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Servants of the snow

It’s a dream job, not a snowjob, with WB’s Snow Phone team

“Good morning, skiers and riders! This is Whistler-Blackcomb with your 6 a.m. weather report.”

When George Strombolopolous, of CBC’s The Hour, was handed the snow-phone script for an impromptu guest voice-over last December, he slipped easily into the role, working through the key details and ad-libbing exhortations to dress warm and get pumped, like the broadcasting veteran he is. One take. Locked and loaded. And 10,000 people were armed with the most current weather conditions available. At least for the next two hours.

The number is programmed into the muscle memory of our dialling fingers. 604-932-4211. We’ve been dialling it already in preparation. It’s the most fun you can have in Whistler without spending any money. There’s that little start of pleasure, the rush of blood to the toes, when a voice responds — the voice that triggers fantasies of faceshots and cold smoke, the narrator of our snow-porn dreams. “We’re only nine days away from Opening Day and the countdown is on”.

We’re all marking time together, like the crowd at a concert, barely registering the opening act, twitching and tapping our feet in anticipation of the headliner. The main event. Snow.

Fan club membership is mandatory if you want to be the voice of winter.

Says Whistler-Blackcomb’s Public Relations and Communications Supervisor, Tabetha Boot, about her new recruits to the snow phone gig, “The bottom line is that they have to have a passion for skiing and riding, and understand why snow is so important.”

And they do.

Alex Hearn first skied at the age of 6, and has had a season pass ever since. That first day after the drive up from Langley she checked in at Whistler Kids to the same building she now clocks in at 5 a.m.

Keen rider? Check. Morning person? Double-check. She doesn’t even drink coffee.

Her colleague and tag-teamer, Jeff Neal, will take the caffeine, but the thought of being in the mountains, instead of downtown Toronto, is enough to launch him out of bed each day. “I love snow. I live for it. One of the things I brought here with me from home is a sign my mom gave me that says ‘Will work for snow.’”

Neal, who started skiing at 5, was snowboarding by 10, and has made the cross-country pilgrimage out to Whistler almost 15 times, is taking the “work for snow” mantra literally. On hiatus from a 10-year gig in sales and marketing, his plan is to get up close and personal with the white stuff as a way to refresh mind and body and clear away the big-city grime. “I just needed to take a step back. I’ve been in Toronto for too long.” He’s particularly confident that he’ll excel in one aspect of the role — investigating snow conditions on the hill at least one day a week.

 

“The Alpine Canada forecast is calling for more snow this week to add to the 108cm base.”

 

The two arts school graduates, who are also room-mates together in staff housing, will be recording updated snow-phone recordings five times a day, with the first logged at 6 a.m.

“It’s probably the most high-profile front line position,” says Boot, given that everyone on the Senior Leadership Team dials the number daily, and they don’t hesitate to call in with orders to clean up the recording if there’s a stutter or slip-up. “Not to mention all the guests. The locals. It’s like you’re the maker or breaker of good days.”

But if the Pineapple Express hits, have mercy on the messenger. Jeff and Alex are a link in a chain, the most vocal link, but nevertheless, they’re just one small part of a huge team effort geared at bringing skiers and riders the most up-to-date information, at any time of the day or night.

The grooming crew are the Snow Phone office’s first line of data-gathering, their “extra-sensory perception”. The 30-crew fleet operate two shifts per night, covering up to 1,600 acres per evening. By 6 a.m., the supervisors coming off the graveyard shifts file a daily snow report, giving the lowdown on the surface conditions, freezing level, wind speed, and proclaiming the day’s most well-buffed runs.

The 6 a.m. report goes live with this data, but it’s only current for as long as the weather conditions remain the same.

And weather doesn’t do that. Especially on the Coast.

Which is why Whistler-Blackcomb is trying to provide its guests with a primer in Coastal meteorology. “Rain in the village doesn’t necessarily mean the day is a washout,” says Boot, “but a lot of our guests can’t imagine that pouring rain outside their window could actually mean fresh snow in the alpine.”

Three climate zones. One vertical mile. 8,171 acres. 33.5 feet of snow each season. The vastness of Whistler-Blackcomb makes weather-reporting a challenge. The most accurate Whistler-Blackcomb can be is to chunk the mountains into zones, giving wind speed, temperatures and visibility for specific elevations at the peak, mid mountain and the valley.

“People don’t realize how crazy this place is,” explains Boot. “The moisture content of our snow is the key to it sticking to steep features and opening up expert terrain, which makes Whistler-Blackcomb the best place for steeps in North America. This place is like no other for weather.”

 

“This is Whistler-Blackcomb with your 7:30 a.m. weather update. We’ve had 4 8cm of snow overnight.”

 

Remember where you were when the T-bars were buried by the massive snow dump of March 1998? Or how about last November’s epic start to the season? 416 cm broke all previous records for snowfall.

In Whistler, these are our critical events, our moon-landings, our assassinations — the weather incidents that make a day, a month, a season, something remarkable.

