Tag Archives: John Hetherington

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.

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Snow!!!

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.

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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.

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Whistler Peak in typical (nowadays) mid-winter form. Photo Thomas Quine/Wikipedia.

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.

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Upper Harmony Bowl, including Pika’s Traverse and the Camel Humps, looking especially frosted.

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.

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The good ol’ days when the Roundhouse was still round, and the snowpacks were profound.

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.

Hippie style of smokin’ salmon

You may think that a fridge is only used for conventional things such as keeping cucumbers, Coca-Cola, and beer cool. However, there are many other uses for old refrigerators. In the museum, we have a fridge that serves as a chronological monument documenting Whistler life from the beginnings of our ski town to the famous destination resort it is today. Gordy Harder’s fridge truly is a tribute to the spirit of the early ski bum – and, of course, “stickermania” at its best.

Bruce Prentice and Bob Sanderson (r.) smoking and hanging fish. Whistler Museum, Benjamin collection, early 1970s

One more purpose of a fridge is – believe it or not – salmon smoking. In the early 1970s, this old fridge actually garnished the backyard of the Worlebury Lodge on Alta Lake Road, a property which is now owned by Roger McCarthy. Back then, using an old fridge was a common way of smoking a fish or meat, remembers long-term local and president of the Whistler Museum, John Hetherington.

Someone would get an old fridge from the dump, cut a hole in the side for the stovepipe leading from an airtight stove, and light a fire. An airtight was a cheap heater stove made of a sheet of metal, he recalls. Ask Bruce Prentice or Bob Sanderson. Maybe they will share their fridge construction plan for the white dragon with you. Enjoy!

What is “round” about the Roundhouse Lodge?

Simply stunning: Aerial view of the

Simply stunning: Aerial view of the “flying saucer-shaped” original Roundhouse. Whistler Museum, Whistler Mountain collection, 1967

Have you ever sat at the Roundhouse Lodge and — while munching a delicious burger — asked yourself why this light-flooded but pretty square-cut, mid-mountain venue is called “Round”-house?

Here is the answer to the brain-twister: Today’s Roundhouse Lodge had a much smaller, flying saucer-shaped precursor that perched atop Whistler Mountain just across from where the Valley View Room is located today.

When Whistler Mountain opened in January 1966 there was no cafeteria. In the first season, hot drinks, soup and sandwiches were served off a picnic table using a Coleman camp stove in the so-called Red Shack at the top of the Red Chair.

Laying foundations for the original Roundhouse. Whistler Museum, Whistler Mountain collection, 1966

Laying foundations for the original Roundhouse. Whistler Museum, Whistler Mountain collection, summer 1966

The original Roundhouse was built in the summer of 1966 and opened in the following winter. It was a copy of a building in California and was designed as a warming hut with a huge fireplace in the middle where the skiers warmed their feet. No food or washrooms were in the design for the original building. Back then, Skiers couldn’t use inside toilets, only outhouses on the hill below the Roundhouse. John Hetherington, president of the Whistler Museum and ski patroller in the late 1960s, remembers that part of their job was to shovel out and clean the outhouses. “Ugly job” he says.

Early plans for the original Roundhouse. Developers took pictures and marked relevant areas. Whistler Museum, Whistler Mountain collection, early 1960s

Early plans for the original Roundhouse: Developers took pictures and marked relevant areas. Whistler Museum, Whistler Mountain collection, early 1960s

The ironic truth is: They built the Roundhouse on a large rocky knob that wooed them with a magnificent all-round view but then left them high and dry. They couldn’t find any water on that knoll. Two hydraulic engineering companies were engaged to study the area – without any success.

They were so desperate that they brought up a professional water dowser from Vancouver Island. Hugh Smythe, a teenage ski patroller at that time who went on to become the CEO of Blackcomb Mountain and all of Intrawest, remembers actually being with the dowser when he located the water which was one year after the original Roundhouse was built. “We found a number of locations but the best was just below where the Peak2Peak terminal is now” he recalls.

The dowser wandered around for a while. Just beside the Roundhouse his willow stick bent down like crazy, and he declared that there was running water about 30 feet below. The next spring they brought up a company with a water drilling rig. And guess what? They really found water. Relieved, a pump was sunk that brought up enough running water for the kitchen and the toilets of the Roundhouse.

The old Red Chair. In the back is the original Roundhouse. Whistler Museum, Griffith collection, 1970s

The top of the old Red Chair with the original Roundhouse in the background. Whistler Museum, Griffith collection, 1970s

In the following years, there were constant renovations done on the building. When first built, the Roundhouse stood on posts with the wind blowing freely beneath the building, making it almost impossible to heat. One of the major alterations was digging out and enclosing a lower floor. Indoor toilets were installed. The fireplace was removed to make room for a kitchen. They wired the place for electricity, and installed a large diesel generator in the basement which was stolen during a later winter in the 1970s, remembers John.

