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This is how you move mountains

At Whistler Blackcomb, an elite team of avalanche professionals works relentlessly with the latest technology to keep skiers safe

They say faith can move mountains, but explosives come in handy, too.

At Whistler Blackcomb, one of the largest ski resorts in North America, an elite team of avalanche management professionals have developed the science behind their profession for decades, operating as a pseudo-militaristic force that treks through some of the most challenging backcountry terrain on the planet in search of danger. From the thick of the Coast Mountain range, surrounded by jutting peaks of biblical proportions, they wage war on the weather with artillery guns, time bombs, and advanced ski-cutting techniques.

It’s a job many skiers are unaware of, or at least take for granted, as they enjoy the freedom and safety of a carefully groomed slope. Visitors at the resort are largely oblivious to the looming menace surrounding them at all times, or the elaborate calculations and manoeuvres the team must go through to safely open the lifts each day. From their lofty alpine headquarters, the team meticulously studies weather reports, snowfall calculations and historical patterns to choose which areas need intervention before something tragic occurs. This means they must oversee not only the in-bounds runs, but all the gargantuan terrain surrounding them.  


‘You don’t want to be wrong, because the consequences can be quite high’

Last year, Dave Iles was named the snow safety manager for Whistler Blackcomb, a new position that works closely with the two dedicated forecasters assigned to each mountain: Nicole Koshure and Tim Haggerty. Together they are the triumvirate of avalanche management at the resort, communicating daily and overseeing a team of more than two dozen members who zip across the landscape in snowmobiles, helicopters and snowcats.  

“I’m late in my career now, since I’ve been doing this for over 35 years, so I know I’m not the sexy part of this job anymore,” Iles tells Pique

“But I have a good perspective on the industry, and I have a lot of dealings with the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA), so it’s more of a wisdom position, where I can help the forecasters make their job easier and offer perspective.”  

Once Iles, Haggerty and Koshure identify problem areas where potential avalanches could endanger the resort, the next step is to deploy their troops to neutralize the risk. It may seem counter-intuitive, but often the best way to avoid an avalanche is to trigger one in a controlled manner. They can do this by firing explosives or by skiing into potential avalanche start zones, knocking the snow downhill themselves—which is always a precarious position to be in.

“With ski-cutting, you don’t want to be wrong, because the consequences can be quite high,” Iles says. 

“If it’s the right day and it’s working, then it’s good, but if you have loose snow or a soft slab condition, or if you get into any kind of moderate or heavy snowfall or if you have wind, then you want to be using explosives, because otherwise you’re going for a ride.”

All of this occurs before customers arrive, which means the team is hard at work long before the sun comes up. And the all-consuming nature of the position keeps them not only occupied throughout the day, preparing for whatever condition will face them next, but also keeps the wheels churning long after they head home for the night. Each storm, each snowfall, each wet wind off the ocean is cause for concern and study. 

The first time Iles saw an avalanche bury a skier was decades ago in Fernie, while skiing recreationally with a friend. He heard the unmistakable rumble of snow barreling towards him and quickly manoeuvred out of the way, only to watch a fellow skier hurtle down the slope past him with the tumult in hot pursuit. Instinctively, he understood this person’s life was now in his hands.

“Another guy and I, we made this quick decision to jump on to the slope behind him. There was still debris and the snow was still moving. We skied down the ridge and this guy went into a gully, but he did the right thing and held his hand over his head. By the time we reached him there was only his fingertips sticking out,” he says.

“I remember I reached down in the snow and stuck my fingers in his mouth. He was yelling ‘get me out of here,’ but he was fine and we dug him out. It was a lesson about snow conditions, because we had changed elevations and there was something lower we weren’t expecting.”


A multi-generational tradition

The science behind avalanche management is less than a century old, and is rapidly changing as technological innovations become available. While contemporary teams utilize daily weather reports, digital snow tracking systems and sophisticated timed explosives, past generations were often operating on gut instinct. When Whistler Mountain first opened to the general public in the 1960s, patrollers were known to lob dynamite into problem areas on nothing more than a hunch.

It was the winter of 1972 that solidified the need for avalanche management in the public consciousness, after a blizzard blanketed the area. Four missing skiers were determined buried by an avalanche, an event that inspired the resort to bring on a California specialist named Norm Wilson. He was the one who introduced more sophisticated terrain analysis to the operation, and established systematic patrol routes. The infrastructure he put in place laid the foundation for the work being done in Whistler Blackcomb’s alpine today.

