Tag Archives: Bruce Watt

Opening Land of Thundering Snow

Last Thursday (December 17) we were very excited to open Land of Thundering Snow, the first traveling exhibit that the Whistler Museum has hosted since moving into our current building in 2009.

While Whistler will be the first museum to host the physical exhibit, Land of Thundering Snow began as a virtual exhibit launched by the Revelstoke Museum and Archives in partnership with Parks Canada and Avalanche Canada in 2015. (find it here) The exhibit explores the history of snow research and avalanche safety in Canada, from a fatal avalanche in 1910 that took the lives of 58 rail workers in Rogers Pass to the creation of Avalanche Canada in 2004.  The virtual exhibit was reportedly the first time that the history of Canadian avalanches had been gathered together in one place.  The content for both the virtual and physical exhibit was developed by retired Parks Canada biologist and naturalist Dr. John Woods.

Come check out Land of Thundering Snow and discover how an entire exhibit can be transported in just one (very impressive) box!

In preparation for hosting the exhibit, we’ve taken a look at what we have in our own collections related to avalanches and avalanche safety, from photographs to films to oral histories.  We also invited anyone with their own avalanche story from the area to share it with us.  We ended up learning quite a bit about one specific avalanche that took place on Whistler Mountain in 1978.

Beginning on March 6, 1978, a storm system brought significant snowfall on the mountain.  On March 8, patrollers headed out to do avalanche control on Whistler’s peak.  At the time, two patrollers from Snowbird in Utah were visiting Whistler as part of a training exchange and joined the group heading out that morning.

While the morning had started out clear, by the time the patrollers were out visibility had become quite limited.  A shot from an avalauncher was fired into the Whistler Peak North Face but, due to the lack of visibility, it was unclear what the result of the shot was.  Over the course of controlling that morning, an avalanche began on the North Face and caught two patrollers who were traversing below: Bruce Watt of Whistler and Rick Mandahl of Snowbird.

MAN, DOG & MOUNTAIN – Patroller Bruce Watt with his rescue dog Radar at the top of Whistler.  Whistler Question Collection.

Watt was recovered almost immediately as he had managed to get a hand above the snow.  It took seven minutes to locate and receive Mandahl using transceivers.  Luckily, both were relatively unharmed.

On March 15, the avalanche and recoveries made the front page of the Whistler Question, and the avalanche was also recounted in a larger report on avalanche accidents by Chris Stethem, which provided a lot of factual information but did not include personal accounts.

This image of the slide was included in the official report. Photo courtesy of Chris Stethem.

If you have been following the Whistler Museum’s social media over the past couple of weeks, however, you might have seen two accounts of this avalanche from patrollers who were involved: Bruce Watt and John Hetherington. (You can find their stories here and here.)  Their personal accounts of the avalanche provide information that neither the newspaper nor an official report would include, such as what was going through Watt’s head as he was caught or how Hetherington had to turn off his radio in order to hear the transceiver while searching for Mandahl.

If you have an avalanche story from the area that you would like to share with the museum, we will be continuing to gather and share more local information about avalanches while Land of Thundering Snow is exhibited through March 31, 2021.  We Would love to hear from you, or see you at the exhibit!

Avalanche Control and Thundering Snow

Next month we will be opening Land of Thundering Snow, a traveling exhibit created by the Revelstoke Museum & Archives.  The exhibit complements Revelstoke Museum’s virtual exhibit of the same name, which examines the history and impact of snow avalanches across Canada, and we are very excited to be its first stop through March 2021!

When we think about avalanches in Whistler, one of the first things to come to mind is often the sound of avalanche control that echoes through the valley in the winter.

An avalanche set off during control on Whistler Mountain. George Benjamin Collection.

According to John Hetherington, who joined Whistler Mountain’s pro ski patrol for the 1967/68 season, early avalanche control was often “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 the patrollers learned which slopes and conditions were more likely to have an avalanche, but it was still mostly done by instinct and past experience.

In 1978, Hetherington and Chris Stehem, a former patroller then working as Whistler Mountain’s Safety Supervisor, wrote “Whistler Mountain Avalanche Control Programme,” a technical memorandum, describing the methods then used by Whistler patrollers and providing an idea of a typical morning.  Documents such as this are incredibly useful for learning about past procedures and the development of current practices.

