Ski patrol yanking passes 

32 passes cancelled for skiers and boarders not observing closures, sneaking around signs

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A delay opening a chairlift could be the result of almost anything - a huge amount of snow to clear, avalanche bombing, a dud explosive, high winds, low visibility, mechanical problems, signs and ropes covered with ice, and even housekeeping chores like grooming.

This season though, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Patrol is also attributing delays to powder hounds - people hiking or traversing past the boundary line into areas where patrollers are still working, delaying the opening of those areas.

"This week we had people boot packing up into the Crystal Zone, and when our team gets there and sees the tracks they have to stop what they're doing and follow the tracks," said Tony Sittlinger, senior avalanche forecaster for Blackcomb.

"They have to do avalanche control (before a lift can open) and the lift won't open until they ensure that nobody is in (the path of avalanche bombing).

"That can cause a half hour, 45 minute, hour delay. If people are walking uphill, we can't secure those areas. We can't work.

"At this time of year, with the snowpack we have, we're operating everything when we can. When a lift is closed it's because we can't turn it, it's not because we're saving it."

To date, Whistler Blackcomb has suspended ski passes for 32 people - about twice as many as they would suspend in an entire year as a result of people not observing temporary avalanche lines and ropes around permanently closed areas.

Passes are not reinstated for an entire year after a suspension, and the ban also applies to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park over the summer. As well, passes can be pulled for other offences, like skiing too fast in a Slow Zone or skiing recklessly.

Sittlinger said that patrol might have inadvertently conditioned guests to disregard ropes and signage.

"In the early season we have boundaries that we can't open because of the lack of snowfall, but you can still enter those areas at your own risk," he said.

"So people think that when we're not running a lift they can hike into areas above what we're operating."

However, said Sittlinger, those temporary boundary signs really only apply early and late season. Avalanche closures are different and entering an area that is temporarily closed by ski patrol - or a permanently closed area - is grounds for taking a pass.

"That's 32 passes, which is 32 years of seasons that we've taken away from people already this year," said Doug MacFarlane, operations manager for Whistler Blackcomb.

He said the unusual number of cases this year prompted the resort to contact the media and urge skiers and snowboarders to be patient. As well, he said, the people losing passes are generally younger and less experienced, adding that he would like veteran mountain users to help out patrol by explaining the situation.

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