Why did I start this post with the ‘best of both worlds’? Ever since Whistler Blackcomb added the Peak 2 Peak gondola that links Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb mountain with Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler mountain, they essentially created what is North America’s largest ski resort. And what a resort it is, since it offers skiers convenience and essentially the best the 2 mountains have got to offer.
I have actually written about snowboarding in Whistler before and it was the resort where I probably mastered skiing and snowboarding at, so I might be a bit biased in this respect but I will try to be as objective as possible comparing my experiences in skiing at other resorts along the way.
Whistler is located about 90 minutes drive from downtown Vancouver and about 2 hours from Vancouver International Airport, which makes it easily accessible as far as ski resorts go. Numerous shuttles and even a ski bus would bring skiers to the base village in no time, allowing skiers to maximize their time on the slopes. The town of Pemberton and Squamish are also about 30-40 minutes away, so skiers could stay in these 2 towns for cheaper accommodations.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
Being a large ski resort, there are numerous chairlift and gondolas here, though they are more prone to overcrowding and long queues compared to other ski resorts I have been to. Aside from the magnificent Peak 2 Peak gondola, there are 2 other main gondolas – the Excalibur and Whistler gondola, both of which departs from the Whistler Skiers Plaza. Both gondolas have an intermediate stop to cater to the beginner areas. The Excalibur gondola intermediate stop also caters to day trippers from Vancouver as there is a free parking lot there. It is also worth noting the Excalibur gondola leads to the Blackcomb side.
Once on top of the mountain, most skiers would head to the Excelerator Express on the Blackcomb side before accessing distinct ski areas which have their own express chairlifts like Jersey Cream, Glacier Express, 7th Heaven and Crystal Ridge. Over on the Whistler side, the Peak Express will bring skiers to the Symphony ski area with its wide open bowls and the 6-seater Harmony Express leads to the Harmony Ridge area. The Emerald Express meanwhile caters to the aspiring beginners on Whistler mountain.
On Whistler mountain, there is also the Creekside access using the Creekside gondola and the Big Red Express chairlift. It is worth noting Creekside is the area closest to Vancouver and about a 10 minutes drive from Whistler Village proper.
COST & VALUE
A day ski pass in Whistler Blackcomb is one of the most expensive as it can costs about C$130 (~$100) when buying them from the counter in the ski resort. Visitors could save by purchasing day tickets beforehand at 7-Eleven stores before arriving in Whistler while residents of British Columbia and Washington State could get multiple day tickets that can be used separately that would bring down the cost to C$60-80 per day.
With the resort closing the chairlifts in the upper sections at around 2:30pm in the winter and about an hour later in the spring, the resort does not have any night skiing. As such, a day of skiing can be an expensive proposition unless one is a resident of BC or WA.
Slopes for beginners can be found in the Olympic gondola station, which is the intermediate stop for the Whistler gondola. This is where the Whistler kids ski lessons are held at with magic carpet facilities and easier trails. There is also an Olympic chairlift here for longer green runs.
Over on Blackcomb, the learners’ area is located by the base so it might be easier for parents who do not ski to supervise their children since the Blackcomb Daylodge is just beside. Similarly there are dedicated chairlifts for learners.
The great thing about Whistler and Blackcomb though is that there is a ‘Green’ line for beginners all the way from the summit to the base. The green line from Whistler starts at the top of Harmony Express, while the one in Blackcomb starts at the top of 7th Heaven. While marked as a green line, this trail is long as it zig-zags across the direct route down and some parts are narrow, meaning it can still be a challenge. However they certainly allow beginners to see more of the 2 mountains.
Like many great ski resorts, there are plenty of runs for advanced skiers and snowboarders. My personal favourite is Jeff’s Ode to Joy which starts from the top of Symphony Express with a fun run criss-crossing the trees at the bottom. The Symphony Amphitheatre area is away from the main pistes and have to be reached via the green-marked Burnt-Stew Trail from Harmony Express. However this area is worth the trouble as there are several off-piste opportunity here including Flute Bowl which requires a bit of a hike.
