Whistler: a …summer tourist mecca or a place to fling oneself roughly down a mountain?

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It has been many years since going to Whistler.  My family doesn’t ski or snowboard and thus there has been a low desire to take effort to travel from Vancouver to Whistler.  When the 2010 Winter Olympics were announced and the subsequent Highway 99 (Sea-to-Sky) upgrade was started, many of us Vancouver types stayed off the road.  For years.

Recently during a weekend getaway with my kids in Squamish, I thought, what the heck.  It’s summer, the scenery will be amazing and Whistler is only an hour away.

And when I say an hour, I mean it literally.  From the Best Western Mountain Resort north of Squamish to my parking spot in Lot 3 in Whistler, was 58 minutes.  However, driving Highway 99 is not a cake-walk for the uninitiated.  The regular users of this road take it fast.  Posted speed limits don’t exceed 90 km/hour and I found myself in the right lane, taking minor liberties with the speed limit, and observing other cars blow by me.  Assuming you’ve driven as far as Squamish, you will have noticed that the road is up-down-bendy and rather scenic.  Once past Squamish, there are no opportunities to drive off the road and crash into Howe Sound, but there are many bends and many moments of “oooo ahhhhh” scenery.

Once parked we walked into Whistler Village.  I quickly concluded that this was a place for people to try to hurt themselves.  A mountain bike race was underway.  From what I could gather, the objective it was to see how quickly you could come down Whistler Mountain and not die.  There were scads of cyclists wandering around with special collars around their necks that looked like the yokes you put around oxen.  I was quick to conclude that this was breaking-your-neck-avoidance technology.

My idea was that the Peak2Peak Gondola trip would be a good experience.  With all the hurley-burley with the mountain bikers, it took a minute of asking people where to buy tickets.  (Before taking kids onto the gondola, I recommend enforced bathroom breaks.)

We had bought tickets ($72 for an adult, a child over 5 and my youngest at 4 was free.)  There is a height restriction for going on the chair lifts, which my 4-year-old squeaked by with about a cm to spare.  It was at this point my eldest asked, “Is everyone who works here Australian?”  “Pretty much,” I replied.  At which point we handed our tickets to a lady from the Czech Republic.  We knew this because it said so on her name tag.  Later we met a lady from Cape Town, who said she was heading home soon because new rules wouldn’t not let her renew her work visa.  I wondered if Whistler Mountain realized that Mr. Harper’s new regulations were having an effect.

Naturally one has to first reach the top of Whistler Mountain (or Blackcomb) in order to do the Peak2Peak.  The line onto the first gondola was split into two.  Insane mountain bikers were taking their bikes and soon-to-be-bruised bodies onto the gondola.

Once on the gondola, I realized that I had forgotten something.  I have a moderate fear of heights.  Aircraft of any sort are fine.  Two seat Cessnas and gliders are all good.  Ski lifts, not so much.  My eldest found this change in me hilarious and I could only occasionally look out to see mountain bikers fling themselves down the mountain.  By the time we reached the top, I was feeling the equivalent effects of car/motion sickness and was glad that we could take a break to enjoy the scenery.

Pretty soon though, my eldest was pushing to do the Peak2Peak, which looked a lot newer, bigger and studier than the first gondola.  It was a good thing that I didn’t first read some facts about the Peak2Peak:

It’s a 4.4 km (2.73 mi.) distance between the two mountains.  3.024 km (1.88 mi.) of this is unsupported, which means no towers.  That’s because it’s 436 m (1427 ft) straight down into the valley.  It may only take 11 minutes to cross, but everyone knows time does not fly when you are afraid.

There was a choice of glass bottom and opaque floors in the gondolas.  I of course chose the non see-through floor.  Regardless, I sat quietly and stared at the lines of my hands.  My 4-year-old upon realizing what the heck we were doing said, “holy crap.”  I did not scold him for inappropriate use of language in front of strangers.  One image I will never forget is looking out the back of the Peak2Peak gondola and realizing how far we had come and how big a dip the cables formed.  People tend to think in straight lines, but the engineer in me realized it would be cheaper to not fight gravity all the time.  My imagination also wondered how many roars of laughter occurred when the first person to suggest this gondola ride actually did so.

Once on the top of Blackcomb the scenery and vistas are intense.  The views are so majestic, it’s like being grabbed by the shirt, shaken, and told “look at my awesomeness!”  As I looked at the signs identifying different peaks, I noticed Mt. Currie.  It felt distant and looming.  At 2591 m (8501 ft.), it does stand above Blackcomb’s 2240 m (7347 ft.).

So now for the last leg and, for me, the worst: the ski lift.  No enclosed gondola this time.  Just a plain old-fashioned bar you pull down from overhead.  I didn’t scream, but my eldest laughed at me as I hyperventilated.  I held my 4-year-old’s leg for dear life.  I did not kiss the ground when we arrived at the base, but I sure wanted to.

Next time my wife can do that adventure.  I’m staying in the Irish pub in Whistler Village where ground level is ground level and beer is beer.

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