[Ed's note: Stay tuned for a photo gallery coming soon.]
Last month, Matt Harvey (my boss) approached me at my desk. "Hey Hank, Columbia Sportswear invited me to go heli-skiing in Whistler, but I don't think I'm going to be around, you wanna' go?" Fast forward one week and I'm on a plane bound for YVR. Reclined in my seat at 30,000 ft., I shuffled through some papers that had been passed along by Andy Nordhoff, PR Manager for Columbia. I couldn't help but laugh as I read the itinerary for the week: The finest lodgings, fancy meals, on-hill adventures, off-piste adventures, a head-to-toe kit of 2012/13 Columbia gear to play with, and of course heli-skiing.
On the ground in Vancouver, I was joined by a handful of journalists and media gurus—folks from the likes of Gear Junkie, Gear Institute, SBC Skier, Bonnier Corp., and more; others paid the bills primarily via freelance work. This would be my crew for the week, and what a week it proved to be.
After a jaunt along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, we arrived at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. This was to be our home. I checked in, shot up to the 8th floor and entered my room. Then I panicked. There were clothes sprawled all over the bed and draped over a chair in the corner of the room: outer-layers, mid-layers, under-layers, shoes. They'd given me a key to the wrong room. Someone was already staying here. And as I turned to exit, wishing that nobody would at that moment exit the bathroom, naked, unaware of my intrusion, it struck me—these were all Columbia clothes. This was my kit! I could breath again. Relieved, I unpacked my bags and eventually made my way back down to the lobby where the others were waiting.
We dined that first evening at Alta Bistro. A relative newcomer to the Whistler dining scene, the cozy stead prepares local and naturally raised/grown foods, and also boasts an impressive wine selection. From there, it was off to bed for some, and off to the bars for others. I myself joined the latter group. Snow was coming down at the top of the mountains, however, so we shut 'er down on the earlier side and made our way back to the Fairmont.
The next morning, we awaited word from Whistler Heli-Skiing on whether we'd fly. Over coffee and breakfast bagels in the hotel lobby, the news came down that conditions had been deemed unsafe for flight. We would hold off in hopes of firing up the bird the following day.
Hiking on Blackcomb. Photo: Mark Going/Columbia.
Instead, we linked up with a handful of guides from Extremely Canadian Adventures. The popular guide service is well known for enhancing the Whistler Blackcomb skiing experience. Additionally, ECA offers guided trips around the globe to destinations including Argentina, France, Italy, India and Japan.
The perks of spending a day with ECA? Firstly, you'll enjoy the company of some outstanding individuals. Each and every guide we met combined a passion for the mountains with charisma and abundant energy. Secondly, the guides are expert skiers and teachers. If you're looking for tips on how to improve your riding, they've got you covered. Thirdly—a bonus for someone like me who's been fortunate to ski at Whistler Blackcomb numerous times in the past—the guides know the terrain and the mountains as well as anyone, and are thus able to bring you to new zones. And last, but certainly not least, the big kicker!, as part of the program, you get to cut the lift lines. Needless to say, we had a more-than-enjoyable day, spinning lap after lap carving fresh tracks along the way.
Once exhausted, we headed to the base of Blackcomb to Merlin's Bar and Grille. There, we tackled mountains of a different sort—these mountains in the form of nachos—and downed some well-earned beers. From there, it was on to the hot tub(s) at the Fairmont for a much needed soak, and much desired margaritas and daiquiris. Following the tub-session, the train rolled on to Sushi Village. If you're unfamiliar with Sushi Village, I'll be darned. To say the very least, dinner kicked butt.
The next morning, once again, we sat in anticipation of a call from Whistler Heli. And once again, the inclement weather grounded us. That day marked our last opportunity to fly. Such is life when it comes to heli-skiing, right?
Not to worry, however, for Extremely Canadian offered to take us out for a second go-round. While we had skied Blackcomb the day prior, this time we opted to ski Whistler Mountain. In the week that we were in town, Whistler received more than 100cm of snow. That being said, I'll leave it to your imagination to try and piece together what our morning looked like as we cut the lift line at the Peak Express chair over, and over and over again.
Left: Getting the goods on Whistler Mountain. Photo: Mark Going/Columbia.
Once we'd had our fill, it was back to the tub (and the margaritas and daiquiris) at the Fairmont. Post tubbing, we made our way to the ever-elegant Bearfoot Bistro.
I'd heard of the Bistro, and I'd heard it was fancy. And it is. But what I didn't know about the Bistro is that as part of your dinner experience (if you so choose), you're able to do a couple of very exciting things: First, you have the option of sampling an assortment of fine vodkas in what's known as the Belvedere Room. This "Room" is in fact a large freezer where the temperature is maintained at a chilling 13 degrees-fahrenheit. Don't fret, they supply you with an oversized goose down jacket to keep you comfortable. Second, you're able to visit the Bistro's wine cellar—home to more than 20,000 bottles of wine—for a champagne-sabering lesson. It'll cost you, but if you have some money to spare these are two experiences that are not to be missed.
