was a lot for me to catch up on during a visit late last season. Creekside had been transformed, no longer a muddy car park but a substantial village capable of serving as the base for the Olympic skiing. The Whistler ski area was markedly bigger, better and greatly improved by the advent of the Peak 2 Peak gondola: previously skiers had to descend to the lift base to switch between the two mountains.
The gondola is an amazing engineering achievement. It is also very enjoyable - if you have a head for heights. At the lift's two entrances, alongside the line of skiers shuffling into the red cabins, there are small queueing areas: they are for the thrill-seekers waiting for one of the two silver cabins, which are glass-bottomed. Once inside, passengers crowd around the glass panel as the cabin begins to move; but quite soon the adults begin to shuffle back, to concentrate on the less alarming view from the windows. And when the ground falls away so far that Fitzsimmons Creek is a quarter of a mile below, even the chatter of the children is stilled.
The legacy of the of the 2010 Games included a range of other new facilities for thrill-seekers: the Whistler Olympic Park offers “bobsleigh rides and skeleton slides”, and a biathlon experience for those who want to combine cross-country skiing with some shooting. But for this season, the resort's investment reflects the commitment by Whistler's President and CEO, Dave Brownlie, “to continuously enhance the skiing and riding experience on both mountains”.
So on Blackcomb Mountain's Crystal Zone - a beautiful, wooded area about midway down the ski face - there is a new, high-speed four-seat lift. It replaces a slow three-seater, Crystal Chair, and has a more satisfactory alignment. The zone is a great place to spend time when fog rolls in off the Pacific and visibility is compromised; and the new Crystal Ridge Express runs up from the bottom to the top of the zone, saving skiers from what was previously a lengthy, two-lift ride. It also increases the “uplift” capacity by 65 per cent.
On Whistler, the new lift is the Harmony 6 Express, which takes skiers up to Little Whistler Peak and the Symphony Amphitheatre, replacing a four-seater which started slightly higher up the mountain. Again, capacity is increased, this time by 50 per cent.
Will you make it this season to the new, improved Whistler? If not, don't worry: it's bound to be further improved next season. One of the resort's senior managers told me that the ambition is to make Whistler the world's most popular resort. (It had 2.1 million visitors last season; La Plagne in France averages 2.5 million.) But won't that make it crowded? No. Increasing the ski area to 10,000 acres is apparently on the cards, but increasing skier-density isn't.
Ski Independence (0131 243 8097; ski-i.com) offers seven nights at the Aava Hotel in Whistler, plus return flights from Heathrow and shared transfers to the resort, from £1,146 per person, based on two sharing a double room.
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