A Ski Story

by Marcel on March 1, 2011

Introduction: If you aren’t into snowboarding or skiing then you might want to skip this lengthy story and go straight to the photo galleries. If you are into snowsports, then grab a cup of warm coffee or hot chocolate and read on- this one’s for you.

I started skiing and snowboarding (mostly snowboarding) in 1999 after moving to Colorado. In that state there are numerous world class ski resorts, and they make it accessible for locals by offering multi-resort annual passes for reasonable prices. I would typically get one of those passes and go up to the mountain 15-20 times in a winter season. During the six years I lived there I hit all the major resorts in CO, plus some in neighboring states. Since moving out to the Pacific NW it’s been a different story, I’ve been lucky to get up to the mountain 5 times a season. Lift ticket deals are harder to come by out here, road and mountain conditions aren’t as consistent, and overall snowsports along with other outdoor pursuits aren’t woven into the culture as much they are in Colorado. That’s not to say there are no good ski or other outdoorsy options to be had, it just takes a little more effort to make it happen.

Last year I decided I would start making an annual ski trip to check out new places every winter. In 2010 I went to Mt Baker in Washington, and Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia just before the Winter Olympics. I’d always heard rumblings about Baker as an extreme place to ride, and Whistler as being the best ski/snowboard resort in North America. After riding at places like Aspen, Telluride, and Vail, one has to wonder what could possibly make Whistler that much better? So I went to find out for myself and discovered that while these other places are great in their own way, the number 1 rating at Whistler is well deserved.

A side-note about the ski/snowboard lingo– Although I snowboard more often than ski, I usually say I’m going skiing or taking a ski trip because it’s just easier to say, and for people to understand. Snowboarders don’t usually say I snowboarded at Mt Hood today, they say I rode there or might even just say skied. Likewise a ski resort is almost always called a ski resort, snowboard resort just doesn’t sound right even if there are more snowboarders on the mountain. For more lingo check this list of basic terminology or do a Google search for more extensive lists.

In January 2011 I still hadn’t been up to the mountain this season despite the fact that I had a new board and skis that I purchased on the cheap the previous summer in a clearance sale. Equally disappointing was the fact that I was missing out on all the crazy amounts of powder La Nina was dumping in the Cascades. With a gentle push, fate stepped in. My old buddy Todd from Denver called wanting to come out west for a ski trip. I’ve known Todd since living in Dallas in the 90’s. He moved to Colorado shortly after I did and still lives and skis there today, but this year he wanted to go to Whistler.

While talking to Todd my jaw dropped when he said he wanted to ski 5 different resorts in 5 days. If skiing 5 days in a row wasn’t difficult enough, these ski resorts were spread across two different states plus another country, and spanned a distance of 400 miles apart on wintery roads. Just timing our drives to get through the notoriously bad traffic in Seattle was a task in itself. I tried to explain the difficulty of this task to Todd, but he is a very motivated can-do type of person so he was sure this would be doable. I was hesitant, but when he said he was celebrating his 40th birthday this year, and this was one of the trips he wanted to do to celebrate, then I knew we had to make this happen.

I did some research and came up with a plan that would work, and then sent a proposed itinerary to Todd. He agreed with the plan and booked a flight for late February. I made one trial run up to SkiBowl on Mt Hood with my new snowboard, the Ride Antic. It seemed good to go and rode well on that day, so I decided that would be my board for the trip instead of my tried and true “old blue” K2 Electra, the board I’ve been riding since 1999. Before I could test the Antic again to really be sure of it I got sidelined with a nasty cold less than a week before Todd arrived. I did get over the worst of it before our skiathon started, although I was still a bit congested and not quite 100% when he arrived.

Our initial itinerary- which would change slightly.

