Tag Archives: avalanches

The Origins of Avalanche Control on Whistler Mountain

There are few truer mountain-town experiences than being awoken in the early dawn by the distant rattle of avalanche bombs. While providing an unmistakable announcement of fresh snow, they also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the mountains are a complex and potentially hostile landscape demanding caution and respect.

Often romanticized as “throwing bombs, skiing powder, and breaking hearts,” avalanche control at a ski resort is actually a highly technical profession requiring extensive training in explosives, first aid, weather forecasting, and snow science. But it wasn’t always that way. When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966, the concept of snow science barely existed, and the only technical avalanche manual in North America was almost 15 years old.

Learning to safely harness the destructive power of avalanches took time and dedicated practice by hundreds of individuals. John Hetherington was one of those key folk, and his recollections give some fascinating insights into the nascent years of avalanche control work on Whistler Mountain.

After a brief, somewhat lost-in-translation introduction to the avalanche world as a rookie ski patroller in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the 1966-67 season, John “Bushrat” Hetherington joined the Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol in December 1967, the mountain’s third season of operations.

Back then, John recalls, “avalanche control consisted mainly of putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going ‘I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.’ Over time there was some experience that certain slopes had a tendency to avalanche… There was no science behind it, just ‘let’s throw lots and lots of bombs.”

That winter Monty Atwater, inventor of the Avalauncher, visited Whistler to demonstrate his avalanche artillery gun. “It would have given us the capability of reaching the remoter areas which today are now lift-accessed but back then were not (Peak, Upper Harmony, etc]” but issues with the system, the unreliability of the shells in particular, left Whistler uncomfortable with the powerful but crude technology. “It went away in storage” and patrollers continued to rely on setting all their charges by hand. To get a better sense of the danger such work entailed, the patrol team didn’t receive their first avalanche transceivers until 1973 (they didn’t become common equipment for non-professionals until the 1990s).

 

After his inaugural Whistler season, John set out working as an avalanche professional for mines up north and in the interior. Meanwhile, an incident during the winter of 1972 served as an eye-opening and watershed moment for the patrol. A typical Coast Mountain winter storm blanketed the mountain in several feet of snow. Four skiers went missing during the blizzard, and it took several days to determine that they had been caught in an avalanche, whose debris had subsequently been buried by even more storm snow. After that incident it became painfully clear that avalanche control was a serious and crucial aspect of ski area management.

Norm Wilson, formerly the head of ski patrol Alpine Meadows, California was then hired to modernize Whistler Mountain’s avalanche control system. More sophisticated terrain analysis and systematic patrol routes were established to clear slopes of their slide risk, and an infrastructure was put in place to conduct more detailed short and long-term snow and weather study. From that point on, daily avalanche planning increasingly began from analysis of the overnight snow and weather readings, rather than gut instinct.

That same season, advances in the Avalauncher system brought their gun out of storage and it was installed on a platform near the top of the t-bars. Being able to trigger avalanches from such a distance made the daily control routine safer and less-gruelling.

The expertise that developed in subsequent years, thanks to the system and infrastructure put in place by Norm Wilson, and the dedicated practice by a generation of Whistler patrollers, made a huge contribution to our understanding of avalanche forecasting, not just in Whistler, but Canada-wide. John Hetherington, returned to Whistler the following winter, and was soon second in command. He went on to become a widely respected avalanche consultant, heli-ski guide, SAR-member, and board member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Just for fun we figured we'd throw in this photo of Roger and Bruce from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain. Evidently Roger's moustache had more staying power than Bruce's.

Roger McCarthy and Bruce Watt checking the anemometer printout, which provides crucial data on wind speed and direction, from their days as ski patrollers for Whistler Mountain.

Other major contributions include the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association by local patroller Bruce Watt, spurred by his own burial and rescue from a slide while patrolling on Whistler in 1979. Whistler Mountain was the only ski area with a large contingent at an inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver in 1981—most of the others worked for Parks Canada in Rogers Pass, Banff and Jasper. The meeting led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

“The Evolution of Skiing in Whistler” Exhibit Launch!

We’re really excited to announce that we are on schedule to re-open the museum next weekend with our brand new exhibit “The Evolution of Skiing”! Almost 50% of our exhibit space has been revamped, renovated and replaced, making this our most significant exhibit upgrade in over 3 years. The project was made possible thanks to generous support from the Whistler-Blackcomb Foundation.

Our new display case! Curious as they look, these humans won't be on display once we re-open to the public.

Our new display case! Curious as they look, these humans won’t be on display once we re-open to the public.

Our re-arranging made room for some new non-ski content as well. This panel shares some of the joys of exploring our mountains in summer.

Our re-arranging made room for some new non-ski content as well. This panel shares some of the joys of exploring our mountains in summer.

There are a whole slew of new informative panels, display cases full of artifacts, interactive displays, and some pretty big surprises that we just can’t wait to share. We don’t want to give away all our secrets, so you’ll just have to come and see them for yourselves!

While we think our new exhibit is plenty of an attraction in itself, we’ve decided to sweeten the pot and have a full program of launch events that will compliment our displays and give you even more reason to pay us a visit. Here’s a quick overview. Expect more details in the coming days.

November 23 – Feeding The Spirit. Our annual Welcome Week extravaganza, featuring free food provided by the fine folks at Creekside Market and tons of door prizes from awesome local businesses. Everyone welcome, from new arrivals to long-time residents. 5:30-8pm. Free!!!

November 28 – Official Exhibit Launch.  We’re dying to show off our new exhibit, come check it out! There will be some short speeches by museum staff & board, but the focus for the evening will simply be on exploring the additions and updates to our permanent exhibits, particularly our new section exploring “The Evolution of Skiing in Whistler.” 6pm- 9pm. Admission will be free to all.

November 30 – Backcountry Skiers Alpine Responsibility Code. We all know the Alpine Skiers Responsibility Code, that yellow card that lists the rules to abide by when at a ski resort. Well, what about the backcountry? Increasing crowds and obvious safety concerns mean a backcountry code of conduct is in order. This evening we will craft a draft of this code, featuring a very esteemed panel and a healthy dose of audience participation. 7-9pm. Tickets: $10/$7 museum members.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our "Filming Mountains" presenters, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

Filmer Garry Pendygrasse, one of our “Filming Mountains” presenters, hauling gear around the Tantalus Range. Dan Milner photo.

December 8 – Filming Mountains. This new event, in partnership with the Whistler Film Festival, celebrates our town’s proud history at the forefront of the ski and snowboard film industry. Heralded filmmakers will share clips and stories from the past that will entertain while giving unique insights into the filmmaking experience. 3-6pm, Tickets: $10/$7 members.

December 11 – The Whistler vs Blackcomb Debate. Without a doubt the most important topic yet to be tackled by our Whistler Debates series. With your help, this evening will decide, once and for all, which is the superior mountain in this valley (and, therefore, on Earth). Heavy stuff, indeed. 6:30-9pm. Tickets: $7/$5 members.

Two huge mountains, but only one can reign supreme. On December 11th help us decide!

Two huge mountains, but only one can reign supreme. On December 11th help us decide!