In the snow in British Columbia

RUNNING through Vancouver in bright ski gear, carrying boots, boards and skis is an experience in itself. Before hitting the steep and deep slopes of Whistler Blackcomb – British Columbia’s powder playground – we decided to find our ski legs at Vancouver’s nearby family resorts of Cypress, Seymour and Grouse Mountains.

The local resorts are so close to downtown Vancouver that at certain times of the year, it is possible to shop in the morning, golf in the afternoon and ski in the evening.

As we stood waiting for the Sea Bus, a 15-minute ferry service from Vancouver’s Waterfront to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, we rubbed shoulders with smartly suited businessmen chatting urgently into their mobile phones.

Safely across the Burrard Inlet, we stepped off the ferry and straight onto an awaiting transfer bus that carries skiers and boarders from the shore to the snow in 30 minutes.

We were heading to Cypress Mountain (1,200m) – host to the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events during Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

At sea level it was raining, but at Cypress it was snowing heavily. Just 30 minutes from the sea, we were in a winter wonderland, skiing on fresh deep powder snow. I was surprised to see such quality powder. Who knew you could have such good snow at this altitude and be so close to a major sea level city?

Cypress (1,440m), Grouse (1,371m) and Seymour (1,265m) are family-oriented resorts offering plenty of challenging runs for advanced skiers and less demanding slopes for beginners and novice skiers. All three local resorts offer fantastic day and night skiing and are all within 30 minutes of the City. They are perfect for finding your ski legs before taking on the more challenging runs further north.

AND SO TO WHISTLER AND THE SKELETON
Our next pit stop was Whistler Blackcomb – 2,182m in altitude.

It was my first day here, but skiing was on the back burner. The focus of the day was plucking up the courage to try the new Skeleton experience at Whistler’s Olympic Sliding Centre (www.whistlerslidingcentre.com).

In February 2011, the Centre launched a new program called the Skeleton Sports Experience, allowing members of the public to try the skeleton on their Olympic track.

The notorious track is the fastest of its kind and covers 1,458m of tight curves, banks and stretches of straight fast ice. Professional skeleton athletes are able to reach speeds of over 135kmph – Canada’s Jon Montgomery, male skeleton Gold medalist 2010, reached 144 kmph during his winning run.

Starting a third of the way down the track at Maple Leaf, which is just below corner 10, participants can reach speeds between 90-100 kmph or more.

Only 800 people have tried the skeleton since the start of the programme in February 2011 and the end of the season in March 2011 – all survived.

The 3.5-hour programme starts with an introduction to the skeleton, the equipment we were about to use, and how to get down the track in one piece.

Our instructor looked at us sternly. “Once you are on the sled, just lie there like a sack of potatoes, do absolutely nothing, head down, don’t look up and hold on tight to the hand rail,” he said clearly.

My heart was pounding and adrenalin was pumping as I hiked to the starting point at Maple Leaf. On the way up I had a good look at the steep wall at corner 13 called 50/50 (50/50 chance of staying on the sled) and Thunderbird, the last big corner that you hurtle through before it spits you out past the finish point and into the uphill braking outrun.

My name was called out and I approached the metal sled. The ice was so slick I could barely stand. I got into position and apprehensively looked down the track. My face was within licking distance of the ice.

Someone took my feet, gave me a shove and I started to slide. The instructor yelled out: “Hang on tight, don’t let go and enjoy the ride.” I responded with a few choice words and I was off down the track. The noise of the sled was intense as it bumped and jolted along the ice.

I was open to the elements, hammering down the track with no real protection and hitting a speed of over 95kmph. I was going so fast I could only see a white flash and a sense of high speed as I went up numerous banked curves.

It was exhilarating, powerful, exciting and extremely quick – riding an out of control roller coaster might feel similar. Overall I had the fifth fastest time out of the 20 people in the group, reaching 99.3kmph in a time of 30.14 seconds. Not bad for a rookie slider.

The following morning we met up with British ski instructor Ollie Nixon for a tour of Whistler Blackcomb. It was snowing heavily, visibility was limited, but as always the snow was great and we ploughed on regardless.

Whistler has 8,171 acres of skiable terrain and backcountry, the most in North America. It also boasts spectacular snow conditions, pristine scenery and fantastic heli-skiing and cat-skiing opportunities.

Throughout the day we skied a lot off piste, starting out with the Dave Murray Downhill (not off-piste) into Tokum and then worked our way over to Harmony Ridge for some fun in the powder.

