California rambling: Tale of two mountains

By From page A4 | December 23, 2013

It seemed like every Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus look-alike in North America was at Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia a week ago, for the opening of the area’s new Harmony 6 express chair lift.

A string of red-suited Clauses hung from the Harmony 6 chair as they rode up to ski and ride the mountain. The event was a publicity stunt held by the resort’s adept media team whose press announcement even included a quotation from the reclusive saint who took a moment from yuletide preparations to declare that he and Mrs. Claus “have never missed a Santa Day at Whistler Blackcomb.”

An endorsement from no less a popular figure as Santa Claus has become routine for Whistler Blackcomb, which has often been ranked as “the No. 1 mountain resort in North America.” This season, it has been mentioned in over 30 top rankings, including being named as the No. 1 mountain resort by Freeskier magazine, the SBC Resort Guide, (for the Northwest region) and the Ski Club of Great Britain.

Whistler Blackcomb was the first resort outside the United States to be named by a major American ski publication as North America’s best and, in 1996, became the only resort ever to be simultaneously named No. 1 by Snow Country, SKI and Skiing magazines.  Whistler Blackcomb went on to be named No. 1 by Skiing for 13 successive years.

How did it get to be so good and why hasn’t Lake Tahoe achieved similar renown, despite its many assets?  In upcoming columns, California Rambling will look at Whistler Blackcomb and El Dorado County’s largest mountain resort, Heavenly/South Lake Tahoe. We’ll tell their history, describe where they excel, and opine where they are headed next.

Tourists first visited the Whistler area in 1914, following the establishment of Rainbow Lodge, which was named after the trophy trout to be caught in adjacent Alta Lake. This elite fish camp was the home of legendary guides Alex and Myrtle Phillip who, within a decade, made Rainbow Lodge into one of the most popular camping lodges in the Far West.

The Whistler area remained primarily a summer destination until the 1960s. Then a group of Vancouver businessmen — in response to a search by the Canadian Olympic Association and led by Franz Wilhemsen — traveled south to attend the VIIIth Olympic Winter Games at Squaw Valley and Lake Tahoe.

They were inspired by what they saw and determined to bring the Winter Olympic Games to British Columbia by 1968. They settled upon London Mountain (later named Whistler after a local marmot that whistles when it communicates) located 70 miles north of Vancouver, for development of a world-class ski area. The Whistler Ski Area opened in 1966 with a day lodge, two t-bar lifts, a double chairlift, a four-person gondola and the biggest vertical drop  (5,234 feet) of any ski area in North America. In comparison, Heavenly has 2,735 vertical feet.

That instantly put Whistler on the map as a major resort. Its biggest detriment was the difficulty of getting to it over a dirt logging road that was plowed on Saturdays, only. In 1975, Canada’s first Resort Municipality was established at Whistler. A company was established to oversee all development of Whistler Village, on a table between Whistler and Blackcomb. Elemental to its design was a pedestrian village that kept all vehicles outside the village center.

Its architecture is wholly Canadian, with signature luxury resort hotels reflecting the lines of Canada’s classic mountain chateaus. Village streets meander, providing fascinating tableaus at every turn and leading to discoveries of specialty shops, galleries, distinct restaurants, theaters, gathering spots and band stands.

Fare-free shuttle buses loop the village, transporting skiers and their gear to lifts and lodges and serving as a more convenient way to get around than to drive. This was an idea pioneered in California by the venerable Yosemite Park & Curry Co. which had greatly reduced Yosemite traffic congestion by privately underwriting fare-free shuttle buses in the developed east end of Yosemite Valley. The Yosemite model of “frequent, free and fun” resort transportation became successfully adopted at other similarly compact destinations, like Whistler Village.

In 1980, Blackcomb, a near twin opposite Whistler, opened with five triple chairs and another 4,067 vertical feet of skiing. Thereafter, the two mountains cultivated a healthy rivalry, one-upping each other with more lifts, runs, grooming, on-mountain services and lift access to three glaciers and a dozen alpine bowls.

In 1997, Intrawest Corp., which owned Blackcomb, acquired the Whistler Mountain Ski Corp. Two years later, Whistler Blackcomb became the first North American ski resort to top 2 million skier visits in one season. Intrawest extensively developed Whistler Blackcomb’s summer attractions, adding golf and a mountain bike park that have helped attract another 2.5 million summertime visitors.

The Winter Olympic Games in 2010 resulted in the further development of bobsleigh, luge and skeleton runs, biathlon and cross country track, ski jumping hills and lifts. Most importantly, it led to the addition of a divided highway from Vancouver to Whistler.

Winter visitors now get their thrills not just on the slopes, terrain parks and back country, but by speeding down a luge run, taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride, dogsledding, bungee jumping, ziplining, skating, ice fishing, getting massaged, and riding the breathtaking Peak 2 Peak gondola that claims titles as the longest unsupported span (9,925 feet), the highest lift of its kind (1,430 ft) and completes the longest continuous lift system on Earth (14,436 feet).

Whistler Blackcomb has accomplished all this, while being recognized for its environmental and social stewardship.  It has won countless awards, including being one of Canada’s Greenest Employers for three years running and winning the National Ski Areas Association’s Golden Eagle Award for overall environmental excellence.

Whistler is a resort to be visited, not just for what it teaches us, but mostly how it welcomes and entertains us. More can be found at

John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.

John Poimiroo

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