By Henry Schlee
Whistler-Blackcomb is renowned as North America’s leading ski resort. The two mountains rise up majestically from the valley, with over a vertical mile up to the peak. So imagine you only have a single day to ski. Which mountain do you choose? Each has their advocates. Some people will always head for the Whistler Village Gondola or the Creekside gondola, both of which head up Whistler Mountain, and others head unerringly for the Excalibur gondola or the Wizard chair, the main gateways to Blackcomb. So what are the differences? What kind of skiers choose one over the other? Is there any real difference between the two mountains? Which conditions favour Whistler over Blackcomb, and vice-versa?
Powder days (for experts)
If the weather gods have blessed the day with fresh powder, there is little question that Whistler is the mountain of choice for expert skiers. Two words explain why: Peak Chair. The Peak Chair on Whistler gives access to an immense variety of off-piste runs to cater for all levels of powder skier. (If you are at the very high end, you can head for Air Jordan, a terrifying leap off a cliff which involves a 50 foot descent to a intermediate landing point only 60 foot square, after which you have to take off again and descend another 40 feet to the soft snow below. Fluff your first landing and you are looking at several months in hospital…if you are lucky.) There is no lift on Blackcomb to compare to the powder terrain opened up by the Peak Chair.
Powder days (for the rest of us)
Less accomplished skiers in the powder head for the Blackcomb Glacier on powder days. This is an enormous bowl where you can still find fresh tracks two or three hours after the lift has opened. Whilst the over-ambitious can easily do themselves a lot of damage in the many couloirs and cliffs off the Peak Chair, they can’t come to too much harm on the Blackcomb Glacier.
When the weather is stormy and winds of 70km/hour are battering the high alpine, it is likely that the uppermost lifts are closed. Almost certainly the Glacier Chair and Seventh Heaven on Blackcomb will be shut, as well as the T-bars on the Horstmann Glacier. You’ll probably find that Crystal Chair is also closed. This leaves most of the interesting terrain in Blackcomb inaccessible. However on Whistler, even if the Peak Chair and the Harmony Chair are closed, you still have the Village gondola (which has the added bonus in a storm of offering a sheltered ride all the way to the top), the Garbanzo Chair, Big Red and the Emerald Express. These lifts will remain open in any conditions that you want to be up on the mountain at all in. Garbanzo in particular gives access to many tree-sheltered runs which can be great in a storm.
Most of both Whistler and Blackcomb is faces north or west, and receives the sun only obliquely. This is one reason why the snow lasts a long time. However, on a cold but sunny day (and most sunny days are cold in the Whistler winter), you want the sun full on to soften up the piste and to keep you warmer as well. At these times you want to be on Seventh Heaven, the only major south-facing slope in Whistler.
Both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains are well-covered with trees in the bottom two-thirds of the skiable terrain. However Whistler has the edge in terms of the sheer area of skiable treed terrain. Runs like Club 21 and Sidecut on Whistler are similar to Bark Sandwich on Blackcomb, but the tree runs off the Peak Chair are incomparable.
If you are one of the people for whom ski runs are short intervals between lengthy doses of café cognac, and for whom lunch is the central part of the day, Whistler has little to offer, and you will probably spend more time on Blackcomb. None of the restaurants in Whistler has much atmosphere, whereas Blackcomb has a couple that are passable: Christine’s in the Rendezvous and the Crystal Hut.
So each mountain has its supporters, and each mountain is better for certain conditions and certain types of skier. Just make sure you try them both when you come. And if you are looking for somewhere to stay, give a try to Holiday Whistler, who have a great choice of Whistler chalets, as well as condos and townhomes.