In case you don’t know, Dave Murray was one of the legendary “Crazy Canucks” Canadian downhill ski team in the 70s and 80s. The run was named after him for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

We moved on to Low Roll and then to Boomer Bowl, a steep off-piste powder section, both black diamonds. We did a little bit of Little Whistler into Glacier Bowl accessed by T-Bars and then to Bagel Bowl, which was fairly steep.

After a hard day on the snow we had worked up a good appetite. We kicked off our boots and headed straight for Sushi Village, a spectacular and popular restaurant serving huge portions of delicious Japanese food. After a few servings of sake we retreated to the Fairmont Chateau Hotel for a nightcap and an early night.

LEARNING WITH SUPERSTAR PETER SMART
Another early start, this time with Peter Smart. He’s the founder of Extremely Canadian Ski Clinics. Peter revolutionised ski instruction when he founded the company in 1994. You may know him from Warren Miller films or judging extreme contests.

He’s named among the top 100 ski instructors in North America. Apart from being an amazing skier, Peter is an amicable, friendly and funny guy. He’s encouraging and can tell in an instant what you need to do to improve your skiing skills. He has the knack of using simple demonstrations, definitions and anecdotes that are easy to interpret.

We started with 7th Heaven chair lift and a warm up run down Cloud 9. From there, we headed to the Glacier Express chair, took our skis off and hiked up 50-metres to the entrance of Blackcomb Glacier to Spanky’s Ladder and Diamond Bowl. The sun was out and visibility was unlimited: the perfect day.

Whistler Blackcomb has a total mile of vertical between the two mountains and is the only resort in North America where you can ski or ride on a glacier. They’re blessed with an average of 10-metres of snow per year.

The glacier is amazing: skiing off the edge of the mountain down into the bowl with fresh powder was heavenly. The area is wide-open, with unbelievable views, chutes, untracked lines, cliffs and loads of fluffy snow. If you are looking for steep and deep, this is the place to go.

We skied down to Accelerator chair and Jersey Cream chair and then down Christmas Run, trying out Peter’s “hopping” exercises to improve skiing balance and to help make quicker and tighter turns in narrow places.

If you are going to Whistler, treat yourself to a few of days with Peter and his team for some unbelievable skiing with Extremely Canadian – you will not regret it. It was our last day on Whistler and it was an early start. At 7.00 am we were at the bottom of Whistler Village Gondola for an early ride up to the Roundhouse Lodge to experience Fresh Tracks Breakfast, open to a maximum of 650 skiers and boarders. You head up the mountain early, eat all you want and then have the use of certain lifts and runs for around an hour before the main lifts servicing the mountain open.

Emerald Lift and Big Red Express lifts are available to all Fresh Trackers, but don’t ski all the way to the bottom of the mountain, because you will not be allowed back up before the regular opening time without purchasing another ticket.

Breakfast was a large buffet style affair, a bit greasy spoon, but we were not there for the food. We were there to ski Whistler’s fresh untouched powder before the rest of the village got up the mountain and cut it all up. It was great; we had the mountain to ourselves, almost, if only for a short time.

Peter Smart is with Extremely Canadian Ski Clinics (www.extremelycanadian.com), which offers two days of expert “free skiing” guiding over 8000 acres of North America’s toughest terrain with 5,000 acres of vertical.

Lisa Young travelled with Inghams, www.inghams.co.uk. 020 8780 4447

WHISTLER | NEED TO KNOW
● Hotels
Stay at the five-star Fairmont Chateau Whistler for 7 nights on a room-only basis with prices starting from £899 per person based on two sharing and including direct return flights with BA from London Heathrow to Vancouver and resort transfers.

● Skiing
Ski pack items can be pre-booked:
Six day adult ski and boot hire starts from £82. Six day snowboard and boot hire starts from £103. Three-day ski or snowboard tuition (4hr/day) starts from £137. A 6 day Whole Area Pass (covers Whistler and Blackcomb) starts from £287.

● Best restaurants in Whistler
The Wine Room Fairmont Chateau Whistler - www.fairmont.com/whistler/

Sushi Village – www.sushivillage.com

La Rua Restaurante – www.larua.ca

● Skiing in Vancouver
Skiing at Cyprus Mountain
www.cypressmountain.com

Skiiing at Seymour
www.mountseymour.com

Skiing at Grouse
www.grousemountain.com