Sitting in the sun, staring up at the snowless French Alps that are soaring above my head, I know that I should not be pouting, but I am. I am frustrated, irritated and annoyed at myself for getting into this predicament. You see, I was banished from my home mountain of WhistlerBlackcomb for one calendar year on Feb 17, 2014. Banished because I got caught skiing a closed run: an area on the mountain that isn’t allowed to be skied.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of signs and warnings not to ski such places and I knew full well the consequences of my actions, but I did it anyway. And I got caught. So here I am, spending a winter in the Alps, but missing my home resort, my community, the fabled coastal storms of December and the lifestyle that I have carved out in Whistler.
I know, boo hoo. Winter in the Alps, how tragic. But when there is no snow, it is tragic. It’s tragic to carry skis and gear all the way over here, pay for a lift pass, rent a chalet, and dream of skiing when the skies remain frustratingly blue and the foehn winds prevail. The boredom and the frustration of not skiing are palpable and difficult to manage. It is mid-December, and I’ve only skied twice.
You can’t always control the things that happen to you, but you can control the way you react to them.
February 17 2014. Storm brewing at Whistler Blackcomb. Strong winds from the south and 33cm of fresh snow. Spanky’s Ladder was closed, but other alpine access remained open. Discussion on the chair led to the unanimous decision that it was a good day to break the rules and ski the forbidden. Offlimits. Out of bounds. Permanently Closed. The corporation of Whistler Blackcomb and the authorities who work on her behalf make no pretenses about the outcome of getting caught skiing in a permanently closed area, or a PC, as they’re colloquially known. Lift access privileges will be revoked. But a lot of people do it. Rarely do they get caught and the boisterous lunch crew at Glacier Creek Lodge will advise you to run away if you do get caught. “Don’t ever stop” are the words of wisdom. Fine wisdom to share and pontificate but difficult words to follow when actually faced with the authority of ski patrol.
So we dismounted the chairlift, climbed to the access area and one at a time ducked the rope towards the magical forbidden zone on the other side. First I was struck by the silence; no hooting and hollering from fellow snow lovers, no liftline chatter, no discussion between us. Just the sweet tranquility of deep, untouched snow and a blank, shimmering, white canvas stretched out before us. We silently pushed our way across the ridge, our skis slicing through the snow, out of sight, away from the busy resort and to a side of the mountain that I had never seen before. Tucked away in between two popular and frequently skied zones is deep, soft, untouched snow.
One by one, we pushed off, rolled over the slight convexity, quietly navigated the steep rocks at the top and then gleefully shushed down the apron in the middle, finally pointing our skis fall line down the gully before re-emerging into the resort, victorious and undetected.
Or at least that was the plan. The actual story went like this: after the flat apron in the middle, we reconvened and agreed not to stop at the bottom, “just keep going and wait at the top of the chairlift.” Rocketing out the bottom of the funnel-shaped run, I was surprised to see my friend frantically waving from the side of the cat-track and hiding behind a rock. This was not “just keep going and wait at the top of the chairlift!” But there was a patroller on a snowmobile standing in the middle of the cat track.
Waiting for us?
Had he seen us?
We didn’t know.
And so there we were. Adults hiding behind a boulder, frantically hissing at each other “what do we do? What do we DOO?” “oh shit” “oh shit.” In retrospect, the comedy of the scenario is ridiculous, but at the time it felt like the end of the world.
Objectively, loss of lift access privileges is not a terrible fate, but when the lifestyle I have carved out for myself is predicated on skiing every day and being part of the resort scene, not skiing and not seeing all my friends and colleagues is disheartening, to say the least. Our season passes we’re clipped, and we were coldly informed “You’re done. You skied a closure? You’re done.”
So I pouted a bit, pleaded with the authorities who garnished our passes, but in the end the rule is clear: ski closure, lose pass. So my fate was sealed, I was banned from Whistler Blackcomb for one calendar year.
But with acceptance of that consequence revealed the positive outcome from the situation. For one thing, if they won’t let you up the lift, then you better get walking. I explored north and south of the resort and rediscovered the joy of ski touring. Ski touring is like skiing closures every day. Always fresh, always quiet, never crowded.
More importantly, and the reason why I’m writing this article as I bemoan the foehn winds and the sunshine in the Alps, a ban from Whistler Blackcomb opens the possibility of skiing at any other ski resort in the world. Seriously. All it took was the forceful removal from the place I love, a little bit of cash, and I was untethered.
And so here I am. Sitting in the sun, waiting for the snow to come to Chamonix. Over here, apparently, nothing is closed. Truly. I can go wherever I want. Big cliff? Tight couloir? No snow? Whatever. Ski at your own risk. Your choice, your life, your run. Is it because Europeans are less litigious than North Americans? Is it because the resort and skiing itself is older and more developed over here? Is it because the Euros are perceived to have more sense than foolish Canadians and thus need to be governed less? Is it because the mountains over here are bigger and therefore control is less possible? Stay tuned. When the snow comes and the chairlifts start spinning, I’ll ponder all those questions.
For now, Whistler, enjoy your precipitation. I heard it rained last week, but I know most of you sniffed out some good skiing in the rain. I’ll miss the coastal slush that is the only powder I’ve ever known and I’ll miss laughing with friends on the chair in howling winds and whiteout storms. I’ll miss the pace of the resort. The race up Spanky’s ladder and the Peak Chair snowball fights. This is the first season since I was three years old that I haven’t skied at Whistler Blackcomb, and I’ll be back.
For now, I practice my rope skills and my crevasse rescue strategies. I hike and bike the trails that flank this French valley and I wait and hope for a snowy season in the Alps.