Whistler: An Alternative History

Dirt Magazine #128 has been out for a little while but it was only today that I saw a copy with my own eyes. In this issue I have a story very close to my heart: Whistler beyond the bike park. I’m going to post the whole story below with some of Reuben Krabbe’s excellent images from the article in the hope that you A) go out and buy Dirt Magazine from the subscriber list, a newsstand, or from Apple Newsstand, and B) that you come to Whistler and explore some of the trails and lifestyle that is on offer beyond the bike park.

I would like to make a huge shout out (HUGE SHOUT OUT!) to all the riders who worked so hard for Reuben’s camera to make this story work. Katrina Strand, Jinya Nishiwaki, Andrew Gunn, James McSkimming, myself (huge shout out not necessary), and Khyber, the world’s most handsome and photographic dog (I’m biased).

It must be noted that in the very same issue Billy “Billy Trailstar” Thackery wrote a truly amazing account of the 2012 Crankworx. I believe his piece and mine work together to give a rounded picture of what Whistler is all about.

Whistler: an alternative history
How the other half live and why the other half of Whistler matters.

By Seb Kemp

Billy’s Epic, Anal Intruder, High Society, Cheap Thrills, No Girlie Man, Young Lust, Mandatory Suicide, Baby Snakes. These are some of the names that make up Whistler’s network of amazing trails. But you might not have heard of them. That’s because there is much more to Whistler than the famed Bike Park.

The Whistler Bike Park is remarkable and if you travel from far and wide then it does seem madness to turn a blind eye to it. However, for a large number of local residents, visitors, and trail slicing ninjas that’s exactly what they do. You maybe surprised to hear that there are far more people in Whistler who do not ride the Bike Park and who prefer to ride the trails in the valley and there are more trails in the valley than there are inside the Bike Park.

Dan Raymond was a member of the national snowboard halfpipe team for many years and was recently appointed as the national team coach. It is fair to say he rips on a board. During the summer months he works for the municipality building and maintaining mountain bike trails. For the last few years he has spent his days off building Rockwork Orange and Korova Milkbar (seen here), beautiful lines that start high up and wind on rock shelves along the Westside.

The Disneyland world of Whistler is far removed from the reality of Whistler (or at least the reality of what most people that call Whistler home appreciate). When you first come here you see the perfect streets, the ideal visitor convenience and the flawless model of tourism and consumerism but spend a bit of time looking and you may see right up the skirt of this costume and into the real essence of Whistler. A place with history, character and depth. One aspect of that is the world of mountain biking beyond the Bike Park.

It’s not like this alternate universe is deliberately hidden either. The trails are certainly no secret because there are maps, guidebooks, and well publicized weekly races . More so, it isn’t a small masonic sect of mountain bikers that hold the key to the real treasures. Whistler is no guarded, trailhead hiding community. It is a very open and accepting community that welcomes newcomers and believes in mutual respect.

To understand why Whistler is Whistler it is pertinent to know the backstory to this fantasy town. In 1960 Whistler didn’t exist, all there was was a few shacks and lakeside lodges on Alta lake that housed mushroom chomping fur trappers and visiting city folk. The mountain that now bares the name Whistler was originally called London Mountain, but was changed when a focus group of semiologists agreed that London was not a good enough brand name. A bid to win the 1968 Winter Olympics pushed rapid development of the area but the original bid was unsuccessful and it took 50 years before an Olympic event was held on the sugared slopes of Whistler Mountain. In that time Whistler grew and grew, a second mountain was built from the ground up (Blackcomb) and eventually merged into the grand scheme of bright minds. Now Whistler is regarded as the premier ski destination in North America due to the size of its skiable terrain and the scale of amenities.

BC (Before Chairlifts)

Mountain biking in Whistler had been happening for many years before the Bike Park opened in 1998. As early as the 80s, and perhaps even the seventies, (the original riders are either lost to history or too stoned remember the exact dates) riders were challenging themselves and exploring the mountains in summertime before mountain bikes were mountain bikes. Small crews of ski-bums looking for thrills would pedal touring bikes up the dusty, rocky summer access roads then bomb back down, chased by the smell of burning rubber brakes pads.

