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Scruggs: After 3 interrupted seasons, Whistler Blackcomb is back in easy reach

By Gregory Scruggs, The Seattle Times
Published: January 22, 2023, 6:02am
3 Photos
Tips for navigating Whistler, Canada, home of the crown jewel of Pacific Northwest skiing.
Tips for navigating Whistler, Canada, home of the crown jewel of Pacific Northwest skiing. (Dreamstime/TNS) Photo Gallery

WHISTLER, B.C. — When I clipped out of my skis at Whistler Blackcomb in February 2019, I didn’t plan any goodbyes. Whistler was an old buddy I saw often, not some distant friend.

Then the U.S.-Canada border closed to nonessential travel in March 2020 and remained shut through the 2020-21 ski season. While it reopened to vaccinated U.S. travelers in August 2021, coronavirus tests and the ArriveCAN travel app made a cross-border visit more of a chore than usual during the 2021-22 winter.

The Canadian government scrapped those entry rules in September, so this winter marks a return to “normal” for Washington snow lovers heading north to the crown jewel of Pacific Northwest skiing.

If you’re a Whistler devotee who knows every twist of the Sea-to-Sky Highway, you can skip ahead. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, Whistler Blackcomb tops annual “best ski resort” lists for good reason. It’s a behemoth of a mountain — two mountains, actually — and the largest resort by acreage in North America, with seemingly endless variety of terrain that can keep skiers and riders of any skill level busy exploring.

When the skies part, the Coast Range boasts some of the most spectacular mountain scenery on the planet. Down in the pedestrian-friendly village, there are more bars, restaurants, shops, hotels and nightclubs than every Cascades ski area combined. Whistler Blackcomb draws tourists from all over the world, while for Seattleites it’s a four-hour drive (border crossing and Vancouver metro traffic notwithstanding).

Waking up and sleeping in your own bed, while still logging a full day on the slopes, is a perk of the Western Washington ski life. But many relish a true ski trip — where you soak in a hot tub at the end of a tiring day, eat a hearty dinner and do it all over again the next day, no commute required.

For that kind of resort experience, Seattle-area skiers and snowboarders have been enamored of Whistler for a long time. On my recent return visit the weekend before Christmas, absence had made the heart grow fonder. There was no shortage of Seahawks and Kraken jerseys on the lifts and along the village stroll.

Ready for your own return to Whistler? Here’s an update on the ski resort.

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What’s changed — and what hasn’t

The fallout from Colorado-based Vail Resorts’ $1 billion acquisition in 2016 was still settling at the end of the last decade. In 2017, Whistler’s local newsmagazine Pique coined the phrase “VailBorg” to describe the process of assimilating into the new owner’s corporate culture — and the B.C. resort’s experience foreshadowed growing pains in Washington after Vail bought Stevens Pass in 2018, a move that also made Whistler more accessible than ever to Seattle-area skiers who purchase Epic Passes, Vail’s multiresort season pass product.

Meanwhile, Whistler is grappling with the same housing market pressures facing mountain towns across the West. Last month, the library opened an overnight shelter to provide a respite from extreme cold for people living in vehicles or tents.

“People actually live here,” four-time Olympian and Whistler resident Mercedes Nicoll said. “Be kind and courteous to those working behind the counters because they’re probably working two or three jobs to get by in this town.”

The supply of seasonal employees seems back at full steam — mountain operations ran smoothly on my visit — and I had no problem finding a table with or without reservations, but the mountain was surely busy. Master ski tech Johann Sheetz was turning away customers when I visited Underground Tuning.

And despite the perceived corporatization of Whistler, Vail Resorts has earned some local praise of late. Case in point: The snafu that kept Whistler’s Creekside Gondola upgrade from opening in time for the start of the season.

Creekside is a popular base for day trippers from metro Vancouver. An offseason project to expand capacity from six to 10 people per gondola load would alleviate long morning lineups and is exactly the kind of capital investment that deep-pocketed Vail brings to the table. But a supply chain issue kept the haul rope in shipping container limbo, necessitating a logistics scramble. The new gondola opened Dec. 23 and avoided a worst-case scenario ahead of the busy Christmas holiday week. (The Blackcomb base landed a new gondola in 2019.)

The begrudging praise came from a self-described Whistler ski bum of several decades who was riding the new Big Red Express (now a six-seater instead of a quad). He was impressed that Vail flew in staff from the company’s Australian resorts to work overtime on installation and testing.

That ski bum admitted to being an endangered species in what he referred to as an increasingly “Gucci” village. He shook his head in disbelief that some people visit not to ski but just to shop.

Shopping bags are as common as skis in Whistler — and you’ll see the familiar green evo logo since the Seattle-based retailer bought five ski and bike shops here in 2018 — but a resort this massive can be all things to all people.

