Whistler Blackcomb Ski, Snow and Terrain
Whistler has an impressive total of 37 lifts. Aside from the four gondolas (Excalibur, Whistler Village, Creekside and Peak2Peak), most of the lifts are quads with only a few triples and T-Bars. There are six magic carpets to help get never-evers up to speed before their first test on a chairlift. Some of the lifts, especially on the lower parts of the resort, are equipped with hoods to keep you dry in case there’s wet snow or even rain at the lower elevations. Lifts generally open at 8:30am and most of them close by 3:30pm, depending on the time of year. If you’d like an earlier start, there’s a program called “Fresh Tracks” where you can get an early morning (7:15 am) ride up the mountain, breakfast at the Roundhouse, and first tracks on the way down!
Blackcomb’s Glacier Express and Whistler’s Peak Chair are the most exposed, so when the storms roll in and the winds kick up they’re the ones most likely to be closed. Unfortunately for the black diamond fans, that cuts off access to Blackcomb Glacier and Spanky’s Ladder on Blackcomb as well as the terrain in and around Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, and Glacier Bowl. The good news is that the resort is so huge that there’s other challenging runs to explore until the high-mountain terrain opens up – with fresh snow!
To avoid the crowds at peak times, steer clear of the runs below Emerald Chair and Orange Peel, one of the shorter mid-mountain intermediates just off the top of Garbanzo Express.
Crossing Between Areas
The Peak2Peak gondola connects the two mountains, running between Whistler’s Roundhouse Lodge and Blackcomb’s Rendezvous Lodge. Holding the world record for being the longest free span lift, it’s an eleven minute ride crossing from one side to the other. While there’s certainly enough terrain to be able to spend an entire day (or more!) on just one mountain, you should make it a point to hop on the Peak2Peak to experience the attraction – especially on a sunny day.
Where to Ski
In a resort this big, it’s tough to list all the places to explore, but we’ll hit the highlights! Consider getting yourself a lesson even if you don’t think you need the instruction. You’ll not only get to cut lift lines (which is nice on busy days), but the instructors will be able to guide you around the two mountains. It’s a great idea for your first day to get a better feel for the different parts of the resort and the varieties of terrain available from people who know it well.
Whistler Mountain has more beginner terrain than Blackcomb so we suggest you start there. People on skis or snowboards for the first time should take the Village Gondola to the first stop and practice on the magic carpets.
Once they get comfortable doing that, they can go up the Olympic Chair, where the beginner trails take you back down to Olympic Mid-Station and the Children’s Learning Center. This beginner friendly area is a bit above the traffic of the base area – so beginners don’t necessarily have to put up with wet conditions if it gets warm in the village.
After getting comfortable on the terrain around the Olympic Chair and Mid-Station, beginners can hop back on the Whistler Village gondola and head for higher terrain. This will take you to the family zone.
After enjoying the view and possibly a bite to eat at the Roundhouse Lodge, take a picture with the Inukshuk – one of the resort’s four replicas of the stone cairns used by native people from Alaska to Greenland; you may remember the roughly person-shaped icons as an emblem of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Then, head down under the chairlift for runs on Ego Bowl or Lower Whiskey Jack. Those runs end at the bottom of the Emerald Express quad where you can chose to go back up, or continue down on Upper Olympic and It Happens to hit the Olympic Mid-Station learning area. None of these runs are particularly steep, but they’re long enough for beginners to really feel like they’re getting a big mountain experience instead of laboring away on the bunny slope. They’re also wide enough that beginners will have plenty of room to make their turns. If you take Marmot off Emerald Express, you can get over to the base of Harmony 6 Express, which you can take to Burnt Stew Trail for gentle terrain in a high alpine environment most beginners don’t always get to see. You can do laps off Harmony 6 or get a nice, long run back to the village on Sidewinder and Upper/Lower Olympic.
On the Blackcomb side, Expressway from the Rendezvous Lodge (the Blackcomb terminal of Peak2Peak) is a gentle ride down to the bottom of 7th Heaven Express, where you can take Green Line back down to Rendezvous (and the gondola back to Whistler), or continue on Green Line and the long and gently twisting Easy Out to the bottom of Blackcomb.
This is a great way for beginners to get big-mountain vistas, especially near the bottom of Expressway, without getting stuck on terrain that’s beyond their abilities or comfort level.
Intermediate skiers have an incredibly wide variety of options. On the Whistler side, Harmony Ridge off the Harmony 6 Express offers a long intermediate run and on a clear day, a panoramic vista of some of the peaks in Garibaldi Provincial Park. Turn the other way off Harmony 6 Express and you can drop into the Saddle, which follows the edge of Glacier Bowl and offers an up-close view of iconic lines like the Couloir and the Cirque. This is where you can get inspired watching expert skiers ‘send it’! The Saddle will drop you off at the bottom of Peak Express, which you can take to the top of Whistler Peak.
