The Tourism Whistler web site lists forty-eight summer activities. From the list, our multi-generational group chooses seven sports – a heptathlon. We hike, bike, paddle, swim, climb, slide, and zip. Snow-capped peaks, creeks with views at every bend, wildflowers, wild animals, bucket list-worthy thrills: Whistler, a mountain resort two hours north of Vancouver, is truly a family-friendly, multi-sport mecca.
Joining us on this Whistler-week are our son Alec, his wife Angie, and their three children, Nathan (14), Scarlett (12), and Robin (11). Nick (18), our oldest grandchild, comes, too; the rest of his family are occupied elsewhere with work, summer school, or dragon boating.
A spreadsheet is circulated to assess interest in the various acceptable activities (axe-throwing and helicopter wilderness spa are deemed unacceptable by the organizers for reasons of safety and/or cost). Nathan says “yes” to everything, while the rest of us are more selective.
“Would anyone in your group like a good cardio workout?” asks the Tourism Whistler counsellor, when we call on July 7 to check the alpine trail conditions. The signature trails are still snow-covered and closed to hiking, but the Blackcomb Ascent trails are a possibility, and we have three takers. Alec, Nick, and Nathan arrive hot and sweaty after a two-hour ascent through old-growth forest on the three inter-connected trails Little Burn, Big Burn, and Heartburn. In total, the trails gain 1,200 metres (3,937 feet) over 5.2 km. Alec likes these steep trails so much that he runs up – twice – later in the week.
One black bear and a field of twenty-pound Hoary Marmots greet us when we rendezvous at Blackcomb’s Rendezvous Lodge. We walk the gentle Alpine Loop, ride a series of gondolas – the one called Peak Express in white-out conditions – and enjoy the snow walls and views along the Mathews’ and Pika’s Traverse Roads from the summit of Whistler Mountain.
Wildflowers are beginning to bloom on our last day, and three alpine trails are now open for hiking: Lakeside Loop, Overlord, and Tree Line. Flower meadows and alpine lakes with glacier run-offs are admired, and snowballs are thrown.
“We call it Whistralia,” responds the Bike Park attendant, when we comment on the prevalence of Australian accents among Whistler staff. Along comes Andrew, from Perth, Australia, who will be guiding Nathan and Nick on their first-ever bike park experience.
Padded in protective armour, the boys take the Fitzsimmons Express chairlift and ride Easy Does It back down to the village. With Andrew’s coaching they progress to Crabapple Turns, Rod and Todd, Golden Triangle, Del Bocca Vista, B-Line, Blueseum, and Ho Chi Minh, finishing the day with Heart of Darkness.
Nathan and Nick deem this world-class biking their favourite Whistler activity. Nathan likes the freeride, gravity-fed downhill trails, while Nick favours the focus of the technical trails (narrower trails with roots and rocks). They are pumped but pooped at the end of the day; “they may need an extra helping at dinner,” says guide Andrew. Alec bravely joins them for part of the day, but downhill is clearly not his cycling genre.
Grandpa Doug leads the four ladies on the gentler, mostly-level Valley Trail that connects Whistler’s neighbourhoods. We get a little lost at secluded Lost Lake, but otherwise this is a low-risk activity. Blue jays, chipmunks, ancient trees, lakes, bogs, and parks are encountered on our 24-km route.
“When you end up in the bushes, stay low, and don’t lean,” instructs Charlie, as he briefs us – twice – before we enter the River of Golden Dreams, the twisty five-kilometre stretch of moving water that connects Alta Lake to Green Lake. Nathan skippers a solo kayak, while the rest of us are partnered in tandem canoes.
A few of our boats execute unintentional 360-degree turns and other ballet moves, but no one capsizes. Along the route we see lush wetlands, old-growth forest, beaver dams, and plenty of birds. Not surprising, paddling this little waterway is Doug and Cathy’s favourite Whistler activity, because paddling is what we do. Scarlett names the River of Golden Dreams as a favourite, too, perhaps because of the merganser families and lily pads.
Backroads Whistler is our tour provider, and we are pleased to recommend them. Owner Eric helped us plan a tour that worked for our group, and guides Charlie and Mike kept us safe, informed, and entertained. Bonus: Nick, who will be attending Queen’s University in September, connects with Charlie, a third-year student there.
Alta is not a glacial lake, but brrrrr… it’s still cold in early July. We all bring our swim suits, but only Alec and his three California kids take the plunge, swimming to the raft and back. Alta Lake is where the Ironman swim is held, but those participants wear wetsuits.
“I was terrified the whole time, but I’m glad I did it,” says Nick, after completing the Via Ferrata. Nathan says he is scared “just a little,” but in every photo he is smiling, so he must be enjoying it. Doug says he feels quite safe, after testing each iron rung, studying the lanyard system, and observing all the safety gear carried by Maya, the petite, cheerful guide from Mountain Skills Academy.
What is Via Ferrata? Via Ferrata (or “Iron Way”) is a unique and exciting way for ordinary people to climb Whistler Mountain, using an engineered vertical pathway with metal rung ladders and fixed steel cables for safety. What awaits you at the top? Stunning mountain views and a huge sense of achievement. Angie and Robin say Via Ferrata is their favourite and most thrilling tour.
“No way,” says Grandma (Cathy), after watching a YouTube video about Via Ferrata. Scarlett also says “no” to Via Ferrata, so we find a safe and interesting alternative tour: Glacier Ascent.
Oscar leads us on a short-roped ascent across glacial snow and ice into the Whistler Bowl. We learn about glaciology and how to ascend a glacier around crevasses like a real mountaineer. Oscar shows us sun cups (bowl-shaped depressions in a snow surface), watermelon snow (the red colour is caused by a cold-loving algae, and yes, it does smell like watermelon), and erratics (rocks transported by glacial ice).
Glacier Ascent may lack the exhilaration and fear-factor of Via Ferrata, but Scarlett does earn some bragging rights: throughout the tour she carries an ice axe, and at the end, she slides all the way down the glacial snow. This type of sliding, called glissading, is a new craze, and Scarlett recommends it to you.
Robin gets rescued!
Seventy-five pounds is the minimum weight for the Eagle tour, which features five ziplines and four treetop bridges and is “perfect for anyone who wants a heart-pounding adventure.” Robin weighs in at 76, just making the cut-off, but that doesn’t prevent her from getting stuck in the middle of the first line. She imagines the worst: she’ll be stranded there forever or the line will break. Ziplining is a high-volume, safety-conscious business, so a guide is quickly dispatched to pull Robin to safety.
In between the ziplines there is time to learn about Whistler’s forest and wildlife. A tree etched with bear claw marks impresses everyone.
Zip lining is the last of our seven scheduled sports. The three youngsters have energy to spare, so they head off to try bungee trampoline and mini-golf.
Go! Yes, Whistler is expensive, with crowds and line-ups (e.g., the grocery store at 5 pm), but there is something for everyone here.
Plan ahead. Most accommodations, tours, and activities offer substantial discounts for early booking. The PEAK 2 PEAK 360 Season Pass is a good deal, providing unlimited access to the lifts and discounts on the bike park and shopping.
Just ask! Tourism Whistler and tour operators are happy to provide advice and ideas. Everyone genuinely wanted us to have a good time at Whistler, and we did.
Photos in this issue were by Doug, Scarlett, Angie, and Maya (our Via Ferrata guide)