Stories by David Burke | Images by Joern Rohde
What’s with the plaid snowcat?
Skiers and riders doing their turns on Whistler Mountain this season when the big grooming machines (“snowcats”) are out and about might notice one with a bit of a different look. OK, but why is it festooned in red-and-blue plaid?
The unique design is a tribute to D’Arcy Burke, the much-loved Whistler Mountain grooming supervisor who died of cancer in July 2021. He was 48. Burke, an avid skier, mountain bike rider and mechanic, was fun-loving and passionate, according to friends and colleagues. The plaid is a nod to the fact that Burke nearly always wore a plaid shirt.
Originally from Victoria, B.C., Burke moved to Whistler in 1989 to pursue his passion for the mountains and worked as a grooming supervisor on Whistler in winter and as a bike mechanic for Evolution and Chromag Bikes in the summer.
“During the winter months, D’Arcy drove snowcats at night and shredded powder during the day,” said a tribute posted on chromagbikes.com in Nov. 2021. “He knew Whistler inside and out, and it was always a pleasure to follow him to his favourite (powder) stashes.”
The snowcat will be in service this season and colleagues hope that the groomer will be dressed in plaid until it’s retired.
Local Animal — Ptarmigan
The ptarmigan is difficult to spot from a distance because it inhabits alpine areas and changes colour from mottled grey-brown in summer to snowy white in winter. Therefore, skiers and riders should consider themselves lucky if they spot one — and often at fairly close range.
Members of the same bird family as the more common grouse, three species of ptarmigan (the “p” is silent) are found in North America. The white-tailed and rock ptarmigan are the two most likely found in the Coast Mountains. The white-tailed variety (lagopus leucura) is the smallest and lacks the black tail found on the others. White-tailed ptarmigans are much more common in southern British Columbia than the rock ptarmigan (lagopus muta), according to birdatlas.bc.ca.
The slightly larger rock ptarmigan is distinguishable from the white-tailed variety by the bright shocks of red above its eyes. The website reports that all three species (including the willow ptarmigan) are “sensitive to disturbance and the potential effects of climate change.” Therefore, experts advise those who encounter ptarmigans to avoid disturbing either the birds or, if nearby, their nests.
Nordic Events Take Centre Stage
Whistler Olympic Park, which put Whistler on international Nordic skiing and ski jumping maps when it opened before the 2010 Winter Games, is stepping back into the limelight this season and next.
The park’s competition trails and ski jumps will be the scene of two significant events in March 2022. The FIS Continental Cup Ski Jumping (women) and Nordic Combined (men and women) take place from March 17 to 19. Nordic combined is a ski jump competition followed by a cross-country ski race, with the skiers’ starting positions based on their jumping results.
The next day (March 20) marks the start of the weeklong Canadian Cross-Country Ski Nationals and U.S. Super Tour Finals. Top Nordic skiers from the United States and Canada, some having just competed at the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the final World Cup races, will vie for medals. The races also serve as the culmination of the U.S. Super Tour, only adding to the event’s allure.
This season’s events are in preparation for an even bigger competition: The 2023 FIS World Junior/U23 Nordic Ski Championships, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. Canada has hosted the championships only twice previously — in 1979 in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Que., and in 1997 in Canmore, Alta.
For more information on these events, visit blacktusknordic.com, whistlercontinentalcup2022.ca, skinationals2022.ca or wjc2023.ca.
Milestone Mountain Purchase Marks 25 years
North America’s largest ski resort has an interesting ownership history, and the 2021-’22 season marks the 25th anniversary of a significant milestone in that story — the purchase, in late 1996, of Whistler Mountain by Intrawest, the Canadian company that already owned Blackcomb Mountain. Intrawest’s purchase — for $192 million — marked the end of the rivalry between the two mountains, and the operations were merged in 2003, becoming Whistler Blackcomb (WB).
Whistler Mountain was the first of the two, opening in 1966. A few years earlier, Franz Wilhelmsen and a group of business partners were looking for a mountain to host the skiing events in a bid for the 1968 Winter Olympics. When it opened, the lone base area was at what’s now known as Whistler Creekside.
Intrawest opened Blackcomb Mountain for skiers in 1980 and in the mid-1980s, became the first of the two to welcome enthusiasts of a new discipline called "snowboarding". U.S.-based Vail Resorts purchased WB in 2016. To this day, many local skiers and riders have a marked preference for one, even though snow lovers can enjoy the “pow” on both in the same day.