Not to forget North America’s longest ski run originating from the top of Peak Chair into the Creekside village and aptly named as the Peak-to-Creek. On Whistler, there is also the stunning view to enjoy while riding the Saddle which can either be accessed from the Peak chair or the Harmony chair.
On Blackcomb, 7th Heaven is similarly accessed via the green-marked Expressway run. This area is served by the 7th Heaven Express which sees huge crowds on nice weather days. On cold windy days, there are less skiers due to the open nature of the gondola at the top that makes it colder. However the numerous open runs in 7th Heaven makes it easy to get your own private piste even with the crowds.
It is best to hit both Symphony or 7th Heaven first thing in the morning as these 2 lifts close earlier than the rest. If these lifts are closed due to inclement weather, I would do the nice blue runs around Harmony Ridge and Harmony Piste on Whistler. Meanwhile there are more challenging blue runs around Crystal Ridge and Horstman Glacier. Closer to closing times, there is usually time to slot in one more run on Jersey Cream Express in Blackcomb.
As the largest ski resort in North America, there are plenty of runs such that you would not get bored even if skiing in the resort for a week. And they are usually quite good too after a nice overnight snowfall.
With the numerous open bowls and off-piste opportunities, the upper half of Whistler and Blackcomb is sure to provide lots of fun for advanced skiers and snowboarders. From the Peak Express chairlift, the couloirs of Whistler Bowl greets skiers and numerous black marked runs starts along the Upper Peak-to-Creek run. There is also the black-marked runs of Flute Bowl which can be easily attempted by advanced intermediate skiers.
Blackcomb is usually considered the more difficult mountain and there are rightly as much black runs there. There is the Lakeside Bowl at the end of the 7th Heaven area, the bowls accessible from Spanky’s Ladder off Crystal Traverse that requires a bit of a hike and the easily accessible double black diamond Couloir Extreme that most skiers get a view of while skiing from Jersey Cream.
Park skiers and boarders also have plenty to do on the mountain. There is the terrain park on Blackcomb sponsored by Nintendo with the Catskinner chairlift serving park riders there. While the Habitat terrain park on Whistler is located beside the Emerald Express chairlift. From small humps to big jumps to rails and all sorts of obstacles, these parks are also family friendly.
Aside from that the terrain in both mountains would certainly offer natural humps and slopes to have that little bit of fun while riding down the piste. This is especially the case in the 7th Heaven and Symphony area where the runs are mostly un-groomed and they can become natural terrain parks under heavy snow.
As a large mountain, there are plenty of backcountry terrain for skiers to explore. Flute bowl on Whistler is slightly off the beaten track, so are Garnet, Diamond, Ruby and Sapphire Bowls off Spanky’s Ladder. There is also the tree skiing opporunity in the mid mountain early in the season (January/February) when the snow comes down. Most of these backcountry runs are certainly suggested with a guide as they can be steep and dangerous for the uninitiated.
The mountains have 2 major lodges, one being Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler and Rendezvous Lodge on Blackcomb. Roundhouse Lodge is slightly larger and there are shops, lockers, guest services, cafes, sit-down restaurants and food courts inside. Both of these lodges are also the end points of the Peak-2-Peak gondola though only Roundhouse Lodge on Whistler is connected to a gondola that leads all the way down to the village.
Blackcomb has another major lodge at the base of Jersey Cream and Glacier Express chairlift called Glacier Creek. This spot hosts aprés parties during Spring skiing as Blackcomb is usually the mountain that ends the season later. Skiers could head down here if both Roundhouse and Rendezvous are crowded.
Aside from the major lodges, there are several other places to eat on the mountain and small huts on the peak where skiers can get some coffee and cookies. Horstman Hut on 7th Heaven and the Harmony Hut at the top of Harmony Express on Little Whistler Peak both offers limited snacks for skiers wanting to maximize skiing time on the peaks.