Finally, in 1998 the original Roundhouse was replaced by the new palatial building. Though, the original Roundhouse hasn’t disappeared entirely. Pieces of it became part of the wall of fame in today’s Roundhouse.

Tyrol Club members taking a break at the original Roundhouse. Notice the smokes on the table. Photo courtesy: John Preissl

Tyrol Club members taking a break at the original Roundhouse. Notice the smokes on the table. Photo courtesy: John Preissl

Speaker Series: Canoeing the Horton River

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In July 1991 four adventurous souls completed a three week canoe trip on the Horton River in the Northwest Territories. Among them was long term local and President of the Whistler Museum board, John Hetherington, as well as Whistler Ski Patrolman Pat “Dago” Coulter.

The Horton River is one of the most remote rivers in North America, though it deserves great renown. The river has several distinct features: it empties into the Arctic Ocean at a point further north than any other mainland river in Canada, it runs alongside the Smoking Hills (it broke through the Smoking Hills to Franklin Bay around 1800AD, cutting off the last 120 kilometres of river), and it is now in the process of creating a new delta.

The four expeditioners experienced a snowstorm in July, a close encounter with a grizzly, several caribou, coils of smoke from the Smoking Hills, and barren tundra (among other things). Hetherington reminisces: “For the last week of the trip we paddled through the night by the light of the midnight sun, to avoid the strong daytime winds. At the Arctic Ocean we walked to an old DEW Line station, watched icebergs drift by, and had a huge caribou herd migrate by our campsite.”

As part of the Whistler Museum Speaker Series, John Hetherington will be sharing photographs and stories from this remarkable adventure. The event, “Canoeing the Horton River,” will take place on Wednesday, February 18th, from 7 to 9pm (doors are at 6pm) at the museum. Tickets are $7 each ($5 for museum members) and can be purchased by telephone or in person from Whistler Museum. There will be a cash bar and complimentary tea and coffee.

Anyone interested in the Canadian Arctic, canoeing, adventure sports, or anything to do with the Canadian wilderness should not miss this one.

A Ski Bum’s Christmas

Digging through the archives we’ve uncovered a few gems from Whistler’s Christmas past. First, here’s a few photos from our George Benjamin collection of a 1969 Christmas celebration at Whistler’s most infamous ski bum hangout, Toad Hall. The photos have a wonderfully nostalgic, yet timeless feel.

A Toad Hall Christmas, 1969.

A Toad Hall Christmas, 1969.

All necessary precautions were made. "Slippry when Slippry" (sic) was painted on the front steps.

All necessary precautions were made. “Slippry when Slippry” (sic) was painted on the front steps.

The hairstyles, fashion, and fisheye lens clearly date the images, and the fact that they’re cooking their turkey in a wood stove reminds us of the pioneer lifestyles endured by Whistler’s early ski bums. The living room shot, however, with its cozy ski cabin ambiance, feasting circle of friends huddled in from the winter cold, and the surfboard hanging from the roof, feels as if it could have been taken last weekend in an Alpine Meadows A-frame.

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John Hetherington, Toad Hall staple, former Whistler Mountain ski patroller, and current Whistler Museum President reflects fondly on those days:

“Christmas at Toad Hall was great… Of course, there was no electricity, so it was just Coleman lanterns and the old “Master Climax” wood stove. One year we used candles to decorate the Christmas tree. We only had birthday candles so they burned quick and we had to keep replacing them. While they were burning it looked amazing, but we were terrified of burning the whole place down.”

Toad Hall did, in fact, meet a fiery end, but it wasn’t Christmas, or carelessness for that matter, that did it in.

Master Climax Turkey Glory!

Master Climax Turkey Glory!

horrorscopeContinuing in the spirit of Whistler’s seventies era, we push forward to 1977 and  the Whistler Answer‘s special holiday-themed horoscope. While this bit of soothsaying may not exactly jive with traditional Christmas spirit (there was nothing “traditional” about the Answer, after all), it manages to find some humour in the sometimes stressful and challenging nature of the season.

santa squattingAnd in a slightly less cynical turn, we leave you with some long-forgotten, but nonetheless important investigative journalism, also courtesy the Answer. It turns out Santa Claus may not be as “on the level” as is commonly assumed.

We’re especially excited to be sharing this great Whistler Answer content with you this holiday season because we’ve just finished (a couple of hours ago, actually) the digitization of the irreverent and iconic newspaper’s full run (both of them). We’re now working on the software and formatting, and hope to have every single issue of the Whistler Answer available online for your reading pleasure early in the new year. Stay tuned to this space for updates.

The Whistler Museum wishes you a safe, snowy, happy, tasty, playful, stress-free. May all your wishes and none of your horrorscopes come true!