Snow Business

March 1, 2009

Poor Whistler. These are supposed to be the good years. The approaching Olympics have catapulted the resort to the top of the winter-destination food chain, and a series of capital improvements has sent enough money flying around to make one think Rupert Murdoch was attending a police auction at CNN. But with the Games only a year away, the trademark rings are starting to appear more like handcuffs for the once sleepy resort town.

Another magazine sent me to Whistler to take on an Olympian. The tourism folks were fixing me up with a biathlete for a little of the ol’ ski and shoot, and since I used to train snipers for the U.S. Marine Corps, I hoped to provide him an unexpected challenge. (Never mind that I don’t ski—I thought perhaps he’d be willing to tow me on my snowboard, with me shooting on the fly like the hero in a John Woo film.)

My strategy was rendered moot by a failed gasket. Only an hour before I arrived, a tower supporting the Excalibur gondola was sheared in half by “ice-jacking”—the result of water seeping into the tower and freezing, which expanded the joint between two steel sections. Fifty-three skiers and boarders were trapped, some for nearly four hours, while rescuers secured the tower and brought down the cars one by one.

As gondola-related news goes, it was relatively benign—none of the 12 injured required more than a few hours in the local clinic, and the Excalibur was back up a week later. But my showdown would have to be cancelled—the media fallout from the tower collapse put the Whistler PR machine on high alert as overeager reports, led with words like “disaster” and “tragedy,” saddled the resort with bad press even as it prepares for the event of its life.

The issue is one of control, or rather the chaos that is the modus operandi of Mother Nature and activists, and the bane of the PR army. The falling gondolas were a deviation from the script, the kind of unexpected plot twist that causes headaches for Lynn Gervais, public-relations manager for the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. The gondolas rained down within steps of the hotel, and over the kind of fancy comped dinner that we travel writers live for, Gervais lamented the negative buzz brought down on her by proximity.

“It’s frustrating. No matter how many things are going right, something like this happens and that’s all you read about.” I sympathized, well aware of the media’s schizophrenic attitude in reporting the Games. Considering all the work she and her colleagues put into my visit—quickly undone by a single bad gasket—I couldn’t help but see her as a lion tamer trapped in a cage with untrained animals, a short whip, and no chair.

The rest of the circus performed admirably. Despite the headline-grabbing tragedy that wasn’t, the skiers continued their acrobatics on the slopes, bellhops juggled my luggage with a smile, and—with a wave of his hand—the concierge made my snowboard appear at the front door. The day after the gondolas fell, most of the evidence had already been erased, the resort eager to return to a state of Hallmark-card normalcy.

To host an event like the Olympics is to open oneself to the microscope, to expose the skin right down to the pores and hope that the silky spots will outshine the blemishes. For the moment, anyway, Whistler is being forced into the makeup chair. A ski patrolman named David, who has worked the hills for 10 seasons, lamented the tough times for the resort as we crept over the slopes on a chair lift. “We usually have a 400-centimetre base by this point in the year, and it’s only 80 centimetres now,” he said. “The trifecta of snow, economic downturn, and now the tower collapsing—it’s been a crazy week.”

Tougher weeks would follow. Over the holidays, winter storms in Vancouver would force vacationers to cancel their holiday ski plans, while the heavy snowfall would stick primarily to lower elevations, leading to dangerous travel and less than prime slope conditions. As the new year broke, four people would die from avalanches and collisions with rocks, generating more bad press and forcing Whistler to place guards at out-of-bounds areas where unstable snowpack resulted in heavy avalanche danger.

The theme for Whistler before the Olympics seems to be of the one step forward, two steps back variety. Even the resort’s highly publicized $52-million Peak 2 Peak Gondola—which has already hosted a wedding and a YouTube-friendly base jump since its December launch—is being overshadowed by Olympic cost overruns and an economic situation that has forced Whistler to consider a 10-percent drop in bookings good news.

But perhaps no one will remember the strikes as long as we hit a home run in the final inning. Mother Nature, sensationalist journalism, and hair-pulling activists be damned—what really matters is putting gold, silver, and bronze smiles on the podium. So how are the athletes rating the progress so far? On January 17, the cross-country World Cup occassioned the first trial run of the new Whistler Nordic course. After winning the 30-kilometre leg of the competition, Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer joined several of his colleagues in lamenting the undemanding nature of the course. “I love Canada,” he said. “But I’m sad to say, they can do something better.” If only public opinion were as easy to navigate.

 

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