Singletrack was being cut back in the early 1980s when trials riders Bill Epplet and Jon Anderson started to rally lines around Lorimer Road – which eventually evolved into River Runs Through It – and the rocky play area were Cut Yer Bars now curls. The motorbike trails background of many early trail builders was supplemented by the tastes of the valley’s skiers who found themselves with not much to do during the long warm summers other than get aggressive melanomas on the Glacier, construct rafts to float drunkenly down the River of Golden Dreams, or put hammer to nail constructing the rapidly developing resort in order to earn enough crust so that the next winter would be a true ski-bum’s existence of powder days and liquor nights. Trails started to pop up higher on the flank of Sproat and Rainbow mountains on the westside of the valley. These rides gave these early pioneers a good slog up old logging skidder roads followed by hairy steep, rocky, loamy descents which would in some ways imitate the feeling of winter turns in Khyber’s or Spanky’s. Dan Swanstrom was the most prolific builder of the time building classics like Ride Don’t Slide, the No Flow, Danimal, Industrial Disease, Beaver Pass and River Runs Through It. Even to this day these trails deserve respect, not just for their history, but for the level of commitment and skill required to clean them.

Duck the ropes and go beyond the Bike Park boundaries to find nearly endless singletrack of the kind you dreamed of on the drive up Highway 99. Katrina Strand has lived in Whistler for some time and knows the routes.

Other highly notable builders followed suit such as Binty, who was responsible for some of the high marking trials routes and steep trails on the Upper Westside, and Boyd McTavish who built legal multi use trails around Blackcomb and the Flank for the resort municipality. Eric Barry, who for 12 years has added to the network by crafting the remarkable Zappa trails which make up the municipality sanctioned and supported Lost Lake riding area. He also dabbled with building rogue trails like Cheap Thrills. Chris Markle, who with insanely determined work ethic and tenacity began work on his grand vision for an epic of a trail: Comfortably Numb. This mammoth of a mamba trail took years of secret slaving and was built in many sections where he would camp out for days and perhaps weeks on end in order to avoid the arduous commute through the bush. In these days and nights of solitude he had communes with cougars and bears, but his tireless perseverance was rewarded when the municipality sanctioned and deeded Comfortably Numb legal for life as well as receiving IMBA Epic Trail status.

But most of Whistler’s remarkable trails were built rogue and only a select few have actually been officially recognized by either the local municipal provincial government. Most of the trails exist on crown land (land owned by the Queen in Right Of Canada and administered by federal or provincial governments. The tenure land use is responsible for much of BC’s profits from natural resources like forestry) and despite amendments in the Forest Practices Code which require approval from the land manager for any ground disturbance, clearing of vegetation or construction of structures, trail builders in Whistler have traditionally not feared retribution. The biggest concern has usually been trail builders infringing on private land, the inherent risk of mountain biking could open up landowners to liability if a rider was to hurt themselves on their land.

However, there is more to it than clear cut rules and rebellious builders. Whistler is a town built entirely on and for the purposes of tourism and recreation. Simply, without the dollars that activities like skiing and mountain biking bring Whistler wouldn’t exist. There was no town before the cables were strung for chairlifts and ski runs were cleared, no previous industry or any means to fall back on. If the tourist dollar was to dry up then so would Whistler.

It was always understood that mountain biking contributed considerably to the economic welfare of Whistler but it was not until 2006 that quantifiable data was gathered that supported this understanding. The Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association (MBTA) conducted a pilot study (Sea to Sky Mountain Biking Economic Impact Study) to measure the economic impact of mountain biking to the Sea to Sky Corridor (North Shore Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler). It was found that total visitor spending in Whistler attributable to mountain biking exceeded $34.3 million over the the three month summer period between June and September.

