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Snowboarding in Canada - Jan-Feb 2000

Having done a bit of skiing in the past (I emphasise the 'bit' which means I know that pointing skis down the hill makes you go faster, and that snow is not always as soft as it looks) I was keen to give snowboarding a go. However not one to do something by halves I figured a nice continuous stretch of six weeks on the slopes might be required to get past the embarrassingly bad stage - ie. to control getting off the chairlift...

Ingrid and me Choosing a destination wasn't easy - for a long stay hotels were out of the question and travelling alone meant it would be more difficult keeping costs down. I also decided for such a period by myself I didn't want to have any language issues which I thought counted Europe out (I have since been corrected and advised that most European ski resorts are filled with English speaking people). The USA had been struggling for snow with the exception being Whistler in Canada, which had also been recommended to me as a good ski resort. Final thumbs up for the trip came after I was able to book into a cheap lodge for that period of time.... I'm off!

 

Trip Report

Back to my beloved Gatwick airport that I had returned from just 10 days earlier. Try to catch the tube part way to save some money. None of the ticket machines working. Queue for one that everyone else is using... and it won't take my money, keeps spitting it out. I had been running it tight time-wise anyway... stress builds...

Jump on anyway without a ticket and get off a few stops later where I know I can catch a taxi - too late now to ride the tube in. Jump in and start to relax as we head to Victoria (where the Gatwick express train goes from). As we pull in, decide to double check my tickets... and realise I am supposed to be leaving from Heathrow airport, not Gatwick. In the other direction. I was this close to having stepped out of the cab, boarded the train and totally wrecking my trip (my air tickets are non-changeable, non-refundable)... Needless to say tell cabbie to drive me to Heathrow - £55 (ouch!) for the fare, but at least there in plenty of time...

Nine hour direct flight to Vancouver and stayed at a downtown hostel for the next 3 nights. Doing the shopping trip from hell - backpack only weighed 6.5kgs coming in to the country as buying all my winter gear there. Vancouver itself is stunning when the clouds clear in terms of it's outlook across the bay to all the mountains... unfortunately there is a lot of rain... and even snow on my last night there before heading to Whistler...

Vancouver Bay Totem Poles, Stanley Park Stanley Park

Whistler-Blackcomb

A two hour bus ride up the stunning coast (very South Islandish, only on a grander scale) and arrived in the purpose built ski village of Whistler. It really is an amazing resort, and with all the Christmas lights on and snow falling it doesn't take long to get into holiday mood!

Shoestring Lodge I stayed in the Shoestring Lodge, a cheap hostel that is around 10 mins walk from the village. The hostel has a bar (the Boot pub, notorious for it's outstanding strippers 3 nights a week) and a restaurant (Gaitors, a bit pricey but food is ok) as part of the building. The room I had was small with four bunk beds and the dorms are mixed. Accommodation is the big killer in Whistler in the peak season (as most places I guess). I booked my whole stint there so I didn't have to waste days working out where to sleep the next night as many others I met during the trip were, but then again I was also relying on the snow being good as no refunds!

Be warned - the place is over-run by Australians, they are everywhere! Mind you to be fair, they did know how to celebrate Australia day there in their usual drunken style... it started at 11am (or earlier for some - one was spotted unconscious already at 11.05am in the Longhorn pub) and by lunch-time the wrestling in the snow naked was in full force...

Some of the roomies Had a great mix of roomies - thankfully I was in the same room the whole time so had a procession of fellow snow bums from all over the world come through, for stays varying from a night to a week. From memory (in total) think I had 3 guys from UK, 1 girl from Sweden, 1 girl from Switzerland, 5 girls & 5 guys from Aus, 1 guy from Canada, 1 guy from USA, 1 guy from Japan, 1 guy from Norway and 2 guys from NZ. So a great way to meet a lot of interesting people who are all there for a good time as well...

Wouldn't say you got the quietest nights sleep there - we had vending machines outside the door so all the guys who toked up at 1am (so much weed at this place, hilarious) then got the munchies and hung around outside fumbling in their 'quarters' in their quest for a cookie. One night (with two Tasmanian girl roomies) one of them brought a guy in for the night. I played dead quietly cracking up as her girlfriend (not impressed with this turn of events) proceeded to victimise them from the bunk above about the noise they were making as they tried to not so quietly (or successfully) play hide the sausage. Needless to say they looked thoroughly embarrassed by the whole thing the next morning...

I would love to say that Whistler was over-run by gorgeous women, but the male:female ratio is around 10:1 - not the kind of odds I like but at least I had plenty of female roomies during the trip... 

Remembering that first time...

Road To Whistler Booked a three day lesson package starting the next day to try to minimise the pain of learning a new sport - not bad value at $CN 390 for lessons, lift passes and all your gear hire. Groups are around five people max, but can be less if your lucky day. Gondolas go up the two mountains (Whistler & Blackcomb) from right next to each other - 200 runs, 15 high speed lifts, 2 terrain parks & half-pipes... and mountains so big (5,280 vertical feet of skiing) this is not a place you are going to get bored in easily!

