Ritchie Picherack loved to ski as much as he loved his home away from home in Whistler. He used to make the five hour flight from Toronto whenever he could in the 1980s, and the 14 hour drive from Edmonton two or three times a year with his family, since 1990. When he retired at age 55 and moved to the west coast there was never a question where he was going to spend most of his time. During the summer he hiked and biked, and from fall to spring he would spend about four days a week on the mountains; two days volunteering as a Mountain Host and two days skiing with family and friends.
He was an expert skier. For a while his favourite area was Secret Chute, a double black diamond area on Blackcomb. But recently his enthusiasms were divided between Cowboy Ridge on the Spearhead Traverse and the Fraggle Rock area on Blackcomb.
He was also a social skier, which is how he got into backcountry skiing with his son Roman about seven years ago. They took a backcountry and avalanche safety course together, and put what they learned to good use on several trips.
On Jan. 30 Picherack died suddenly and peacefully while skiing in the backcountry at Cerise Creek. He was 67 year's old.
People traveled from as far as Florida for the service, and to attend a celebration of Picherack's life at MY Place - a place that was important to him spiritually and as a centre for the arts - as well as a Jazz Café at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler held in Ritchie's honour.
Instead of flowers, Picherack's family encrouraged people to make a donation to the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), one of Ritchie's favourite causes.
"When he was working as a mountain host people would often offer him tips which he couldn't accept, but he always told people to instead make a donation to (CARDA), which is a charity he supports," said Roman.
"People were very generous. From what I understand, a dog is being purchased from a top breeder in the States and will be coming to Whistler to be trained to be an avalanche dog."
If it's a male dog, it will be named Ritchie.
"A lot of money goes into raising and training an avalanche dog, and we will be funding all of that," said his wife Frances proudly. "The idea is that people would know that this dog was acquired and trained in Ritchie's memory, and see the dog as the spirit of Ritchie running around the mountain."
Roman said it's a fitting legacy for his father, who he will always associate with the mountains.
"When we lived in Edmonton we would always do trips to Jasper and Lake Louise," Roman recalled. "He was the guy who would load up the Jeep with three or four of my buddies and drive out to the Lake or Marmot Basin. We would all crash in the same room, and he would happily put up with all our teenage shenanigans all weekend long. He was always super excited to go on weekend ski trips.
"Every summer four or five of my friends and I would do Ken Achenbach's Snowboard Camp of Champions at Whistler Blackcomb. When I was at UBC for my undergraduate, my friends would love to come up for the weekend and he would cook for us.
"Last week I was with my brother and my dad's good friend Kevin Chapman, and we went up for a ski in the Crystal Zone. It really felt like he was up there with us, which I think will always be the case when I'm skiing on Blackcomb and Whistler - the sense that he's out skiing around on the same mountain."
Roman is recently graduated from McGill Law School and is now working in New York. This summer he will return to Whistler with his siblings Geoff and Rebecca, both from Toronto, and join other family and friends in scattering Ritchie's ashes on Cowboy Ridge, according to his father's wishes.
"All of our most wonderful family times are in Whistler, over the years Whistler became our family roots," said Frances. "It's where we spent every holiday as a family, where we shared many special times. There was no question where the memorial would be, because this was the place Ritchie loved the most."
After graduating from Western University with a degree in economics and from University of Toronto with a Masters degree in political economy Ritchie was hired as a director of treasury and intergovernmental affairs for the Government of Ontario. From there he was hired as the chief administrative officer for Thunder Bay, before moving back to Toronto to serve as the commissioner of community services through the 1980s.
He moved to Edmonton in 1990 to serve as city manager, a job he held until he retired at age 55 in 1996.
Although his passing was sad and sudden - Ritchie was in excellent health, and in the weeks before his passing he played in a hockey tournament and went cross-country skiing - Frances took some comfort that her husband died peacefully in a place he loved, and achieved everything he wanted in life.
"This is an honest-to-God quote, Ritchie was the guy who said 'I won't retire at 65 and be gone by 67, I'm going to retire at 55 and be fit and healthy, and go skiing and play hockey - I'm going to live my life,'" Frances recalled.
"It's very sad and it was way too early, but we're all very grateful how peacefully he went... and the other beautiful part of the story is that Ritchie did get to do all the things he wanted to, and spend his time in Whistler."
When he wasn't in Whistler, Ritchie was in Burnaby where he played hockey, rode his bike and hiked with a close group of friends. His teammates are raising money in his honour to purchase a portable defibrillator.
While people in the community know Ritchie best as a mountain host, Frances also knew him as a collector of music with eclectic tastes, and as a man with a good singing voice who also knew how to dance. He also loved to read history, and managed to be quite knowledgeable on a wide range of topics without showing off. Recently he expressed a desire to become even more involved in the Whistler community.
Donations on Ritchie's behalf can be made to CARDA at www.carda.bc.ca, or to the Canadian Avalanche Centre at www.avalanche.ca.
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