Whistler's weather can be a bit of a double-edged sword. When the big storms arrive, the difference between bottomless powder and knee-jarring cement is only a couple of degrees on the thermometer. The freezing level often fluctuates, meaning you may be standing in the rain waiting in lift lines but happily skiing powder at the top of the chair.
Dressing for days like this can be a little tricky. It feels like spring on the lower mountain but the cold wind can be howling in the alpine. You'll need to stay dry — as well as warm — if you're going to make it through the entire day without frequent stops at the lodge. It's conditions like these that really test the quality of your outerwear.
When you are shopping for a new jacket or pants there are plenty of deciding factors, but if you want your gear to perform in Whistler's frequent rain-freeze conditions then it should come down to fit and function before style. Shell outerwear is the best choice for shedding moisture but you'll need to purchase additional insulating layers in order to stay warm. The investment is considerably higher than buying an insulated coat, but the layering system can be used in a variety of temperatures and conditions. You'll also be able to stay comfortable on wet powder days until the last chair.
The biggest brand in the business of staying dry is Gore-Tex, which makes the waterproof fabrics that outerwear companies use to construct their lines of clothing and apparel. While the black diamond-shaped label of Gore-Tex is a solid assurance of waterproofness, it's hardly the only option these days.
Gore is known to issue its clothing partners with design constraints needed to pass its stringent quality control, which is why some companies choose to manufacture their own fabrics. For example, Mountain Hardwear has invested heavily in their own Dry.Q Elite membrane technology for which they offer a similar waterproof guarantee to Gore, and in most garments is actually more breathable.
One of the more important decisions when purchasing a shell is deciding between breathability and durability. If you are going to use your jacket mostly in the resort and you want it to last forever, “pro-shell” (the designation from Gore for their most durable fabric) or an equivalent is the best choice. However if you plan to use your jacket for more aerobic activities like ski touring or alpine climbing, then going for a lighter, more breathable shell will prevent your body from overheating in situations where taking off the shell isn't an option. A lighter shell will be inevitably have a shorter life and will be more susceptible to punctures or tears, but that's the compromise.
Maintaining your outerwear is a key step that's often overlooked as well. The durable water repellent (DWR) coating on your outerwear needs to be reapplied at least once or twice a season, depending on how much use it gets. If the water isn't beading off, then it's time to retreat your garment.
Washing in with a detergent treatment like Grangers or Nickwax only takes one or two laundry loads and will make your gear last for many more years. Another tip is to throw your wetted-out jacket in the dryer (about 15-20 minutes on the hottest setting) when you get home. The heat activates the waxes in the DWR coating and will get your garment ready for its next foray into the rain.
Vince Shuley has spent too many wet powder days shivering on chairlifts. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email firstname.lastname@example.org.