The good, the bad and the ugly lift lines of Whistler’s mega snowfall

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Stock image. Shutterstock.

Man, has it been an epic (no pun intended) season for Whistler thus far with huge snowfalls. 

This week alone has seen cars buried under 74 centimetres in 24 hours, skiers and boarders living it up in the white room and those pesky lift lines that take forever (or feel like it when powder is calling).

But, when you get conditions as good as this during a peak holiday period during the two weeks of Christmas and New Year at the biggest resort in North America then you’re not going to be waltzing onto the slopes in an empty gondola made of gold and served champagne. Get real.

Instead, you’re going to be fighting it out with all the other powder crazy people who put their skis down first in the line before the sun rises, like a dog pees on a tree to mark their territory. They sit back and wait with a hot coffee in hand and a pocket full of jerky because this might take some time. Because they have a powder plan.

Add mega snowfall and those lines are just going to get longer as terrain is closed for avalanche control by overworked ski patrol trying to make the mountain safe. This is standard for almost every resort in North America. Employ more ski patrol I hear you say.

It’s more complicated than that. Lifties might be stuck in the powder that’s shut down roads or buses may be behind due to power outages. Big snow brings big delays.

Whistler Blackcomb has always been a mountain that divides people.

You love it or hate it, you sing about the mammoth snowfall, the trees, the glacier, the side country, backcountry and the long groomers or you rant about the three seasons in one ski run from top to bottom and those wretched powder day lift lines.

You rave about Pure Bread, Mount Currie, Bearfoot Bistro, Scandinavia Spa and waffles at Crystal or you find something to complain about even while on holiday. 

Don’t get me wrong, I do get it, I’ve been at Whistler on a Sunday in January after 70 centimetres fell and everyone in Vancouver decided to descend upon the resort. I had first tracks tickets, but, knowing the likelihood of first tracks actually happening (zilch) when the mountain needed to be avalanche controlled first thing, I gave them away.

So it was my friends who stood in the drizzle that day, waiting for the first tracks gondola that never came while I slept in and grabbed fresh tracks the next day on freshly opened terrain. Well played, if I do say so myself.

Skiers and boarders are a vocal crew, we love to shout about our powder lines, boast about our fresh track days, talk up our ski skills and gear and complain about the resorts that we willingly give our money to. 

Yes, we have a right to vocalise our frustration, especially in a world of social media. But remember, Whistler Blackcomb is a Vail Resort, it is on the Epic Pass.

The Epic Pass is successful for a reason, it makes skiing cheaper and more accessible and there’s one thing skiers like more than complaining and that’s sucking the blood out of their dollar.

So have Epic Pass, will ski but complain about it later.

We all know you’d be a fool to buy a CA$178 day pass on a powder day at Whistler Blackcomb after a storm, because the locals will tell you that you’ll spend a lot of that day waiting for terrain to open and lifts to move and jostling with the Vancouver day trippers.

They’ll also tell you if you put in the lift time at the base then you’ll be rewarded with what they call the best mountain at the top in North America, for damn good reason. But then, they are locals and no one’s going to choose to live in a ski town where they believe the skiing sucks. 

Of course, Whistler is not the only resort in the world that suffers on peak days. Many a European, USA, Australian and Kiwi resort also have their big lift line ‘moments’. We’ve all been there.

I can even think of a number this season in the USA already. And let’s not forget that time in March at Val Thorens in France when first lifts looked like this:

The ski industry is in a turning point dilemma right now. Climate change threatens ski resort long term existence, millennials aren’t jumping on the ski and snowboard loyalty wagon and two ski corporations (Alterra Mountain Company and Vail Resorts) are monopolising North America (and beyond). 

Multi resort season passes make skiing and snowboarding attractive – who wants to dish out the old $2k for a season pass when you can get an Epic or Ikon Pass for less than half that? But with all that added infrastructure expenditure comes more crowds.

Independent resorts hold on in the hope skiers and boarders will start to look elsewhere but not all of them can compete on lift pass price or convenience and some eventually sell to one or the other and, again, here come those crowds. Though I personally believe the independents will have their day as the world swings and roundabouts or something like that. 

The question is, do you want a ski industry that can’t survive because it’s priced itself out of the market or do you want a ski industry that survives by going mass market? It’s a genuine question as I’m not sure I have an answer to the lift line problem other than more ski patrol, more lift investments, and more things that cost money to fix.

I loathe a lift queue but I love a powder turn, more than anything. Yet the more powder days I get the more of a snob I become and the less lift lines I’m prepared to stand in. That, of course, could just be age. 

There’s a reason Japan has lured so many skiers and snowboarders in recent years with it’s rising sun. Consistent mega powder and many (but not all) resorts that still don’t track out, yet. 

Truth is lift lines come with the territory on a powder day, even when the lift is working perfectly and the terrain is all open. There will always be a ton of folk more eager than you, who got there earlier than you, who are taking up the space on the chairlifts in front of you.

You just have to decide how much you want that powder or choose to ski or snowboard elsewhere or choose a less peak time or choose a lesser known resort that’s harder to get to where lift lines are shorter or join the fast growing numbers seeking solace and powder in the backcountry where lift lines and lift ticket dollars are nil.

Your call. Literally.

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

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