What happens when the ski industry’s MVP becomes a trophy wife

I wrote this piece for Mountain magazine and it ran in their early Winter issue. I wrote it — several versions of it, in truth — in the days after the news of the takeover broke, trying to shake some crystal ball readings from all the snow-dust and Facebook chaff. I talked to a lot of people. Informed, thoughtful, passionate people, many of whom have lived and worked in Whistler, and in the ski industry, for decades, and for all the questions I was left with, I honestly did come to this conclusion: who wouldn’t want a piece of this place?

Vail Resorts Eats Whistler Blackcomb- Discuss

Accustomed to perennially winning #1 resort in North America—and generating healthy annual revenue in British Columbia—Whistler got a sudden taste of the trophy life when Vail Resorts Inc. announced last August that it would acquire Whistler Blackcomb Holdings. In a takeover which will see $36 paid for each $17.50 share (at the time of acquisition), Vail’s proposal combines Whistler with 11 other resorts, all to be marketed in the EpicPass bundle.

The questions the merger raises tend to the solipsistic, and as the news broke, the pundit frenzy in Whistler ran true to form. “What’s in it for me?” and variations thereof filled the bike trails, backrooms, and editorial pages of the resort community: What of our season passes? Our bonuses? Will Vail be a kinder, gentler behemoth? Can we still use metric to measure snowfall? 

But beyond the immediate self-serving needs down low on the hierarchy, Whistlerites are now reckoning with their existential narrative: Who are we, now that we’re owned by an American resort against which we used to define ourselves through sheer opposition? Are we a town? Or are we just a profit-turning investment? 

Responses on Facebook ranged from, “Really? We’re all going to be bummed because a ski resort bought us?” to “A ski resort did not buy us; a large corporation with a checkered history of environmental indifference and bottom-line maneuvering did.” 

The ski writer and columnist G.D. Maxwell challenged the Whistlerites to push back on what “the ski business” means anymore. Whistler hasn’t just been a resort for decades. It’s also a community, 10,000-strong, raising kids, running schools, medical clinics, and small businesses, and working together to preserve its vast natural beauty. “Growth, expansion, development,” Maxwell chided. “More, more, more. Whatever illusions we might have nursed all these decades about limits have just been sold down the river.” 

Meanwhile, Lee Lau, a 47-year-old skier and tech lawyer who splits his time between Whistler and Vancouver, says, “I think we have to remember that we live in this First World bubble where [skiing, biking, and outdoor recreation] are considered so vital to our well-being and our lifestyle that we’re really focused on them. But to many people, Whistler is just an escape. I get that it’s a change, but it’s not like the town has been swallowed up by an earthquake.”

And then there’s Peter Alder’s take: A onetime mountain manager and vice president for Whistler Mountain, at 86 he’s now a ski industry elder. “I would be scared shitless about what will happen. But I’m at the age where I’m going to die on the mountain of a heart attack. Is it a positive or a negative? I don’t know. But every day I look up at the mountains and say, we are so lucky to live here.”

It’s no surprise that Vail Resorts wants a piece of that.

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