It is the middle of July. It's 15 C. The sky is a radiant blue, the sun soars overhead.
We're going skiing.
High up on Blackcomb Mountain at Whistler, bumping and bouncing on a rocky road in a red school bus along with about 30 people, the mix of families and punk teenagers – “Who's got the rolling papers?” –is all a bit surreal.
“Hel-lo, everybody!” bellows the driver. “My name is Johnnie. Welcome to my Big Red Express to heaven.”
Johnnie does not exaggerate, as he ferries skiers and snowboarders between the top of the Solar Coaster Express on Blackcomb to the last link to the Horstman Glacier, the 7th Heaven Express. The journey already is a wonder, as we rise away from the hum of the mountain's base busy with horse rides, kids bungee bouncing and people on patios drinking beer with their lunch, steadily climbing a terrain free of snow, where black bears munch on fauna, and red bursts of Indian paintbrush flowers dot the landscape.
When Johnnie's Big Red Express reaches the top of 7th Heaven, we step over to a nearby dimension: Winter in the middle of summer. “It's another beautiful day,” says one liftie.
The expanse of the Horstman Glacier is a playground for anyone looking for something a little different in summer from the rigours of mountain biking on Whistler Mountain or golfing one of the courses below in the valley – and for anyone a tad too impatient to wait for November and December to get back on their boards.
“Skiing in summer – how can you beat that? Get a goggle tan,” smiles Mike Unrau, a father of two young boys who drove up for the day from Chilliwack, east of Vancouver. “We've skied all over the Okanagan and thought we'd try something different.”
The boys are digging it. Ryan, 9, isn't the least worried about a spill on skis while wearing a T-shirt and shorts.
It's a real delight to make these turns on the glacier, soft and wet, a touch tricky but a rush too, a kind of surfing on snow. The air is warm and the whole thing is a trip: the snow under the craggy rocks at the peak of Blackcomb with only a couple hundred people around, and a lot of them, like Ryan, in T-shirts. The vibe is relaxed; there's lots of time to sit under an umbrella with food and drink, or on the patio at the Horstman Hut with its sprawling vista of the Coast Mountains.
The majority of summer skiers and snowboarders are kids and racers, in camps to improve form on courses or jumps. But there's enough room for anyone curious enough to carve some turns in the soft snow under the sun.
The longevity of such pursuits is in question, though, as climate change cooks the planet. And it's Arthur De Jong's job to think about that. The 7,000-year-old Horstman Glacier has lost half its volume in the past century – more than 10 per cent has evaporated in just the past decade. It's not immediately visible, as its coverage area remains roughly the same, but its depth and mass are rapidly shrinking.
“It's not so much less snow in the winter, it's warmer temperatures in the summer, that's what's eating away at it most,” says De Jong, a mountain planner at Whistler-Blackcomb. “It clearly shows the climate is warming.”
For visitors happy enough to leave the skiing for winter, De Jong guides a new climate change/mountain environment tour in August and September, in which he explains glaciology and gives visitors a chance to spot the black bears that call the mountain home, the black-tailed deer and the whistling marmots that gave the resort its name.
In years past, the summer ski season on the Horstman used to stretch into August. This year, it runs June 20 to July 26. Whistler-Blackcomb is considering “growing” the glacier, using snow-making equipment and snow fences to protect it. It's about business: The Horstman draws about 500 people on an average day and as many as 1,000 on the busiest, generating $1-million for the company over the summer.
Other non-skiing summer options? Mountain biking, or for a $42 sightseeing ticket, you can take a hike through alpine meadows and a jaunt on the spectacular new Peak 2 Peak gondola that connects Blackcomb and Whistler mountains and soars 436 metres – nearly as high as the CN Tower – above Fitzsimmons Creek.
Surprising to many is the fact that the town of Whistler draws more visitors – about 1.2 million – in summer than in winter, when a million or so come. It's about options. In winter, it's the mountains; in summer, it's the mountains – summer skiing, hiking, biking – as well as golf, swimming in the lakes, lounging on sandy beaches.
Benoit Nadeau, 33, has a quick answer as to why he's on a snowboard on a glacier in July.
The sommelier at the luxe Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler Village and an admitted “ski bum” says the reason is obvious: “I love snowboarding.”
It's true it's ridiculous to turn seasons upside down, skiing in summer when there's warm water and beaches nearby – but, for some, there is nothing lovelier than being high above it all on snow, any time of year.
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Two more northern options for schussing in the summer:
The Timberline Lodge A little more than an hour drive from Portland, Ore., it sits on the volcano Mount Hood. 503-222-2211; www.timberlinelodge.com.
Kaprun Glacier One of several options in Europe, the Kaprun Glacier in Austria is an hour and a half from Salzburg. en.kitzsteinhorn.at