Getting the message across

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Hill signsThis winter the usual early-season snows largely bypassed Whistler- Blackcomb even as Victoria and Vancouver suffered havoc. Extended cold, a rain crust, a dangerous layer of faceted crystals and lastly heavy wind-loaded snowfalls created what avalanche expert Chris Stethem later described as a once-in-30-years “continental snowpack”—shallow and dangerous, akin to the Alberta Rockies. “We found ourselves in a very precarious situation, [what some called] ‘bricks on [potato] chips’,” said Doug Forseth, Whistler- Blackcomb’s senior vice-president, operations, in a recent telephone interview. “It’s been very difficult to remedy. We have done a lot of control work…but it hasn’t broken up that unstable crust.”

Standard avalanche zones were subjected to repeated ski cutting and explosives—yet many failed to slide. In the near-backcountry, killer slopes overhanging the normally popular Blackcomb Glacier just hung there ominously. But as more lifts opened and the base gradually deepened, the region’s aggressive powderseekers began venturing into the avalanche terrain. At first with trepidation, then in gradually increasing numbers. Eventually hundreds of people descended the Blackcomb Glacier. The skiing was getting better by the day. Nothing bad was happening.

Then tragedy struck. On New Year’s Eve, 37-year-old Whistler local Dave Clark was descending Ruby Bowl, accessed from Blackcomb’s infamous Spanky’s Ladder bootpack, when the slope ripped out. Skiing alone, he was buried and died. Nobody noticed. My close friend Kevin Damaskie and I were just wrapping up a second fabulous powder descent of the gentler Blackcomb Glacier. Although we couldn’t see the slide area, we likely passed beneath its path where Clark was buried. The next day on Whistler a snowboarder passed two Closed signs near the Harmony chair and ducked a rope to get into some nice powder. He triggered an avalanche and was killed.

The tragedies unleashed a secondary avalanche—of news media misreporting, public hysteria and self-doubt among experienced skiers. The airwaves were filled with claims that the two victims—as well as hundreds of others—had been skiing “out of bounds.” But this term has no actual meaning. What do you think it means? For every person who replies “outside the boundary,” another will say “closed” and a third will say “against the rules or just plain bad in some way,” giving the term a moralistic odour. Yet there is no such designation in Canadian skiing. Terrain is “open,” “closed” or “outside ski area boundary—ski at your own risk.”

I also witnessed self-contradiction in important signage. Beside the top of Showcase T-bar, a large fixed board describing Blackcomb Glacier Provincial Park held two flip-up (red-closed/green-open) signs—both flipped up and green. About 30 metres to the right ran the ski area boundary rope. (Already, mixed messages.) Near the rope were two hand-written signs describing hazards and reiterating the ski-at-your-ownrisk status—fair enough. But also beside the rope was a large red octagonal sign reading “CLOSED/Avalanche Hazard/Passes revoked for violation.” Near this sign stood a pro patroller. She informed my friend and me that (paraphrasing from memory): The Blackcomb Glacier is officially closed. But some people are skiing it. We don’t recommend it. But we won’t stop you.

Forseth said this kind of thing should not have happened. Two days after the Ruby Bowl accident, Blackcomb Glacier and Spanky’s were officially and unequivocally closed— ironically, placing them back “inside” the ski area. (And those two “open” signs on the fixed board were flipped down.)

It did seem to me that the mountain was performing less avalanche control—as well as much less grooming—than normal. Was so much of the mountain designated as beyond the ski area boundary because the ski patrol couldn’t keep up with the task? Forseth said this wasn’t so. “We do more avalanche control than any ski area in North America,” he noted. “We’re not doing anything different in process than we’ve ever done. We’re responding to conditions and the hand we’ve been dealt.” He maintained that his team was working flat-out to provide the best achievable skiing experience during this unusual convergence of thin snow cover and persistent high avalanche hazard.

Forseth also denies local rumours of operational cutbacks imposed from above. “Our new CEO’s focus and commitment to the guest experience is second to none. We’ve been given the tools and resources to deliver that. [We’re allocating] more money to operational areas this year than in previous years—whether it’s grooming, or patrol, all those areas are getting the time and attention the customer is looking for and we think they deserve.” Everything that happened, Forseth said, was driven by the specific circumstances of this year’s snowpack.

Perhaps we skiers have come to demand too much. Is it reasonable to feel entitled to guaranteed fast openings of thousands of hectares of rugged and consequential high-alpine terrain, day after day, season after season, regardless of conditions? Back in the ’80s Blackcomb essentially introduced double-black-diamond skiing to Canada, and its pro patrol became legendary for pioneering fast, aggressive opening of gnarly terrain that in the Alps would have been left to a few crazies and in North America would have been permanently closed. By performing such an amazing job, Whistler-Blackcomb set an exceedingly high standard. Perhaps innately hazardous terrain should never be “open”— nor “closed”—but should remain “ski-at-your- own-risk.” But in an era when avalanche accidents generate a nationwide freak-out, this is probably unrealistic.

George Koch
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