Downhill all the way

Allan Fotheringham January 16 1995

Downhill all the way

Allan Fotheringham January 16 1995

Downhill all the way



Several years back, the wife—not a native British Californian—of a friend expressed great relief when they decided to move back east of the Rockies. “All the time I lived in Vancouver,” she explained, “I felt I was in the middle of a beer commercial.”

The water, the mountains, the salubrious climate, the sybaritic lifestyle—all was too much for her Presbyterian soul and she blissfully fled elsewhere, to suffer real winters and rubber boots.

It is good that the dear girl had not to suffer further by enduring a Christmas visit to Whistler, the ski and sin resort that is 90 minutes north of Vancouver as the Ford Bronco flies. They don’t even know how to spell recession there. This is not a beer commercial. This is a champagne cocktail, with designer sun goggles.

Whistler in 1995 is typified by the guy spotted on the lift headed to the longest ski run in North America if not the universe. The four-body high-speed chair lift has not only a foot rest but a stiff plastic cover that lowers and shields the poor darlings from the drifting snow flakes. The only things missing are windshield wipers. Next year.

The guy being lofted skyward is talking on his cellular phone. He comes for a relaxing holiday and he’s phoning his broker to sell 10,000. No wonder she moved east.

The Chateau Whistler, with its copper roof, is sort of a Meccano-set imitation of what the great CPR railway hotels in Banff and Jasper and Saskatoon and Quebec City made famous. The lobby would accommodate the Taj Mahal. A heated pool outside the bar emits steam and nymphs in bikinis who rise out of the mist as skiers in spaceage boots skid to a stop at poolside.

In the lobby, large dogs woof and bark, drowning out the piano music. Only the rich bring dogs to a ski holiday.

One of Pierre Trudeau’s sons is spending the Whistler winter as a ski bum. The Great Man himself skis here most seasons. Jean Chrétien is so smart as never to be seen on these slopes, which would immediately destroy his carefully crafted image as a little boy from Shawinigan with modest beansand-toast tastes.

The reason he got elected was that he was photographed water-skiing—on one ski. It does not cost a dime to water-ski. It costs almost $50 a day (thanks to GST) to buy a Whistler lift ticket. The guy is not dumb. He avoids like a plague this place where waiters who look like Warren Beatty have taken a vow never to return sunglasses.

Hugh Smythe is a handsome devil who as a New Westminster high-school student came here as a lift assistant and forgot to leave and now runs Blackcomb Mountain, the slope of choice beside its cheek-and-jowl companion, Whistler Mountain. The leading American ski magazine has just named the twin-mountain resort, for the third straight year, the best ski destination in North America. Clubs and pizzas are taken into account, not to mention the sushi bars.

Smythe explains that skiing is recessionproof, since it is an upper-middle-class sport. (That’s why Chrétien stays away.) These days he spends half his time flying to Mont Tremblant north of Montreal. Intrawest Corp. of Vancouver, which owns Blackcomb, is now doing to the Quebec resort what it did for Whistler.

What that means is that in Christine’s, high in the sky near the Blackcomb peak, along with white tablecloths and crystal and cutlery, there is a dish called garlic and roasted brie, followed with corn-breaded oysters. That would be after they come swooping down from a run on the glacier, which is open for skiing through July and August, thanks to Jean-Claude Killy and his helicopters.

On his way to Mont Tremblant, Smythe stopped off at Stratton Moun tain in Vermont, which In trawest now owns as well as Panorama in the Rockies near Alberta. The brie-and garlic boys expect in 1995 to grab two more American re sorts, probably in California and Colorado, and get a list ing on a U.S. stock exchange. Stay away, Jean.

There is little snow in Switzerland and Austria this winter. World Cup events are being cancelled and moved. Steve Podborski is now a permanent big man at Whistler, which has been smothered by the best snow in 25 years.

The snow bunnies at the bottom of the lift wear $3,000 on their backs, even before they break their legs. You need a crowbar to get into Umberto’s restaurants, or be a relative. The New York Times is there every morning in the Chateau Whistler, 10:30 sharp—about the time the dogs start to woof.

On the benchlands above, the condos march upward, year upon year, outdoor Jacuzzis steaming in the sun, BMWs parked like prams outside. The deal now is ski-in, ski-out—put on your boards on the front stoop and at day’s end, the garlic having done its work, glide right to your door.

It is somewhat removed from the welfare office in St. John’s, the frozen pond in Saskatchewan that produced Gordie Howe, the soulless towers in Toronto that produce paper and bankruptcies, the desiccated swivel servants outside Chrétien’s office who are at the Xerox machine, duplicating surveys demonstrating that most Canadians asked about Quebec independence say they would rather go fishing.

I’m glad my dear old friend east of the Rockies has never seen Whistler. She would absolutely hate it.