Day 1- Mt Hood Meadows, OR

Day 2- Mt Baker, WA

Day 3, Whistler/Blackcomb, BC Canada

Day 4, Crystal Mountain, WA

Day 5, Timberline (Mt Hood), OR

The Trip– If you prefer to just look at the pictures instead of reading on then please visit the following galleries. My Whistler Pictures, Todd’s Whistler Pics

Day 1- Mt Hood Meadows

Todd arrived late the previous night around 10pm. We stayed up late talking, so we were both going on little sleep to start the trip off in the morning. Driving up to Meadows was beautiful as always. If you’ve ever seen the original movie “The Shining” then you’ve seen the drive up highway 26 to Timberline lodge where that movie was partially shot. We weren’t going to ski Timberline this time, but over to Meadows on the east side of Mt Hood where the biggest and best terrain is. Meadows has 2150 skiable acres with good chairlifts and is somewhat comparable to Winter Park in CO, IMHO. On this day there was a foot of powder which made it even nicer, except that you couldn’t see the great view of the Mt Hood Summit that is spectacular on a clear day. I think Todd was expecting the notorious Cascade Concrete that we sometimes get with the wet heavy snow out west, but today the snow was terrific thanks to cold temps and lots of recent dumpage.

Unfortunately on the second run of our day I had a massive wipe out into a tree when I couldn’t turn my board as quickly as expected. My new board is a long and wide powder board that is supposed to be great on days like this. However this comes at a price of a lot slower turning response than a smaller board like “old blue”, which I was reminded of the hard way. Todd also crashed into the same tree when he came up quick to check on me and fell into the tree well. The trees are much bigger out west so the branches go out further which block the snow from falling underneath them. This often causes the layer of snow under the tree to be much shallower than the surrounding areas resulting in what is called a tree well, which we fell into. Even though I actually hit the tree I was only shaken not stirred. It was also the only time of the trip that I saw Todd ejected from his skis, he is a fast learner. Me on the other hand… Well let’s just say it was a big mistake to take a new untested board on a trip like this, and I didn’t listen to Todd’s suggestion to bring my old board as a backup.

Todd pulled it together much faster than me after the crash and blitzed on down to the Cascade chair lift, or so I hoped. Still a little dizzy, I cruised quickly down the groomer with an eye out for Todd instead of on the terrain in front of me. I was probably going around 30mph or so when I unexpectedly caught an edge and went down hard on the corduroy groomed run. Since I wasn’t expecting the fall I went down awkward, landing on my chest with my hand between my ribs and the hard packed groomed snow. The gloves protected my hand but my ribs were bruised badly. I’d never bruised ribs before and was a bit concerned about the pain and inability to take a deep breath. Todd said the same thing happened to him before and it would just take a couple of weeks to heal. I didn’t want to let Todd down so I decided to just man-up and endure the pain, then see how I felt the next day.

We finished up at Hood Meadows after a great, but painful day. From Meadows it was about a 6 hour drive up to Bellingham WA where we would spend the night before heading to Mt Baker the next morning, which was another hour or so drive east. We stopped at the local PNW style fast food chain Burgerville to refuel on carbs. Then we jammed to some trip hop bands that Todd and I both like; Massive Attack, Portishead, and Thievery Corporation to name a few. I threw in some Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam on occasion to add a little PNW atmosphere.

That night we went out for a Mac and Jacks beer in Bellingham and ended up hitting the sack around 1am. Due to a childhood injury I got from falling out of a tree I can’t breathe well through one side of my nose, so I have to sleep on my side or stomach and always face to the left when sleeping. Unfortunately my rib cage was bruised on my right side so my normal sleeping position was very painful, and I was still congested from the cold. This resulted in me getting absolutely zero sleep that night, despite how tired I was.

My cotton hoodie was full of snow after the crash into a tree well

 

Day 2- Mt Baker

I remember seeing a photo shoot in a snowboard mag of a guy doing an air over the road with cars driving by underneath him. This sick photo was at Mt Baker from one side of the downslope onto the other side. Since then I’ve always wanted to ride at this mountain, and I did last winter for the first time in typical Baker blizzard conditions. Today however would be a much different story. It was a bluebird day with about a foot of fresh powder and a ridiculous base depth of around 170”. Even the locals were saying it was one of the best days of the year. It was no surprise to hear how rare a day like this is since this mountain holds the world record for the most snowfall in a season at 1,140 inches. That’s about 3-4 times the amount of snow a typical ski resort gets.

