CLINGING to an iron rung embedded in a rock face a few hundred metres up while being attached to a steel cable only by a harness, I looked down nervously at the large, lethal-looking rocks below.
This was definitely not where I expected to find myself during my trip to the popular Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in British Columbia, Canada.
The resort is renowned for its ski trails and being the host of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
All the same, here I was, climbing to the top of the 2,181m Whistler Mountain using just rungs and handholds — and I did not even sign up for it!
Put it down to my penchant for the outdoors and a bit of adventure.
While planning my trip, I found that there was a host of exciting summer activities I could go for, including ziplining, cross-country biking, whitewater rafting and glacier hiking.
The Singaporean in me immediately signed up for glacier hiking because the chance to hike around a glacier, during summer, was too good to pass up.
The day before my trip, a representative of the Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures company e-mailed me to say that my glacier hike into the Whistler Bowl was cancelled because I was the only one who had signed up. So the company put me in its Via Ferrata Tour instead.
No experience was needed, so I was game for a new adventure.
Getting to the Whistler resort from downtown Vancouver is easy enough for a solo traveller as there are many shuttle buses plying the route between the city and the resort, though prices vary.
I booked with Epic Rides, which cost CAD$35 (S$38) for a round trip, the cheapest I could find, and boarded the bus from the Hyatt Hotel for the two-hour journey.
The ride offered the chance for a nap, but I didn’t want to miss the views outside the window as the city scenes soon gave way to the harbour and bay, and the mountains loomed closer.
The Whistler Blackcomb resort is named after the two mountains that loom over it and sprawls over a large area filled with restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, outdoor gear shops and ski and snowboard rental stores.
Even though it was summer — the off-peak season — the atmosphere was lively with a crowd already queuing for the Whistler Village Gondola that would take visitors two-thirds up the mountain to 1,850m.
Adults and children carrying their bikes were also in the queue for the chairlifts, waiting for a chance to ride down the trails, while others were sitting in the outdoor sections of restaurants, enjoying a meal and the sunshine.
I had some time before my climb and bought a ticket for one of the resort’s most touted attractions — the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, an 11-minute 4.4km journey between the Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. It also holds the record for the highest lift of its kind at 436m above the valley floor.
But first I had to take a gondola up to the Whistler Roundhouse Lodge, which was located at an elevation of 1,850m. My ears popped and it became quieter as we passed through the clouds.
Arriving at the lodge, I was greeted with stunning panoramic views of the snow-covered mountains. I also discovered that it is a great place to fuel up, with three open foodcourts and a grill and wine bar, all offering a variety of international cuisines.
The place was already teeming with people, many there for hiking and sightseeing.
I made my way to the queue for the Peak 2 Peak Gondola and, thankfully, did not have to wait long to board one of the large red gondolas, which holds up to 28 people.
There was only an elderly Japanese couple in the cabin with me so we could freely move around to take photos from all sides as our gondola moved between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.
Luckily, the morning’s fog had cleared up and I had an unobstructed view of wide expanses dotted with green trees, the valley floor and the snowcapped peaks of Blackcomb Mountain.
Climbing the top
Back at the Whistler Roundhouse Lodge at 1pm, I met my Via Ferrata Tour group at the office of the Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures, located a short distance away, for our climb to the top of Whistler Mountain.
Via ferrata means “iron way” in Italian, and it involves using metal rungs and handholds to climb while attached to a steel cable.
Harnesses, helmets and hiking boots are provided, although I recommend using your own hiking boots.
After we got all our kit on, our group of nine — comprising myself, some tourists from Europe and our guide — started the trek towards the base of our climb.
I consider myself to be moderately fit, but barely 30 minutes into the trek, after walking on uneven rocky ground, snow-covered rocks and climbing over large boulders on a gradual incline, I was feeling quite out of breath.
Ascending the nearly 2,000m in a gondola to the Whistler Roundhouse Lodge in a short time had probably something to do with it.
Thankfully, we stopped for a couple of breaks before clambering over some large rocks to reach the base, where we would begin the 260m via ferrata climb.
Our guide taught us how to attach ourselves safely to the metal cable that ran the length of our climb.
At some points, there were also steel rungs set into the rock face, which we had to climb up like a ladder. I found climbing up less tiring than the trek over the large boulders and, generally, it was a manageable journey, but I admit there were a couple of scary moments for me.
At one part of the climb, we had to shuffle along the rock sideways, holding on only to the rock and metal cable while trying to find footholds in a hidden ledge underneath our feet with clunky hiking boots.
Along the way, we took short breaks to drink water and take pictures of the fantastic views of snowy slopes.
The two young boys in the group, accompanied by their father, were the most eager to venture ahead of the adults.
The climb took about two hours and I felt such a feeling of accomplishment upon reaching the top.
We were greeted with clear skies, bright sunshine and a line of mountain peaks as far as the eye could see.
On the side where the 7th Heaven Summit chairlift unloads passengers who take the quick way up is the iconic Whistler Mountain Inukshuk Statue, which faces Black Tusk Peak in the Garibaldi Provincial Park.
The inukshuk is a symbol of the Inuit people and the statue was created for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
We basked in the cool air and snapped more photos before we took the chairlift downhill.
Our guide told us that the via ferrata route only goes up and you cannot go back the same way.
Thank goodness for that — as much as I had enjoyed the trek, I didn’t fancy climbing down all those rocks again.
- I flew to Vancouver from Singapore on United Airlines, with a layover at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan.
- Stay at least two days at one of the many luxury hotels, condominiums or townhouses there if you plan to do more activities.
- Visit the Whistler Blackcomb site (www.whistlerblackcomb.com) to check out various packages on accommodation, seasonal passes and equipment rental.
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