WHISTLER

IN THE BEAU­TI­FUL, BECKONING BACK­COUN­TRY, AVALANCHE FORE­CAST­ING IS SE­RI­OUS BUSI­NESS.

Air Canada enRoute - - THE SCIENCE OF SNOW /LA SCIENCE DE LA NEIGE - BY / PAR SU­SAN NERBERG

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.

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