Snow. For all the changes around us, frozen water is still the fuel that keeps this town’s fire stoked and hot.
While mountain-folk like to play armchair meteorologist year-round, we’re currently in the midst of prognostication silly-season. People are dusting off the almanacs, scouring long-term forecasts, and wildly over-reacting to Mother Nature’s every turn. Last season’s uncooperative weather has only heightened the tension that accompanies every updated forecast.
This year is especially tough to call due to a historically strong El Nino accompanied by a weird phenomenon that oceanographers and meteorologists refer to in their highly technical jargon as “The Blob.”
Snow-wise, we’re off to a pretty good start, but that doesn’t really mean much for those extrapolating for the entire season. Here at the museum, we’re more comfortable with facts than forecasts. So here’s one for you: Whistler has enjoyed some amazingly deep winters in recent years, but they’ve got nothing on what Whistler’s first skiers enjoyed.
We speak to a lot of old-timers here, reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and all attest that Whistler just doesn’t get snow like it used to.
Check these photos of the Whistler Mountain alpine from the early 1970s. For those who know the terrain well, pay close attention to familiar features such as The Coffin chute, or the Couloir near the middle of the photo. Of course, the Saddle has a massive cornice here not only due to the snowpack, but also because the entrance had not yet been blasted to improve skier access.
Compare it to a recent photo of the same terrain and it still looks epic, but it’s clearly not nearly as coated in the coastal powder we all love.
Certainly some of the discrepancy can be explained by the increase in skiers and avalanche bombs knocking a fair bit of storm snow off of these steeper aspects. Still, there’s data to indicate that this is more than just some old-timers’ nostalgia-induced exaggeration.
Whistler legend, and Whistler Museum President (full disclosure) John “Bushrat” Hetherington, in his years of snow study as an avalanche professional, found clear evidence from many data sets that all across BC the decade from 1965 to 1975 was a period of abnormally large snowfall.
He also experienced it firsthand, arriving in Whistler in the autumn of 1967 with the town still buzzing about how much snow they had received the previous winter.
John stuck around to ski more than his fair share of bottomless pow in ensuing years, but nothing compared to the 1973/74 season. As John recalls, “this was the first winter they had really good data on, and it’s still the record.”
By mid-April 1974, the snow study plot (which was ¾ way down green chair at the time, an even lower elevation than the currently used Pig Alley snow plot at 1650 meters) measured a snowpack 17 feet deep. Anyone remember a 518cm base at mid-mountain in recent years? Me neither.
Jealousy-inducing? Maybe a little. But if it happened before, who’s to say that we aren’t about to see a return of this near-forgotten weather cycle? That’s the thing about weather, you never know.