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The Outsider: Picking early-season ski runs? Choose wisely

'No one is immune to human factors. It’s the wisdom of experience that manages them best'
outsider-december-7
Take it slow when venturing into unopened terrain or backcountry areas with questionable snow coverage.

Call me eccentric, but I really love waking up to the screeching sound of metal on asphalt while the snow-clearing machines work their way down my street. Fresh snow means good skiing, and even if I can’t go up that day (for whatever work/injury/life-admin reason), I take comfort in the fact that at least someone gets to put tracks through it. On those days, I’ll happily settle for watching my dog bound through the pow on the golf course.

Living in a freestanding home, however, means work when it snows. Firing up the snowblower in the driveway and shovelling the deck are chores I usually don’t mind, but when the storms pick up momentum it starts to feel a bit like another part-time job—one I’ll happily build some sweat equity in if it means good skiing.

The storms last weekend—including that pineapple system on Monday—were just what we needed to break that early-season drought. And despite the work it created, snow all the way down to the valley elevates Whistler’s collective spirit and winter starts to feel like winter again. But something I’ve learned over the years is that early-season, drought-breaking snow causes the most havoc on the mountain.

When any crowd forms, be it a stock-trading subreddit or hungry skiers with Epic passes glued to the weather apps on their phone, people don’t always make the soundest decisions. FOMO is a major factor. Ego is a major factor. People will risk themselves to get after it before others do. And in their wake, the more cautious people follow.

Humans will always be humans, but it’s at this time of year when some of the smallest mistakes can turn into big problems. Take the temporary boundary signs on Whistler Blackcomb, for example. Pow looks plentiful beyond that rope, so our FOMO and ego urges us to explore down there. The overstoke takes over, and we start skiing faster and faster, wondering why everyone is still tooling around on the groomers. Then we hit the lightly-covered rock, or the lightly-bridged creek bed, or disappear into a crevasse. And yes, all these things have happened in the resort terrain we ski and ride regularly.

We all think we’re smarter than that. We all think we’re experienced enough with early-season conditions that it can’t happen to us. Even yours truly—who warns against these early-season hazards every year—has succumbed to the early-season pow day siren call. I’ve never had a massive, early-season injury, touch wood. But I’ve been politely reminded by the deceptively pleasant-looking slope that, no, it’s not ready for you to ski like its March madness. It’s funny how you can believe you’re above getting caught up in the mob mentality… until you link four beautifully deep turns.

There’s nothing wrong with hiking and touring into boundary terrain (unless it’s a deliberate closure), those early-season Peak laps do a great job of making the locals happy and giving the slopes the all-important skier compaction that makes them less prone to catastrophic avalanches later in the season. But if you’re heading into those zones with no backpack and transceiver and haven’t done your homework on the exit route(s), I’m sorry, but you’re asking for trouble.

Having the gear and motivation to monitor weather and snowpack doesn’t automatically qualify you, either. Plenty of these “prepared” folks, who consider themselves capable in the terrain and conditions they’re venturing into, are also prone to poor decision-making. Like when another party is a few hundred metres back on the skin track and they want to drop in before them. Or a tantalizingly-loaded slope that might end up feeling like the best December run of your life, until it slides and carries you into trees and exposed cliffs. 

No one is immune to human factors. It’s the wisdom of experience that manages them best. 

I’m not sure how many people managed to hurt themselves in the alpine after the snowfall last weekend, but I’d bet my paycheque it was more than zero. The risk-versus-reward equation is not balanced in our favour yet. Venturing into our rocky, hazard-filled terrain before the snow has had a chance to consolidate will simply be a numbers game, until you end up in trouble.

I’m as excited as the rest of you for this winter. I’ve been looking forward to it for nine months. But let’s not miss the best part of the season by making some unwise decisions.

Vince Shuley has his eye on the forecast. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider, email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.