Paul Andersen: Fair Game
August 31, 2009
I have seen the competition and it is formidable. Whistler Blackcomb, in the Coastal Range of British Columbia, is the most highly rated ski resort in North America. I was there two weeks ago and was awestruck by what I saw.
First of all, there’s the scale. Whistler Blackcomb dwarfs Aspen with the enormity of its mountains. The vertical relief of some peaks is more than 8,000 feet. This is skiing on a European scale, with vast mountain bowls and vertiginous summits, all of which get plastered by Pacific storm fronts that lay on meters and meters of well-bonded snow.
I was amazed to look up at narrow chutes and precipitous faces where locals say they ski routinely. Then I noticed the directional signs on the ski area, elevated on poles 20 feet high! Another dramatic visual was nearby glacier-capped peaks with blue ice cascading beneath white snowfields. Aquamarine lakes are fed by melting glacial ice. Rivers run powder blue from glacial silt.
Climate change will be a huge challenge for Whistler Blackcomb, just as it will be for Aspen. At Whistler, however, Pacific storms are typically wet and warm, which means big snows up top and drenching rains down low. For connoisseurs of dry, champagne powder, Aspen will reign supreme over its northern competitor because of elevation.
Environmentally, both resorts weigh in with big carbon footprints. There are huge resort hotels and lavish second homes in both resorts, though Aspen remains the epitome of conspicuous consumption; no competition there.
Like Aspen, Whistler Blackcomb has an aggressive environmental program, but with a distinct advantage. A new hydroelectric power plant in Cheakamus Creek, a glacially fed stream that runs between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, promises to provide enough clean, renewable energy to operate the entire resort. This will be a formidable allure to green-conscious consumers looking for guilt-free ski vacations.
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Culturally, Aspen leads Whistler because of the Aspen Music Festival, the Aspen Institute, and an authentic, historical town originating from the mining days. Whistler is a relatively new community, where skiing took off in earnest in 1968.
The culture gap is narrowing, however, with myriad festivals at Whistler and with idea-based programming through the young-but-promising Whistler Forum for Leadership and Dialogue. Whistler is close enough to the ocean to give it a maritime influence, it is surrounded by great temperate rain forests, and it is within only a few hours of several large cities via the impressive Sea to Sky corridor. Whistler is also surrounded by vast heli-skiing terrain, year-round mountaineering, and world-class mountain biking.
What really sets Whistler apart from Aspen is the cultural richness of the First Nations Squamish and Lil’wat cultures. These indigenous peoples are fostering a cultural resurgence which provides authenticity for a diverse regional identity. By contrast, the Ute peoples native to Aspen remain culturally marginalized.
The First Nations of Whistler are shrewdly linking their cultural resurgence with the ambitious planning currently under way for the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympics. They are joining the momentum rather than thwarting it, and as a result are standing tall from the invisibility to which they had been consigned since the colonial era.
Aspen is a great ski resort, but it sometimes falters on complacency as expressed by surly attitudes toward guests, absurdly high pricing, and an undercurrent of arrogance. Whistler is working hard to put its best face on the product it sells, which will be broadcast to billions of people worldwide during the Olympics.
Whistler Blackcomb is Aspen’s competition, not only as a draw to skiers, but as exemplar of a resort that celebrates mountains and community, and focuses the resulting synergy on the local economy. All this makes it hard to resist wanting to ski Whistler Blackcomb, even if you do live in Aspen.
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