Whistler has a justified reputation for offering some the most varied ski terrain of any resort in the world. Join us for the ski season in Whistler and you’ll find it’s not only the largest ski area anywhere in North America, but that there are also virtually limitless off-piste skiing options once you start exploring out of bounds once you are up to it.
Any good mountain guide from the area (make sure you always ski with one per this off-piste advice) will tell you that there are descents to be found round here that are ungroomed, unmanicured and often full of bottomless powder. Just understand that they are NOT in the resort itself.
I’m not just saying that either…
Buckets of Snow + Varied Terrain = Backcountry Paradise
Imagine you were somehow able to design the dream mountain for off-piste riding. It could have anything you want, from endless treelines and open powder fields to a high-speed gondola from top to bottom with no queues – you name it. What would be the first thing on your wish list? There’s only one answer, isn’t there? Lots and lots of guaranteed snow.
So get this: the average annual snowfall in this part of Canada over the last ten years is a staggering 11.7 metres (38.4ft) – the most of any major North American resort and 15% more than Mammoth Mountain which sits in a distant second place.
To make matters much better, the quality and diversity of the terrain available means there are aspects for everyone’s taste – from close-knit tree skiing to open alpine terrain up high. In other words, if you were going to create your fantasy powder skiing destination, Whistler Blackcomb is the closest it gets in the real world – at least in North America.
Choosing The Top Five Off-Piste Runs
With the above in mind, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the difficulty I had this week in trying to narrow down the five best ski tours in the area – it’s an almost-impossible task. But you’ll be pleased to hear I persevered anyway, pulling together a shortlist of routs that are all a relatively short distance from the resort.
A word of warning: it’s important to remember that these runs are 100% backcountry and therefore present the full range of risks of skiing or snowboarding off-piste including avalanche hazards and route finding. They should only be attempted with a qualified IFMGA/ACMG Mountain Guide or by people experienced and knowledgeable about operating in the backcountry with the appropriate equipment. If you’re unsure, start by checking out 6 Top Tips for Skiing & Snowboarding Off-Piste in Whistler.
1. The Musical Bumps
Accessed from Flute Summit on the Whistler side of the resort, the Musical Bumps are a good go-to option in relatively poor weather. Although not without risk, the terrain here is more protected than the slopes around Blackcomb. It may not offer the same scale of riding or seem as impressive, but the snow is usually of great quality and there are really fun pitches to be had in this area.
See what I mean? A short tour up Flute is the starting point, taking around 30 minutes, and from here you have a number of choices. I recommend heading down the Oboe Basin, enjoying fall line skiing before skinning up the other side to Oboe Summit and enjoying the pitch down to to Melody as if heading towards Cowboy Ridge (more on that particular trail in a second).
You enter the tree line here and the snow is often blower pow. Returning to the resort is either along Singing Pass Trail – which ranges from OK to brutal depending on the conditions as it’s often very icy – or back up Oboe and Flute into the resort.
2. Cowboy Ridge
Cowboy is an extension of the Musical Bumps area. It’s simply beautiful when skied on a sunny day, and if you get out there quickly you can enjoy lapping the various descents.
The great thing about Cowboy Ridge is that without having to undergo a huge commute, you still feel far enough away from the the resort for it to be really peaceful – one of the joys of off-piste skiing if you ask me. If you checked out the video above you’ll see that long, wide powder runs are the name of the game here, which makes it an ideal stomping ground for those perfecting their technique.
3. Spearhead Glacier
The first time I cast eyes on the Spearhead I was blown away. To be honest, not much has changed. It’s as beautiful and impressive now as when I first toured up there ten years ago.
You leave the resort after traversing the Blackcomb Glacier and tour up to the East Col. From the East Col, you can climb a little higher to enter the Spearhead (as you’ll see in the video above from about 1m10s in), but the hazards on the steep entry points can be high.
I prefer the take a shot down to the frozen lake at Circle Glacier, a great run if it hasn’t been nuked by the sun and a nice to chill out on the lake for lunch. From here there are a number of ascents to get up to the Spearhead.
It truly is a vast expanse of snow and ski down into the glacier is truly exhilarating. When you eventually stop, do yourself a favour: take a breath and look around! The fun doesn’t end here, either. Although there’s a sharp climb out, both Husume and Coruna Bowl offer exciting skiing back into the resort.
4. North West Face of Mt Pattison
If enjoy relatively steep skiing, the North West Face of Mount Pattison is a great objective for a day with good, stable weather – just make sure you have the fitness to match.
Accessed from Blackcomb up the East Col, you traverse across the lake, up the Decker Glacier, down and then up the Trorey Glacier, summiting Mount Pattison from the southerly direction. The scenery here is spectacular. You’ll then leave the heli-skiers behind to take the more gentle descent down the Trorey as you take the last climb up to the summit.
Take a photo, enjoy the view, get the go ahead from your guide and enjoy one the runs of your life!
5. The Spearhead Traverse
Whistler’s answer to the Haute Route – the famous ski tour between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland. Doable in a day if you really go for it, but also enjoyable spread over two or three days, taking in all the peaks and enjoying the beauty of the Garibaldi Park.
The Spearhead Traverse is a horseshoe-shaped tour taking you from Blackcomb round and above Fitzsimmons Basin over to the Whistler Side. You can do it in the reverse direction of course, although leaving from Blackcomb is the more popular option.
It’s epic, and a bit of a cheat entry to this list because it includes many of the runs mentioned above and whole lot more. But that’s also what it the highlight of the area’s off-piste itinerary. You’re skiing in high, glaciated terrain well into the mountains with stunning views and even better powder skiing. With peaks and glaciers named Overlord, Ripsaw and Shudder, you know it’s going to be a great adventure.
Right now the Russet Lake Hut is the only permanent shelter along the Traverse, so for people wanting to take multiple days winter camping is required. But if you have the right equipment, experience and weather, there’s no reason this can’t be as enjoyable as any hut.
That said, moves are afoot to create a hut system in the Garibaldi Park which would be suitable for skiers and snowboarders to use along the Spearhead Traverse. Take a look at the Alpine Club of Canada’s Spearhead Huts Project for more information on this.
Over To You
Happy riding, whether you’re touring or split boarding in Whistler this winter. Take care, use an experienced, qualified mountain guide and enjoy exploring beyond the resort.
If you’re keen to push your boundaries, consider enrolling on one of the ALLTRACKS off-piste courses, which focus on improving your off-piste technique and introduce you to avalanche skills and backcountry craft.
If you’ve explored the backcountry in Whistler before, or if you’re planning to in the near future, I’d love to gear your feedback about this article. Are there any incredible powder experiences you’ve had in the area that I’ve left out? Let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!