Over a typical season, patrollers would use approximately 1,000 avalauncher rounds and 2,000 hand-charges containing Submagel 95%, a nitroglycerin explosive.  Hand-charges were most often used singly but were sometimes combined into doubles or triples in “special circumstances”.  For control purposes, Whistler Mountain was divided into three sections, Zones A, B & C.  The zones would be covered by teams of two using their own knowledge of the area and radios to communicate.

Some recognizable patrollers examine the data at the Alpine Office. George Benjamin Collection.

On a typical control day, 7 am would see ten to twelve patrollers heading up Whistler Mountain to the Alpine Office at 1,850 m.  Along the way, weather data, snowfall readings, and wind readers were taken.  Once at the Alpine Office, one patroller would take weather readings while the others would begin preparing the day’s charges.  The patrol leader would make an initial evaluation of the avalanche hazard and decide on the control measures.

On an average day, three hand-charge teams and one avalanche gun team would be sent out by 8 am to cover Zone A.  A second gun team would then head out to clear the more inaccessible slopes of Zones B and C.  Radios would be used to update other teams and allow the plan to be adjusted.  If all went according to plan, Zone A would usually be open by 8:45 am when the first skiers were reaching the upper mountain.

The Avalauncher sat in storage at Whistler Mountain for several seasons before improvements were made to the technology. George Benjamin Collection.

On days when helicopters were used, eight patrollers would control Zone A while three patrollers controlled Zones B and C from the air.  The helicopter was not, however, without its shortcomings.  Helicopter use was limited by the weather and reportedly eliminated the “feel” for the snow that teams learned while hiking.

Avalanche control is only one focus of the virtual Land of Thundering Snow exhibit, but it is one with which many are familiar in Whistler.  Though we will not be able to host an opening event, we hope to see many of you (from a distance and a few at a time) at the physical exhibit over the winter.

Our 2020 Speaker Series Begins!

We’ll be opening our 2020 Speaker Series with a screening of Pro Patrol, Curtis Petersen’s 1980 short documentary on ski patrol on Whistler Mountain, followed by a talk on changes in ski patrol and mountain safety with Roger McCarthy, Brian Leighton and Bruce Watt.

Doors open at 6:30 pm. Show begins at 7pm. Tickets are $10 ($5 for museum and Club Shred members) and will be available at the Whistler Museum beginning January 17.

This Week in Photos: March 15

Not all weeks in the Whistler Question Collection have similar coverage.  Some weeks include only a handful of photos while others have hundreds.  For the most part, larger events mean more photos.

In March 1984 Whistler hosted its second successful World Cup Downhill.  This week in 1984 includes over 600 photographs –  though we’ve only included five in this post, all can be viewed here.

1980

89-year old Myrtle Philip cuts her birthday cake at her party.

The site of the Mountain Inn in the town centre showing the forms waiting for the work to start again.

MAN, DOG & MOUNTAIN – Patroller Bruce Watt with his rescue dog Radar at the top of Whistler.

1981

A year later – Myrtle Philip just before her 90th birthday.

More Sunshine shots – the Whistler Village businesses enjoy the outdoor crowds on yet another sunny weekend. Tapley’s…

… Stoney’s…

… and Russell’s.

1982

Kids are put through the hoops at Blackcomb Mountain ‘Kids Kamp’.

Ministry of Transport employee surveys traffic flow March 13 to help determine parking needs in Whistler.

Winners’ ribbons light up (L to R) Michael Hofmann, Laura Armstrong and Aaron Gross at the cake-decorating contest, one of the many carnival festivities at Myrtle Philip School Friday, March 12.

No, it’s not a tug-of-war – students at Myrtle Philip School team up to take John Crewman for a real ride during the dog-sled event during the winter carnival.

Another sunny weekend on the patio of Stoney’s.

Taking a break, and enjoying the spring air. Umberto Menghi still has a smile despite having one leg shackled in a cast. Umberto broke his leg while skiing.

1983

Megan Armstrong, Jim Parson and Sue Boyd, winners in Whistler Challenge Series. The question is who keeps the attractive wooden trophy?

Vancouver’s hottest R&B band. The Lincolns, will be rockin’ it up at Stumps lounge in the Delta Mountain Inn until March 19.

Every wonder why they’re called SANDwiches? Cliff Jennings chose a nice sunny lunch hour Friday, March 11 to try out the new sweeper attachment on this golf course vehicle. Several munchers were kind of choked up.