Whistler avalanche forecasters, Jan Tindle and Anton Horvath, have made monitoring these big snow events a way of life. The records they keep are part of 27 years of weather forecasting data, logged into charts of monthly snowfall totals, average annual snowfall, and trends that one could read for hours, like tea-leaves. As if the future could be told in the strange patterns and bar graphs of the “snowfall calculator”.

The Pig Alley weather plot was chosen for the Whistler data collation because the forecasters believe it is an accurate snapshot of the average snowfall around the mountains.

"That spot seems to be a bit more protected. We used to use a plot at the bottom of Harmony but we found it wasn't a good average," said veteran patroller Tindle.

The Whistler Mountain weather office near the Roundhouse is also an official Environment Canada reporting station, and Tindle has been forecasting from here for 15 years, looking at different models to anticipate the coming weather.

The daily readings on snow base and new snowfall come in from Tindle and Horvath from the Pig Alley Weather Station, and the Snow Phone crew update their message for the 7:30 a.m. update, and throughout the day.

VANOC, too, is watching the weather here.

Those big weather events that fuel Whistler legends and keep ski patrol busy doing avalanche control are on VANOC’s radar too. But for slightly different reasons.

A 40 cm snow day, low heavy cloud, or the Pacific Ocean sub-tropical jet-stream that comes bearing pineapples, have the potential to wreak havoc on an alpine skiing event, and VANOC’s logistics people are trying to plan for the contingencies.

In May, a committee completed an Operational Weather Impact Assessment, producing daily Operations Centre reports based on real-time conditions during February and March 2007, as if the Games were happening then.

The lessons learned? The biggest issue is the biggest wild-card.

The report said: “Weather would have been our biggest issue during this period and must be considered in all operational planning.”

Weather conditions can change the competition schedule, causing postponements, delays and cancellations. Transportation operations would be affected. Broadcasting arrangements would be impacted, with possible screening conflicts arising out of competition delays. Volunteer morale would suffer under inclement conditions. Spectator experience may be negatively impacted. Temporary built infrastructure might be challenged beyond its capacity.

The greatest impacts, had the Olympics run against a backdrop of 2007’s weather, would have been on the alpine skiing events.

VANOC reported that “major snowfalls during the Olympic period would have required a full contingent of course volunteers and snowcats, put into full overnight operation, to ensure that course was prepared for racing the following morning. As a result, volunteers will need to be housed near the venue to ensure they are able to respond to severe weather and are not hindered in getting to the venue due to poor weather conditions.”

VANOC has also identified a need to cater to spectator comfort, given the prospect of long weather delays.

Accurate forecasting will also be crucial to the smooth operations of the Games’ alpine events — fog is particularly an issue for racer’s visibility at Coach’s Corner, and the best solution so far is a recommendation for “observation of fog patterns over the next two years for prediction purposes.”

So VANOC has joined the club of weather watchers — with a snowpit at Pig Alley, a monitoring station alongside Environment Canada’s by the Roundhouse, and 20 forecasters moving between the Olympic venues again this winter, collecting data, watching weather, reading the tea-leaves…

It’s impossible to keep up to speed on the changing conditions, as anyone who’s tried to conduct a World Cup downhill race on Whistler Mountain knows.

But that doesn’t mean Whistler-Blackcomb isn’t trying to have the most comprehensive weather reporting system in North America.

Says Tabetha Boot: “Last year, we were getting low quality assurance scores for accuracy of weather and snow reports, and we weren’t really sure why. We updated it four times a day… and at four, we were already way above the average for what other ski resorts were doing. Most do it once a day, and early.”

Adding a fifth recording, a 9 a.m. update, made sense, given that most skiers and riders are headed for the gondola at that time.

Why did they care so much about getting a few complaints about the weather? Explains Boot, “Whistler-Blackcomb revolutionized the guest experience in the ski industry, and we really want to stay on the leading edge of that threshold. Snow is the reason people go to a ski resort. So making sure people have the information for how to dress, what equipment to use, all helps them to have the best day possible. We want to give people as much information as they can possibly need to know.”

And so the snow-phone makeover began. An extra update was scheduled to coincide with the biggest wave of uploading guests. The basic script was reworked, with the information now delivered triage style, putting the most critical information for the core rider, right off the top. “We start with the most ski triggering news,” says Boot, “where the freezing level is, the amount of new snow. You’ll find all the vital data you need in the first three seconds. That way, locals don’t need to waste time with the information that is there for the international guest.”

But when there’s time to be wasted, the snow-phone and whistlerblackcomb.com webcams, live temps and Environment Canada forecast are there. Refreshed every 15 minutes, computers around the world are logged onto Whistler’s webcams, fuelling a snow-lust or a vacation countdown or the same twitch in the feet that the entire town has been feeling for the past couple of months…

By 3 p.m. each day, Jeff and Alex, Whistler Blackcomb’s newest snowphone sirens, have logged 10 hours of weather-watching. Environment Canada’s Alpine overnight forecast and predictions for the next day are ready for one last recording. They make some notes, hit record, and give one last shout-out to the skiers and riders of the world, to prompt sweet dreams, early starts and, hopefully, a mouthful of snow for breakfast.




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