Guide (with firm but friendly eye contact): "You'll be needing some lunch."
Me: "Well, the rest of my group are going to the flash Christine's Restaurant on Blackcomb Mountain around 1pm if our itinerary should take us that way."
Guide (gaze intensifying): "I thought you wanted to go ski touring."
Me: "Got it. I'll just go and sort the lunch."
The mountain guide is a fascinating study. Naturally enough, they share an affliction for most things alpine, but they split in two in my experience: those who guide people as a way of being in the mountains, where the location is primary and the client secondary; and those who take vicarious pleasure in their clients' experience.
I'll make a track and we'll dig a snow pit near the top.Guide Brent Phillips
Fortunately, training and tradition mean they all share a concern for their clients' safety and getting them home alive. The alternative is career-limiting.
They'll also share an understanding of the ways the weather, the terrain, the degree of the slope, the nature of the snow pack and the geology of the mountain can conspire to raise the risks, and by and large, they'll get you through them.
They also tread the line with great dexterity between encouraging the clients' enthusiasm and corralling it where necessary for their own good. And they need to be able to make a pretty quick judgment on what kind of client they have.
Brent Phillips, my lean, lanky, laconic and exceptionally accomplished guide from Extremely Canadian already had a few facts in front of him: I liked to lunch at mountain restaurants, I wasn't perfectly prepared (I had previously been told about the BYO lunch thing) and it was my first day on snow in three months, so I'd gained some condition around my waist and lost some condition in my legs.
It was pretty clear Brent was in the good guides camp though. He wanted me to have a great day, but he wasn't going to sit around waiting for it to happen. And he was well-versed in the early season snow conditions; he knew our best skiing would be on Whistler mountain, not at Blackcomb with my lunch buddies.
Ski touring is booming in the snow business. It offers adventure, uncrowded slopes and serene alpine experiences. In the jargon, you can ski "slackcountry" (off-piste but lift-accessed), "sidecountry" (lift accessed but requires some climbing) and "backcountry" (you're on your own).
We were heading for the backcountry. First, we rode the Whistler Mountain Gondola and used that ride to start the safety briefing, hopping out of the lift to a cool day with high cloud and little wind.
Early season can be tricky for snow cover at any ski area, but in December 2015, Whistler couldn't have written the script better. It already had a 2.5-metre base and on this morning, we had another 40 centimetres of fresh snow to play with.
Play we did, skiing the open alpine fields and then scooting through some trees down to the base of the Harmony chairlift. There we completed the safety drills, how to use the send/receive beacon you wear, along with an avalanche probe and shovel; Brent teaching me in case he got buried, me listening hard for the what-to-dos if I got caught (if you can't out-ski it, then get rid of your skis and poles and try and create some breathing space around you).
We rode the lift and headed for the resort boundary and the terrain beyond it, off the Singing Pass, into an area known as the Musical Bumps, sheltered bowls with runs like Flute and Oboe.
We were on our own – no noise from the lifts or the resort skiers or boarders, nobody's tracks in the snow but ours. We had a long, long run through powder snow as light as air.
The climb out was fine: "Take your time; go at your own pace," Brent said. "I'll make a track and we'll dig a snow pit near the top to have a look at how the snow has fallen so far."
I was plodding along on my touring skis, "skins" attached to the base for grip, heel bindings released for forward motion and clicking with each step to sound a bit like a bike with a dodgy wheel.
After about 45 minutes, I pulled in alongside Brent who was digging his pit (he'd been there for a while by the time I turned up).
It was a revelation, showing the layers of snow that had fallen so far that season. He sectioned it with a saw and tapped on it to show how it might release – tap, tap, tap 10 times with the flat blade of his snow shovel. Constant snowfall, uninterrupted by rain or a thaw/freeze layer meant a stable snow pack and in this part of the mountain, on this kind of slope the avalanche risk was minimal.
We made the ridge, made another traverse and had some more delightful turns through fresh snow before a cruisy climb through a forest. Then we skied back to Harmony base. It was lucky I had the guide – I thought we were somewhere else entirely. "That's why I'm here," Brent said. Well, yes, that and getting me over my lunch habit.
Qantas has direct Sydney-Vancouver flights from mid-December to late January; and otherwise connects via Los Angeles or San Francisco. See www.qantas.com.
Extremely Canadian runs day and longer tours to train people in the basics of backcountry safety and explore the mountains at the same time. An "Intro to Backcountry" day tour costs $243; a private backcountry guide costs $710 for the day. Lift tickets extra. See www.extremelycanadian.com.
Vast options in this village of 10,000 beds, top of the tree is the Fairmont Chateau Whistler with its huge lobby and lounges and slopeside location. Rooms from $477, cheaper in a ski package. See www.fairmont.com.
Jim Darby was a guest of Qantas, Whistler Blackcomb, Fairmont and Extremely Canadian.