The new Heritage Canada sign by Charlie Doyle.

Who knew porcupine chew television lines?

Behind the counter and waiting to serve you at the Rainbow Grocer are new owners (L to R) Dale Trudgeon, Lynn Trudgeon and Earl Grey (missing and on meat run is Cal Schacter). The store, located at the Gulf Service Station, is open from 10 am until 7 pm each day and until 0 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Step in for fresh meats and seafoods and ask them about freezer packs.

1984

Several thousand people travelled from the gondola base to Whistler Village Sunday to see downhill winners Bill Johnson (US), Helmut Hoeflehner (Austria) and Pirmin Zurbriggen (Switzerland) receive their soapstone sculptured trophies.

Todd Brooker, along with the rest of the Canadian downhill team, visited Myrtle Philip School last Wednesday, and in between signing autographs Brooker gave a short speech.

A playful Expo Ernie floated high and mighty above all the excitement in the Village Square beer garden Thursday. After a magnificent Voodoo jet fly-past, Expo Ernie and hundreds of others paraded down to Mountain Square for the official opening ceremonies of the Molson World Downhill.

Standing room only was no exaggeration both Friday and Saturday night in the festival tent. Doug & The Slugs put on their best side for Winterfest – both nights sold out, and estimates are that 2,000 danced their way through the tent Saturday.

Just a few plates of antipasto were served for the 116 guests at Saturday’s Grand Ball in Myrtle Philip School. Diners paid $125 each for the five-course dinner, with proceeds going to help defray Winterfest Society expenses.

The FIS Fiasco of 1979

With the world watching, the mountain began to fall apart.

It was early March 1979, and heavy rains had turned a mid-winter snowpack already beset by persistent depth hoar into a sodden mess. The avalanche hazard went through the roof. This was a mountain manager’s nightmare, but as they say, “through adversity comes greatness.”

Patrol began doing what came naturally; they bombed everything that could move. As long-time Whistler pro patroller Roger McCarthy recalls, “in a normal day, that avalanche hazard in itself would be enough to give you grey hair. But we had a world cup to run…”

Mccarthy Watt Patrol - BENJAMIN 51

Roger McCarthy at left, with Bruce Watt and Ken Moyle going over wind data,   mid-1970s. George Benjamin photo.

That’s right. Whistler was experiencing one of the most volatile avalanche cycles in memory, and we were just days away from hosting the resort’s first ever FIS World Cup downhill skiing race.

A few days before the race, some FIS officials insisted on riding the gondola up to check on conditions. While standing on the loading ramp at the bottom of red chair they witnessed Goat’s Gully shed its snow right to the ground. The avalanche even damaged one of the Orange Chair’s towers. Further downslope, a slide on Lower Insanity had left debris piles five feet high on Coach’s Corner. This was not the auspicious debut on the world stage that Whistler had planned for.

“In a normal day, that avalanche hazard in itself would be enough to give you grey hair. But we had a world cup to run…”

Still, mountain staff managed to clean up the mess and the forecast for race day was cold and clear. However, FIS officials deemed that safety requirements had not been met and the race could not run. As a new course with a relatively small budget, the safety infrastructure was not at the same level as some of the more established European courses, but some suspected politics as the true reason for the cancellation.

This was the era of the upstart Crazy Canucks trying to crack the European-dominated world of ski racing, and some feathers were being ruffled in the process. Regardless, with so much invested, it was going to be a major letdown for the organizers, the resort, the sponsors, and the tens of thousands of fans expected to be in attendance.

The night before the race, sensing it would be cancelled, Canadian ski racing legend Nancy Greene came up with an idea to salvage the event. They ran an exhibition Super G race, the first ever, instead. It wouldn’t count as a World Cup, but as local writer Janet Love Morrison described in her book The Crazy Canucks, it would entertain the crowds, satisfy the sponsors, and demonstrate the spirit and ingenuity of Whistler, and Canada as a whole.

canucks.jpg

The Crazy Canucks at the race. From left to right, Dave Irwin, Dave Murray, Unknown (can anyone help us out?), Steve Podborski, Ken Read.

And just in case anyone was wondering how the racers really felt about the cancellation over safety concerns, when it was Crazy Canuck Ken Read’s turn to race the exhibition course, he ignored the Super G gates and tucked the entire course at full speed, much to the crowd’s approval.

read.jpg

Ken Read addressing the crowd, with Steve Podborski to viewer’s left.

