Tag Archives: Ski Patrol

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.

Pro Patrol at Whistler Film Festival 2014

Whistler Film Festival and Whistler Museum are excited to present a screening of Pro Patrol followed by a talk by Roger McCarthy about the early days of ski patrol. The event is on December 7th from 4pm to 6pm at Whistler Museum.

Pro Patrol is a 1980 film that was the first of director Curtis Petersen’s career. The film is a short documentary on Ski Patrol on Whistler Mountain, filmed in 1979. It won several international awards for the budding film maker and became an iconic film of early days on Whistler Mountain.

Petersen went on to work on numerous film projects from documentaries to music videos, and has over 150 feature films under his belt.

Roger McCarthy is one of the stars of the film and was on Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol from 1974-1990. His talk will give insights into working on ski patrol and how the world of mountain safety has evolved over the years.

The entire staff of Whistler Mountain “Pro Patrol” in 1968: L-R: George Bruce, Hugh Smythe, John Hetherington, Ian McDonald and Derek Henderson.

The entire staff of Whistler Mountain “Pro Patrol” in 1968: L-R: George Bruce, Hugh Smythe, John Hetherington, Ian McDonald and Derek Henderson.

Amazingly, in the early days of Whistler Mountain there were only a handful of paid ski patrollers. In 1968 there were just five! On the weekends, when the mountain became much busier, a dedicated team of volunteers, known as First Aid Ski Patrol (FASP), also worked as patrollers. The existence of two patrols–FASP and the Whistler Mountain employees–led to the term “Pro-Patrol” being used to describe the paid staff.  It was only in May 1979 that FASP was disbanded.

Tickets for the event are $10 and can be purchased through Whistler Film Festival.

Why is that ski-run called ‘Hooker’?

A Whistler Mountain trail map from the simpler days

A Whistler Mountain trail map from the simpler days

It is with some trepidation that I write this post, as place names are notorious for having multiple people claiming that they named them.  Speaking to the archivist at the BC Geographic Names Index she tells me with a laugh how she’s lost count of the number of times that people have claimed that their ancestor named this or that mountain, only to discover that the mountain was named before their ancestor was born!

I’m sure Whistler Blackcomb’s ski runs will be no exception to this rule, so if you disagree to any of the descriptions to follow, feel free to correct us by commenting below – we are always looking for new information at the Whistler Museum.

So here goes, I roll up my sleeves and give you a brief guide to Whistler Blackcomb’s ski run names. Of course, there are many, many more runs than I can include in one blog post, but here are a selection that caught my attention:

Whistler

Jimmy’s Joker

Not named after Jim McConkey, as I had assumed.  Apparently one of the surveyors, named Jimmy, got lost in the fog and marked out a trail that turned out to be very different than he had expected.

McConkey’s

Is named after Jim McConkey! ‘Diamond Jim’ took over management of Whistler Mountain Ski School in 1968.

Pig Alley

A short cut from Whiskey Jack to Ego Bowl.  Named after ski patrol’s first skidoo, -a pig of a machine that always got stuck. The patrol had the trail cut because it was easier to cross over to Ego Bowl and climb that with the skidoo than to climb Whiskey Jack.

'Diamond' Jim McConkey, the eponymous hero of McConkey's but NOT Jimmy's Joker

‘Diamond’ Jim McConkey, the eponymous hero of McConkey’s but NOT Jimmy’s Joker

Blackcomb

Once slated for logging, many Blackcomb runs have logging themes to them:

Jersey Cream: Extra good timber; cream of the crop

Stoker: A person employed to fuel the steam engines used to pull the logs.

Hooker: A foreman of a logging “side”.  The yarding crew had 8-10 men. (So, in answer to the title question, ‘Hooker’ is in fact a logging term, not a ‘lady of the night’.)

Cruiser: A logger who surveys standing timber for volume.

Catskinner: A tractor driver.

The Bite: an area in the curve or slack of a cable.  When the cable pulls a log, the slack snaps out causing this area to be very dangerous.

Couger Milk: A term referring to the grease used on logging equipment.

Crosscut: Means to cut across like “crosscut saw”.

Skid Row: A rod on which logs were dragged by bulls.  Later horses, then logging skidders.

Springboard: A board that a hand fallers stood on above the broad base when falling a large tree.

Choker: A short length of wire rope used to wrap around the log to be yarded to the landing.

Gearjammer: A nickname given to a heavy equipment operator.

7th Heaven

Blackcomb president Hugh Smythe named the area after he figured out that the lift servicing it was Blackcomb’s 7th lift.

Ladies First

I got this little gem from the Guide to Whistler Blackcomb. Ladies First on Blackcomb Glacier was named after Whistler Patroller Cathy Jewett who was first to (sort of) ski the line in 1984. Jewett dropped in and instantly set off an avalanche that she rode down the slope until she managed to self-arrest. So, although she was theoretically “first”, she didn’t really ski it that day!

Bushrat

A technical chute off of Chainsaw Ridge, Bushrat was named after Museum President John Hetherington who was working on Ski patrol at the time. Ken Newington, Blackcomb’s first Ski Patrol director named this run after John soon after the area opened.

That’s all for now, but if you liked this post, let us know and we’ll do some more!