After learning to snowboard in Canada a decade ago, Susie Henderson returns to Whistler Blackcomb to find out if she’s still got the right moves.
A shaky start
I cautiously edged my snowboard a few more feet down the slope, scraping twigs and rocks exposed by the spring thaw. ‘In the Spirit’ was a steep gladed trail (where the trees had been thinned out a little) and had seemed the perfect challenge on the last day of my holiday in Whistler. After all, wasn’t I supposed to be moving off the dreaded intermediate plateau?
The board’s nose snagged yet another tree trunk, catapulting me head first. I looked left and right, wondering what had happened to the route. One skier had sashayed past me several minutes before, but this no longer looked like the official run. A stream was gushing to my left beneath the snow and I suspected I needed to be on the other side. How was I going to get out of this?
Returning to Whistler
Ten years previously I had spent a winter season in Whistler and learned to snowboard. My boyfriend (now husband) persuaded me to buy a cut-price sparkly tangerine board and I signed up for a lesson. That evening, I wondered if I would ever be able to move my stomach muscles again.
Several more lessons and 50 odd days of riding later however, I had reached a reasonable level of snowboarding and could confidently cover a good portion of the mountains. But then I found a ‘proper’ job in the UK and had to be thankful for a week’s snowboarding each year. My progression halted.
Would a return to Whistler give me the push I needed to ride outside my comfort zone? Would I ever join the young guns in the terrain park or my husband (no young gun, though he’d like to think so) on the double black runs?
Whistler Blackcomb will certainly give even the most experienced skier or boarder a run for their money. The resort boasts two mountains, over 200 runs, five terrain parks, a whopping 3,307 hectares (8,171 acres) of terrain and 38 lifts. The newest, the Peak 2 Peak gondola, opened in December 2008 and straddles the valley between Whistler and Blackcomb, dangling at a terrifying (and record-breaking) 436m (1,427ft) above the ground at one point.
With an average annual snowfall of 10m (33ft), the resort is a good bet for powder. At the start of the 2009/10 season, Whistler received a record 560cm (220 inches) of white stuff in November alone, making for an epic snow base.
I decided a refresher lesson was the best course of action and joined a one-day summit ride session. Other options include private lessons, supergroup lessons (three students maximum) or two-day women-only Roxy All Star snowboard camps.
Whistler Blackcomb prides itself on its international staff and you’re as likely to hear a ‘G’day mate’, as a ‘Hey dude’. My snowboard instructor, Sig, hailed from the New Zealand resort of Turoa and was about to complete his second season in Whistler.
My classmates were made up of a retired Canadian who split his time between Vancouver and Whistler, three 30-somethings living in Dubai, but originally from South Africa and Scotland, a Cambridge chemistry lecturer and an electrical engineer from Derby. I’d picked up a few bad habits over the years and it was good to revise basic technique. ‘Make the shape of a house with your legs,’ Sig urged. ‘No A-frames!’ To encourage us to relax our limbs, he suggested we ‘ride like Thunderbird puppets’.
Once we’d ironed out some niggles and begun to snowboard with a little more fluidity, he taught us to ride fakie (where you lead with the opposite foot from normal). I had previously tried this a few times on my own, but had never committed. Sig yelling instructions at me (‘hump and dump’ are the body positions to remember) gave me the impetus I needed to complete a few turns instead of giving up.
In the afternoon we tried out some hits (small jumps) at the side of the runs. Let’s just say Shaun White isn’t quaking in his boots after my performance.
Over the next few days, I practised and improved my technique, but despite my husband’s best efforts, steered clear of steeps and terrain parks (even the Terrain Garden, which a three-year-old could cope with).
Back to the piste
Which takes me back to my final day on that black tree run. Alone. On the wrong side of the stream.
I made the error of taking off my board. Within seconds I was up to my thighs in snow and my right foot was jammed. ‘Help!’ I cried feebly. The adrenaline was pumping and I hacked the snow around my foot with the snowboard and strapped back in. I took a deep breath, bombed across the snow, directly over the stream and eventually found my way back to the piste.
Was this what escaping the intermediate plateau was all about?
The trouble with being a 30-something mum instead of a young gun is that I’m secretly quite happy playing it safe. Why would I want to subject myself to the terror of a cliff-like couloir when there’s a perfectly good blue run to cruise?
Whistler’s incredible mountains and top-notch teaching staff give you the chance to work on and improve your skills. If you want to take it to the next level, there’s every opportunity to do so.
But if the intermediate plateau’s your territory, join me on ‘Cruiser’. I’ll leave the ‘Couloir Extreme’ run to the experts.
Getting there: Air Canada and British Airways run direct flights from London Heathrow to Vancouver. Pacific Coach operates a coach from Vancouver Airport to Whistler.
Tourist information: Tourism Whistler or Tourism BC.