Ski Whistler's perfect powder — for a price

Image: A skier on the slopes in Whistler, British Columbia.
Whistler-Blackcomb's ski season runs from November through June, and is the venue for the downhill skiing and snowboarding events and nordic events nearby in the 2010 Winter Olympics.Eric Berger / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A dozen years ago, a roommate and I were wasting away another rainy winter night in Seattle when we decided to drive the pickup truck five hours north to Whistler. We left at 10 p.m., pulled into the lot near the lifts and spent a few fitful, freezing hours of semi-sleep in the cab until sunrise.

We gladly paid about U.S. $45 each to blissfully ski on the softest, freshest snow in the Northwest — which usually provides wet cement. On the way home we stopped at McDonald's.

You couldn't pull that off today.

Whistler and its twin neighbor Blackcomb Mountain, about a two-hour drive north up the picturesque Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver, is widely recognized as one of the top resorts in North America by skiers and snowboarders. And that quality doesn't come cheap.

The venue for the downhill skiing and snowboarding events in the 2010 Winter Olympics — plus the nordic events nearby — has become a haven for those who want luxury near their lift lines.

The standard daily lift ticket is U.S. $81. All-day adult group lessons begin at U.S. $77 with lift ticket.

Fancy hotels such as the Four Seasons, the Fairmont Chateau, the Westin Resort and Spa and not one but two Pan Pacific palaces seem to be at every turn inside Whistler Village. The pulsing, main pedestrian walk of shops, bars, restaurants and two grocery stores even has a wine shop at the base of Whistler ski area.

Not a Motel 6, Super 8 or can of Hamm's beer in sight. And based on the ubiquitous "No Overnight Parking" signs, sleeping in a truck is no longer a hassle-free option.

My family of four and a married couple without kids — the most patient, tolerating friends on the planet — spent a pre-holiday crush Friday night and Saturday at Whistler in December. We found a room at the Tantalus Lodge, a 10-minute walk or three-minute shuttle van ride south of the Whistler Village Gondola. We enjoyed a two-bedroom, two-bath suite with a sofa bed, full kitchen and fireplace for U.S. $261 per night (plus $16 a day to park). It slept six comfortably.

Some hotels want two-night minimums. Then there's the currently unfavorable currency exchange rate, eh?

But, oh, what you get for all those loonies and toonies (Canada's $1 and $2 coins).

Local merchants and many of Whistler's 3,400 employees — seemingly all perky, in their 20s and many from New Zealand, Australia or Great Britain — push the fact that theirs is a four-season resort.

Ski season runs from November through June, with the spring months usually spent on higher Blackcomb Mountain, elevation 7,500 feet (Whistler Mountain tops out at 7,160 feet). Blackcomb's summer glacier skiing and snowboarding are tentatively scheduled to run through July 27.

There's also vibrant mountain-biking season and a relatively new zip-line attraction. Some of Canada's world-class mountain bikers live at Whistler or at Squamish, the small town midway between Vancouver and Whistler along B.C. Highway 99.

But did I mention the winter snow?

Whistler's gondola takes you from the main base at 2,214 feet to above 6,000 feet. From there, chairs take you to the black-diamond runs off the top. Or you can swoosh off to the south, to the Dave Murray and Wild Card trails, which will be the runs for the men's and women's downhill and super giant slalom races in the Olympics. Those runs end at Creekside, another lodge with rentals, bars and restaurants a few down the road south from Whistler Village.

In my multiple trips here over the years, I've liked the snow better and found the runs more wide open atop Blackcomb. It is accessible from the bottom of Whistler's main village by the Blackcomb Excalibur Gondola, by walking 15 minutes north through Whistler Village along the well-marked Valley Trail System to the Blackcomb Daylodge, or five minutes by shuttle or car. Beginning in late 2008, there will be a peak-to-peak gondola that will connect the two mountains at the 6,100-foot levels.

In preparation for the Olympics, the only highway into Whistler is torn up in a widening project. And half of Vancouver is seemingly under construction.

But Ryan Proctor, public relations coordinator for Intrawest at Whistler, said the Olympics will consume only 10 percent of the skiable terrain at Whistler-Blackcomb.

"We'll still be fully operational during the Olympics," Proctor said.

At Whistler-Blackcomb, that's a very good thing.