With the flick of a saber and the pop of a cork the next morning was upon us. Our Day-3 agenda called for an outing with Canadian Snowmobile & All Terrain Adventures. After a quick rendezvous in the hotel lobby, the CSA van plucked us up and we drove 20-minutes to base camp. There, we were outfitted with the various essentials.
Geared up and ready to rock, we were given a quick safety/operational demonstration and then it was off to the races. The snow was falling about as hard as I've ever seen. Our sled posse thus took a mandatory detour away from the sled path into large, open field where we enjoyed perpetual face shots. Equipped with powerful 1200cc sleds, only a few ended up getting stuck while most managed to blaze through the deep snow.
Once we'd exhausted that particular field's supply of fresh powder, it was back to the trail and straight up Sproatt Mountain. Along the way, we passed through beautiful forests of Douglas Firs, the iconic trees of the PNW. With the snow coming down as hard as it was, navigating amongst those trees was, for lack of a better word, a magical experience. And after approximately forty-five minutes of riding, we emerged at Sproatt Cabin. The remote building, gorgeous on the outside and fairly sparse on the inside—containing only a kitchen, some dining tables and a loft for sleeping—is owned by CSA and is a popular destination for groups like ours. Once inside, we were greeted by a chef who had been hard at work preparing a scrumptious meal. We dined, relaxed, then suited up again.
Just beyond the cabin lay another vast powder field (this one atop a frozen lake). Just as we'd done hours before, we ripped back and forth—literally choking on snow as we went—until there was no more fresh to be had. When we rolled back into base camp later that day, the removal of the helmets yielded many wide grins. For having missed out on the heli-experience, we all seemed to be doing OK.
On the last evening of the trip, our group gathered at Girabaldi Lift Company (A.K.A. GLC) in town for one last meal. After having been spoiled the night prior with a five course dinner, it was refreshing to indulge in some quality pub-style food. Stuffing ourselves with pizza and beer, we reflected on the exciting week. I'd made many new friends, skied phenomenal snow, explored new parts of the Whistler Blackcomb mountains, snowmobiled to a cabin fit for a fairytale, explored new restaurants… it was the ultimate spoiling.
And this recap wouldn't be complete without a mention of the Columbia gear I sported for the week. Certainly the aforementioned skiing and sledding were all great experiences, but the time outdoors also provided us a great opportunity to put the gear to the test.
For fall 2012, Columbia is pushing their Omni-Heat, Omni-Wick EVAP and Omni Wind Block technologies. The Omni-Heat Thermal Reflective tech' utilizes tiny silver metallic dots on the inside of the clothing around core zones that need to stay warm; the dots reflect your body heat back to you keeping you warm and comfortable. The Omni-Wick removes moisture so you stay dry, and allows your skin to breath where it needs to. Lastly, the Omni Wind Block does exactly what you'd expect, ensuring you're chill-free when ripping down the slopes.
I particularly enjoyed the Thermal Reflective tech' in the underlayers and socks; the dots have a silky-smooth feeling against your skin, and certainly do their part to keep you warm. The same technology is also used in some of Columbia's outerwear—for instance the Ultrachange Parka. Double up on the Omni-Heat and you'll be laughing in the face of freezing temp's.
I also found an affinity for the Triple Trail II Shell jacket. Weighing in at just 24 ounces, the Shell is insanely lightweight and acts as a phenomenal wind breaker. Underestimating the low temperatures on the hill on day one, I sported only my base layer and the Triple Trail II; the shell is ultra thin. Even so, the Shell greatly impressed me with its ability to block wind, and I managed to stay comfortable despite the nagging cold. Given its weight, the Shell is a solid choice for those of you who like to pack light.
To conclude, I extend huge thanks to Columbia for allowing me to be a part of the team, and to Andy Nordhoff, Scott Trepanier and Mark Going (Columbia photographer) for being our gracious hosts. If you're going to plan another trip again next season, I cordially ask that you schedule the adventure at a time when Matt Harvey is busy.
Columbia will submit a handful of gear for potential review in the 2013 Buyer's Guide (coming fall 2012). To see what our Editor's select as the best gear of 2013, be sure and stay tuned.
For more information on Extremely Canadian, including pricing, follow this link. http://www.extremelycanadian.com/
Canadian Snowmobile & All Terrain Adventures also offers dog sledding tours, snowshoe tours, ATV tours, Canoe tours and much more. There's even a rumor that they'll be offering sled-skiing tours in the not too distant future. For more information, click here. http://www.canadiansnowmobile.com/