Today was like getting reacquainted with an old friend. I snowboarded at Baker last year, but today I would see another side of the mountain with clear skies. People and places change over time, but in many ways they also stay the same. Riding with Todd was also like getting reacquainted with an old friend, although Todd has not changed much. In fact if I had to name a celebrity that reminded me the most of Todd I would probably pick CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Todd doesn’t look like Anderson, but like him he is one of the most motivated and energetic people I know. He has a thirst for knowledge and will talk to anyone about anything while asking many questions, much like a journalist would. He also has a problem-solver type of personality, and somehow still looks like he’s 21 years old.

As for me, motivation is something I’ve been lacking a bit of lately, and the only problem I was trying to solve on this day was how to stay awake so I don’t fall off the ski lift. I can just imagine the headlines on AC 360 man falls asleep on ski lift and plummets down the face of a double black diamond cliff at Mt Baker. In fact I can’t remember feeling worse physically on a day of snowboarding or skiing. However at the same time it was one of the best days you could ask for as far as conditions go, and we were on a great mountain, and I was riding with a good friend from way back. The thought crossed my mind to take two pills and then sleep in the back of the jeep while Todd skied, but this is Mt Baker! There was only one reasonable thing to do, hit the slopes!

We rode the Baker for a good part of the day. It’s not a huge resort so you can get a good feel for the place even if you don’t ride the full day. The runs are steep and there are cliffs everywhere, which aren’t always marked well so you have to watch where you are going. If the lift served terrain isn’t enough for you there are plenty of steeps out of bounds that you can hike to, if you are crazy enough. Overall I’d say this is a great local mountain with excellent snow and views (when you can see them). Baker kind of reminds me of Loveland or A-Basin in Colorado.

On our way out we hit the “Wake N Bakery” where Todd got some coffee and I got some delicious Salmon Chowder. We headed on to Canada and were fortunate enough to get across the border check in less than an hour before proceeding to our hotel in North Vancouver. We briefly drove through downtown on Granville and Robson Streets where the weekend was in full swing. Vancouver is one of the coolest cities in the world, and one of my favorite all time places to visit. Todd’s been here before too and wanted to revisit downtown, but I was exhausted and we just didn’t have any flex time in our schedule to sight-see and ski. So we checked into the hotel and went next door for a much needed bowl of Pho noodles at a “Certified Authentic” Vietnamese noodle house. Todd failed at his attempt to get the recipe from the ladies working there, but the delicious bowl of pho hit the spot. After that I took an Advil and was finally able to get about 5 hours of much needed sleep before another early AM wake up alarm.

Day 2 at Mt Baker Washington, look at that steep lift, WOW!

Day 3 Whistler/Blackcomb

Staying in North Vancouver was an idea I came up with after staying south of town last year when I went to Whistler. In this spot we were north of downtown and the traffic so basically you can just hop on the highway and it’s a straight no fuss 2 hours driving on the beautiful Sea to Sky highway up to Whistler. When we got to the parking lot the jeep thermometer said 8 degrees! I usually don’t ride when it’s colder than 15 degrees, because that is the point where the cold becomes painful and your nose hairs start to freeze.  It was sure to be much colder on the top of the mountain another 5000+ feet higher. Fortunately today I bundled up good and never really felt cold; maybe because of all the Advil I was taking, or just the exhilaration of riding at Whistler again. It was also another bluebird day with great powder stashes all over the mountain.

Oh and if you’re still stuck on that 5000+ feet higher stat, well yes you read right. Whistler Village is 2,214 feet in elevation, Whistler Mountain Summit is 7,160 ft, and the Blackcomb Mountain Summit is 7,494 ft. While not as high overall as Mt Hood, or most places in the Rockies, that is some serious vertical drop. It was clear we were not in Oregon or Colorado anymore. Just to emphasize how big this resort is, Whistler and Blackcomb offer 8,171 skiable acres, and each mountain has a run that is 7 miles long! To see more stats check out this page, and for the trail map and compare acreage chart on this page.