So, with demo board in hand it's up the gondola and into the snow. Oh the snow! Fresh powder all weekend before I arrived... stuff so soft you just fell over in it just 'because it was there' (or at least that was my excuse).

Blackcomb Skilift Oh yeah, the boarding... well within an hour we (down to three people by this stage as two gave up) were well practised at falling over and getting back up again, so it was time to venture onto the chair-lift to go higher up onto something with an incline greater than the 5 degrees we were getting used to. Having successfully navigated getting off the chair without breaking anything (those who have been to the mountain can appreciate how awkward it is on a snowboard since facing sideways) we then did our first turns... and turns... and turns... and woohoo! In between the falling over this was damn fun! And so on for the rest of the day, until by the end we were able to ride all the way down to the bottom on some blue runs (intermediate) - absolutely buzzing!

The next day jumped up to a level 4 class and was blue runs all day, including hitting the terrain park to do some jumps (damn scary). The final lesson day we had another dump of fresh powder so off into one of the bowls to get the biggest rush ever - the free floating "surfing" of riding a board through untracked deep powder... and by then I was well and truly hooked. I can't describe it, you have to experience it yourself - I can only imagine surfing as being something close to it

Pain? Oh yeah...kicked in the third day - bruises upon bruises on my left buttock & knees, burning thighs and calves, sore abs and triceps (all that getting up off the ground so much the first few days)... but sitting back here in London would gladly swap for that again!

So was it hard to learn? No way - it obviously gets more painful the older you are but even having never surfed or skateboarded (which supposedly help) I still got up to speed quickly as did most of the people I met. Key thing was to have a lesson when you begin (not your mates advice!) - met so many people who had tried/given it up as being too painful or discouraged because not taught proper technique.

On the mountain

After that was all just practise, practise, practise... I bought a weekday season pass ($CN 1090) so rode every day during the week and took weekends off. Bought myself top of the line gear which still wasn't that expensive (and same price as in Vancouver) - a Burton Canyon 162 board ($CN 700), NorthWave boots ($CN 460) and Drake F-60 bindings ($CN 270) - had to buy Drake of course :)

Ingrid and Sharmilla Either rode by myself, with roomies or with people I met on the chairs - also a couple of days with some friends from NZ/London. Also met some cute lifties who I had done some lessons with so rode with them on their days off. Great way to improve to go with better and more experienced riders of course, and was lucky to have some damn good ones as roomies who would push you into things you wouldn't otherwise contemplate... like heading through the trees... flat-lining it straight down the mountain... going down double black runs (underwear filling stuff)... or hitting the jumps in the terrain park. Hairiest day was with a guy who liked going real fast - trying to keep up was such a rush as your jacket is buffeting from the wind pressure, eyes are streaming tears behind the goggles, legs are pumping up and down absorbing the bumps, on the limit of control heading straight down the mountain... 

Whistler Slopes The snow was excellent the first couple of weeks - lots of fresh stuff each day (up to 30cm) and lots of blue sunny days with great visibility - the views are stunning as surrounded by the Rockies and lakes. Unfortunately they then proceeded to get unusually mild weather (and still are) which reduced the snow to one good day of fresh a week. Not that the snow was bad the rest of the week (still a 2.5m base so no rocks!) - it's just that once you get hooked on riding the deep untracked stuff you want more... and more...

So in the absence of fresh stuff took to the terrain park instead. For those who don't know it is a custom area with various big ramps for jumps of assorted shapes and sizes. They have an intermediate side and an advanced side... but even intermediate required you to go about 10 feet horizontal distance in the air to land on the downslope. Otherwise you landed on the flat 'tabletop' which is rather painful as your momentum slows in a hurry! The advanced jumps are impressive - around 25+ feet long to clear, and some of the pros who live there and practise were doing all sorts of back flips, front flips, huge spins (900 degrees plus). Wish I took my good camera but left it at home in case it got flogged from the hostel. 

On my last day rode with some guys from Norway, one of which (Eric) had been sponsored for a few years. Needless to say was just awesome to watch, he would throw a 360 spin off the slightest hump, continually doing little jumps and 180's as we rode along. We found a spot to practise jumps where he proceeded to do all sorts of 720's etc with various grabs and huge distance/height. Wish I had the chance to ride a few more days with him... hell, just wish I had the chance to ride a few more days!

By the end of the trip I had succeeded in my goal of spending more time upright on the board than head buried in the snow, and having tasted the thrills of riding fast, hitting jumps, doing tricks such as180's & riding backwards, not to mention surfing the powder I just can't wait to get back out there again...

Whistler Village

Whistler Village So what to do at the end of the day? No shortage of shops, restaurants, bars and clubs in Whistler all keen to part you from your doolah. Best value for the boys at the Shoestring Lodge was the $CN 4 entry fee to the Boot to participate in an in-depth study of the Canadian female anatomy on Tues, Wed or Fri nights. They also had live bands a couple of nights per week which varied from awful punk to some good blues.

