“I came here to ski for one winter,” the shuttle driver told me with a grin as we pulled into town. “That was 30 years ago.” Wandering down Whistler’s brick-lined walkways, I could understand why he stayed. The air was crisp, and the late-April sun filtered into cafés filled with people enjoying an après-ski beer. Presiding over all these scenes were those white-capped leviathans, omnipresent reminders of why the town exists at all.
In Village Square—a modest plaza near the center of the town’s main pedestrian walkway—I found a plaque memorializing the day Whistler won its Olympic bid. On July 2, 2003, some 5,000 locals, led by the mayor (who’d shaved his hair in the shape of a maple leaf for the event) converged here to watch a live telecast during which International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge announced that Whistler and Vancouver had beaten out Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Salzburg, Austria, for the 2010 Games. The crowd reportedly let loose an earsplitting roar, popped open bottles of champagne, and partied in the streets.
It was the culmination of a long-held dream for the resort and its mountains. In the early 1960s, when Franz Wilhelmsen, the man considered to be the founding father of Whistler’s ski scene, first set about turning Whistler Mountain (then called London Mountain) into a ski area, his intention was to host the Games. Enchanted by a trip to California’s 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, the jet-setting Vancouverite became convinced that Whistler could do a better job. However, dogged by a lack of infrastructure and overshadowed by cosmopolitan Canadian cities like Calgary, Whistler never made the cut. Between 1960 and 1979, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee rejected five Olympic bids from the town. Wilhelmsen, who died in 1998, never saw his dream come to fruition.
And nor would I see mine. As I was renting snowboard equipment, I learned that the day before my arrival Whistler Mountain had closed for the season owing to low snow levels. So much for my Dave Murray Downhill run. Construction of the Peak 2 Peak Gondola meant tours of the Whistler Sliding Centre were cancelled, too.
Yet any disappointment I felt melted away once I was standing atop Horstman Glacier on Blackcomb Mountain, where the snowpack remained plenty thick. Below me, Fitzsimmons Valley plunged steeply before rising again on a wave of evergreens that gave way to the high alpine bowls and glaciers of neighboring Whistler Mountain. Pointing my board down the glacier, I found deep, untracked powder that plumed overhead as I carved long, booming S-turns under a big blue sky.
Long before any skiers arrived, the terrain I’d just covered was home to the Coast Salish First Nations people, a piece of regional history that the Vancouver and Whistler Olympic Organizing Committees want the anticipated legions of visitors to know. That explains Whistler’s new Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, a 30,400-square-foot building of massive fir beams and soaring walls of glass that was designed to look like a traditional Squamish longhouse. Though the center was still a work in progress when I showed up (it opened to the public in June), Ron Nahanee, a carpenter and Squamish tribal member, was kind enough to show me around. “They were hoping it would be natives who built this, and for the most part it was,” he said as he led me through the galleries, soon to be filled with native artifacts, and into the 80-seat theater, which smelled of fresh cedar.