While much of this was due to the Whistler Bike Park ($16.2 million) and Crankworx ($11.5 million), the Whistler valley trail system totaled just over $6.6 million, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the total generated from local trail in the Sea to Sky study communities (North Shore, Squamish and Whistler). Part of the reason Whistler was able to capture higher visitor expenditure is because it can promote its municipal trails and associated services (bike rental, guides, camps etc) directly to visitors.

It isn’t a case of one being better than the other (the Bike Park versus the valley trails). Gunner knows that for different days different dishes are best served hot.

But how has it managed to promote what is essentially all illegitimate trails built by rogue trail builders? Although it is not entirely clear how this is so, there are a few specific instances which might shed some light on why.

Does Shit Really Happen?

Danimal was one of Dan Swanstrom’s creations that linked a long portion of Whistler’s Westside area and had become an accepted (yet not legitimized) trail asset to the community. Riders could hop on at Rainbow Park and ride flowing singletrack all the way to the most southerly end of Alta Road, bypassing several kilometres of tar-sealed road and creating an artery trail. Then around midway through the last decade a large swath of land was earmarked to be developed into a collection of extremely expensive lots. Panic set in once it became clear that a considerable acreage of trail would be impacted and the development would affectively sever the Westside network in half.

Pressured by WORCA (in particular Tony Horn who was the Trail Director at the time and Keith Bennet who was the WORCA chairman) the municipal government, appreciating the significance of the trail to the local economy and community, made Danimal a right of way, establishing it as a legal thoroughfare. This created an issue for the developer. However, the developments manager, Dwayne Jackson, was a local resident who rode mountain bikes. He knew the significance of the trail and approached WORCA asking what could be done to minimize the impact of the development. It was agreed that there should be a zero net loss approach, meaning that every metre of trail removed or disturbed by the development should be replaced with the same amount of trail of equivalent quality (kitty litter trail could not replace prime Whistler technical trail). Dwayne agreed and Chris Markle – at the time WORCA’s most notorious trail builder – was commissioned and paid to build new singletrack.

Because the development was aimed at a certain level of high rolling clientele, Dwayne did not want to see scrubby trail signs and so paid a considerable cost to have five-foot tall granite plinths built as trail markers which blended with the aesthetics of the rest of the development. Rather than seeing the trails as a nuisance and disruption they are considered as value added to the estate development.

But that wasn’t the end of it, because Danimal was viewed as a heritage trail that was irreplaceable (several older locals were very disapproving that Danimal was impacted in any way) Dwayne agreed to also pay $10,000 dollars for a bridge to connect two sections of Comfortably Numb that were impassable due to a deep canyon and river.

Since then the zero net loss policy has been utilized when the Sea to Sky highway improvement project impacted trails south of Function Junction and when the Rainbow and Baxter Creek development affected the connection between the subdivisions of Alpine and Emerald, namely a trail called Shit Happens, which is ironic.

Classlessness Of The Powerful People

So really, what Whistler has is the absolute optimal conditions for world class trails. There is the local municipality that functions to govern a town built on tourism and who recognise the value of mountain biking to the community and economy. You have a local mountain biking organisation that had power and the respect of stakeholders, as well as the balls to make bargains with developers that would seem ridiculous to an outsider. You have developers who were responsive to the needs of the mountain bike community and could see the value to their property if integrated with the trail network.

Some days you just want to get up and away above the treeline. Here Andrew Gunn and Jinya takes a walk on the wild side.

A big part of why this is is because how many people mountain bike in the valley and the depth of the mountain biking culture in the fabric of the town’s structure. WORCA annually attracts over 1600 members (1600 members is a staggering number for one club, especially when you consider that Whistler only has a population of around 10,000) due to its far reaching activities such as Thursday night Toonie races (named because it costs just $2 to enter), Phat Wednesday races (the DH counterpart and which also only cost participants $2), youth skills camps and clinics, the annual bike swap (which raised $13,000 for the WORCA youth program in 2011), as well as maintaining the local trail network through volunteer work and the distribution of specifically allocated funds to locally recognised and experienced trail builders.

