Ski where the Olympians will at Whistler in British Columbia

Skiers break for food and drinks at the Whistler ski resort in British Columbia. The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 12 in Vancouver, including some events at Whistler.

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Skiers break for food and drinks at the Whistler ski resort in British Columbia. The Winter Olympics begin Feb. 12 in Vancouver, including some events at Whistler.

WHISTLER, British Columbia

Halfway down the run, as my leg muscles quiver like rubber bands, I start to curse Bode Miller. In downhill ski races, Olympian Miller charges at 80 mph around the gates like a madman, his steel legs operating independently from his body, his torso nearly parallel to the ground. He makes it look easy, if not graceful.

It is not easy. Not even close. Not even for a good skier who sharpened his edges and super-waxed his skis. He even did squats at the gym for months so he could speed down the same course and experience Olympic glory. Or what he imagines will be felt by real Olympians when the 2010 Winter Games come to this world-class ski resort 75 miles north of Vancouver in February.

This fantasy of mine, not to mention the preparations, crumble in a snowy heap as I collapse from exhaustion within sight of the bottom.

The men's downhill course, a black diamond run named for former World Cup racer Dave Murray, is nearly 2 miles long with 33 turns, descending about 1,800 feet to the base of the Creekside Gondola. It is a monster and it eats me alive.

Back in the village an hour later, I soothe my sore muscles with local suds at Garibaldi Lift Co., a popular apres ski scene overlooking the base of the Whistler and Blackcomb gondolas, where they serve a fondue called "sex-cheese."

Part lodge with an oversized stone fireplace and part club with a trendy bar, this is the place where stories of epic runs and secret stashes are shared long after the lifts close. Other popular apres scenes include a handful of bars at the base and Citta' Bistro in the village.

With a bruised ego, I don't talk much. I let Ryan Proctor, who coordinates the mountain's team of pro freeskiers, explain why the two-mountain combination of Whistler Blackcomb trumps other ski meccas in the West.

He states his case: The 8,171 acres of varied terrain, connected by the new Peak 2 Peak Gondola dangling 1,000 feet above the valley floor, and the average 30-plus feet of snow each year were persuasive.

But he doesn't need to convince me. This is my third trip to the resort and I still haven't skied half the trails.

Off the hill, what makes Whistler a destination is the nightlife, with fine-dining restaurants rivaling Vancouver and an infamous party scene.

As the snow begins to fall outside, I quiz Proctor about his favorite places to ski on a powder day and retreat early to my room at the Pinnacle International Hotel, a couple of blocks from the main village.

If powder is currency on a ski run, I feel like a rich man the next morning as I shred Blackcomb, the locals' favorite mountain on mornings when the snow is deep.

The ski report claims about 10 inches fell overnight — the most in months in a below-average snow year — and I take advantage, even finding knee-deep powder on many runs.

(A tip: The best place to find fresh snow is actually the terrain park, which is often groomed first and not skied much on a powder day.)

Even though the Olympics will occupy a few trademark runs on the Whistler side, about 90 percent of the runs will remain open, including the entire Blackcomb mountain.

The impending arrival of the Games only adds to the Whistler Blackcomb allure.

Newly constructed Nordic and sliding venues will be open to the public before and after the February Olympic and March Paralympic events.

My traveling companion and I venture to the new Whistler Olympic Park in the nearby Callaghan Valley about 10 miles south of the village where the cross country, biathlon, Nordic combined and ski jumping events will take place.

As first-timers, we were outfitted by the staff with classic cross-country skis and get a brief tutorial. It isn't too difficult, once we hit a groove, and as we move slowly along a trail through frosted hemlock, cedar and pine trees in the beautiful valley, we find it a peaceful alternative to the whirl of ski lifts overhead.

A couple of hours later we hitch back to the village with a friendly local and grab dinner before visiting the Whistler Sliding Centre. Here, near the base of Blackcomb, the world's top bobsleigh, luge and skeleton competitors will launch themselves down the nearly mile-long frozen water slide at terrifying speeds.

The British Columbia luge team is training the newcomers, future superstars ages 8 to 14, when we arrive. The luge youngsters run a shortened track and don't hit the 60-plus-mph marks like the more experienced athletes, who shoot by in a blur of bright color.

Instead we hear thuds and sleds skidding out of control. One boy slides by facing the wrong direction.

His mother turns to us.

"Parents who do research about these things learn that hockey is more dangerous," she says.

Moments later, the boy walks over. His mother asks how he felt. "Oww," he says.

I know how he feels. But I also know that like me, he'll point to the television during the Olympics and say, "I did that."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Skiing Whistler: The two-mountain combination of Whistler Blackcomb is consistently ranked as North America's No. 1 ski destination. Located 75 miles north of Vancouver, it will host the alpine, Nordic and sliding events for the 2010 Winter Games, Feb. 12-28. The winter season opens in late November and ends in June. With a top elevation at Blackcomb reaching 7,500 feet, the mountains receive an average 33 feet of snow a year. Lift tickets cost $90 Canadian a day, though cheaper rates are available for multiday passes.

Getting there: Book a bus trip from Vancouver instead of renting a car. Charter bus transportation with Pacific Coach Lines starts at about $50 per person each way. But save money and ride with the locals on the Snowbus (www.snowbus.com) with rates starting at about $40 round-trip per person.

Where to stay: Book accommodations through the mountain to get package deals on lift tickets. We stayed at the Pinnacle International Hotel on Main Street, just a couple of blocks from Whistler Village, where most of the shops, restaurants and nightlife are located. Rates start at about $140 in the low season.

Where to eat: Grab a bagel at Ingrid's Village Cafe tucked in the heart of Whistler Village for the lift ride in the morning. Hit the apres scene at Garibaldi Lift Co. above the Whistler gondola at the base of the mountain for some "sex-cheese" or grab a pint of local beer at Citta' Bistro's great people-watching location in the village.

For dinner, try Vancouver favorite Quattro's Whistler location in the Pinnacle Hotel for high-end Italian cuisine, or get wood-fired pizza and brewery beer at the Brewhouse at the north end of the Village Stroll.

What to do: Off the ski hill, visit the new Whistler Olympic Park in the nearby Callaghan Valley, 10 miles south of Whistler, for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Other activities, coordinated through Whistler Blackcomb, include zip-lining, snowmobiling, dogsledding and snow tubing. Even those with boards on their feet can ride to the top and experience the new Peak 2 Peak Gondola that connects both mountains, traveling 2.7 miles in 11 minutes, dangling 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Wait the extra minute in line for the silver gondola — it has a glass bottom.

Ski where the Olympians will at Whistler in British Columbia 10/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 8:11pm]

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