I learned to snowboard on a ski hill in Eastern Ontario with an 85-metre vertical drop — a molehill compared to Whistler Blackcomb’s 1,609 metres. But that’s the West Coast for you and if you’re a born-and-raised Ontarian like me, taking your skis or board out West takes a bit of an adjustment. It’s not uncommon to come across stretches of green runs (the easiest) in BC that would be classified as black diamond runs (the hardest) in Ontario. That’s just how they roll out there.
So when I headed out to Whistler for its official opening weekend last month, I tapped into the resort’s expansive snow school to help get me sorted on the mountain. The dual-mountain resort has over 200 trails, 37 lifts and over 8,000 acres. They’ve also got over 1,000 instructors and guides to show you the ropes.
I’m a pretty comfortable snowboarder. I started 15 years ago and get at least a few days in every year, but I haven’t taken a lesson since I started so no doubt I’ve picked up some bad habits along the way. And I’ve never learned how to ride in fresh powder. In Ontario, it’s rare that you ever get the chance to. Whistler gets almost 12 metres of snow each year. Quebec’s Mont Tremblant gets about 4 metres.
So I joined a full-day Max4 snowboard lesson and met up with the instructors and students outside Roundhouse Lodge atop Whistler mountain. First, everyone does a run as a group and the instructors assess your ability level and group you with others at the same level. You’re split into groups of no more than four students, so you get a bit of personalized attention throughout the day. Once grouped up, you and your fellow students determine what you want to learn for the day and where you want to go. We wanted to learn how to go faster, to figure out how to ride in powder, and maybe learn how to get a bit of air. Being part of a snow school group also means you get to skip the lift lines, meaning you can cram a lot more into your day.
Our instructor Andrew is also an Ontario transplant but has been teaching at Whistler Blackcomb for 10 years. Over the course of the day, he encouraged us to work through each part of our bodies — starting with our eyes, ending with our feet — to understand how each part plays into your technique. We focused on where we were looking, what our shoulders were doing, what our arms were doing, our hips, our knees, our feet. Breaking it down like that made me realize how important each part is and how they all come together to allow you to ride more smoothly, quickly, and confidently. If one part isn’t efficient, it drags down the rest of the system.
Then came time to tackle a bit of powder. First we took some turns in the untouched powder on the sides of the groomed runs. The trick with powder is to lean back to keep the nose of your snowboard up (otherwise it’ll drive right under it and get stuck). When you’re riding on a groomed run, your weight is on your front foot, which allows you to use your back foot to steer the board. If you’re not used to it, leaning back is a bit like a writing with your other hand — you understand the principle but your body doesn’t have the slightest clue how to cooperate.
Then Andrew suggested we take a run through a small powder patch just off a groomed trail. Keep up your speed, he told us, because you don’t want to lose momentum. Lean back, keep your nose up, and basically just give’r. Simple. He went first. It looked floaty, fast and fun. And easy.
So give’r I did, and I bombed down the hillside, into the powder and my board floated up to the top and it felt powdery and nice and I kept up my speed to make it up a slight incline and then there’s absolutely no way I could tell you what happened but I went down. Hard. Powder is soft, but you still feel the effects of a high-speed backflip with a snowboard attached to your feet. I let out a loud “ugh” and I saw snow, then blue sky, then snow. I ended up facing back up the mountain, snowboard buried beneath me.
The thing with powder is that it’s a lot of fun to ride when you know how to do it (or so I’ve been told), but it’s not a lot of fun to fall over in it, beyond the initial fluffy feeling. You can’t stand up (the powder won’t hold your weight and you just sink). The plank of fibreglass and wood that both your feet are strapped to is buried somewhere underneath. I dug my hand in and unbuckled my bindings so I could pull my feet out. Then I pulled the snowboard out and held on to it as it threatened to take its own ride down the mountain without me. I pulled a foot out, then the other one, and strapped back into the board. It’s a lot easier to slide down powder than it is to walk in it so I wanted to get back on top of my board. But once strapped in, I couldn’t stand up. I put my weight on my arms behind me to hoist myself up and they sank. I managed to flip over and put my arms in front of me, same deal. I took the snowboard off again and tried to take a step. Snow up to my hip. I dug my boot out. I was panting at this point, and I started to wonder how a rescue crew would come get me out of this mess. Throw in a lifesaver and drag me out? Send in a Saint Bernard? Would the Saint Bernard just sink too?
The snowboard was the key. That thing is built for floating on top of the snow. My body is not, despite my efforts. So I awkwardly rolled myself on top of my snowboard and sat up on it between the bindings and slowly glided out of the powder patch like I was on a toboggan. I did my best to make it seem like this was all totally intentional. “Just wanted to take this run sitting down, brah. Legs are tired, no big deal.”
Back onto groomed snow, I was totally out of breath and now I had to strap back in and ride down to the rest of the group. I took about half the powder from that patch down with me packed on top of my helmet and stuffed down the back of my pants. Souvenirs.
Powder, I’ve decided, is never going to be on my list of mastered skills and I’m okay with that. Andrew kept reminding us that everyone sucks at it when they first try and it’s worth it in the long run because nothing beats riding fresh powder after a massive snowfall. And I don’t doubt a word he says. But it’s not often I’ll find myself with a patch of fresh powder in front of me so that learning curve will be long and hard and by the end of the day my body was very clearly telling me that I’m not as young as I used to be.
We wrapped up the day around 3:30 and already my legs were shaking by the time we reached the mid-mountain gondola station to download.
I’m used to a bit of muscle ache and stiffness after a full day of riding, but waking up the next morning was something else. My neck hurt, my upper back ached, my big toe on my right foot felt like it had been stubbed a thousand times. My quads felt like they were about to stage a walk-out until I promised them better working conditions. But it was a good kind of hurt. It was a big-mountain kind of hurt.
Luckily, Whistler can cause that pain but it can also take it away. After a couple more days on the mountain, an apres-ski trip to the Scandinave Spa just outside Whistler Village was perfect. They’ve got outdoor hot pools surrounded by snowy trees, a eucalyptus steam room, a sauna, fire pits and relaxation rooms as well as cold plunge pools, so you can partake in the traditional Scandinavian style spa experience. They also offer massages and had I been able to talk in the middle of my massage, I likely would have proposed to my masseuse. Instead I just drooled a bit and came to terms with the fact that powder and I would just have to agree to disagree.