In the winter everyone is on the snow, and come the spring the skis and boards are put away and bikes are dusted off. It is a very straightforward seasonal transition. Because of this you can often find yourself sharing the trails with the town mayor, councillors, the local GP, or executive director of Whistler-Blackcomb. Everyone bikes, or at least has a very close relationship with its impact. Mountain biking is well respected and loved. To not mountain bike in Whistler is seen as an exception to the rule rather than vice versa.

Classically Hairball Whisgnar

But what of all these mythical trails I’ve spoke of? What are they like and where are they? Well, they are everywhere. Maps are printed and detailed guidebooks exist (even if they go out of date so quickly due to the rapid alterations and expansion of the network) that document the 275 kilometres of trail in the valley but the network can still seem pretty awkward to navigate for first time visitors. The best bet is to start in Lost Lake, these are all officially sanctioned, extremely high quality, all weather trails (not just pea gravel) that are close to town. It is here that riders often get a fair idea of the kinds of riding that Whistler has without getting in over their heads. After that it is worth lapping into Cut Yer Bars because there are some tasty rock rolls that demonstrate the kinds of terrain and obstacles that are common place on the trails. There is also no real climbing required. If you feel comfortable after that then the Westside is calling. Head for Danimal, 99er, Beaver Pass, Bobs Rebob and Get Over It for a sample, or go balls deep and grind up to the Flank trail to classic experience descents like Cheap Thrills, High Society, Billy’s Epic and A Rockwork Orange. For more hairy descents look further south on Westside for AC/DC, 3Birds, and Bush Doctor. For mind-bendingly frustrating trails look to Emerald’s No Flow Zone. For classic link ups look north to Kill Me Thrill Me or south to Tunnel Vision, Big Timber, and Business Time. These trails contain steep and deep maneuvers with burly granite rolls and drops but are more than manageable on trail bikes, in fact, to get to any of these you must have something that can pedal because pushing a downhill bike that far will just make you bitter.

Generally the trails in Whistler are rugged and technical even if the locals call them “cross-country trails”. They are rocky, rooty sinews of often frustrating technicality. A term I think suits well is Whisgnar. There maybe far more technical trails in the world, but for sustained gnarl and burl Whistler has you covered. Locals will more than likely be seen on punishing pinner rigs on entirely unsuited trails. Rather than lug heavy freeride bikes or bulky All-Marketing bikes about, the locals have learnt to craft themselves a deft touch of fine handling. And, subsequently, keep local businesses in pocket due to regular repair and replacement bills. Just because you see a local hero disappear into the entrance of, say Gargamel, on a 120mm race bike, doesn’t mean you should follow suit. The best kind of bike for Whistler visits and exploration is a light 160mm or burly 140mm bike.

Sex Panther or Flank Cougar?

The Whistler Bike Park is the jewel in the crown of British Columbia’s incredibly glittery treasure trove. But it isn’t where the riding starts or stops. Every town in BC seems to have extensive networks of hard-wrought singletrack that amazes and astonishes. In Whistler, the goods are right under your nose, it’s just not so easy to sniff them out when the alluring pheromones of the Bike Park takes over your libido. You see, the Whistler valley is home to far more kilometres of trail than the Bike Park and most of it is fine, loamy, rocky, technical, flowy heaven.

It’s easy to not catch sight of the obvious. My first season in Whistler was a blur of A-Line trains, Garbanzo laps and Wildcats. I shared a house with other riders attracted to easy circuits on real downhill trails so that’s all we did and all we knew. We looped the Fitz filling our boots with Dirt Merchant and Schleyer. It never occurred to us that there was more. Sure, we explored the three or four trails that were not on the official Whistler Bike Park map but started inbounds and descended far away from the sanctity of the GLC (there was always Dusty’s for Butt Rub Mayo and Pulled Pork après though) but we had no idea that the mountains that ringed Whistler village were chock-a-block of prime BC trail real estate. Years later and I’m still exploring, and in doing so have discovered a whole different realm of life and people that has made my lust for Whistler turn into a lifetime love.

One thought on “Whistler: An Alternative History

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s