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When bombs save lives

Avalanche safety has a long history on Whistler Mountain

There are few truer mountain-town experiences than being awoken in the early dawn by the distant rattle of avalanche bombs. While providing an unmistakable announcement of fresh snow begging to get tracked up, they also serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that the mountains are a complex and often hostile landscape, demanding caution and respect.

Despite being romanticized as little more than "throwing bombs, skiing powder and breaking hearts," avalanche control at a ski resort is a highly technical profession, requiring extensive training in explosives, first aid, weather forecasting and snow science.

But it wasn't always that way.

When Whistler Mountain first opened in 1966, the concept of snow science barely existed, and the only technical avalanche manual in North America was almost 15 years old. Everything had to be learned on the fly and on the ground. The run off of Whistler peak, "Surprise," bears testament to this process, as the name refers to an avalanche incident that caught patrol off guard, not having previously considered that slope to pose an avalanche risk.

Learning to safely harness the destructive power of avalanches took time and dedicated practice by a number of individuals, not to mention some personal risk as well. The early days of ski patrol on Whistler Mountain were wild, and maybe a little naïve, but the lessons learned have made a huge contribution to our ability to safely enjoy the slopes today. It was hard and dangerous work, but as veteran patroller Roger McCarthy exclaimed in the movie 50 Years of Going Beyond, "the first (avalanche) bomb you throw, that's it, it's heroin. You're addicted."

After a brief, somewhat lost-in-translation introduction to the avalanche world as a rookie ski patroller in St. Moritz, Switzerland during the 1966-67 season, John "Bushrat" Hetherington joined the Whistler Mountain pro ski patrol in December 1967, the mountain's third season of operations.

Back then, Hetherington recalls, "avalanche control consisted mainly of putting a bunch of Forcite dynamite sticks together and going out and going, 'I think we should throw some over here, and I think we should throw some over there.' Over time there was some experience that certain slopes had a tendency to avalanche..."

That winter Monty Atwater, inventor of the Avalauncher, visited Whistler to demonstrate his avalanche artillery gun. "It would have given us the capability of reaching the remoter areas, which today are now lift-accessed but back then were not (Peak, Upper Harmony, etc.)," says Hetherington. But issues with the system, the unreliability of the shells in particular, left Whistler uncomfortable with the powerful-but-crude technology.

It went away into storage and patrollers continued to rely on setting all their charges by hand. To get a better sense of the danger such work entailed, the patrol team didn't receive its first avalanche transceivers until 1973 — they didn't become common equipment for non-professionals until the 1990s.

After his inaugural Whistler season, Hetherington set out to work as an avalanche professional for mines up north and in the Interior.

It was an incident during the winter of 1972 that served as an eye-opening and watershed moment for the patrol. A typical Coast Mountain winter storm blanketed the mountain in several metres of snow. Four skiers went missing during the blizzard, and it took several days to determine they had been caught in an avalanche, the debris of which had subsequently been buried by even more storm snow. After that incident it became painfully clear that avalanche control was a serious and crucial aspect of ski area management.

Norm Wilson, formerly the head of ski patrol at Alpine Meadows, Calif., was hired to modernize Whistler Mountain's avalanche control system following this tragic incident. More sophisticated terrain analysis and systematic patrol routes were established to clear slopes of their slide risk, and an infrastructure was put in place to conduct more detailed short- and long-term snow and weather study.

The massive ski area was divided into three compartmentalized avalanche zones.

Zone A consisted of everything below the Roundhouse. Lower skier traffic and prodigious snowfalls meant that slopes like Pale Face, Rat Fink and Lower Insanity all posed significant hazards that required regular control work before opening to the public.

Zone B was everything that could be accessed by skiing and traversing from the T-bars — Glacier Bowl, Surprise and the lower parts of Harmony (then known as Back Bowl).

Finally, Zone C was everything that required hiking, like Little Whistler, the Harmony Horseshoes and Whistler Bowl.

As simple as this system sounds, it was the beginning of a more rigorous approach that better balanced the twin needs of opening the terrain up to the public, while mitigating avalanche hazards. As well, from that point on, daily avalanche planning increasingly began from analysis of the overnight snow and weather readings, rather than gut instinct.

That same season, advances in the Avalauncher system brought the gun out of storage and it was installed on a platform near the top of the T-bars. Being able to trigger avalanches from a distance made the daily control routine safer and less gruelling.

The expertise that developed in subsequent years, thanks to the systems and infrastructure put in place by Norm Wilson, and the dedicated practice by a generation of Whistler patrollers, made a huge contribution to our understanding of avalanche forecasting, not just in Whistler, but Canada-wide.

Hetherington returned to Whistler the following winter, and was soon second in command. He went on to become a widely respected avalanche consultant, heli-ski guide, SAR-member and board member of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

Another incident that led to major advances in the avalanche industry occurred during the winter of 1977-78, as patrol was doing a control cycle on Whistler peak. Hetherington, Ian Cruickshank, Bruce Watt and two patrollers on exchange from Snowbird, Utah, were making their way up towards Whistler Bowl. They had managed to get Surprise to slide, but not North Face High, the slopes below the Coffin Chute and above Surprise. As the group was coming across the bench above Surprise, all of North Face High slid sweeping Watt and one of the exchange patrollers away. When things had settled, Watt, fortunately, was relatively unharmed, and had an arm and his head above the surface, but the American was nowhere to be seen.

Hetherington immediately set about searching for the buried patroller. Thankfully both the American and Hetherington were wearing transceivers, a Skadi and a Pieps 1, respectively. This first generation of transceivers was big, bulky and not so reliable, but Hetherington was able to get a signal and after seven minutes under the snow, the patroller was successfully recovered. He was 1.3 metres under the surface.

While a major vindication for the fledgling beacon technology, they were still not widespread among the general public. This near-miss motivated Watt to be more proactive in developing avalanche safety systems, and this led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, the first of its kind in North America.

With our alluring but potentially lethal mixture of snow and terrain, and a number of adventurous and inquiring individuals, Whistler Ski Patrol became a hub of expertise and played a major role in all aspects of Whistler Mountain, which was the only ski area with a large contingent at an inaugural meeting of avalanche professionals in Vancouver in 1981 — most of the others worked for Parks Canada in Rogers Pass, Banff and Jasper. The meeting led to the creation of the Canadian Avalanche Association.

The fact that we are able to enjoy skiing in such massive alpine terrain as Whistler, with the notoriously temperamental weather to boot, is a testament to the efforts of a half century of dedicated ski patrollers and avalanche professionals. Next time you're on the mountain, thank a patroller!