Top 5 spots for early season skiing in Whistler

There’s snow on the mountains. There’s snow in the forecast. And Whistler Blackcomb isn’t officially opening for another three weeks. So how are you possibly going to get through this period without doing some turns? Early season skiing means we have to:

Go hiking

That’s right. The original lift system consisted of a your own two legs. So if you want to go early season skiing or riding before the lifts turn, get ready to hoof it. Backcountry travellers are already used to this and know what to pack; food, water, avalanche safety gear (plus the skills and knowledge to use it) and enough warm clothing in case the weather takes a turn for the worst.

Now before you grab your freshly-waxed planks and run out the door towards the ski hill, remember that early season skiing and riding on Whistler Blackcomb is not allowed. Hundreds of workers – from snowmakers to groomers to building maintenance staff – are busy working to get the mountain open. The last thing these people needs is a crew of bros getting rad in the middle of the ski runs. Those that are spotted by mountain staff are turned away and told to come back on opening day.

But fear not. With some consultation with early season turning veteran Dan Cudlip we’ve compiled a list of backcountry destinations where you can ski to your heart’s content before lining up for the Whistler Gondola on November 26.
First, some important notes:

  1. These are suggested destinations only and many require quite a lot of effort of hiking for not very many turns. That’s why you’re reading this, right?
  2. Being backcountry, all avalanche safety rules apply in these areas. That means all members have a beacon, shovel and probe and the required training for self rescue. Early season snow can and will slide, so travel accordingly
  3. This guide does not give specific routes. There are plenty of resources online that have that information
  4. After a long hot summer and poor snowfall in the region last winter, glaciers will be fraught with hazards such as debris and crevasses. Exits will have open creeks and exposed deadfall. Ski with caution!

    early season skiing Whistler
    Low gradient but snow aplenty on Paul Ridge November 16, 2005 | Photo Lee Lau

Paul Ridge – Squamish

For those looking to ease into their early season skiing missions without committing to blisters, Paul Ridge is the easiest access to Garibaldi Provincial Park in the early season. From the Diamond Head parking lot at the end of Mamquam Road you can even ride bikes up the access road (the only trail that allows mountain bikes in Garibaldi Park) until you reach the snow line and start skinning. The best terrain is on the north side of Paul Ridge between Red Heather and Elfin Lakes huts with runs up to 150m of vertical. Mind that this treeline elevation, so a freezing level of around 1200m or lower is needed.

early season skiing Whistler
Skiing the Tusk on November 12, 2014 | Photo Dan Cudlip

Black Tusk

“When skiing on snow with not a lot of base, you want the ground underneath to be as smooth as possible,” says Cudlip. “Boulder fields aren’t going to work with 40cm of snow on them. That’s why Black Tusk works as a great spot, most of its slopes are scree.”
Bike access is possible from the Cheakamus side up the road to the microwave tower or you can walk up the hiking trail from either Rubble Creek or Helm Creek. A further mission to Panorama Ridge is possible, but make sure you get an early start.

early season skiing Whistler
A little too early for turns on Sproatt Mountain October 27, 2014. Pond skimming, however, was all-time | Photo Dan Cudlip

Sproatt Mountain

One of the shorter routes on this list to access, trucks and 4×4 vehicles can drive up the snowmobile access road (accessed via Callaghan Valley Road) until they reach the snowline and start skinning from there. Sproatt has excellent mini-golf style terrain that’s normally used by snowmobiles, without worrying about glacier hazards.

early season skiing Whistler
March of the penguins. Early season skiers and riders head towards Brandywine on November 4, 2013 | Photo Dan Cudlip

Metal Dome

Snowmobile access roads are again an advantage here, alleviating much of the arduous approach with the help of 4×4 vehicle access. Brandywine Mountain is also accessible from this area, but has lots more boulders and needs a deeper base to ski it.
“Brandywine is a great spot, but it can require a fair bit of snow to cover all the boulders,” says Cudlip. “I prefer Metal Dome which is right next door. The summit is not quite as high, but it doesn’t need as much snow to be skiable, and you can choose between north facing glaciers and south facing meadows.”

early season skiing Whistler
Tenquille Lake is an excellent early season hut trip. November 5, 2014 | Photo Dan Cudlip

Tenquille Lake – Hurley Pass

It’s the longest mission on this list, but if you’re looking for an early season overnight hut trip then head up the Hurley Pass towards the Tenquille Lake hut.
“It’s all big ridges with grass on one side and glaciers on the other,” says Cudlip. “Last year I think the snow depth was only about 40cm at the hut and we were skiing on the surrounding slopes just fine. That was in the first week of November.”

As the snow base thickens there are of course many other backcountry areas in the Sea to Sky Corridor you can visit. The Duffey Lake Road is known for notorious bushwacking in the early season and people will generally wait until Whistler Mountain opens to ski the Musical Bumps rather than hiking up the arduous Singing Pass.

But if the snow arrives, people will ski it. If you’re jonesing for turns, tighten your bootstraps and hit up the backcountry. Remember to keep your avalanche skills fresh and up to date and if you’re unfamiliar with any of these areas, check out our guided adventures.

Share this post