“Everyone—racers, fans, and media—had a good time,” Morrison recalled.

And so, in 1979, with the ski racing world focused on Whistler, nearly everything that could go wrong did. But somehow we still managed to get things right.

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.

(Mountain) Man’s Best Friend.

As the mercury in our thermometers and the snowline on our mountains continue to plunge, you can sense the excitement levels rising around the community. Whistlerites love to play in the snow, and a good many of us work in it too. The same goes for the dogs of Whistler. It’s becoming more and more common to see local dogs lapping up face shots as they chase their owners down backcountry ski slopes.

For some dogs, this surprising agility and seemingly unlimited energy in deep snow, combined with their amazingly keen sense of smell make them a huge asset in the mountains. Most of us know about St. Bernards, named for the Swiss mountain pass where monks bred the renowned rescue dogs. Dating back to the Medieval Period, St Bernards were credited with saving hundreds, if not thousands of snow-bound travelers atop the high-alpine pass.

Edmund Landseer’s 1820 painting “Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller” is the reputed source of the St. Bernard-brandy myth. While Landseer’s hyperactive imagination invented the mini-kegs, the scene does show the dogs in their leaner, shorter-haired form. As well, while alcohol might make you feel warmer, it can actually accelerate the onset of hypothermia, making it less than ideal for rescuing victims of avalanches and blizzards.

Fewer are aware that in the early nineteenth century a series of deadly winters led the monks to cross-breed their remaining dogs with Newfoundlands. The resulting dogs were bulkier and had longer hair that clumped up in deep snow. Today St. Bernards are big and cuddly, but essentially useless in the mountains.

German Shepherds are much better-suited for mountain rescue. This is one of many bits of mountain-dog trivia one can learn from long-time Whistlerite Bruce Watt (apparently, the mini-keg of brandy around the St. Bernard’s necks is myth, as well). And Bruce should know; thirty years ago the former Whistler Mountain ski patroller successfully trained and certified Canada’s first civilian avalanche rescue dog.

This coming Wednesday Bruce will be giving a presentation about his role in the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) as part of the Whistler Museum’s monthly Speaker Series (event details available here). And yes, a real-life avalanche rescue dog will be there too!

The initial impulse to train avalanche dogs in Canada dates back to 1979. That winter Bruce Watt and an exchange patroller from Utah were buried by a large avalanche on the north slopes of Whistler Peak. Luckily, they both survived, but Bruce emerged from the near-catastrophe determined to contribute to snow safety and help prevent future tragedies.

Inspired by similar programs in the Alps and the western United States, Bruce decided to explore the possibilities of training an avalanche rescue dog. I’ll let Bruce explain what came next, but his efforts were well worth it, as today there are thirty-one certified rescue dog teams across western Canada.

As part of their training rescue dogs learn to ride on snowmobiles, in or hanging from helicopters, even on the shoulders of skiers! Photo courtesy CARDA

A 1998 incident in the Grouse Mountain backcountry clearly demonstrates how much the rescue dogs can contribute to stressful, complicated and hazardous winter search-and-rescue operations. During a heavy storm a skier had been caught in an avalanche and a search crew of eight rescuers and two dogs set out to recover the victim. With the avalanche hazard still high, the team found themselves in a compromised situation, “it was a very steep, cliffed area and just a rotten, horrible place to be,” recalls Bruce Brink, a Blackcomb ski patroller who took part in the search.

Without dogs, they would have been resigned to a time-consuming probe search requiring dozens of individuals. Instead, the two dog/handler teams were able to quickly the area in minutes, as the others stayed back, away from the slide risk. Convinced the victim was not in the area the teams pulled back.

Minutes later a class 2 avalanche swept through the search area and over a two-hundred foot cliff. “By having the dogs there we saved five or six lives, easy” Brink asserts.

Their agility and keen sense of smell enables rescue dogs to search avalanche debris much faster then a human, and the victim doesn’t need to be wearing a transceiver. Photo courtesy CARDA.

With the coming winter in mind (La Nina!), Bruce’s talk promises to provide a compelling reminder of the ever-present risks in the mountains, while offering well-deserved recognition for the numerous individuals, human and canine alike, who endure countless hours and serious hardship to make these alpine playgrounds safer for us all. And yes, the rescue dogs, like their human counterparts, play as hard as they work up their in the mountains!

Photo courtesy CARDA.