Whistler’s heart-stopping array of runs will leave you breathless and asking for more. And so will its insanely beautiful scenery. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)
Story by Doug Ward
WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — A group of us, mostly middle-aged skiers convinced passion and technique can trump age, are getting off the Peak Chair at the top of Whistler Mountain. Our instructor John Kindree, whose skiing roots here go back to the 1960s, cracks a devilish smile and tells us: “We’re skiing down to where all the signs say ‘cliff.’ We’ll stop there.”
We follow Kindree, a 62-year-old adrenaline junkie with the daredevil instincts of a 16-year-old, to a cornice with no visible slope underneath. There seems to be no “there” there — just a void. But actually it’s the entry point for a well-known expert ski run, Cockalorum, a double-black descent off the mountain’s West Bowl. The run is popular among expert skiers because it can often have forgiving, soft snow on days when most other runs are hard-packed.
Kindree cajoles us into side-stepping in our skis down to him, assuring us that we will survive. “Once you are in the bowl, you are safe. You will enjoy it.” We follow his orders, gingerly making our way down, one by one, to him and then dropping into a steep bowl, where we wait for further instructions. Some of our legs (mine) are shaking. Some of our stomachs (mine again) are queasy as we look down the steep vertical and replay worst-case-scenario falls in our minds.
But this is what we signed up for when we joined The Camp, Whistler Blackcomb
’s top multi-day instructional ski operation. The Camp, in its first season, has replaced the long-running Dave Murray Ski Camp (founded by the legendary Crazy Canuck skier who fell victim to cancer at age 37
) and Ski Esprit, which began in the 1980s and was this mountain’s version of the traditional week-long ski camp.
The Camp has four skill levels, ranging from cautious intermediate to expert. There are usually six skiers in each group. The cost ranges from $399 for three days to $449 for four days. The Camp gives tips (and plenty of comic asides) on how to handle groomers, bumps, gates and the steeps. Our group, which skied together for four days this January, was one level below expert. We were advanced intermediate skiers capable of making our way down most black diamond runs, even Cockalorum.
Overcoming Fear of Skiing Double -Black Diamonds in Whistler
As we follow him, Kindree tells us he brings skiers into Cockalorum because the snow on the expert run is less likely to be skied-out — and to get his students out of their comfort zone. “People have a fear of double-black-diamond runs and I wanted to show them ways of conquering those fears and expanding the terrain they can actually attack and enjoy.
“So much of the fear about double-blacks is about the entrance. Once you are actually in there, it’s great skiing. Good snow, wide-open bowl.”
We start making turns, one after the other, down the bowl. Every so often Kindree stop us and talks about how we can control our speed and make quicker turns down the fall line.
“And it’s not through carving,” says Kindree, explaining that carving — applying pressure on the inside edge of the downhill ski — will only send you hurtling across the bowl. “It’s done through displacement, pushing the skis down in a way so the skis are sideways to the direction of travel.”
Kindree, a former racer and long-time instructor, emphasizes exerting pressure below the heel and getting low when making a turn on the steeps. “The lower you are, the more stable you are. The more you can move the mountain around. The taller you are, the more the mountain moves you around.”
Kindree tells us to ski aggressively. “Ski passively and I can guarantee you will be on the back seat. Get in a body position that says, ‘I want more.’”
There was some controversy at Whistler over the decision to replace the Dave Murray operation with The Camp. Murray, who lived in the British Columbia
resort town and became an international sensation in the 1970s along with the other Crazy Canucks
, was a local hero in the community. His instruction model, which initially focused on gate skiing, had become somewhat of an institution.
“There was reluctance to let it go because there was a lot of history behind it,” says David Traynor, an instructor at The Camp. “I worked the Murray program for 20 years. I believed in the Dave Murray story, and the whole nine yards.”
But Whistler Blackcomb believed that the Murray brand image had become too tied to the ski-racing techniques his camp had focused on during its early years. Many visitors looking for top-level instruction didn’t want to spend long hours gate-skiing.
“It was hard to see the Murray camp go,” says Traynor. “But, in hindsight, we are now six weeks into this new system, The Camp, and it’s better for sales.
“People say they’re here for a week, got my kids in ski school, I want a multi-day program, what do you got for me? Well, we tell them we have The Camp: top instruction, video analysis, closed-off hill space, après-ski sessions twice a week. People feel they belong to something special.”
While providing an all-mountain experience, The Camp still uses a few gate-skiing sessions.
“We still use gates as a training tool,” says Traynor. “Gates teach the importance of balancing on the downhill ski from turn to turn.”
One day we pretended we were Olympic slalom skiers and raced against each other down two closed-off, adjacent race courses with gates. I was paired with a British woman and lost narrowly to her each time. Despite my wounded pride, the gate skiing was a rush — and a good reminder of the importance of looking ahead, picking your line.
“Skiing is a choice,” Kindree says. “Where do you choose to make a turn? Some guys get into Cockalorum and ski the fall line. I cut across the slope and go where no one else has been. Where there is more traction.”
For the record, I made it down Cockalorum twice. On the second day, Kindree took us for a third attempt. My self-preservation impulse kicked and I declined his invitation, taking a more moderate (if wussy) course down.
Perhaps, I need another session of The Camp next year to cope with my anxiety on the steeps. The Camp is full of alumni from the Dave Murray Camp and Ski Esprit.
Among the returning skiers under Kindree’s tutelage was Yelena Kurushko, a Russian who has lived in New York City for many years and works as a software developer for the business giant Bloomberg. Kurushko came to Whistler two years ago and took the Murray camp with Kindree.
“Why do I keep coming back? I’m too lazy so I wouldn’t necessarily challenge myself,” she says. “I am also risk-averse. So at least here John takes us to places that are a little bit more challenging, more fun. And I get to explore the mountain because I don’t remember each time where everything is.”
Kurushko only began skiing five years ago. She says the Murray camp turned her into a serious skier.
“When I started I skied like an enormous pizza. But the Dave Murray camp instructors gave you pointers and over time the knowledge settles in — and you kind of understand what they are telling you. Then you come to the camp again and it reinforces the same skills.”
MORE ABOUT THE CAMP AT WHISTLER
Skiers meet at the Roundhouse Lodge at the top of Whistler Mountain.
1-888-403-4727 (toll-free telephone). Click here for website.
For the 2013-14 season, The Camp runs until April 18.
3 days for $399 and 4 days for $449, includes:
- Private hill space
- Video analysis
- Race course training
- Après ski
- Camps start on Mondays
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