Some of the innovations that emerged during that time included the Avalauncher system, invented by Monty Atwater, an artillery gun which allowed patrollers the ability to reach remote areas and trigger avalanches from a safe distance. Another team member, Bruce Watt, created the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, which is still operating today. These developments had an impact across the country, and even the world, and led to the 1981 inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver, which led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA).

Since Iles worked alongside many of these longtime avalanche experts, he understands how current patrollers and forecasters are indebted to their contribution to the profession.

“Compared to most other resorts, we’ve been way ahead of the game. The level of training we have, as far as number of people we’ve trained and the level to which we’ve trained them, I don’t think there’s anywhere in North America that’s superior,” he says.

“We have people who have been here for 30 years, and the historical records we’ve compiled are invaluable. The knowledge gets passed down, there’s lots of continuity, and then the next group takes it and refines it so that you’re always learning, always getting better.”


A unique skill set

If you want to succeed on the avalanche management team at Whistler Blackcomb, you have to possess an eclectic skill set: you must be an excellent skier, be trained in search-and-rescue techniques, have an aptitude for math, a calm personality that thrives in high-stakes situations, and be able to make sense of weather charts and snowpack analysis. On top of all that, some patrollers, like senior avalanche forecaster Haggerty, are experts at training avalanche rescue dogs, a process that takes more than two years.

“These dogs are trained as human-scent dogs to detect scent underneath the snow, then dig to the source and keep digging until the person is out,” Haggerty tells Pique.

“Their range is far greater than any human, so if somebody without a beacon is buried under the snow these dogs can cover so much ground and find them in a timely manner, whereas it might take 50 or 100 probers to cover that area.” 

Haggerty has worked as a patroller for more than a quarter century, working his way up through the ranks to become the top forecaster on Whistler Mountain. He considers the gig more than a vocation; it’s a calling. And according to him, the only people who will be successful are those who are truly passionate about being outside.  

“I’ve instructed for CAA in a professional capacity for years now, and I sit on a number of committees, and they set you up for the basic training, but really it’s a trade. It’s more like the 10,000-hour rule where you have to be out there applying knowledge, and gaining additional training. That’s super important to us,” he says.

“A lot of the stuff you don’t know, you think to yourself, ‘I’m gonna get somebody killed if I don’t figure this out.’ Not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new, or a different pattern pops up that we’ve never seen before. To be a good patroller, you have to like being outside, because if you’re not out there in the storm it’s hard to make accurate judgment calls.”

Just to make things a little more difficult, climate change is now impacting operations as glaciers move and the terrain changes accordingly. 

“The environmental reality is that our resort is on par with the rest of the world, coming into a warmer period. If you look at the stats for the last 30 years, the temperature is up one degree, which may not seem like a lot, but our glaciers have receded significantly in the time I’ve been here on both Whistler and Blackcomb,” Haggerty says.

“Our average snowfall is 1,100 centimetres a year, but in the short time since I’ve been here I’ve seen 1,600 cm seasons and 800 cm seasons. Then it feels like we’re warmer in the summer, with more dry spells and forest fires. If we have a big winter we get burn snow, or summer snow, which lingers until the next season, while meanwhile our glaciers aren’t holding up certain rock walls anymore, and that’s where we’re seeing cracks form,” he says. 

“The terrain is ever-changing, and there are certain features we always have to keep an eye on, but as long as it keeps snowing we’re in business.”


‘You can look at numbers on the screen, but it’s not truly what you experience outside’

Part of the avalanche management job can be accomplished through sheer grunt work, but there’s a huge portion that is quite cerebral, and requires a deep engagement with the study of weather and snow science. For Koshure, the senior avalanche forecaster at Blackcomb, it was her studies at the University of British Columbia that led her to the position she’s in today.

“Avalanche management requires dynamic thinking. You have to have a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. We always have a weather person and a forecaster, and while the weather person goes out to collect measurements on what came down overnight, the forecaster has to wrap their head around the temperature, the humidity, the wind speed, the freezing levels, and make decision about opening the lifts,” she tells Pique

“You can look at numbers on the screen, but it’s not truly what you experience outside. Even days where nothing seems to be happening, where you think you can catch up on paperwork, you still need to ski through and make sure everything is OK. On seemingly benign days, you can end up dealing with all kinds of things, like a chairlift breaking down. So no day is the same, and things can look very different from season to season.”

