IN THE BEAUTIFUL, BECKONING BACKCOUNTRY, AVALANCHE FORECASTING IS SERIOUS BUSINESS.
WENDY BROOKBANK HAS A WAY OF MAKING YOU DO STUFF your brain thinks you should not even try. I’m standing beside her, staring down a steep bowl on top of Whistler Mountain. “As long as your heart’s in it,” the ski guide with Extremely Canadian says, then urges: “Just look at all that powder.” My adrenalin-seeking side concludes that is a good enough rationale. We slip into Sun Bowl and its untracked snow. Soon we are floating on pure emotion.
I’ve come to Whistler Blackcomb, the largest ski resort in North America, to bypass its groomed corduroy runs and instead tap into British Columbia’s untamed glory. There is inbound skiing down steep terrain, but also an opportunity to ABOVE Clear skies at the top of the Harmony 6 Express on Whistler Mountain. CI-DESSUS L’Harmony 6 Express de Whistler sous un ciel bleu.
explore what the locals already know: that the area surrounding Whistler lends itself to ski touring, much of it within relatively easy reach of the lifts.
A day with Brookbank, a freeskiing pioneer and former racer, is the perfect primer. “You never know what kind of snow or steeps nature will throw at you,” she says. On Blackcomb Mountain, we glide over to Spanky’s Ladder, the entrance to an intimidating back bowl that necessitates removing our skis and hiking to the top. Brookbank positions herself like a racer, flashes a smile, then pushes off. I lose sight of her – and the slope – in the fog. All I know is I’m going down. Fast.
Feeling my way down Garnet Bowl, I at least don’t have to worry about avalanches; the resort runs North America’s largest avalanche control program. Avalanches are caused when a fresh layer of snow does not stick to the surface it falls on and starts to slide down the slope, or when an old layer of the snowpack weakens and detaches from the ground. They are a serious concern at Whistler Blackcomb, which receives, on average, nearly 12 metres of snow each winter.
Led by Anton Horvath, who has been an avalanche forecaster for more than two decades, the avalanche control team works with ski patrol and groomers to assess snow stability and reduce the risk of big slides by deliberately setting off smaller ones after a storm. I meet up with Horvath at the Pig Alley weather station,
located 1,650 metres up Whistler Mountain. He arrives on a snowmobile just as I am stepping out of my ski bindings.
The Pig Alley plot doubles as an official recording station for Environment Canada, providing information for the general regional weather forecast. While Horvath monitors reports and moving weather systems at the team’s command centre closer to the summit, remote telemetry is not enough to offer accurate avalanche forecasts. He also checks air pressure, humidity, wind speed, daily snowfall and seasonal accumulation.
“Six centimetres since the last storm cycle, one since yesterday,” he mutters to himself. He steps on the snow to feel how supportive it is. “When the weather is cold and dry, the snow is light and fluffy. But here in the Coast Mountains, we get a lot of moisture, or heavy snow, which adds more pressure on weak snow layers underneath,” he explains.
The avalanche risk is low the following morning, even in the backcountry where I’m heading with Keith Reid. A certified mountain guide, Reid also works with Extremely Canadian and his domain lies beyond the safety net of the avalanche control team. He checks the avalanche forecast to confirm the risk is just a 2 (the highest is 5).
We take a few lifts to the Symphony area in the alpine, but before we slap climbing skins on the bottom of our skis and start ascending, Reid gives me a test. He buries his avalanche beacon as if it were a skier swept under by a slide and asks me to find it using my own beacon, set to search mode. It beep-beep-beeps as I get closer, moving it sideways in a sweeping motion, until I find the “victim.”
We start climbing. An hour into our skinning uphill, Reid stops. “This place was made for ski touring,” he says. “It’s not only about the access to untouched slopes. I love mountain travel and feeling like I’m part of the changing landscape.” Soon, we leave Black Tusk, arguably Whistler’s most iconic peak, far behind. It isn’t until after our first heart-pumping descent into a treed powder bowl that we pause to unpack our lunch. A Canada jay swoops down, waiting for a handout; another finds a perch on a ski pole. We eat in silence: The backcountry has a way of putting you in a state of contemplation. But soon it is time to get moving. We trudge our way to the top before the climbing skins come off again and we click our bindings into ski mode. It’s all emotion from here.
ABOVE Extremely Canadian instructor Wendy Brookbank warms up in the lodge. TOP Uphill climb: Guide Keith Reid leads a skiier out of a bowl in the Whistler backcountry using climbing skins. CI-DESSUS Wendy Brookbank, monitrice d’Extremely Canadian, se réchauffe au chalet. EN HAUT Pleine ascension : chaussé de peaux, le guide Keith Reid mène un skieur hors d’une cuvette et dans l’arrière-pays de Whistler.
ABOVE, LEFT TO RIGHT Avalanche forecaster Anton Horvath looks at the shape of snow crystals with a magnifying loupe at a snow study plot; Whistler Blackcomb ski patrol lockers. CI-DESSUS, DE GAUCHE À DROITE Le prévisionniste d’avalanches Anton Horvath passe des flocons à la loupe à un poste d’étude ; les casiers des patrouilleurs de Whistler Blackcomb.
BELOW Mountain guide Keith Reid in the Whistler backcountry. RIGHT Morning glory: Skiers and boarders cruise down Whistler Mountain. CI-DESSOUS Le guide de montagne Keith Reid dans l’arrière-pays de Whistler. CI-CONTRE Gloire du matin : les skieurs et planchistes dévalent les pistes de Whistler.