COMING HOME: Claire Challen re-discovers Whistler at the WSSF -
Sunday , 24 June 2018

COMING HOME: Claire Challen re-discovers Whistler at the WSSF

DRIVING NORTH ON THE SEA TO SKY HIGHWAY HAS ALWAYS FELT LIKE COMING HOME. From my very first summer camp as a fresh young ski racer I was hooked on this place, and so began what has been a life-long love affair with Whistler. I have returned nearly every year. Through its development and growth, along with my own changes from childhood to adulthood, Whistler has remained close to my heart. What better time to come back to my second home than during the notorious Whistler Ski and Snowboard Festival (WSSF), Whistler’s celebration of mountain culture. For 10 days, culminating on Easter Sunday, the village was filled with throngs of locals and tourists experiencing live music, art exhibitions, pro photographer and amateur filmmaker showdowns and competitions of any kind you can imagine on skis and snowboards.


Avoiding Drunken Revelry

I can be a bit of a lightweight. Staying up into the wee hours, drinking too much, chowing late-night pizza and rising early to ski is apparently a common theme during festival week. It’s a pattern I’m  familiar with however have yet to master. My self-indulgence is nowhere near the extent of those around me, yet I suffer what I’m certain are heavier consequences than others. Yes, the WSSF is a full-blown party in a town that never sleeps for ten days. But there are ways to enjoy it without fully immersing oneself into the darkness of debauchery, if that’s not your thing. My intention for the week was to ski as much as possible for six days, reconnect with friends, participate in some harmless après and take in a cultural event or two.

Winter Wonderland

The conditions remained winter-like at the top of the mountain despite temperatures hovering around -6 degrees celsius in the Village. My friend Heather Munroe and I hadn’t skied together since we’d travelled to Europe with the Canadian ski team in our late teens. We couldn’t believe our perfect luck as the day yielded sunshine and new snow. I had hopeful visions of rising above the masses of people swarming in the village, getting up high into the alpine to our own space but I’d nonetheless still expected sardine-can-packed gondola rides, lift line melée, on-piste shoulder rubbing and line poaching. But incredibly, despite a village teeming with people, once beyond mid-mountain’s high traffic areas, lift lines were virtually non-existent and slopes devoid of skiers. With no panic to mop up the new snow, we could stop whenever we had a story to recount, and the snow waited. Later in the week the fog was so thick that I couldn’t see to ski at all on the higher points of the mountains yet every day, I had at the very least, two long runs that made me smile wide. On the days the weather didn’t cooperate to ski up high, I navigated busy groomers, challenged myself in the bumps, and ducked into the park with friends and their children.

Heading to Whistler’s mid-mountain during a patch of inclement weather, I took in some racing at the Mackenzie Whistler Cup. Over 400 young ski racers, 150 coaches and over 300 volunteers gathered here for this grand event in it’s 25th year. A mini World Cup event for U-16 and U-14 athletes, the Whistler Cup provides an opportunity for young athletes to compete against a much larger and stronger field, to see how they stack up. Likely within the field are our future World Cup Champions. Through fog and snow, the athletes, their coaches and volunteers rallied together to pull off this four-day event of racing, banquets, award ceremonies and athlete parade through the village. Team Canada made us proud with numerous podium finishes and capturing the overall Team win.

Village Experience

What started as a smooth firm track turned into a deep layer of melted corn snow by 4pm, making the final run of each day a challenge. I’d spent all day on the mountain and needed to get down to the village quickly to begin the next phase of my day. Navigating the schmoo, I’m on high alert to avoid catching an edge or colliding with a brave soul who chose not to download on the gondola. The slush run terminates with an animal corral of sorts, a funnel to scoot skiers single file down a narrow strip of snow leading directly into the crowds gathering in front of the main stage. If you descend on skier’s left, the opposite side of the run from the human funnel, you’ll not only avoid the cluster but slide right into your après seat at the Garibaldi Lift Company (GLC). If you didn’t run into friends and acquaintances on the mountain, you’ll surely end up seeing them here. I didn’t sit still for long as familiar faces popped up, allowing me to catch up with wide array of friends without having to plan a thing. It was for moments like this that I purposefully keep my schedule open to spontaneity. Never miss an opportunity to visit with an old friend. Après and live music are events in themselves, so I didn’t feel the need to attend all the scheduled festival happenings. As long as I was skiing and spending time with friends, I was satisfied. However, a visit to Whistler is never complete without a Sushi Village evening. If you didn’t catch everyone at après, you’ll probably run into the rest of them here. I did source a ticket to the sought after Filmmaker Showdown event midweek. Amateur filmmakers create a short film within a 100km radius of Whistler, the challenge being to film and produce a creative 3-5 minute film in only 72-hours. It’s always a packed house and one of the highlights of festival week. Despite the many days of rain, gloom never had a chance to settle a negative vibe on the village. The music played on, après continued, and events went off as planned. Ski gear in hand, après complete, I waded through the masses awaiting 90s rapper Busta Rhymes on Main Stage. The sun had come out and it was as if all the hotels in town had tipped up on their sides and dumped every guest out in the village. The place was buzzing with energy but all I wanted to do was get through it without smacking anyone with my skis and get out of my wet ski boots.

Ten days of events on-mountain and in the village. Day and night. It’s no wonder the WSSF is so many things to so many people. I like to keep it simple. Skiing, friends, a smattering of drinks and good food. Whether it’s a send off to your ski season or the way you welcome Spring, do it your own way and make it memorable.

Devouring a large handful of chocolate mini eggs, I contemplated the effects this much sugar would have on my body at any time of day, let alone in the early hours of the morning. I was quickly shaken from concern for my future puffy-sugar-face by my friend Sadie scolding me that I wasn’t supposed to be eating them but hiding them for the children. The slightly tipsy Easter bunnies had a job to do. My last night of an action-packed fun-filled week at the WSSF was coming to a close, as my cab to whisk me away would be arriving in three hours. It was going to take some time to recover once I made it home.

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