On a pre-Christmas day when ferocious Arctic outflow winds whipped clouds of snow from Powder Mountain’s summit, barely a breath of air blew through Whistler Olympic/Paralympic Park, nestled in the evergreen Callaghan Valley below. A peace that surpassed all understanding prevailed along the cross-country ski trails and snowshoeing routes that spiral out from the park’s newly completed day lodge. Parents on skis pulled infants in sleds while older siblings outfitted in brightly coloured fleece practised their snowplow techniques. As they sped past, the kids looked as if candy apples were plastered on their ruddy cheeks.
Despite the calm scenery, when the Georgia Straight recently caught up with Colin Bell, the park’s events and range coordinator, he was busy getting ready for an onslaught of International Ski Federation–sanctioned contests. Four World Cup ski jumping, biathlon, and cross-country ski events are slated there before the end of January. First up, though, was a Continental Cup Nordic-combined race held mid-December, which involved both cross-country skiing and jumping.
In Bell’s opinion, the unique layout of the new park will benefit Nordic-combined contestants the most. “This is the first Winter Olympics where all four Nordic disciplines will be held in one place,” he said. “At past games there would always be at least one stand-alone venue, typically ski jumping. Nordic-combined competitors always had to travel from one site to another, which put added strain on coaches and wax technicians. Whistler is unique.”
Biathlon is the sport closest to Bell’s heart. The 29-year-old grew up in Prince Edward Island before moving to Alberta in his teens to pursue his passion for cross-country skiing and shooting. “As a kid, I found biathlons were more mentally stimulating than simple mind-numbing, three-hour ski races,” he said. Bell demonstrated how biathletes ski with a modified 22-calibre rifle harnessed on their backs. At intervals during a ski race, competitors must pause and take aim through a nonmagnified sight at targets in a specially designed range adjacent to the trails.
This winter, under Bell’s guidance, the park has partnered with the West Coast Nordic Club based in North Vancouver. The aim is to boost participation by introducing Nordic sports, including biathlon, to youngsters-albeit toting air rifles instead of real ones.
Long known as an icebox, the Callaghan Valley was chosen as the 2010 Winter Games’ Nordic site for its deep, fluffy snow and-thanks to a buffering forest-light winds, an absolute necessity for ski jumping. With 28 different medal events scheduled there, the park will be the busiest Olympic venue by far. And with a mitt-full of pre-Olympic World Cup contests coming up, Bell said that 2009 will be the best chance to see athletes in action at close range. “The admission price is right: absolutely free.”
The feeling among many of those enjoying the warmth of the new day lodge was that Whistler Olympic/Paralympic Park may well prove to be the most significant legacy of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Not only does the site provide a much-needed companion cross-country ski destination to Whistler’s Lost Lake Park, come summer the trails will do double duty for mountain bikers as well. Local skier Julia Smart told the Straight that while she thought the Lost Lake trails were “adequate”, she enjoyed the wider variety on offer in the Callaghan. “Skate skiers, in particular, will enjoy the feeling of not being cramped between the lakeshore and the forest,” she said.
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that the park was built with elite-level athletes in mind. When it comes to recreation, the park’s 50 kilometres of cross-country skiing-groomed for both track and classic skate styles-plus 25 kilometres of snowshoe trails offer a variety of challenges suited to all ability levels. Exploring them on skis, snowshoes, or simply on foot in warm snow boots offers a tranquil winter outing. Got a dog? The Pooched Trail is designed especially for those who enjoy sharing time in the outdoors with their pets.
For those in search of a more challenging experience, a park day pass also gives access to trails in neighbouring, privately operated Callaghan Country’s wilderness adventure area. “Their trails are very different,” said Bell, “more extreme, while ours are more recreational and within easy reach of bathrooms. The options here range from Callaghan Country’s backcountry lodge to our Olympic venue. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world.”
While the mountain peaks that surround the new Nordic centre will command your attention on the uphill approach, views of Whistler Mountain’s west face and, further south, the iconic Black Tusk-a volcanic remnant that thrusts skyward in Garibaldi Provincial Park-reward visitors on the descent. Short of the panoramic views of Vancouver from the lookout along Cypress Bowl Road on the North Shore, this is the most scenic drive on offer near the Olympic venues. And surely the most peaceful.
Access: Whistler Olympic/Paralympic Park lies 10 kilometres above Highway 99 on a paved access road 6.5 kilometres south of Whistler and 115 kilometres north of Vancouver. For full details on the park, including Web-cam images, visit www.whistlerolympicpark.com/. Information on Callaghan Country is at www.callaghancountry.com/. Cross Country Connection (www.crosscountryconnection.ca/ ) offers equipment rentals, guided tours, and lessons at both Whistler Olympic/Paralympic Park and Lost Lake Park. Details on the West Coast Nordic Club are at www.members.shaw.ca/coastnordic/.