Most snowboarders are accustomed to sharing the hill with skiers. Standing in long lift lines and waiting your turn to take the “good” line down the hill are just facts of life, especially here in the Midwest, where riding choices are limited. So when Minnesota snowboard veteran Will Stiles, 30, made fresh tracks in the morning powder at one of the 200 runs at Whistler-Blackcomb, he could not help but notice how alone he was. “I hadn’t seen anyone for a while. There were some tracks in the snow, so I knew that others had been around, but there was no one else in sight,” said Stiles, “I even sat down and waited for a couple of minutes, and still no one came by.”
Solitude? At one of North America’s premier snowboard destinations, and in the middle of January? Doesn’t seem possible. But it is. “That’s one of the things about Whistler,” says Stiles, “Even if you ride to the top and sit on your duff, everything is just epic. But then there’s all that powder, and all that terrain. You could ride every day for a week and not ride the same run twice.”
Just a three-hour drive from Vancouver, British Columbia, Whistler-Blackcomb has more than 7,000 acres of riding area. Thirty-three lifts provide high-speed access to more than 200 runs, 12 powder bowls and three glaciers. With upwards of 600 inches of snow per year, Whistler is uniquely placed to take full advantage of the moist Pacific-Northwest air and transform it into deep powder.
Even before the snowboarding boom, Whistler-Black-comb was a hugely popular international resort. But what makes it so dear to snowboarders’ hearts is that while other resorts may toss boarders a few token amenities and afterthoughts, Whistler-Blackcomb totally caters to them. From major attractions (such as a wide array of terrain parks and halfpipes) to little touches (like extra-wide lift lines so riders can stand side-by-side, and tamer exits at the top of the chair), Whistler-Blackcomb stands out as an all-around excellent resort for riders.
While most of its parks are appropriate for beginning to intermediate snowboarders, Whistler-Blackcomb also has two new Superparks, which are expert-level only and require a special entrance pass. Even with the Superparks, though, plenty of experts prefer to take advantage of the excellent natural terrain. Stiles is one of them. “Why bother with the park,” he says, “when the riding on the rest of the mountain is so good? There are natural jumps all over the place, and there’s fresh powder every morning.”
The village at Whistler offers a variety of amenities. “This is not the kind of remote ski resort where you heat up a veggie burger before going to sleep,” said Molly Bondhus of Minneapolis. “At Whistler you are not roughing it.” Along with the five-star services at the Chateau Whistler, there are countless other condos that provide ski-in-ski-out access to the mountain, plus kitchens for more extended stays.
If preparing meals does not play into your idea of a vacation there are several restaurants, including an array of ethnic dining options and at least a half dozen sushi bars. The nightlife is generally hopping.
Just being out and about in Whistler is an upper. The village hosts outdoor enthusiasts year round, and residents have the cheery dispositions typical of those who know they live in paradise. “The guy who makes your dinner is out there riding until 3 p.m.,” says Stiles. “These guys are exactly where they want to be.”
These days, boarding is where a lot of folks want to be. Once the bane of the ski industry, snowboarding is now recognized as a genuine progression in snow sports. The extra surface area of a snowboard gives a greater lift in deep snow than skis, allowing the rider to stay on top and surf the snow, while the sideways stance and quick edge-to-edge transfers make for turns across groomed runs that leave skiers in tears.
As the sport has developed, several disciplines have emerged. There are the freeride enthusiasts who ride natural terrain and are always looking for the freshest snow, the alpine riders or “carvers” who cut graceful, precise turns across the slopes, and the freestylers who perform big-air gymnastics. Increasingly, many die-hard skiers are trying snowboarding, not because they are abandoning alpine, but because snowboarding offers them a new challenge and a novel approach to the mountain.
When you’re ready to ride, your first stop should be to the local snowboard shop. Tell the staff about your plans (where you’ll ride, and what style of riding appeals to you). They can help you choose the right equipment, and chances are that someone from the shop has ridden at your destination and can provide practical advice.
Besides a board, bindings, and boots, the absolute essentials include a good pair of waterproof pants and a durable pair of gloves or mittens. All kinds of safety gear is available, including wrist and hip guards. Helmets are now required at all amateur snowboard competitions. Wear one.
If you’re not ready to commit to purchasing equipment, nearly every resort offers snowboard rentals, from beginner gear to specialty freeride boards. But even if you plan to rent everything else, you may want to invest in your own hip guards (they’re basically undergarments) and a pair of boots. Snowboard boots that are comfortable and that provide a proper fit are a must if you intend to ride for multiple days. Some rental shops offer a limited variety of boots (particularly for women), and being in love with your boots is the key to making your first day snowboarding the best day of your life.
Despite the sport’s extreme reputation, extreme fitness is not required. Few professional snowboarders train year round (unless you count skateboarding and motocross), but good core training can improve your balance and decrease your learning curve.
“Strength training really helped my riding,” says Karen Norberg, a graphic designer and snowboarder from Minneapolis. Norberg crossed over to snowboarding after many years as an alpine skier and says, “If you’ve been a skier for a long time, snowboarding gives you something different to explore and it works a bunch of different muscles.”
Although snowboarding was once the exclusive domain of young males, that’s been changed for good by today’s crop of female snowboarders. Pros like Tara Dakides and Tina Basich are some of the brightest stars in women’s sports. Dakides is currently featured in several snowboard movies and both have appeared in a host of women’s fitness magazines. “It’s great to see lots of young women taking it up,” says Norberg, “because when I started snowboarding seven years ago, there were almost no women out there.”
Norberg recommends core strength and leg training to improve your snowboard ability. And regardless of your fitness level, do begin with some snowboard lessons. The bodily mechanics of snowboarding are somewhat counterintuitive (you have to lean forward when you want to lean back), and having a trained instructor catch and correct your mistakes early can save you a world of hurt on the slopes.
The biggest challenge is “finding your edges” – those magical parts of the board’s perimeter on which all else hinges – and remembering to always bend your knees. Do that, learn how to turn with your edges, and you’ll be unstoppable.
Closer to Home
Not quite ready to tackle a trip to Whistler? There’s plenty of decent boarding in the upper Midwest.
AFTON ALPS, AFTON, Minn. With lots of varied terrain, and a good snowboard park, Afton is a favorite for those in the cities who need to get their ride on.
BUCK HILL, BURNSVILLE, Minn. The closest park and pipe to the Twin Cities. Buck Hill also has an excellent lesson program and hosts the local Olympic training team.
GIANT’S RIDGE, BIWABIK, Minn. For the closest thing to a big mountain experience here in the Midwest, this is the place to go. Tons of terrain, a huge park and pipe, and the groomers run all day.
SPIRIT MOUNTAIN, DULUTH, Minn. High-speed lifts and some of the longest runs in the state are only two hours away from the Twin Cities. Spirit also has a snowboard park and an excellent halfpipe.
LITTLE BOHEMIA, UPPER PENINSULA, Mich. There’s quite a buzz about this place. Lake-effect dumps up to 300 inches of snow each year. The one chair takes you to black-diamond and double-black-diamond runs with trees and cliff drops. Gnarly.