Tag Archives: Ski Patrol

Whistler Mountain’s First Ski Patrol

We all know that ski patrol is vital to a safe and functioning ski resort. The first people on the mountain and the last to leave, ski patrollers ensure the terrain is safe before anyone else can access the runs and regularly take risks to save lives. Originally run entirely by volunteers, First Aid Ski Patrol on Whistler started with 12 people in 1965, before construction of the lifts had even been completed. There were over 80 active volunteers at its peak. With Whistler Mountain growing rapidly professional ski patrollers were brought in, and First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers continued to support professional patrol until Blackcomb opened in 1980.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during chairlift evacuation practice in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Tony Lyttle was the head of the First Aid Ski Patrol from 1965 to 1971. According to Lyttle, “In 1965, when the Mountain opened, we were all staying in trailers along with the rest of the staff of Whistler. As Whistler got more and more paid staff, there was less and less room for the patrol to stay. So that’s when we eventually got moved to the floor of the cafeteria, and that wasn’t very good because they started cooking at about 3 am or earlier. So people would never get any sleep.”

On top of sleeping in the cafeteria, everything that a patroller needed was self-funded, relying on donations, fundraising and the generosity of the patrollers themselves, including the construction of the patrol clubhouse. In 1972, there was a raffle to raise money for portable two-way radios which revolutionised ski patrol practices. Before this they used the ‘bump system’ where patrollers would rotate between skiing a lap and waiting at the top of a lift so someone could always be found in an emergency. It also meant waiting long periods out in the elements, and could be bitterly cold in the days before Gore-Tex.

Along with the volunteer patrollers, there was a rotation of ten doctors who could administer pain relief and assist with diagnosis, sutures and dislocated shoulders. Flags were raised to get a doctors attention when additional medical support was required. There was no medical centre, only a small First Aid Room. Without ambulances people mostly went home injured or travelled to Squamish or Vancouver via private vehicle. There was a helicopter landing pad by the gravel parking lot, but only the most serious head or back injuries were flown out via helicopter for further treatment.

First Aid Ski Patrol volunteers during training in 1978. Whistler Question Collection.

Washouts and rockslides regularly closed the road to Whistler. Lyttle remembers once loading dozens of injured skiers onto the train to Vancouver on Sunday night after the road was closed all weekend. “There were people loaded in that train on every seat, on the floor, down the aisles, all their luggage was piled high in the racks and then we had two freight-type cabins where we piled all the patients. All the stretchers were one on top of each other on racks. It was unbelievable and people were being sick and we were trying to give hypodermic needles, painkillers in the semi-dark with flashlights. It was like a movie. Then when we arrived in Vancouver, every ambulance in the city was at the North Vancouver station with all these red lights flashing and police cars.”

Recognised as some of the most capable patrollers in North America while paid not a dime, volunteer First Aid Ski Patrol was responsible for risk management, marking runs, trail maintenance, lift evacuations, finding lost skiers and First Aid, and they regularly had to help dig out the lifts after a big snow. However, as many fondly remember, the parties were legendary and the powder never got skied out!

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.

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.