In recent years, the resort has worked with Pascal Haegeli, an avalanche researcher at Simon Fraser University. WB has created an employment funnel for graduate students to work their way up to roles on the mountain, giving them an opportunity to put their studies into practice.

“What I’ve learned is that Canada has done exceptionally well with how we manage avalanches, particularly compared to the U.S. and Europe, because we have one governing body that is good at sharing information and creating training programs,” Koshure says. 

“If you talk to Americans, they’re way more broken up, but because B.C. and Alberta are so close geographically, we have a huge advantage in the realm of education and safety.”

Koshure also realizes that no matter how much you prepare, and no matter how clear your signage is, customers will inevitably break off the beaten track into dangerous territory.

“We have pretty extreme terrain we manage to open safely for the public. People look at our terrain and go, ‘whoa’. The Coast Mountains are rugged and it’s certainly impressive we can ski in some of these places, but sometimes we struggle with the public getting into areas where they shouldn’t be. This is a common issue in the industry,” she says.

“We try as best we can to give people access with designated routes, but we struggle constantly with people going uphill, and they don’t realize the potential risks they’re exposing themselves to. You can only put so many signs out. People end up exposing themselves to danger, going into blast zones or places we’re not granting access to, so for forecasters it’s a struggle to get our work done and then make sure the public isn’t somewhere they shouldn’t be.”

Koshure encourages all skiers to educate themselves about where they’re going, which is helped by an interactive map available on the Whistler Blackcomb website.

“We want people to understand there are repercussions for their pass, because we have no tolerance for [skiing in avalanche closure zones],” she says. “They don’t understand that patrollers are doing their best to get as many people skiing as possible; we’re not sitting around drinking coffee. And the last thing we want is people having a conflict with an avalanche-control route.”


The future of avalanche management

The field of avalanche management is growing exponentially each year, and specialists from all over the globe come together every few years to trade best practices and discuss new technologies. In 2026, Koshure and Haggerty will host the International Snow Science Workshop, which will have 120 professionals in attendance.

“We’re looking forward to welcoming the world to Whistler for a snow science knowledge and exchange event, where we merge practice with theory and test hypotheses from research papers,” says Haggerty.

One of the things he’s eager to learn more about is remote avalanche control systems, which have been introduced globally but have yet to be put to use at the resort.

“We’re one of the biggest resorts in North America and we’re pretty ahead of the curve, but lately we’ve been falling behind. With this technology I wouldn’t have to put workers in start zones, because everything is controlled with a push of a button, which means we could open safer and quicker. We do a great job with what we have, but we could be doing a better job if given the opportunity,” he says. 

“There are a few types of Remote Avalanche Control Systems. They are infrastructure built into an avalanche start zone that can initiate an avalanche while being controlled from a computer by the avalanche technician,” he said. “The types vary from utilizing an oxygen/propane mixture that is ignited to actually deploying explosives into the start zones with similar effects to a 4kg blast.”

With all of the developments over the past half century, Iles feels skiers are safer than they’ve ever been—thanks primarily to the hard preparation work of the avalanche management team.

“We work in a hazardous environment, and the amount of risk we take is something we can control. There are people who fight wildfires, or fly planes, and if they have the training and skills and mentorship they can do that work. It’s the same with the avalanche industry, and when I think about any accidents that occurred, it usually came down to the human factor or hazardous attitudes,” he says.

“You may have the technical skills, but the bigger thing is making sure you eat, that you don’t drink alcohol or miss sleep, that you don’t have that machismo and feeling of being invulnerable. It’s definitely safer out there than it was 30 years ago, and our fatality rate is pretty much zero, and part of that comes from management understanding the risk and not putting the same pressure on forecasters to open at all costs,” he adds.

“There’s no more, ‘get it open,’ because now it’s more, ‘do what you need to do.’”

According to Koshure, the avalanche crew ends up forming deep bonds.

“A huge part of this avalanche management thing is we’re all together, and a huge part of that is the team elements, and these very close bonds with your teammates,” she says.

“You’re in risky situations, and your partner in avalanche control is responsible for your safety while you’re responsible for theirs. It’s like a lot of first responders, where you go through these different experiences and become more like a family.”