Otherwise, beginners could always look to have their meals at the Chic Pea hut which is easily reached from the Whiskey Jack run or by taking the Garbanzo Express chairlift. Then there is Raven’s Nest at the bottom of the Big Red Express and the midstation for Creekside. At Blackcomb, the Crystal Hut is a popular spot to have waffles by the patio when the sun is out.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
With more international visitors to Whistler, the food variety served in the major lodges are great. There are Asian-inspired ramens and rice bowls in addition to the burgers, soups and salads. For kids, there are chicken strips and fish and chips. The food are not excellent in any sense at the main eateries though skiers could spend more for a nice sit-down meal with orders taken from the seat at the restaurants in Roundhouse or Rendezvous Lodge.
For snacks, the young skiers would certainly enjoy Beavertails (a Canadian fried pastry) by the Olympic Station. Even I enjoy these Beavertails once in a while because there really is not much I would miss in terms of the food served on the mountains.
Another thing to note is that food could be expensive and a full meal could easily cost C$15 and above with taxes. And that is not even counting beverages though the lodges have tap water provided free of charge. Considering the high costs of the ski tickets, it is not uncommon for skiers to bring granola bars with them and just have a light snack in the mid-day before heading down to the village for aprés where there are much better options at the same price.
With its large size, the 2 villages at Whistler and Blackcomb are home to large resort chains. Fairmont and Four Seasons are probably the most luxurious options over at Blackcomb, while Pan Pacific, Hilton, Delta and Westin have properties at Whistler Village. Personally, I enjoy staying at Whistler due to the connected pedestrian mall and the fact that both gondolas start from Whistler Village. Blackcomb Village is probably a 7-minute walk across a small wooded area and the car park to Whistler, or skiers can rely on the complimentary bus service. Do note that the larger resorts usually has a ski valet service at the bottom of the mountain so that skiers can immediately head for aprés.
Aside from the big-name resorts, there are numerous boutique resorts which can offer good value for couples. For larger groups and families, there are apartment rentals all around the pedestrian mall or around the slopes in Blackcomb and Creekside. Some of these lodging even has ski-in/ski-out facilities.
One tip for skiers that drive into Whistler is that they can park at some of the parking lots which are free (even overnight) and take the bus to their lodging rather than pay the sometimes hefty parking charges.
Aprés is a huge thing in Whistler Village and the village can become crowded and noisy near the base around Whistler Skiers’ Plaza where the main bars with patios are located at. This is especially the case during the World Ski & Snowboard Festival that takes place around April.
Because of the pedestrian mall, the whole of Whistler Village becomes a friendly village for skiers and they could shop at the numerous boutiques, get groceries at the supermarkets and of course enjoy a beer or two with nachos and wings by the patio as they gaze upon the mountains. The reason for staying longer in Whistler after the last ride has stopped is certainly compelling.
With an altitude of more than 2,000 metres, both Whistler and Blackcomb summits have great views. Do note howere the Blackcomb peak is not accessible via lift, and being on the respective summits of each mountain there is a great view of the other mountain with their piste. And that is why it is easy to marvel at this resort.
The best view though has to be from Whistler Peak just right after alighting from the Peak chair as skiers could see the distinctive Black Tusk peak on a clear day.
Given that this is the resort I spent the most time skiing and snowboarding in, I am familiar with the mountains and consider it my ‘home’ resort. Though I have tried skiing in other parts of the world and enjoyed the other aspects of ski resorts elsewhere, I still enjoy a day on Whistler Blackcomb. I do have to say that I can easily get a day of fun skiing on smaller mountain resorts like La Parva in Santiago, Chile or Snowbird in Salt Lake City, Utah, both of which are cheaper than a day in Whistler Blackcomb and far more accessible.
However for out of town visitors who spends a week for a ski vacation, there is very few competition to the whole package for skiing. Whistler Blackcomb is like a Disney World for skiers; it might not be the most exciting or the most compelling destination, but it could be the most complete one yet.