Travel: Following Whistler’s Olympic trail

Hannah Stephenson tests herself on the Olympic ski trail in the top Canadian resort of Whistler with two fearless teenagers in tow.

Tuesday, 24th December 2013, 9:00 am
Teenagers Matt and Will pose for photos at the Whistler Olympic Village in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. Picture: Hannah Stephenson/PA Photos.
Teenagers Matt and Will pose for photos at the Whistler Olympic Village in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. Picture: Hannah Stephenson/PA Photos.

Looking down the single diamond black - dry mouth, butterflies in my stomach, taut leg muscles, every sense alert - I wonder how I’m going to tackle the sheer slope used by Olympic downhill skiers past and present.

The two teenagers I’m with - my son Will, 14, and my nephew Matt, 13, have no fear of the Dave Murray run on Whistler Mountain in the spectacular Coast Mountains in British Columbia, described by locals as an ‘easy’ black with enough give to allow intermediates like me to hone their survival skills conquering steep terrain and tricky moguls.

I’m more tentative than my two young speed merchant companions but soon find that the Dave Murray is a fun high-speed cruiser with a few really steep bits but nothing, thankfully, that I can’t handle. The run, which is nearly two miles long, was named after a downhill racer who became one of Canada’s most popular ski personalities.

The boys are consistently waiting for me at the bottom, but then Will and Matt have already had a blast in a session with the local Ride Tribe program, designed specifically for teens, where their ‘cool’ instructor led them down a succession of blacks and taught them how to tackle moguls and tricks like ground 360s - where you turn full circle on your skis on the slope - and even some flashy backward skiing.

It’s easy to follow the Olympic trail at Whistler Blackcomb, the biggest ski resort in North America and host of the 2010 Winter Games. Locals tell me that if the forthcoming host, Sochi in Russia, isn’t ready in time for 2014, Whistler would be happy to step in once more, but they realise it’s a pipedream.

Access to the two mountains couldn’t be easier. Whistler and Blackcomb stand side by side and, combined, offer more than 200 marked runs, 8,171 acres of terrain, 16 alpine bowls and three glaciers served by 37 lifts, as well as the longest ski season, which lasts from November to May.

The two main gondolas to each mountain are a five-minute walk from the top of the village. You can avoid the queues for the Whistler lift, which tend to be heavy in high season and at weekends, by going up the quieter Blackcomb one and then connecting with the terrific Peak 2 Peak gondola which takes you from one mountain to another in just 11 minutes.

The gondola, the highest of its kind at 436m (1,427ft) above the valley floor, was completed in 2008 and helps adventurous skiers make the most of the largest skiable terrain in North America.

On the way we have spectacular views down the valley to the town and the Alta and Green Lakes beyond. Along the way we see what looks like an enormous giant known as The Black Tusk, lying on top of the mountain. In fact it’s a natural volcanic rock formation on the Garibaldi range, frequented by hikers in the warmer months.

The people of Whistler Blackcomb are keen to keep the Olympic memory alive. The famous Olympic rings and Paralympic symbols in the village are a favourite photo spot for visitors who urge their kids to climb in and out of the striking metal circles.

Such is the interest in the Olympics that you can splash out a cool £500 to hire a former Olympic skier for the day to help you make the most of the alpine paradise, including the Dave Murray Downhill and Franz’s Run, which are still used for international competitions and Canadian team training. But book early - slots were full when we arrived.

On a beautiful day we venture up to the summit of Whistler to find an iconic statue, the Whistler Mountain Inukshuk, created as a symbol of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in British Columbia. Historically, the inukshuk is a stone landmark used by the Inuit and other peoples of the North American Arctic regions and there are various theories about why inukshuks were created, but most likely it was used as a reference point and navigation marker for travel routes.

The boys want to try some powder and have plenty of scope, thanks to an immense backcountry giving skiers and riders access to powder-filled bowls, although I prefer the expertly-groomed corduroy.

While my two teenagers hone their freestyle skills on the boxes and grinds of the Big Easy and Nintendo terrain parks on Blackcomb, or weave their way through the trees in the Enchanted Forest on Whistler, I prefer to follow a slightly more sedate path on easier blues such as upper Olympic or the 7km Peak to Creek.

We’re staying in the perfectly situated and well equipped Crystal Lodge, a luxury hotel with restaurants, outdoor heated pool, hot tub and other mod cons. Our loft apartment has a full kitchen and several well-equipped (although pricey) supermarkets nearby, so self-catering is a breeze.

At Crystal Lodge, a valet locks our skis away in a special room and brings them out when we need them, which is so much more civilised than jostling for space in the busy boot rooms I’ve experienced in Europe.

The village atmosphere is chilled out and wide pedestrian walkways run from one end of town to the other, fringed by plenty of bars and restaurants (more than 150, I’m told) to unwind after a hard day on the pistes.

Whistler started life in the early 1900s as a mining and logging town, home to trappers and prospectors. Known as Whistler because of the shrill whistle made by the marmots who lived among the rocks, the lakes at the foot of the mountain became famous for their fishing and when the Pacific Great Eastern Railway reached Alta Lake in 1914 it opened the valley to the outside world and tourism.

In the early 1960s, a group of Vancouver businessmen formed the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association to develop a site to host a future Winter Olympic Games, and in 1966 Whistler Mountain officially opened for ski-ing. Blackcomb Mountain opened in 1980, combining with Whistler to create one of the largest ski areas in North America.

Whistler Museum, a stone’s throw from the quirky shops in the village, houses legacies of the past, while the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre reveals the legends, history and customs of the native First Nations people. A short bus ride away, the newly-established Function Junction houses a trampoline park and a public skate ramp among other activities.

But true ski junkies will soak up the afternoon sun on the pistes, stay high up the mountains - and do that Dave Murray run one more time, immersing themselves in the Olympic legacy.

Travel facts - Whistler

:: Hannah Stephenson travelled courtesy of Ski Safari and Destination British Columbia, staying at the four-star Crystal Lodge. Prices with Ski Safari (01273 224 060, www.skisafari.com) for a seven-night holiday start from £1,279 pp or from £4,409 for a family of four, based on two adults and two children under 12, including flights with Air Canada and resort transfers.

Add a city stay in Vancouver at the five-star Fairmont Waterfront, starting from £64 pp per night or from £128 for a family of four (two adults and two under-12s).

:: For more information visit www.tourismwhistler.com, www.whistlerblackcomb.com and www.BritishColumbia.travel