The Mountains In Summer

When the hot summer months hit — and they’ve definitely hit much of America, which is broiling under a hot sun and a stifling heat wave — our thoughts naturally turn to summer vacation.  For most Americans, that means a trip to a beach, or a lake, or some other water-bound destination where swimming will be a big part of the vacation activities.

It didn’t use to be that way.  Long ago, summer vacations were designed to get away from the heat, rather than seek it out.  For many Americans, that meant going up into the mountains to enjoy the cool air and breathe deep the scent of pine.

Somewhere along the way, however, trips to the mountains were eclipsed by the lure of the sand and the scent of suntan lotion.  That’s too bad.  Speaking as someone who has just returned from a trip to the mountains in Whistler, British Columbia, I would recommend a mountain vacation to anyone.

Our trip to Whistler was beautiful and refreshing.  The temperature during the day was in the 60s, and at night in the high 40s and low 50s.  A morning walk was a brisk experience and chance to gulp down cool, fresh air.  You could sleep at night with the windows open, and walk around during the day without becoming drenched in the sticky, cocoa butter-infused sweat of the beach.

With the emphasis on skin cancer and the aging effects of constant tanning, perhaps the summer trip to the mountains will make a comeback.  The only downside I can see is the shock to the system when you land back home, walk outside, and gasp at your first encounter with the 90-degree wall of heat.

On The Road To Vancouver

This morning we drove from Whistler to Vancouver, to spend the day before heading home.  It’s a very scenic drive, with craggy mountains, rushing streams, and crashing waterfalls all visible from the windows of your car.  Even a highway rest area — which is where I took this picture — features lovely views.

This is just a very pretty corner of the world.

A Peek At Peak 2 Peak

During our visit to Whistler we took a gondola ride up Whistler Mountain, then over to Blackcomb, then back again.  They call it Peak 2 Peak.  It costs $51.50, per person, and it’s well worth every penny.

For one thing, the Peak 2 Peak gondola system owns several world records — at least, according to the sign atop Blackcomb.  It’s the world’s longest continuous lift system, it features the longest unsupported lift span, and it’s the highest lift of its kind anywhere.  It takes you up to an elevation of 6,102 feet.  The section between Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb covers 2.73 miles and moves the gondolas along at a brisk clip of 7.5 meters per second, so that the entire crossing takes 11 minutes.

Heading up the slope of Whistler Mountain

Enough with the statistics!  The important thing is, the whole ride is jaw-droppingly beautiful.  You begin by moving upward and over the beginner slopes on Whistler Mountain, covered during the summer with daredevil off-road cyclists careening down the dirt roads and hurtling over moguls.  The cyclists, all sun-burned and wind-burned and dressed in the standard Xtreme Games outfits, are stoked to begin their ride and give you a happy wave and fist pump.  They get to their destination on the mountain on an open-air lift system that moves their bikes on separate carriages.

After moving through the first drop-off point the gondola swings up and over pine trees and really begins to gain altitude.  You start to feel the air cooling, and you can’t help but stand and gape as the height presents spectacular panoramas.  Once you reach the top of Whistler — where there was enough snow for people to do some sledding — you transfer to another gondola system that takes you over to Blackcomb.

The start of the ride from Whistler to Blackcomb

The segment from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb is, if anything, even more stunning.  Your gondola swings out over the crevice of the two peaks, with a rushing river visible very far below.  (The picture at the top of this post was taken through the window of our gondola in the middle of the trip from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb.) The gondola lurches along, and you hear the cool breeze whistling through open slots in the car.  When you reach the top of Blackcomb, still snow-covered even in late June, it feels fresh and crisp, and you take welcome gulps of the pure air as kids frolic in the snow.

A sign, perhaps, of the remarkable beauty of the scenery is that the ride back from Blackcomb to Whistler Mountain, and then down the slopes to the starting point, is every bit as enjoyable and stimulating as the ride up.

Red Bridge

There is a covered bridge spanning a rushing stream that marks the boundary between Whistler’s Upper Village and the Village itself.  The city fathers have wisely installed colored lights that change over time and that serve to make the covered bridge even more visually interesting than it would be otherwise.

Tonight when we crossed the bridge it was red, accentuating the geometric pattern of the bridge and its supports.  The red color gave the bridge a decidedly devilish appearance and made it seem like the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno — except was no sign proclaiming:  “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.”

Vodka Shots In The Belvedere Ice Room

Last night we had an excellent meal at the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler. Fine company, fine food — and also the unique opportunity to don winter parkas and drink chilled vodka shots in a kind of man-made ice cave.

The Bistro features a supercooled Belvedere Ice Room that is maintained at a constant 12 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit.  Inside, under ghostly blue light that somehow accentuates the cold, various vodkas are stored in little cubbyholes carved into walls of ice, and trays of shot glasses rest on a table made of ice.  The idea is that vodka should be kept at freezing temperatures, and if you drink fine vodka under such conditions you avoid “the burn” of the alcohol at the back of your throat and therefore can better appreciate the quality of the liquor.

I’m not a vodka drinker, but how can you turn down the once-in-a-lifetime chance to put on a parka, enter a frigid, ice-sheathed room, and taste vodka selected for you by an expert host wearing a mad bomber hat?  Our hardy band sampled vodkas that were potato-based, wheat-based, and even corn-based, from Russia, Poland, and Canada.  Our favorite (and the favorite of the host) was the last of the four vodkas, a Polish blend called Uluvka. The host said it tasted like pure water, and it did.  (Of course, this raises the question of why you would want to drink liquor that tastes like water, but that is a question we’ll have to leave for another day.)

Incidentally, the combination of the meat locker temperatures, blue light, ice-lined walls, freezing cold hooch, and fur-lined winter coat did seem to minimize the burn of the alcohol.  That may explain why vodka is the national drink of Russia.

Atop Blackcomb

We rode the gondolas up to one of the peaks of the still snow-covered Blackcomb Mountain today.  It was a fun journey that allowed us to savor some fabulous vistas.

Standing atop the mountains you feel like you are walking on the dome of the world, with the rest of humanity so far below and the horizon so very far away.  In context, we are small, indeed.