We moved from California to Seattle, Washington in 1992, anxiously leaving our favorite ski runs at Squaw Valley behind as we headed north. We were told that the resorts around Seattle offered excellent skiing but after a season battling howling wind, wild weather and often funky snow conditions in the shadow of 14,411 foot Mt. Rainier we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. One weekend in early April we were shocked to find that the ski area was closing for the season despite plentiful snow. Apparently the closing date was set at the beginning of the season and that was that. We were used to skiing until the snow gave out, which sometimes lasted until the 4th of July. In disgust we pocketed our now-useless season pass and packed up the car for some place called Whistler. “I don’t know what’s so special about it but everyone talks about Whistler so there must be something good there,” I said to my skeptical husband. “Yeah, that’s what they said about those other local ski areas,” Steve said disdainfully.
Arriving in pouring rain we didn’t get off to an auspicious start. “It’s probably snowing at the top. You can never tell with this mountain,” said the B&B host. I was doubtful but we strapped on our skis and headed up the mountain encased in a plastic bag. Lo and behold it was snowing at the top and we could see immediately that the terrain was vast and gorgeous. “This is more like it” I said. The only barrier was the five hour drive and finding reasonable accommodations to fit our meager budget. We scoured the local paper, found a cabin looking for members, debated whether we could do it, and ultimately took the plunge. It was the best thing we ever did, meeting locals, some of whom worked on the mountain, who showed us all the nooks and crannies of the 8,171 acres that comprises the two mountains. It was worth the ten-hour round trip each weekend and even though we’re back to California we still look forward to our annual trip to Whistler. We learned everything we could from our coaches at the Belczyk Race Camps and Extremely Canadian ski camps and eventually conquered most of the accessible advanced and expert runs, but for the first year we were solidly planted on intermediate slopes and enjoyed every minute.
I sometimes hear intermediate level skiers wondering if Whistler Blackcomb is too advanced for them. The answer is no. This pair of mountains is so huge that it easily accommodates all levels of skiers. There are plenty of intermediate runs on both mountains, but it’s possible that Blackcomb offers a more complete package for the lower intermediate skier than Whistler, which gave up a large chunk of its best medium slopes to terrain parks around Emerald Express. At Blackcomb there are innumerable groomed, wide, easy cruisers that offer challenge and fun for intermediate skier and boarders but Whistler has a lot to offer too, especially for skiers and boarders who are reaching for advanced skills and can challenge themselves on low angled, ungroomed terrain. One complaint I hear from intermediate skiers at Whistler is that they feel like they are skiing on a lot of connecting roads, which is probably accurate for those who strongly prefer groomed runs.
Although we’ve progressed in our skills we still enjoy these runs very much when we’re warming up, cooling down or just want an easy cruiser day. Here is our baker’s dozen: the top 13 intermediate runs at Whistler Blackcomb, split between two mountains and two articles.
Blackcomb Intermediate Runs:
- Ridge Runner: This is a fun screamer that bends around the far edge of Blackcomb (skier’s right hand side) giving you the feeling that you’re out of the fray on a wide path bordered by thick forest. Chair: Access directly from Crystal Chair (due to get an upgrade to a quad in summer 2013). You can also get there from the Glacier Express if you exit left and take the long Crystal Traverse. At the end take Blackcomb Glacier Road to Excelerator Express.
- Rock ‘N’ Roll: Located in the vicinity of, and similar to, Ridge Runner this is another good choice for a long swooping run. Chair: Access directly from Crystal Chair. You can also get there from Glacier Express if you exit left and take the long Crystal Traverse. Start on Trapline and immediately veer right onto Rock ‘N’ Roll. At the end take Blackcomb Glacier Road to Excelerator Express
- Hugh’s Heaven: The Seventh Heaven area an intermediate playground, and is consequently very popular with long lift lines on busy days. Located above the tree line it has an otherworldly feel. There are great views over to Whistler when the skies are clear. Hugh’s Heaven goes straight down the center but any of the runs are fun. Chair: There are a couple of ways to get to Seventh Heaven. The most direct is via Solar Coaster Express, then ski down 7th Avenue to catch the 7th Heaven Express lift. Or take the Glacier Express, then the Horstman T-bar up a steep slope (pay attention so you don’t get tangled up) to the top of 7th Heaven.
- Blackcomb Glacier. This is one of the most special runs at Whistler Blackcomb because a short hike gets you access to a backcountry-type environment on a real glacier. Usually this type of run would be strictly for advanced skiers, but the glacier is a huge, gentle bowl and is patrolled so it’s as safe as any other run. Stakes in the snow mark the recommended route for intermediate skiers. On the way you can peer into the breathtaking Blow Hole—for expert skiers only! This is an extraordinarily long, 3.1 mile (5 km) thigh-burning run at to Excelerator Chair, but you can add a few miles by going to the bottom (~4.3 miles; 7 km), where you can reward yourself with a cold beer at Merlin’s. Chair: Take the Glacier Express, then the mellow Showcase T-bar and exit right to take a short hike to the ridge. At the bottom of the glacier you’ll see an obvious road that will eventually take you to Excelerator Chair.
- Ross Gold (Gandy Dancer): Gandy Dancer (a slang term for railroad workers), renamed Ross Gold for Olympian Ross Rebagliati, used to be one of our favorite runs and it still is when we can get on it. It’s often closed for race training but if it’s open give it a whirl. It has a nice even pitch and is perfect for practicing your smooth GS turns at a high rate of speed. Chair: Exit left from Solar Coaster Express and it’s the second run. Merge onto Stoker to return to Solar Coaster.
- Honeycomb: Several runs are accessible from Excelerator Express, including Honeycomb, which merges into Espresso. The nice thing about this run is that you can easily do laps on one chair, so take advantage of that when the lift lines are light here. Chair: Access directly from Excelerator Express or exit left from Solar Coaster and meander over on Jersey Cream Road.
- See related articles:
- Whistler Blackcomb : Daily lift ticket at Whistler Blackcomb is $119 CAD + tax.
- Canadian Ski Council : Check out the Canadian Ski Council packages for significant discounts (some restrictions apply) on packages of 20 tickets. Tickets may be shared among family members and friends but may not be re-sold. The package that includes Whistler Blackcomb was $80 CAD/ticket.
- 7-11: The 7-11 store in Squamish, on the way to Whistler, sells discounted tickets, usually about $10 off. The 7-11 at Whistler does not sell them so you must pick them up in Squamish or Vancouver. The 7-11 in Squamish is located right off the highway next to McDonald’s so it’s an easy pit stop.
- Edge card-If you’re a resident of Washington state or Canada, consider getting an Edge card for discounts of up to 20-25%.
Ski and Snowboard Guide to Whistler Blackcomb, Intermediate Edition by Brian Finestone and Kevin Hodder (Intermediate Edition also available), with detailed maps and descriptions of the runs I’ve recommended
To reach Whistler from the U.S., fly to Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in British Columbia, Canada, then rent a car and drive 1.5-2 hours to Whistler Village. Alternatively, take the convenient Perimeter bus that drops off and picks up passengers at several locations around Whistler and makes 10 trips per day for $95 one-way per person (YVR to Whistler core). The pedestrian-friendly village makes driving truly optional.
All photos by Inga Aksamit.