To some, including myself until I first went there, the name Whistler/Blackcomb is a little confusing. The town is actually called Whistler so to make things easier most people just refer to the overall resort as Whistler, although Blackcomb diehards will probably correct you. These two resorts used to be separate since they are technically two separate mountains divided by a huge valley. Each mountain is accessible from the same Village and has recently been linked by the peak to peak Gondola which allows you to go from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain directly. It’s not from summit to summit, but still pretty high up on each of the mountains. The Peak to Peak Gondola itself is an amazing feat of engineering and holds many world records such as longest free span between towers, and highest point above ground at 1,430 feet. Anyone scared of heights?

Whistler/Blackcomb is like Disneyland for Skiers and Snowboarders. Since each one of these mountains is bigger than most ski resorts most people just ski/ride one or the other in a day. One local told me he rarely goes to Whistler Mountain because that is where all the tourists go. Todd and I however wanted to do the grand tour so our plan was to hit the top of Whistler Mountain and some back bowls, then take the gondola over to Blackcomb after lunch to ski there the rest of the day. Sounded like a good idea, but the reality is that this resort is so big and overwhelming that you really feel like an ant on an anthill.

We took the regular gondola (not the peak to peak) up Whistler Mountain, and then the Peak Express up to the top. My ribs were really painful by now, and it hurt just to to bend over to strap my bindings up. Still I still had the best day of the trip so far, riding much better than the 2 days before. We started at the top of Whistler Mountain which is a huge summit where you can basically pick any direction to go down. Pretty cool and unique since most places I’ve rode (except Mt Bachelor) tend to be slopes or ridgelines where you go down one side or the other, rather than a prominent rounded summit with runs in all directions. After some double black diamond runs down the front face we explored the backside of Whistler Mountain in the outstanding Harmony and Symphony Bowls, which I missed when I was here last winter.

By the time we got on the Peak to Peak Gondola to go to Blackcomb it was around 2pm already, and the lifts close at 4. We floated across the valley floor in the Gondola and then went straight for the 7th heaven lift to take us to the top. Todd was still full speed ahead and ready to go down more double black diamonds, but I was winding down and ready to take more pictures and some runs that would be a little gentler on my aching ribs. We decided to split up for the last hour and meet at the village. It was on my last run that I saw for the first time a solar halo surrounding the sun. It made for some great photos and a unique experience.

At 4:00 we met in the totally awesome Whistler Village and unanimously decided to stay to ride another day at Whistler/Blackcomb instead of driving down to Crystal Mountain Washington that night. It did mean that we would have an 8+ hour drive back to Portland the next evening making it nearly impossible to go to Mt Hood Timberline on that last day when Todd flew out in the late afternoon. Todd agreed and felt it was well worth it to sacrifice riding at Crystal and Timberline for another day at what might be the best ski resort in the world. Whistler was calling us back.

We ate a nice dinner at the High Mountain Brewpub in Whistler Village and did some shopping that evening. It was nice to have some downtime for a change since we did not have to drive for hours to reach our next destination. The village itself is great place to just hang out, shop, and chill. It kind of reminds me of the Keystone Village in CO, but about 5 times bigger; and its only one of the villages at Whistler. We eventually booked a hotel in Squamish which is a little town about an hour down the road towards Vancouver. The hotels in Whistler Village were running around 250+ so it just wasn’t an option for us. The hotel in Squamish was less than 100, but a little on the weird side. It seemed like we were staying at a revamped city hall that was turned into a hotel. The hotel concierge was a bit strange too. He told us of plans to add a casino and strip club next year, and that we should come back to visit. For now it was more like a quiet and somewhat creepy place that seemed to belong in a parallel universe. Despite the twilight zone feel of this place I was exhausted, so I took some more Advil and went right to sleep.