What hasn’t changed is that Whistler is a haven for extreme couloir skiing in steep, narrow chutes just a short hike from the chairlift — and every other type of skiing, from beginner-friendly groomers for long cruises to perfectly spaced trees on gladed runs — even if what has changed is Whistler’s increasing draw as a wintertime Xanadu where, for some, the wallet gets more of a workout than the quads.

Pro tips

On this most recent trip, I picked up a few pro tips while relying on some tried-and-true techniques for managing my ski day.

For starters, there’s the most important variable: How much did it snow and where?

When it comes to Whistler, my advice is simple: Don’t trust the new snow total, as it’s probably an undercount. The measuring stick at the midmountain Pig Alley weather station (5,413 feet) is just one small dot across a vast swath of mountain. Given that tiny Alpental manages to report new snowfall at three different elevations, I find Whistler’s scarce data perplexing. You get the new snowfall, temperature, basic forecast, but no human commentary suggesting where to find the best conditions. Do your own sleuthing — look at the wind direction and follow the new snow into wind-deposited areas. As a rule of thumb, Whistler generally catches more of the white stuff than Blackcomb.

With 1.35 million annual ski visitors, Whistler is no stranger to crowds. When the village plaza resembles Times Square, head for the Fitzsimmons Express chairlift for your ride up the mountain instead of waiting out long lines for the shelter of the Whistler or Excalibur gondolas. The lift exposes you to the elements on a damp morning, but moving uphill — even if you need to then catch another lift — is preferable to shuffling through an interminable line for a covered gondola ride. Ditto for long mid-mountain lift lines. My ski partners and I split up and took the singles lane (less practical for families with young children).

Finally, the 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. lunch rush at the main cafeterias (The Roundhouse on Whistler and Glacier Creek Lodge or Rendezvous on Blackcomb) can entail more time waiting than it takes to eat your bowl of chili. If you’re dead-set on a sit-down lunch at a normal mealtime, avoid the big lodges entirely and seek out more obscure options like Chic Pea or Raven’s Nest (all-vegetarian menu) on Whistler and Crystal Hut on Blackcomb. They may feel cramped and are not ideal for large groups, but you will likely get your food quicker. Don’t forget to flash your Epic Pass for 20% off at on-mountain dining establishments.

Where to sleep, eat, drink and party

As an Epic Pass holder this season, I was keen to take advantage of the 20% off deal on accommodations by booking via the Whistler Blackcomb website — but I found better deals at Booking.com. Our family of three settled on a one-bedroom condo at Cascade Lodge for CA$525 ($390.90) per night.

Solo travelers on a budget should consider the unique, design-forward Pangea Pod Hotel, where a generous and friendly lounge scene (board games when I wandered through, a band the night before) compensates for the pod’s tight quarters. And there is no shortage of high-end hotels in Whistler, like the swanky new Fairmont Gold. Whatever you do, stay in legal accommodations; the Resort Municipality of Whistler is cracking down on illegal short-term rentals. “Book a hotel because a lot of the Airbnb homes are being used for tourists when they should be for people to live in,” said Nicoll, the Olympian.

We loaded up on provisions in Squamish, but Whistler’s Fresh St. Market was leagues above in quality and not much more expensive if you want to cook a few meals to offset costs.

While the resort’s on-mountain fine dining restaurants have finally reopened this season (Steeps Grill & Wine Bar on Whistler and Christine’s on Blackcomb), I’ve never been one for the European-style ski lunch. I’d rather clock a few more runs and replenish at après-ski. The Longhorn Saloon occupies prime real estate to capture skiers coming off the hill — with a DJ pumping tunes from an elevated booth, you can’t miss it. (Be prepared for a cover charge on peak weekends.)

A ski instructor recommended neighboring Black’s Pub for better food. The mulled wine (CA$12.50) was the perfect balance of spices, citrus and sweet. Compelled to Instagram your order? Braidwood Tavern at the Four Seasons has concocted boozy cocoa delights with a seasonal Hot Chocolates of the World menu (CA$23-CA$25).

For a quick and casual bite, La Cantina Tacos hit the spot with fish tacos (CA$4.25) and a soul-warming tortilla soup (CA$6.50). If the evening calls for takeout, the new Thai spot Barn Nork is worth leaving the village for the fried egg starter kai look keuy (CA$16) and a delectable green curry (CA$24).

Last but not least, rest assured Whistler’s legendary party scene is back in full swing. While fatherhood has slowed my nightlife habits, judging by the gondola banter of a quintet of seasonal employees regaling the night prior’s exploits, the Bacchanalia is back. Garfinkel’s is still the Whistler nightlife O.G., while there are two new kids on the block: Moe Joe’s and Après Après.

“Whistler is like a Disneyland for adults,” Nicoll said. “You could go out every night of the week.”