An 'accident waiting to happen'
When the hill closes, the danger begins for backcountry users
By Andrew Mitchell
When the last stragglers are kicked off the halfpipe and herded down the green runs by the patrol sweeps, the mountains are finally free of day skiers — almost.
A growing number of backcountry users are trickling back in bounds and skiing down later and later in the evenings, which is causing the mountains some concern. After closing, the mountains are an extremely dangerous place to be.
"People go into the backcountry with shovels, probes, avalanche transceivers. They dig avalanche pits, they're careful where they go. Then they come back inbounds and nearly decapitate themselves on a winch-cat line on the way down," says Cathy Jewett, Courtesy Patrol Supervisor. "They have a huge plan for going in, but no plan for coming out. It's an accident waiting to happen."
Last week, a woman became separated from her friends after coming inbounds on Whistler. They headed down Expressway, while she headed down Jimmy's Joker.
"She went past a fence, past a stop sign, past some flashing lights and straight into a winch-cat line. She broke her goggles, and badly bruised her head, which isn't too dangerous, but you have to be concerned because of how close she came to hitting her neck," says Jewett.
If they had a plan for going out, she would have stuck to Expressway.
There are 12 groomers on each of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountain, two of which are winch-cats that operate in two shifts, from closing at 4 p.m. to opening at 8 a.m.. There are also cats and snowmobiles used by lift maintenance, building maintenance and snow-making crews to contend with.
"On any given night, it's busy up there," says Jewett. "Especially as we head into the spring season, where we start pushing the snow around to maintain the runs. You could hit a huge pile of packed snow right in the middle of Easy Out if you're not being careful."
Jewett asks backcountry skiers and boarders to take special care in avoiding Lower Gear Jammer, which requires the use of a Winch-cat every night. A few years ago, a snowmobiler who was trespassing on the hill after hours hit a winch line right in front of the groomer and flipped over. Before the snowcat operator could get to the scene, the sledder had returned to his snowmobile and fled the scene, leaving pieces of the engine cowling, a few teeth, a pool of blood and a broken helmet behind.
Besides the potential for causing human damage, there is also the issue of causing damage to the runs. According to Jewett, a snowboarder can create a four-inch rut in soft snow that could cause problems for other skiers if it freezes. With each cat costing $150 an hour to operate and thousands of acres to groom each night, the cost of re-grooming a run is high.
If you do get caught in the backcountry past closing, Jewett advises you plan ahead, stay on the green runs, go slow and keep an eye out for signs and hazards.
"Just use the same common sense leaving the backcountry as you do going into it and everything should be fine," says Jewett.