For some reason, my fear of heights always takes me back to British Columbia. It must be the mountains.
See, I subscribe to the belief that facing one’s fears is the best way to conquer them. How perfect it is then that the two peaks of Whistler (7,156 ft; 2,181 m) and Blackcomb (7,992 ft; 2,436 m) offered me all the altitude I needed to get high.
Riding the ski lifts to the top of Blackcomb was the easy bit. From the peak, I skied over to the ledge, unclipped my skis and peered down over the rocky ledge of “Couloir”, the famous double black diamond run that drops straight down the mountain. Extreme skiers love conquering the challenging drop-off, but I felt brave simply approaching the edge.
But I don’t need to prove myself on skis—I already know I’m not an expert. Where I needed to prove myself was riding Whistler-Blackcomb’s world-famous Peak2Peak gondola—the world’s longest gondola with an unsupported span of 3.024 km (1.87 miles).
What that means is that about ten minutes after arriving at the top of Blackcomb, I was in a glass-windowed gondola, dangling from a cable, 436 meters (1,430 feet) over an alpine valley. Did I mention the floor is made of glass? As in—transparent.
The gondola ride takes eleven minutes to complete. That’s eleven minutes of riding airborne. That meant I had to breath, in spite of my breathless fear and the breathtaking views.
Down below I could see the sweep of dense pine forests, heavy with snow, shading the mountainside and only breaking for the meandering white vein of the riverbanks and the dark blue creek, crusted with ice. I had seen similar scenes before, but only from airplanes. This time though, instead of flying, I was moving ever so slowly through the air, with time to contemplate every inch of the vast network of ski runs below me.
Not only does Whistler’s one-of-a-kind Peak2Peak gondola link two mountain peaks together—it also completes the largest ski lift network in the world. Every day, thousands of skiers hop between mountains, skiing one peak, then switching to another. It may be an engineering triumph, it may be the most thrilling ride I’ve ever been on, but most of all, the gondola offers infinite options to skiers.
Having survived the great crossing, I stepped my wobbly legs onto the terra firma of Whistler mountain, popped on my skis and began descending the slope in big, confident arcs. I was no longer simply skiing, but rather exploring the largest groomed ski terrain on earth. I skied and skied and skied, sometimes taking little detours into the woods or, if I felt more daring, down slightly more challenging slopes. There were times when I skied for ten minutes straight without seeing another person.
At the end of the day, I felt proud of myself. Proud that I had conquered the Peak2Peak, proud that I had enjoyed the experience of riding this latest testament to engineering, proud that I hadn’t fainted mid-journey.
But the very next morning, I realized that one time wasn’t enough. Ever the sadist, I felt like I hadn’t actually conquered the gondola because I had been riding with other people. People who laughed and joked and brought human warmth into the cable car. No—I decided—I hadn’t truly faced my fears because I hadn’t crossed unaided.
And so, first thing, I rode back up to the top of the mountain, waited my turn and then boarded the Peak2Peak all by myself.
This time I wanted to make the crossing alone.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The solitude worked—this time I was absolutely terrified. My world was silent—the only noise was the single but gentle slip and click of the car’s mechanics as we glided past the first tower.
Looking down was horrifying for me, but looking up at the pair of cables—knowing that it was all that was holding me up from the abyss down below—somehow that’s what scared me the most.
But I made it the second time as well. It might be the highest and the longest and the scariest, but the Peak2Peak is also the safest. When I reached the other side, I took a good look at a cross-section of the intensely-strong steel cable—a braided bolt of smaller cables that looked like a work of modern art.
Feeling much less terrified by my fears and now familiar with the drill, I skied all the way back down in one long uninterrupted run, the famous “Peak to Creek” which takes you exactly from one to the other.
And then—sweating, smiling and self-assured, I thought to myself, “Let’s do it again, shall we?”