Making It Snow

For the first decade of operations on Whistler Mountain, an abundance of snow was normal for the ski season. The season of 1973/74 was a record-setting winter, with Whistler Mountain recording a base of just over 5 m in the early spring. After so many seasons, most people had grown to expect Whistler always to have lots of snow. According to John Hetherington, who was working on ski patrol at the time, “We just thought it would go on forever.” Then, just a few years later, it didn’t.

The season of 1976/77 is often described as one of the worst ski seasons Whistler Mountain has ever had. The Whistler Question reported that over the American Thanksgiving weekend, “a few hardy souls went up the mountain to hike up & down either at the top of the red or the ridge behind the top of the blue chair.” By Christmas it had snowed a little bit more and Whistler Mountain was able to open, but skiers had to download by the Red Chair and the gondola. Then, in January 1977, it rained to the top of the ski area and washed away what little snow there was. The lift company closed for the rest of the month and well into February.

The Whistler Question, January 1977.

This complete lack of snow inspired the first attempt at making snow on Whistler Mountain. While today snowmaking is carefully planned, has a large infrastructure, and follows procedures, that was not the situation described by Hetherington and fellow patroller Roger McCarthy. According to Hetherington, “Back then, Whistler was pretty wild and out there and things were pretty loose… Nobody gave a damn what you did on the mountain.” In this case, what ski patrol did was use an entire case of Submagel (the explosive often used in avalanche control) to blow a huge crater in the creek at the bottom of the Green Chair.

They built a dam at one end of the crater, got some pumps, borrowed a snow gun from Grouse Mountain (Grouse had installed the first snowmaking system in British Columbia in 1973), and began making snow to get skiers to the bottom of the Green Chair without having to carry their skis for the last 100 m or so. Once the crater slowly filled, it could support about two to three hours of snowmaking. However, McCarthy recalled that the system was far from perfect: “The challenge was that any time we tried to make snow, it got cold enough to make snow, the water would stop running and stop filling the little creek and we’d end up sucking mud into the pumps. So it wasn’t that successful, but it was the beginning.” Packer drivers were able to spread what snow they did make to form a narrow run to the bottom of the Green Chair, providing some temporarily skiable terrain.

Ian Boyd demonstrates the ins and outs of an SMI snow-making machine capable of producing enough snow to cover one acre one-half inch deep in one hour in 1982. With the addition of more machines and proper reservoirs and infrastructure on Whistler, snowmaking became more common through the 1980s. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

This first attempt at making snow signalled a shift in thinking as the lift company was forced to realize that they would not always get the snow there were used to. In 1981, Sandy Boyd was hired as Gondola Area Coordinator for the lift company and, already having experience with snowmaking, Boyd brought more snowmaking to Whistler through the 1980s. Today, as the questions of snowfall and the impacts of climate change on Whistler are never far from mind, snowmaking is an important part of mountain operations and it is not uncommon on a clear night to see the snowguns at work on both Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains.

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