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Safety comes first in Whistler’s early-season conditions

Opening day arrives in Whistler with lower snowpack, heightened need for safety: Patrol
Whistler Blackcomb’s senior manager of patrol, Adam Mercer, talks about early season safety in front of some patchy alpine terrain.


With the snowpack in the Coast Mountains snowpack below what it has been in years past, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) ski patrol is encouraging skiers, both in-bounds and backcountry, to be prepared and stay safe.

WB’s senior manager of patrol Adam Mercer said ongoing fall drought conditions have changed what skiers can expect of the terrain in the early season.

“We had a great period last fall where it was quite cold—we had an arctic outbreak for a few weeks and there was a lot of snow, top to bottom, so we were skiing all the way to the valley last year,” Mercer said on Nov. 22, a day before opening.

“Whereas this season we’ve seen it being a little bit warmer, and we’re unable to make snow at the lower elevations.”

As of opening day, the snow base at Whistler was 57 centimetres in-bounds, and there was only 24 cm of fresh snow in the seven days leading up to when the ski lifts started taking guests up the hill for the first time this season.

As such, most of what guests are skiing on in the open terrain is man-made.

For more backcountry skiing, Mercer explained the drought conditions that extended from summer and into fall ensured there are more obstacles in the mountains.

“This drought we’ve had here the last two falls has impacted our snowpack in the alpine environment… We typically see more snowpack develop through September, late September into October, and that snowpack kind of builds up and starts to fill in some of the areas that are a rocky, talus-y environment,” he said.

“We rely on that early-season snow to fill in all those places. We're definitely seeing that there’s less snow in the alpine environment than we normally see this time of year.”

It’s not all doom and gloom though—Mercer added that, given the area, it could all change in a hurry.

“The good thing is that being in the Coast range, winter can switch on very quickly for us.”

As Whistler Blackcomb’s top patroller, Mercer said safety is paramount for guests on the mountain.

“For opening weekend, we anticipate that we will have an open boundary, meaning people can ski-tour up and into the alpine terrain, (but) we’re asking people to do so cautiously,” he said.

“It’s that time of year when we’re in an assessment mindset, kinda stepping back our normal skiing behavior in an alpine environment.

“The terrain we want people to stick to and the best skiing is indeed the snowmaking runs. We have limited terrain, anything off our snowmade runs is not recommended. The marking will guide you into the places where there is good skiing. Again, there is no boundary, and you will see people ducking ropes and going off designated areas, but it's a very skitty snowpack.”

To minimize risk, Mercer encouraged anyone stepping into a pair of skis or onto a snowboard to be prepared.

“I’m a big advocate for physical preparedness; Getting fit prior to the season is important; stretching and warming up; checking your equipment,” he said.

“Every year patrol will definitely treat someone on the mountain that forgot to turn up their din setting and start skiing something and then double eject and land on their face.

“Those first few turns of the year, really slow it down. It’s a very long season here, so if you want to stick around for the entirety of it, go slow.”

Opening day at Whistler Blackcomb was Nov. 23, with 150 acres of terrain open to guests out of more than 8,000 in the resort.