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Rod’s Travel Diary

Monday, 06 Sep 2010

Location: Whistler, BC, Canada

MapWhistler, Hoary Marmots and the Olympics

I am on the last leg of my Canada sojourn. Fall has arrived, the temperatures are starting to drop and for a tropical boy its time to move on. I have a strong hankering to experience a 40 below freezing Canadian winter and a white Xmas but I am not physically, mentally or financially prepared for such an event right now. I’ll be back.

Nor does my departure signal the last of the stories from Canada. I promised a non-chronological travelogue and will keep my promise. Stay tuned for more…

I’ve definitely been in the ‘backwoods’ of Canada. I’ve spent many nights in a tent, been devoured by black flies and been in imminent danger of being eaten by bears, so I decided I need a good dose of Canada-glam to wrap up my stay. Where else but Whistler?

Whistler - home of the 2010 Winter Olympics when Canada wowed the world, won a bucket of gold medals including first gold medal on home soil (well home water really as it was for skating), and a record tally of 14 gold medals -- and spent a sh_tload of money to do it. The 2010 Winter Olympics was when Canada came of age and FINALLY beat the USA in ice hockey. (Note for Australians - ice hockey is largely incomprehensible. While the game seems straight forward - put the black thing into the other guy’s goal - there aren’t any actual rules other than you can’t use firearms (I think). Anyway it happens way too fast for normal humans to watch, so its best just to think of it as a fight about to happen and settle back and wait in anticipation for the biff to start).

A little known fact - the Canadian women’s ice hockey team also won against USA in the Olympics. So concerned was the team that this major leap forward for Canadian women would go un-noticed that they offered free beer and cigars to everyone to make it even more memorable. Wish I’d been there for that!

The drive to Whistler from Vancouver on the Sea to Sky highway is pretty spectacular with endless views of the steep cliffs and forested slopes dropping to the deep blue waterways that this area is justly famous for. I love coastal landscapes anyway but even a die hard desert lover would have to admire the scenery here. Watching from the window of my greyhound bus on a warm sunny late summer afternoon, I just wanted to explore the coast some more – next trip maybe.

Anyway Whistler…. It’s a ski resort town on steroids and a no salary cap. It took large, large, large amounts of money to stage the Olympics and a lot of it wasn’t private money. It will be interesting to see if the free buses, nice parks, manicured rivers and creeks, and very expensive infrastructure continues to be maintained now that the games are gone and the impetus for government investment dries up. But right now it’s a nice town, its well designed and easy to get around, and it has endless amenities, restaurants, amusements, hotels, chalets, resorts, bars and “shopping opportunities” (it even has a shop dedicated to lingerie and sex toys – just in case you forgot the teddy, the toys or just run out of lube).

Whistler is nestled at the feet of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains which soar over 2200 m skyward. They average over 10m of snow and some 37 ski lifts and gondolas can move 65, 507 skiers per hour. That’s impressive – in a little over 3 hours you could move the entire population of the northern Territory to the top of the mountains. (It would probably take a little longer as I suspect not everyone would want to go but you get my point about the sheer enormity of the operation). There are over 200 trails in the area and many of those are used by mountain bikes in the summer. There is an army of mountain bikers here -- all dressed in plastic armour like extras from a Mad Max film and with a death defying glaze across their face. They ride the gondolas (bikes jammed in upright) up the mountain then swarm down it in vast numbers and at breakneck speed. There doesn’t appear to be much need to peddle but you want good brakes.

Summer tourism has really only taken off in the last few years in Whistler and is probably a good thing if you have large amounts of money invested in real estate and ski lifts that otherwise sit idle for over half the year. The mountain biking craze must be a gold mine but a lot of people come here to hike too (mercifully on sans-bike trails) and there is a network of trails in the valley and around the top of the mountain. I stuck to trails at the top of the mountain as alpine walking is not something I get to do much back in the NT. (Note: I have long advocated that Darwin should build a mountain. It would generate significant benefits - tourism $$$, climate change opportunities, etc etc. I am considering running at the next NT election on a platform of “Build the Mountain - and they will come”).

The forecast today was for cloud, near-freezing temperatures and rain but I set out for a walk anyway and handed my $45 ticket to the attendant as I hopped in the gondola for the ascent of Whistler. On the way up I met some local Canadians who invited me to join them on the walk. I accepted as it seemed like a nice thing to do, except moments after setting off they declared they knew a short cut that avoided a large section of cliff edge, cloud-wrapped trail that wouldn’t offer much this morning and was better skipped. Having said yes I felt obliged to follow them in an ensuing headlong cross country rush down vertical slopes (past the signs advising me I was now off trail and would be personally billed for rescue operations) to cut the trail that was “somewhere below us”. Wearing everything I possessed to ward off the cold I lurched off after them like a deranged Michelin man. After a heart-pumping, temperature-raising steep descent the sun came out and I began to cook. It wasn’t a petty sight but I stripped off and managed to stuff most of my clothing back into my pack. Funnily enough I’d accidently picked up a pair of black underpants this morning instead of my balaclava so I was glad to be able to take them off my head. My transformation from Michelin man to tall scrawny Australian after this descent provided cause for amusement especially amongst the many Hoary Marmots who by now where holding their bellies and laughing fit to burst. Interesting fact - Hoary Marmots (a large fat ground dwelling mostly vegetation rodent with a great name are also known as Whistlers because of their habit of well… whistling I guess and there are lots on the mountain hence Whistler Mountain. Anyway I love the name Hoary Marmot as I can say it in a Yosemite Sam accent and make myself laugh. I just wish that Whistler had been named Hoary Marmot instead. Can you imagine having the Olympics staged at a place called Hoary Marmot – it would be priceless!

Anyway all went well on the walk. The sun continued to make semi-regular encore appearances as we wound along the side of the mountain through alpine wildflower meadows and ancient conifer patches. The glacier blue waters of Cheakamus lake appeared below us and the horizon was a continuous line of rugged snow capped ridges on the far ridge the stark upright rock dagger of Black Tusk (the remnant plug from an ancient volcanic eruption) appeared and disappeared n the rolling clouds. It was quite breathtaking.

I stuck with my companions for an hour or so until I realised that my smell-the-flowers and take-photos pace was half their pace and it was time to part while still friends. After a leisurely lunch on the grass I continued on for another 5km till I reached the gondola to go down. This section of the trip while stark and beautiful was not as wild. Much of the landscape was crisscrossed by lifts and earthworks for the ski industry and many of the far wooded slopes were scarred by networks of ski trails like a scabies infection on the otherwise unbroken green-skinned slopes. It was wild but not wilderness - in reality an industrial landscape modified to make money.

Whistler has been fun. Is not the place I would normally go but I glad I’ve seen the glam and wandered around the mountain. It has one major drawback - its full of bloody Australians. Australians up to age 30 get 2 year work permits for free - renewable every 2 years and no questions asked. Consequently they fill over half the jobs here in hospitality and the ski industry and are everywhere. It is according to many a non-stop party town.

Late last night the Marmots Revenge struck – food poisoning from the flash Italian restaurant – so much for the glam.