Review of Whistler

9th June 2009 by the ski addict 

I have now skied Whistler six times. Three of the trips were at Christmas/New Year, the others were mid February.

I have been motivated to write this report due to my increasing frustration with your book review.

As a place on Earth to ski, there are few better than Whistler: or there would be if it were not for short-sighted planning and investment decisions.

I start with the lift system. Compared to many European major resorts the lift system is antiquated and not fit for purpose.

In the mornings the queue for the Village gondola up Whistler Mountain is a joke. The alternative is the Fitzsimmons chair which has less queues, but is often gratuitously closed. Once up the mountain, any seasoned European skier would be amazed that such a famous resort has so few lifts, with nothing more than a four man detachable. This promotes massive queues. Particular black spots are The Excellerator, The Solar Coaster, and Seventh Heaven on Blackcomb; and Emerald and (the worst of all) Harmony on Whistler.

Many of these bottlenecks could have been avoided by upgrading lifts to (at least) six-packs and by putting in extra lifts. a major improvement would be achieved by putting a new chair into Harmony bowl to a different point of the surrounding ridge.

Why has this investment not occurred? Because money has been wasted on one badly thought out lift and one white elephant, and because the lift company is content to milk the punters.

Several years ago, the Symphony chair was installed. The issue here is that it services very little interesting terrain (mostly it is very flat and easy), and takes no strain off Harmony. Indeed, it makes matters worse as to get to it you need to use the Harmony Express. It is also amazing that any new chair installed is only a 4 man. (Ironically, this lift went in accompanied by great fanfares in the press: at the same time the little (but excellent) Maurienne resort of Les Karrelis put in a covered, heated six pack with no publicity at all).

This mistake is nothing compared to the “Peak 2 Peak” gondola. This cost upward of $60m and adds absolutely nothing to the skiing, as it alleviates no queues, and gives no vertical. It is referred to by many of the seasonnaires as “the Disneyland ride”, and is universally viewed by them as a total waste of money. All it is good for is to give pretty views to the non-skiers and the summer tourists.

This money could have been used to transform the system. One of the biggest planning problems of the resort is the lower peak-to-creek area on Whistler. The full peak to creek run is a really good 1529m vertical run to Creekside with multiple variants. However, the lower section can only be accessed from the upper, and the upper can only be accessed from the Peak chair which is regularly closed due to high winds and/or avalanche risk. As a result the lower peak to peak area which is tree lined and great in bad weather can generally not be reached because of that same bad weather. The solution would be a two stage gondola (use a DMC system to negate wind closures) from Creekside to the Peak, with a mid-station at the top of lower peak to creek. This however will not happen because all the money has been wasted on the Disneyland ride.

The other major problem is the overdevelopment of the village. The number of beds in the Upper and Lower Villages and Creekside will now accommodate more people than the mountain or the villages will support. As I have said before, the lift system may have been state of the art 10 years ago: it is now State of the Ark and cannot cope. Because of this the skiers are not sufficiently spread around the hill and some main arteries are dangerously busy at peak times. The other problem is the restaurants. Whistler has some of the best ski resort eating I have met. Araxi in the village, and the Rimrock at Creekside stand out (Umbertos is good, but not in the same league as those two). However over the Christmas period it is almost impossible to get a table anywhere without booking a long time in advance (I booked the Rimrock 2 months in advance and could not get a table before 9pm for any day of my 11 night trip!) or without queuing for multiple hours.
The mountain restaurants have queues beyond belief in spite of their size.

The moral of this tale is that I will never go at peak time again, and would only go at the lowest season.

One final gripe. Whistler has an incredibly expensive lift pass system, still relies on grotty paper lift passes, and has a ludicrously short skiing day. The authorities say this is because it takes so long to sweep the mountain of people because it is so big!! This is laughable put against for instance Val d’Isere or the 3 Vallees.

As I said I adore Whistler as a place to ski: the steeps, bowls, and couloirs are incredible: that is why these totally avoidable problems irk me so much.

I will end there: I doubt any of it will be used as it appears to be unforgivable to criticise North American resorts. It is always instructive to see the look of awe on American skiers’ faces when they see the lift systems and ski areas of (for instance) the Tarentaise.

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