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Snow groomer caught in Whistler avalanche

Operator sustained minor injuries; avalanche danger remains extreme

A snow grooming machine was caught in an avalanche on Whistler Mountain early Thursday morning, showing that the weak snowpack remains despite warmer temperatures.

The driver of the snowcat sustained minor injuries from broken glass that cut his hand.

The machine was operating on Pika’s Traverse when the slide occurred at approximately 1:30 a.m. Thursday, according to a release from Whistler Blackcomb. The slide pushed the snow groomer sideways approximately 100 metres down the side of the run.

Whistler Blackcomb says extensive avalanche control had taken place in the area during the day on Wednesday, Jan. 7. Other machines had been working in the area Wednesday afternoon and through the evening before the slide occurred.

While that terrain has been designated as “Closed” to all skiers and snowboarders since Jan. 1, the groomers had gained approval from the avalanche control team to work on the access road.

The operator was instructed to stay in the machine until patrol arrived. The operator, accompanied by ski patrol, walked out from the avalanche site on snowshoes, before being transported down the mountain to the Whistler Health Care Centre.

Whistler Blackcomb says the incident is further evidence of the unusual snowpack this winter. A deep-seated instability has left the snowpack prone to avalanches in areas that would not normally be affected.

Warmer temperatures and periods of rain on Wednesday may eventually help stabilize the snowpack in some areas, but as of Thursday afternoon the avalanche danger rating remained “extreme” in the alpine and treeline areas, and “considerable” below treeline.

The forecast for Friday is for the freezing level to drop to near the valley bottom and for 2-5 cm of new snow. More snow is expected Saturday.

Avalanche control teams will continue to review all aspects of their work, recording where slides are triggered from explosive testing, and pinpointing areas that are not sliding, to understand daily and weekly what is happening on the mountains.

Patrollers are working on the terrain systematically and are utilizing more explosives. There will continue to be inbounds areas designated as “Closed” and Whistler Blackcomb urges all skiers and snowboarders to heed all on-mountain signage. Anyone caught entering into a “Closed” area will face the consequences of losing their mountain access privileges at Whistler Blackcomb for one full year.

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