Whistler Village If having a 'night out' the cheapest option was to stock up from the bottle store (also part of the pub) and spin some stories in the room - funnily enough my room was always popular when I had female roomies! The temperature outside was fairly mild - usually about -6 or so at night, and from -2 to 0 during the day. Up the mountain the coldest it got was the first week (when the snow just kept on falling) at around -20. Sounds cold but you don't notice it with the right gear on. Other parts of Canada were hitting -50 or -60 at the time (talking celsius here too!).

The food was excellent and similar to Americans comes in big portions - you always would like 2/3 of the size of the meal for 2/3 of the price...

Off to Seattle

Stanley Park City Outlook By the end of the fifth week I was suffering from some damage to my foot - I can't remember any one particular incident (I had hit a few trees, but not with my foot... ha ha) but think it was some pulled muscles. Unable to ride any more (pain was too much with the boot on) I decide to flag the last week in Whistler and head out. The two Norwegians I had met (Eric and Ravi) had a car and were going to Seattle via Vancouver to see an NBA game, so decided to head down with them. Things didn't go quite as planned - Ravi lost the keys on the slope so I ended up leaving them behind and caught the bus down to Vancouver.

Seattle The next day did some sight-seeing around Stanley Park and then met up with the guys to head to Seattle. Watched the Sonics smash the Washington Wizards (not exactly a thriller) and spent the next few days sight-seeing. It is a beautiful city at night with it's distinctive Space Needle building and few sky scrapers... again wishing I had my good camera with me! Not the safest place though around where I stayed (hostel again)... guy there got mugged the first night on way to the movies and there was a stabbing a week before.

 

Seattle Sonics Basketball Space Needle Seattle Sunset

Caught a bus back to Vancouver and spent one last night there before flying back to London. Found out that the snow has been dumping down in Europe, so much powder that avalanches are a huge problem. If my foot wasn't still recovering would have been straight onto a plane to get to the slopes in France... but that little detail of getting another work contract popped up as well. Oh well, hopefully I can get the snow season back in NZ for a month in 4 months time...

 

Trip Costs

To give you an idea if you would like to do something similar... £UK1.00 was worth about $CN2.20 and also worth $US 1.50 when I did this trip. Also be aware that Canada charges GST (7%) as well as sales tax (7%) in BC (varies elsewhere in Canada). You can however claim most of your GST back when you leave the country (subject to certain restrictions such as not food, receipt > $50 etc). Oh yeah, and you have to tip too...

If you really get organised of course you can get there early in the season (or later if lucky) and get a volunteer job on the mountain (free season pass for one day work a week!). Or you can work on the mountain (say as a lifitie) for pittance money but cheap accommodation, free season pass and free lessons.

Accommodation
Hostel in Vancouver was $CN20 per night including tax for shared (4 bed) dorm. Shoestring Lodge in Whistler was $CN30 per night inc tax (4-6 bed dorm), however this is far cheaper than chalet or hotel type rooms - expect to pay anything from $CN150 per night upwards for one bedroom... Seattle hostel was $US18 per night (9 bed dorm)

Transport
Air tickets were more expensive at time I went (being just after the Year 2000 etc) - someone who arrived from the UK in February got his ticket for £260 rather than the £400 I paid. Bus from Vancouver to Whistler is $CN20, from Seattle to Vancouver is $US30.

Skiing at Whistler/Blackcomb
Daily ski passes vary between $CN50 to $CN70 depending on the day of the week. I bought a season weekday pass for $CN1,090 inc tax. A season unlimited pass is around $CN1,600. Daily ski/board hire is around $CN35 for cheap stuff (eg. board, boots, bindings), or $CN40 for a 'high performance' rental board alone. Clothing I found great value (coming from the UK, anywhere else is!) and excellent quality - if you live in -20 to -40 all winter then you work out how to make good gear... I don't know how the board/boot etc. purchase prices I put above compare to elsewhere but I did buy at the worst time of the year (peak season) - still a damn site cheaper than the UK! 

Food/Drink
Cheap to visit on the UK pound or US dollar, but not otherwise! Expect to pay around $CN15-25 if you eat at a restaurant, or $CN6-10 for takeaways. Food on the mountain is good value (compared to Europe I hear) - nice meals and a drink for around $CN7-10. Beer is around $CN4 a pint, or $CN12-16 for a jug.

Time of year to visit
Snow season is from Nov through to late April - best powder is supposedly Feb/Mar but obviously varies. However Whistler is such a stunning all year location - apparently even busier in summer with hiking, mountain biking etc. Weekends on the mountain get busy being so close to Vancouver, but mountain is so vast and so many lifts we are talking 10-15min queue at most. While I was there during the week you almost rode straight onto the lift - queues of 1-5 mins.

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  Last Updated August 11th, 2002
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