Whistler Peak

Day 4 Whistler/Blackcomb

We got an early start this morning after about 5-6 hours of sleep. My ribs were in so much pain when I woke up that I considered sitting out the day, but it was the last ski day of the trip, and at Whistler, so it was time to man-up one more time. I had an idea to check the local 7/11 to see if they sold discounted lift tickets. Last year I bought my ticket at the 7/11 in downtown Vancouver for a discounted price. Todd had doubts about the Squamish locale having the same deal, but I suspected we would score some tickets here, and luckily we did. The total price yesterday was a ridiculous $106 per ticket at the window, but only $88 at 7/11. FYI in case you were unaware, the American dollar is slightly weaker than the Canadian dollar now, a sign of the financial times.

With that small financial victory we decided to stop at Todd’s favorite new Canadian fast food restaurant Tim Horton’s; soon to be expanded to Highlands Ranch, CO under the name Todd Horton’s. We loaded up with sandwiches and pastries for the road. Once we got to the mountain it was obvious that today would not be another bluebird day. On the flip side, when it is snowing at least you always have fresh powder, which is great as long as you can see where you are going. We looked at the top of Whistler Mountain and it just looked like whiteout conditions. We decided to skip that and further explore our favorite area from the day before at the Harmony bowl before heading over to Blackcomb.

Riding the Harmony bowl makes you feel like you are in harmony with the universe. It just feels right, except at the top where the blinding snow was blowing so hard we could barely see anything. Most of the Harmony bowl is treeless, especially at the top where there are no trees at all and it’s exposed to the elements, which made matters worse because there is nothing to contrast against the blowing snow except more snow. To add to this situation I get more disoriented than most people in whiteout conditions and actually start to see tiny red dots everywhere. I’ve been in worse conditions when you can’t even see your feet below you, but this was bad enough that we couldn’t see drops or ridges in front of us. This is bad news in an open bowl area where some steep drop-offs of a hundred feet or more are sometimes left unmarked.

We went down a little ways and Todd found a nice double black diamond run he wanted to ski down. I followed to the edge which basically looked like a drop-off into an abyss of whiteness. A few more people came down, took a look, and then turned around. Todd went further down the edge a little more and kept saying over and over “I can’t see anything”. Still he was determined and said he thought he can do it. I said go ahead, if you do it I’ll go too. He did go and found a thin horizontal cross trail to ski on and eventually worked down what looked like a not so bad run. However when I went down to that same lower ledge and hung my feet over the vertical side I couldn’t feel the bottom or see anything but whiteness, and the steep exposed rocks far below me.

Normally I will ride down anything that doesn’t involve jumping off cliffs. However, today with the blinding snow I was very nervous about just dropping off this ledge and hoping I’d hit that little cross trail without tumbling down over the rocks. In order to keep my back to the mountain I’d be riding in my weak direction, basically riding switch, on a big board that I was having problems controlling. Not to mention I was physically exhausted by this fourth day of little sleep, and with lots of pain in my bruised ribs and sore muscles. I felt a knot in my stomach that I’ve haven’t experienced since bungee jumping with Norm 15 years ago. Except this time there is no rope to bounce me back up to safety if I screwed up. I calculated if I missed the trail and slid down over the rocks getting seriously injured that help was a long way away. It would be very difficult to get me over Harmony ridge on a stretcher and then down another 5000 feet and several miles to the village, which is still 2 hours drive to a decent hospital in Vancouver. If I made it then no big deal, but if I didn’t the results could be disastrous, or at least it seemed to me at that moment in time. I’ve been down much steeper terrain before, but flying blind just didn’t seem like a bright idea today. In the end I chickened out and told Todd I’d hike back up to the main trail and then meet him later at the Peak to Peak Gondola. I felt bad about chickening out after I said I’d follow, but I think it was the right decision and I knew if something bad happened we’d both regret it.