Stop, take in the sight of the snow-capped Coast Range peaks rippling away from you like a frozen choppy sea before jumping onto Peak-to-Creek. Peak-to-Creek can take you all the way down to either Creekside or Whistler Village. If you’re not ready to hit the village yet, you can peel off on to Highway 86 to Big Red Express and access to more mid-mountain intermediate runs.
From Rendezvous at mid-mountain on Blackcomb, Springboard and Ross’ Gold are steep enough to challenge intermediates without any complex features and will take you to either Excelerator Express or to lower mountain runs that lead to the base.
Jersey Cream provides a nice intermediate pitch down to the Glacier Express quad, which gives you access to Horstman Glacier. How many other places can give intermediate skiers the chance to ski on a glacier?
From the top of Glacier Express, you can also get to Showcase T-Bar, which more advanced (and properly equipped) skiers will use to get to the backcountry, but as intermediates, you will use for a wide-open trip down Showcase. The Horstman T-bar takes you from this area up to the top of 7th Heaven Express and a handful of intermediate runs, including the very aptly named Upper and Lower Panorama (where the view of the mountains beyond the resort is, well, panoramic).
Advanced skiers will enjoy anything off the Peak Express chair. The Couloir and the Cirque on skier’s right are steep and narrow; when you do them, you’ll feel like you’re auditioning for a Warren Miller movie – so try not to have a yard sale!
Whistler Bowl on the other side of the chair is more wide open but still steep, and offers access to other advanced runs below it. You can also start down the intermediate Upper Peak to Creek to access more black and double-black runs on the west side of the mountain leading down to Creekside.
There are several nice expert runs below Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier that you can access from either Glacier Express or the top of Horstman T-Bar and 7th Heaven Express.
Going up Glacier Express for another run!
Glacier Express also gives you access to Spanky’s Ladder on Blackcomb’s northern ridge, which is the gateway to Garnet, Diamond, Ruby, and Sapphire Bowls. All of these bowls empty onto the Blackcomb Glacier Road, which takes you back to the bottom of Crystal Ridge Express and Excelerator Express.
But if tree runs are more your thing, head to the top of Crystal Ridge Express and go down Ridge Runner before veering off to hit up a number of black diamond runs!
The area around Emerald Express is great for families. In addition to the beginner trails, there are some intermediate runs and even a couple black diamonds, so a family who wants to spend some time together can ride up Emerald, go down the runs that suit their abilities without getting too far apart, and meet back up at the bottom. The area directly below the lift is a dedicated family area, so you shouldn’t have to worry about anyone bombing through your herd! For families with little ones who aren’t quite up for a full day on skis or snowboards, there’s a magic castle on Blackcomb and a tree fort on Whistler where families can take a break but still enjoy being outside together in the mountains and on the snow.
Off-Piste and Backcountry
Off-piste terrain abounds here, and some of the best is accessible from Flute Bowl off Symphony Express on Whistler, and Blackcomb Glacier past the top of Showcase T-Bar. There are a lot of popular routes which thin the crowds so it won’t get skied out as quickly after a dump. Sapphire Bowl on Blackcomb, in particular, tends to keep a lot of fresh snow – but that might be because it’s an advanced area and not as many people ski it. If you’re venturing this way, be mindful of the snow conditions and avalanche forecast. You’ll also need to be properly equipped (probe, shovel, beacon, partner), and the resort will require you to sign a backcountry agreement. If you’re not avalanche trained or equipped but still want to throw yourself at freshies, Lakeside Bowl and Xhiggy’s Meadow are great in-bounds off-piste options, both a short traverse from the top of 7th Heaven Express.
Whistler-Blackcomb has five terrain parks with over 150 features (including 90 rails and over 40 jumps). Three are on Blackcomb and two are on Whistler. Both of Whistler’s parks – the School Yard and the Habitat Terrain Parks (Cougar, Bobcat, and Chipmunk Parks) – are off the Emerald Chair and are designed to get children and beginners introduced to terrain park skiing and riding safely. The School Yard is a family-certified zone in the designated learning area, while the Habitat Terrain Parks have a beginner-to-intermediate section and an intermediate-to-advanced section allowing riders to work on advancing their skills
All of Blackcomb’s parks are below Rendezvous, next to the Solar Coaster Express quad. The Big Easy Terrain Garden has smaller rails, rollers, and small jumps designed for beginners. The Terrain Park is full of medium to large jumps to offer intermediate to advanced skiers and riders plenty of options, and is the next step up in difficulty. The Highest Level Park has massive features for the expert rider – massive enough that helmets aren’t just a good idea, they’re mandatory! The Snow Cross Track is a permanent course with banked turns and jumps designed for experts, but less advanced skiers and riders are also able to negotiate it: a fun opportunity for us mortal enthusiasts to check out this still relatively new (and fun to watch) Olympic sport!