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The Outsider: A spring more like it

outsider 29.17
Columnist Vince Shuley looks to soak up the last few good ski days in what was an unnusual year for Whistler Blackcomb.

The 2021-22 season was—and continues to be—a strange one. Coming off the back of the worst flooding B.C. had seen in a lifetime, we all braced for a repeat of the infamous 2004-05 Pineapple season, which could only be described as a royal tropical punch to the balls. Thankfully, it got cold.

Hmmm. Maybe -35 Celsius was a bit too cold. At least it didn’t hang around too long. The arctic outflow remained just long enough to keep all the Christmas holidaymakers off the mountain, not that too many locals were risking a chairlift malfunction at those temperatures. The day after Boxing Day, I wrangled a couple of ski guides to join me in getting some “exercise” ski touring in the Duffey. It was -30 C when we left the car and we managed to walk for a couple of hours before the plastic in one of our ski bindings fractured from the cold. Lesson learned.

Then, it snowed. A lot. The Whistler Valley and the highway hadn’t seen this level of low-traction chaos in a long time. More SUVs in the ditches than a normal holiday snowstorm. Snow-clearing crews were burning out. Clearing the driveway felt more like a part-time job than a daily chore. Snowbanks reached for the heavens. My neighbour, a veteran Whistler lifer, said the last time he saw the snowbanks so high his graduated teenagers were in diapers.

And the skiing was glorious. The year could not have started any better. January 2 and 3 were probably two of my Top 10 days at Whistler Blackcomb, ever. The prophecy of the season of seasons looked like it would finally come to pass.

We had just regained feeling in our fingers and toes and settled into a well-deserved sunny break when the cold smoke pow taps turned off and the warm water rain taps turned on. February was rough. Icy groomer laps for days, nay weeks! Thankfully, the segue into #marchisforskiing broke the drought and the fabled month did get a kick-start, only to sputter out before reaching cruising speed.

All the while, backcountry conditions waxed and waned. We had to mobilize on the good snow/good weather windows before the next encroaching rain event. That scarcity no doubt lead to some questionable decisions by pow-starved skiers. Persistent weak layers wreaked havoc, some of these avalanches ending with fatal outcomes. We felt for those affected by a loss of life, pulled up our socks for a few days and kept it conservative. Then we went full send again. Such is the cycle of backcountry recreation.

Spring has crept in earlier and earlier in recent years, and as much as I love jumping on my bike a few weeks ahead of schedule, I can’t say I’m a fan of this trend. The mid-April week of the World Ski and Snowboard Festival (when it runs) has come to represent the winter’s powder death throes. After that, it’s a lot of melt-freeze with afternoon temperatures risking perilous wet-loose slides. It’s still skiing, sure. But what used to be mid-May conditions are now mid-April conditions and a lot of traditional mid-April conditions seem to arrive in mid March. Hopefully, the regression ends there.

As I write this, the spring is shaping up to be a return to the late Aprils of yore. Rain and mud in the valley, still-increasing snowpack up high. Access and egress takes more effort, but that’s the time to roll up those pant cuffs and git‘er dun. I’m way past suffering for hours for mediocre turns (a.k.a. summer skiing), but good skiing is good skiing. It’d be a shame to see that pow go to waste.

Having lifts spin into May is a welcome change from the last two years of early pandemic closures. So quit moaning about long lift lines and a shuttered Showcase T-Bar, pack your crampons and get skinning. The Spearhead Range is in its prime, if you know where to look. Just stay clear of sunbaked slopes and car-sized cornices.

‘Tis a spring more like it. Don’t be putting that summer wax on just yet.

 

Vince Shuley ain’t done skiing. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.