Inside Whistler, North America’s greatest ski resort

Whistler Blackcomb
Whistler Blackcomb is the largest and busiest ski resort in North America - Ben Girardi/Tourism Whistler

There’s a rather vocal mammal that inhabits the mountains of British Columbia called the hoary marmot, which, when alarmed by predators, lets out a shrill whistle. It’s to this furry animal that Whistler Blackcomb – the largest and busiest ski resort in North America – owes its name.

The shrill of the marmots was replaced by clicking camera shutters this week, when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex visited the resort to celebrate the one-year countdown to the next Invictus Games, which it is hosting alongside Vancouver. It won’t be the first time this corner of British Columbia, 75 miles from the city, attracts global attention – it has long been one of the most ambitious destinations on the continent.

Vast appeal and Olympic stardom

It was mid-December when I arrived in Whistler (as the resort’s name is invariably shortened to) and, by that stage of the year, most mammals had wisely retreated underground, into hibernation. Only the two-legged varieties on skis and snowboards were braving the elements.

With more than 200 pistes and 8,000 acres of skiable terrain, the resort comprises two vast mountain ridges in the Coast Mountains in Canada’s westernmost province, British Columbia. Whistler, which first opened in 1966, is to the south, while Blackcomb, which opened in 1980, is to the north. In the deep valley in between lies the resort base, Whistler Village, and stretching between the two mountains is the 2.7-mile-long Peak 2 Peak Gondola – a traverse with views that induce vertigo in all but the strongest of constitutions.

Winter Olympics Whistler
Whistler Blackcomb cemented its international reputation when it hosted events for the 2010 Winter Olympics - Bongarts/Getty

By 2003, the two mountains had merged to form Whistler Blackcomb, and seven years later the resort cemented its international reputation when it hosted the alpine, Nordic and sliding events for the 2010 Winter Olympics. It hasn’t looked back since.

I first visited Whistler in 2014. Even then, I had been impressed by the vast number of pistes on offer, and the fine dining in the car-free village where, in the wine cellar of one of the better restaurants, I’d been invited to sabre the top off a bottle of sparkling wine. I had also scared myself witless in an Olympic bobsleigh at Whistler Sliding Centre. One of my co-sledders on that occasion was Pat Brown, former coach of Jamaica’s Olympic bobsleigh team, as portrayed by John Candy in the 1993 comedy film Cool Runnings.

Bobsleigh at the 2010 Winter Olympics
Daring visitors can try their hand at the Olympic sport of bobsleigh - Sports Illustrated/Getty

Record investment and controversy

Since then, the resort has transformed itself after American mountain resort company Vail Resorts bought it for CAD$1.39 billion (£820 million) in 2016. Improvements swiftly followed, including the upgrade of ageing chairlifts and the installation of higher-capacity gondolas. There were the Blackcomb Gondola, the Emerald Express and the Catskinner Express in 2018; then the Creekside Gondola and the Big Red Express in 2022. The latest upgrade was on the Fitzsimmons Express.

It was at the opening of this latest eight-seat chairlift that I found myself early on my first morning in the resort. After the first skiers had boarded the chairlift to the top, Doug MacFarlane, vice-president of mountain operations at the resort, waxed lyrical about the Vail Resorts buyout. “They run ski resorts – that’s all Vail Resorts does,” he told me. “They’re not a real-estate company or a hedge fund. They’re focused on building and operating ski resorts in an efficient manner.”

MacFarlane insisted the main benefit of the buyout for skiers is the Epic Pass – a multi-resort lift pass (currently priced at $969/£772) providing unlimited access to Whistler Blackcomb, plus dozens of other winter resorts across the world.

Whistler Blackcomb
Since Vail Resorts purchased the resort, many improvements have been made to the network of chairlifts and gondolas - Ben Girardi/Tourism Whistler

It’s not such good news for skiers who decide to turn up on the spur of the moment, though, as one-day lift passes cost up to CAN$269 (£158) during peak times.

In fact, quite a few locals have railed against the Vail Resorts buyout, citing price increases, longer lift lines, lower-quality piste grooming and a lack of employee accommodation. Even minor details such as US spelling on websites and apps, and imperial rather than metric measurements, have annoyed Canadians.

GD Maxwell is a columnist at local magazine Pique Newsmagazine. He suggests Vail Resorts made some blunders when they first took over the resort. “They didn’t seem to honour that culture of customer service the town had established and thrived on. That rankled a lot of people,” he said.

But Maxwell stressed how improvements are now coming to fruition. Employee housing, he says, is second to none, and the quality and quantity of the piste-grooming is improving. Under the resort’s new chief executive Belinda Trembath, communication with local people has increased drastically. Even the price rises, he suggested, were down to inflation rather than anything imposed by Vail Resorts.

Unrivalled skiing and hospitality

I personally found the skiing facilities excellent. For two days I enjoyed the company of former Canadian Olympic skier Julia Murray. Now 35 and retired from competitive skiing, she was born and brought up in Whistler. Her parents had been ski bums here in the 1970s – her mother, Stephanie Sloan, a three-time world champion in freestyle skiing and her father, Dave Murray, an original member of the so-called Crazy Canucks, an infamous group of Canadians who broke the stranglehold of European downhill skiing in the 1970s and 1980s. Dave, who sadly died of cancer when Julia was just a toddler, has the downhill course at Whistler named after him.

Despite spending most of her life in Whistler, Julia still has an infectious enthusiasm for the resort. We started on easy blues, progressing to twisty red runs through pristine spruce forests, as well as more testing blacks. With the season yet to fully warm up, we were blessed with thinly populated pistes and mercifully short, occasionally non-existent queues for the lifts.

Dominic skied with former Canadian Olympic skier Julia Murray
Dominic (right) skied with former Canadian Olympic skier Julia Murray (left)

Without exception, the lift staff were all friendly in that delightful Canadian way. Posted everywhere were signs reminding visitors that neither smoking nor “foul language” would be tolerated. At one point a local ticked off another skier for playing loud music on his phone in the lift queue. The culprit duly turned the volume down. I later realised he was an Englishman.

On my final day, I joined the resort’s Dawn Patrol Experience. Up before sunrise, I joined two ski guides and headed to the top of the mountain for some virgin snow.

It had snowed the night before so that, before any else was allowed on the lifts, we enjoyed the most beautiful, creamy, ankle-deep powder. Zig-zagging between the spruce trees, just as the sun was coming up behind the mountain peaks, it felt like my own private mountain.

Just that hour alone made the trip to British Columbia all worthwhile.


Crystal Ski Holidays offers seven nights at the four-star Aava Whistler Hotel, from £1,600 per person, room only, including flights with Air Canada from London Heathrow to Vancouver and transfers, departing March 18 2024. Day lift passes cost from CAD$183 to CAD$269. Day lift passes cost from Can$183 to Can$269. For information on Whistler Blackcomb and British Columbia, visit and

Plan the perfect ski holiday in Whistler with our expert guide.

Dominic was a guest of Whistler Tourism and Destination British Columbia.