In this massive resort it took another hour to get back to the Peak to Peak station where we finally made the journey over to Blackcomb Mountain once again. This time the line wasn’t long so we got to ride in one of the glass bottom Gondolas which has a glass bottom with a view 1430 feet to the valley floor. Todd was unimpressed with this additional feature, as were a few others in the gondola who mumbled that it was overrated, but I thought it was pretty cool. We took a break at the Blackcomb side and got some Poutine, a traditional French Canadian dish with frites covered in brown gravy and cheese curds. I first tried Poutine in Quebec about 10 years ago when I went there with my dad to visit family. If you ever get the chance to try it don’t hesitate. There is nothing like French Fries to warm your heart, and Poutine is basically an upgraded version of that tried and true comfort food. By the time we finished up there the snow was dumping furiously giving us real visibility problems, even on the lower parts of the mountain. We took a couple more runs and then split up for the last hour before meeting back at the village.

With the skiing part of the trip over there wasn’t much left to do except buy a few souvenirs and drive back to Portland in the dark rainy PNW weather that one would expect this time of year. We did hit the Pho Noodle house in Vancouver one more time on the way back, which totally hit the spot. I used to think a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with Frites and a beer was the best après-ski meal, but now I’m thinking it might be Pho and jasmine tea. People and places change.

We got back to Portland sometime around 2-3am. Trying to ski again the next morning, and then rush to the airport by 5 would have been crazy ridiculous, so I was glad we had decided to just chill in Portland. I think by the end of it all we were both exhausted, although Todd probably fared much better than I since he is a naturally fast paced person and seems to have endless amounts of energy. Still despite the difficulty of the trip, especially the bruised ribs, I would do it over again, but next time with my “old blue” board or at least something that’s more tried and tested.

Peak to Peak gondola ride is 2.73 miles long, and 1430 feet above ground!

Solar Halo from Blackcomb Mountain

Day 5- Portland

Todd has traveled to more places than anyone I know. He was the first person who really got me interested in travel by telling me all his travel stories when we worked together at a Tech Support job in Dallas. So if anyone is to blame for my wanderlust it is Todd. Not that wanderlust or travel is a bad thing; it’s just that some people don’t understand. You are either a traveler/adventurer/explorer, or you aren’t. It doesn’t take fame and fortune to travel and explore; it really just takes time, dedication, planning, and the will to do it. Some people simply aren’t interested in travel and prefer to stay within the bubble of their own little world; nothing wrong with that, we can’t all have fun.

The last day in Portland was fun and felt like a relaxed vacation pace. I took Todd to the usual tourist route of lunch at the downtown food carts, Stumptown Coffee, Voodoo Doughnuts, Powells Books, The Chai Tea House in Nob Hill, and then through Washington Park. Todd said several times that Portland reminds him of Europe, where he has traveled frequently since his wife Ellen is from there. Charlotte and I both feel the same way, but to have someone as well traveled as Todd say that, it kind of verifies our biased perspective of Portland. At times we do miss Denver, but after 5 years in the PNW I feel like Charlotte and I have finally settled into what we feel is our home, at least for now. It was good seeing Todd and hanging out like old times. Certainly we will meet again here or in CO, or somewhere else like another ski trip. After a few hours in Portland it was already time for Todd’s flight out. He flew back to the Rockies to a place I once knew, and I drove back home to catch up on some sleep and dream about upgrading to a new snowboard that would be as good as “old blue”.

Epilogue

  1. My ribs did take 2 weeks to heal just like Todd said. The first week was very painful, but then they gradually got better.
  2. I’ve been going up to Mt Hood almost every week since this ski trip and actually went skiing a couple times (rather than snowboarding) for the first time in Oregon.
  3. So far I’ve been to the mountain 10 times and counting this year. The season is expected to last until June thanks to La Nina.
  4. Recently Charlotte got me a new snowboard for my birthday, the K2 Raygun! I’ve taken it up to Hood a few times and it rocks. To quote Frank Costanza, “I’m back baby”!

Todd's Chillin like a hipster at Tea Chai Te

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