National Post

Whistler Blackcomb turns up the volume for bikers — as well as skiers and boarders
by Kate Zimmerman for National Post : Travel

VANCOUVER — Whistler Blackcomb, already the largest ski resort in North America, is pumping itself up.

The resort is swelling its physical sphere and apparently, the development has nothing to do with co-hosting the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Instead, according to Doug Forseth, senior vice-president of operations, Whistler Blackcomb is responding to an increase in the accommodation available locally. With more and more visitors pouring into the area, the resort is keeping up by boosting the variety of experiences on offer and providing plenty of elbow room for the enthusiasts who ply its slopes on both boards and bikes.

The ski slope expansion will be unveiled when the snow starts to fly this fall. Right now, it’s the bikers who are investigating Whistler’s bigger, gnarlier environs. In a series of on-mountain improvements expected to total $14.2 million, Whistler Blackcomb is adding over 50 km. of trails winding over rock and through dense forest to its 100 km. Whistler Mountain Bike Park.

The park’s bikers used to be relegated to the “Fitz” chair to transport their vehicles up the slope. As of June, the Garbanzo lift, which whisks downhill fans upward in the winter, has been equipped with bicycle racks and ramps to increase the range and diversity of available terrain.

“Destination travel for mountain bikers is really in its infancy,” says Rob McSkimming, managing director of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, “and it’s places like Whistler that are making that happen on a larger scale.”

Not to mention taller. The Garbanzo section adds 2,200 vertical feet to the park’s previous 1,200 feet. Over the course of the season, from 60,000 to 80,000 riders are expected to bomb along tracks with names like Original Sin and In Deep.

According to McSkimming, the park’s space was enlarged in response to a huge increase in ridership — 500 per cent — over the past five years.

“The trails were just getting too crowded, and we felt there was still some (room) there for the market to grow,” he explains. “The (new) terrain, and what that actually adds to the experience, is just amazing.”

McSkimming says the new trails are a return to the “old-school,” single-track style — more man-versus-mountain than man-versus-man-made-obstacles. For those who prefer the latter experience, the old terrain is part mountain bike trail, part BMX-type track and part Motocross-style features, with big berms, banks and jumps.

Before the expansion, riders didn’t get high enough on the slope for the “really spectacular” views, says McSkimming. Now, at the top of the Garbanzo lift, they get to the edge of the treeline; their look-outs encompass the peaks of other mountains, old growth hemlock forest, granite outcrops and the valley below. “It adds a huge dimension to the overall experience we’re offering.”

Opening day of the expanded park drew a record 1,200 riders. “As we hoped, (the group) really spread out quite nicely,” McSkimming says.

The park has been getting outrageously good reviews for years, with Mountain Bike Rider magazine remarking that “Whistler is the anvil on which ski area mountain biking is being forged.”

With press like that, it’s no wonder that McSkimming recently encountered groups of mountain bikers from Sweden and Finland who were spending weeks hurtling through the bike park. The site also draws keeners from the U.K. and different parts of California, as well as Seattle. The bike park is open year-round.

When temperatures cool down late this fall, visitors will get to see how Whistler Blackcomb spent $3 million to open up 1,100 acres (445 hectares) of new ski terrain on the west side of Whistler mountain. The ski hill expansion supplies downhill devotees with a new zone or “pod” comprising more than 400 acres, to the tune of 5,000 vertical feet. Dubbed Peak to Creek, the new area will take skiers and snowboarders 5.5 km., from the peak of Whistler to the shops, restaurants and hotels of Whistler Creekside.

The plus-sized ski territory also includes the Flute Bowl, which was officially out-of-bounds until now. The bowl has long been a favourite with adventurous skiers and boarders who were willing to assume the risks of carving virgin snow on un-policed gradient. The area demands a 15-minute hike from the top of the Peak or Harmony chairlifts, and, as back-country, was neither groomed nor patrolled. Once nervy skiers made the trek, however, they discovered an alpine bowl with lots of natural snow and spacious runs that flowed into sub-alpine trails snaking through trees.

In time for the 2004-2005 ski season, Whistler Blackcomb (one of nine North American mountain resorts owned by IntraWest Corporation) has stretched its boundaries to include the bowl area. Resort employees will patrol it for avalanche risks and routinely respond to first aid needs in that zone. But senior v.p. Forseth doesn’t anticipate it getting crowded. The Flute Bowl experience, starting with that 15-minute hike, will likely appeal only to the most avid skiers.

“We’re not going to groom it, we’re not going to make the runs go nice and smooth,” he says. “We’re going to let it go natural.”

In Forseth’s view, the bowl will give advanced and expert skiers a taste of the back country minus some of its attendant risks. “We think it’s the best of both worlds.”

Blackcomb, too, is undergoing improvements. As the site of the 2005 World Snowboard Championships — the first time a resort outside of Europe has been chosen to host the event — it is expected to draw 400 athletes from all over the world this January.

In preparation for the contest, the resort is building a new Superpipe on Blackcomb’s Lower Cruiser run. The gigantic snow-coated pipe will be 150 metres of wall length with a 5-metre wall height and will be available for night hijinks post-Championships.

For further details on Whistler Blackcomb generally, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com. Whistler Mountain Bike Park details are available at www.whistlerblackcomb.com/bike.

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