VANCOUVER, Canada — After conducting a survey of its readers and the media recently, Ski magazine ranked the top 20 ski resorts in North America, starting the list on its cover in this fashion:
1. Vail, Colorado.
2. (You'll never guess!).
OK, three guesses. No, it's not Aspen . . . not Sun Valley . . . not Mammoth Mountain. Give up?
The second-most highly rated ski resort on this continent is 75 miles north of here, via mostly a two-lane highway that could use some patching and widening here and there. And it's No. 2 only on the basis of points awarded in 11 categories--challenge, terrain quality, terrain extent, snow making, ski school, lifts, location, food, customer service, apres-ski and family programs.
Fittingly, perhaps, the computer picked high-tech, semi-urbanized Vail as No. 1, but when the same respondents were asked to name their favorite resorts solely on "gut feeling," both readers and reporters moved No. 2 up to No. 1: It's Whistler/Blackcomb, the new crown jewel of skiing.
And appropriately, there is a queen to reign over this snowy domain that rises more than 5,000 vertical feet above a forested valley in British Columbia. She runs a hotel that bears her name--no, it's not Leona Helmsley--although the property was sold last year to the Japanese.
Nancy Greene Raine is Whistler/Blackcomb's most visible resident and possibly its most valuable asset.
Ask her why the resort has suddenly become hot, and she says: "Whistler made it into the consciousness of the big time just recently because of customer satisfaction. And (that) really started happening about three years ago, when both mountains went to the peaks and opened up all those bowls.
"Plus, (there was) increased base development. Every year there's more shops, hotels, restaurants--more apres-ski . . . and I think about five years ago we had enough apres-ski to satisfy people. Added to that was all the lift expansion, and suddenly the quality was just fantastic."
Greene and her husband, Al Raine, a former coach of the Canadian ski team, opened the Nancy Greene Hotel in 1985, obviously capitalizing on her ski racing victories, which are manifest in the three huge trophy cases along one wall of the lobby. They contain, among other things:
--An Olympic gold medal for the giant slalom in 1968 at Grenoble, France.
--An Olympic silver medal for the slalom in the same Games.
--World Cups for being skiing's top female racer in both 1967 and '68, the first two years those trophies were awarded--and the same years that France's Jean-Claude Killy was the men's champion.
"And here," she said, pointing to a little medal with a threadbare ribbon attached, "is the first medal I ever got, just for racing, in 1958."
Now 45 but looking maybe only one decade older than when she retired at 24, Nancy Greene Raine is justifiably proud of her reputation as Canada's greatest skier, but she'd much rather talk about Whistler/Blackcomb and its coming of age as a world-class ski resort.
"We started noticing two years ago (in customer surveys), that we were comparing very favorably (with other resorts)," she said. "So, when that starts happening, then you say, 'OK, they're going to notice us sooner or later because people are going to tell them.'
"And the other thing is, people would come here not quite knowing what to expect, and when they got here, it was so much better than they had imagined that they (would) go away feeling, 'I ought to tell people about this. It's so good, and they've never heard of it.' It's kind of like a new find, and you want to tell somebody if you've been there and you know they haven't.
"So, word of mouth is really important. Last year was fun because everybody that came was blown away. This year, everybody is coming with high expectations, so we're all saying to our staff, to everybody in the valley, 'We've got to work a lot harder this year because they expect more . . . to live up to expectations.' "
FIRST THE MOUNTAINS
Skiing started on Whistler Mountain in February, 1965, but not much happened until Blackcomb Mountain was developed next door in the winter of 1979-80. At the same time, Whistler Mountain's north side was opened, and Whistler Village was created in the 2,200-foot-high valley, between the two mountains.
"Now, the toughest decision you have to make is to decide which (mountain) to go up, because they're both right there, right on Mountain Square," Greene said.
Indeed, the lifts go in both directions--an express gondola to Whistler's Roundhouse Station, a trip that used to require an hour's ride on four chairlifts now sliced to 18 minutes, or a triple chair that launches skiers into Blackcomb's extensive lift system.
Between them, the mountains have 29 lifts with a total capacity of more than 44,000 skiers an hour. But the most impressive statistics are the vertical drops, or maximum changes in elevation from peaks to valley--5,006 feet on Whistler and 5,280 feet, or exactly one mile, on Blackcomb.