Tag Archives: Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol

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.

George Benjamin’s Candid Whistler

The Whistler Museum’s archive houses many documents, printed material, films, oral histories, and photographs from Whistler’s rich cultural past, from the arrival of Whistler’s earliest pioneers to the journey of hosting the Olympic Games.  It’s a treasure trove of interesting facts and unique stories that are unapologetically Whistler.

One of the first major collections I (Brad Nichols, Executive Director/Curator) catalogued while working in the archives as an intern at the Whistler Museum in the summer of 2011 was the George Benjamin photograph collection.

George Benjamin, originally from Toronto, Ontario, first came to Whistler in 1968 on a ski vacation, staying at the infamous Toad Hall.  George, on “Benji,” as he was more commonly known, would move to Whistler in 1970.

George was a semi-professional photographer.  His family back in Ontario owned a photo-finishing business, and this allowed him to develop his photographs for free – a handy asset in the days before digital photography.

George Benjamin himself holds his catch at the dock of Tokum Corners. Benjamin Collection.

The George Benjamin Collection consists of 8,236 images from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.  Photos in the collection include images of early Whistler Mountain Ski Patrol, Soo Valley Toad Hall, Gelandesprung ski jump competitions, summer days spent at many of Whistler’s lakes, parties, and everyday shots of living and working in Whistler.  This might be the most candid representation of Whistler during this era in our collection.

Photos don’t usually get more candid than this. Benjamin Collection.

Folks living in Whistler during this time would have had more in common with Whistler’s early-20th century pioneers than with the Whistler of today.  Many residents were still using outhouses, had little-to-no electricity, and relied on wood stoves for their cooking needs.  George’s photos capture this pioneer lifestyle, but with the added element of the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s – and, of course, people that loved to ski.

George’s residence in Whistler was the infamous Tokum Corners.  This cabin – which was once home to Whistler Museum Board Chair John Hetherington, had no running water, and was often repaired with found materials – would become one of the cornerstones of social life in the valley.

Tokum Corners, as seen across the tracks in 1971. Benjamin Collection.

George, who had access to 16mm film equipment, would often shoot on Whistler Mountain, capturing his days following ski patrol blasting and partaking in avalanche control.  These film vignettes would be screened at Tokum Corners, usually with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon playing over top to ever-growing crowds.

The Photocell, covered in snow. Benjamin Collection.

George opened the Photo Cell photography store in Creekside around 1973.

He later became a commercial fisherman in the late-1970s.  He moved from Whistler back to Toronto in the early 1980s and now lives in Port Perry, Ontario.

George generously donated his collection of photographs and negatives to the museum in 2009.  The bulk of George Benjamin’s photos are available on the Whistler Museum’s website here.

If you  have any interesting stories, films, or photographs from Whistler’s past, we would love to hear from you.