|Last March I joined a small group for
a trip out to Whistler
Blackcomb, in British Columbia,
We booked through a British company, Ski Equipe, staying at a chalet just outside Whistler. It was my first skiing trip out of Europe, and I had heard a great many things about skiing in North America that sounded too good to be true.
First off - let me remind you that Whistler is not in the Alps. The topography is completely different; I believe the American Rockies are much older, and therefore less dramatic, than the Alps, (but don't quote me - I'm no geologist), whatever the reason, the mountain runs seem to lack the swooping Pisces that characterise Swiss high-alpine skiing. People always tell you that the runs are shorter in the US, where you are skiing on high altitude hills, rather than mountains proper - this is not the case at Whistler, but I did encounter a little too much up-hill skiing for my tastes.
Skiing in wet concrete...
And then there's the snow. We got a lot at whistler, even for mid-March, but the temperature, especially on the lower slopes, was too high for great snow conditions, and we often hit rain at about half way down the mountain - the equivalent of skiing in wet concrete.
I can well believe that when conditions are better the snow is awesome, but we only had a couple of really great days, and when it was good- it was really good. The trend is to groom the piste far less than in Europe, so even on-piste there was a lot of loose powder. This takes a little adjustment if you are used to the corduroy piste of places like Zermatt, but once you've got your powder legs the fun really begins.
A text-book forward flip...
Once I had got my style together on skis, and following a timely dump of fine deep powder the night before, I took my board out. I ride freestyle, and I'm still a long way down the learning curve, but I found the instruction was excellent, and the snow just perfect. Just about the time I was catching some good carving turns I caught a spectacular beginner's-edge, executed a text-book forward flip, landed perfectly on my board, and jarred my ankle - that's the trade-off with soft boots. After that I needed the support of my Langes, so it was back to skis.
Dominic, who brought the group together, negotiated a deal with a hire shop that allowed him to change skis or boards according to the conditions, so he was able to experiment with flats, carving skis, or whatever else took his fancy.
No surly locals to give you dark looks
The biggest difference that a first-time European will notice is in the way the resort is run. There are far more resort employees, they are generally younger, and they are friendly, helpful, approachable, and generally all the things that you typical European Resort employee isn't.
Instruction is of a high standard, as is the case in most European resorts, but native English speakers make a big difference if you are trying to learn at a more advanced level. There are a series of well packaged class and guide options which every visitor should check out.
The typical employee will be employed on a season-to season basis - there are no surly locals to give you dark looks, and generally make you feel like your presence is resented - the result is that skiing becomes a completely different experience. I had read about the "Ski-Police", and had some well formed views about kill-joy Americans - well I was wrong - the ski-policing is so low profile that I never saw it, but a far greater proportion of the skiers at large showed due consideration to others. In Europe it is a tiny majority that cause grief - particularly to beginners -as they show off their style panache and arrogance. If ski-police are what it takes to weed out this minority then they get my vote.
The American experience stretches to the mountain top restaurants as well - this is a place where you are seriously in danger of putting on weight. All the restaurants we visited were large, efficient, and offered a wider choice of cuisine (note that I do not use the word "food") than is found in Europe.
No cosy Mountain-Mafia
Après-ski is varied, with an excellent choice of restaurants. There is no cosy Mountain-Mafia here, so prices are low and businesses are competitive - and the difference is obvious - dinner becomes a real event.
Whistler will appeal particularly to British skiers because it is so similar in culture and attitudes to Britain, there is simply no culture gap to shock you - and the French influence that far West is minimal.
They would the European Ski industry alive
The European skiing industry is starting to pick up on the threat from over the pond, but they are responding slowly, and they face some serious problem if they want to compete at the service level - there are simply too many basically rude people in the industry who have grown too rich to care about their attitude.
Their other advantage is that for many Europeans the Alps are easily accessible - it's a couple of hours ion the train or by car - this local market is a damning security blanket for the European ski industry. On the other hand, I you're a Brit you're probably going to fly out to your resort anyway - so the choice is made according to a different set of factors. If the Americans had the Alps as well , they would the European Ski industry alive.