March 24, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Great Gig in the Sky 

Peeling back the curtain of Whistler Blackcomb at night

click to flip through (5) STORY BY ALLISON TAYLOR: PHOTO BY DAVID MCCOLM - The Great Gig in the Sky   Peeling back the curtain of Whistler Blackcomb at night
  • Story by Allison Taylor: Photo by David McColm
  • The Great Gig in the Sky Peeling back the curtain of Whistler Blackcomb at night

We're perched sideways at the entrance of the couloir on Blackcomb Mountain and it's almost impossible to get any closer to the afternoon sky in a snowcat.

Across the valley, Whistler Mountain is bathed in the alpenglow, the final nod to another winter's day stretching over the peaks. We take it for granted, this daily deliverance, as ordinary here as the sharp skyscraper lines of the city. At 2,300 metres, however, when it seems almost close enough to touch, you are compelled to pause and stare at the fleeting kaleidoscope dance — pinks and yellow and golden swirls mixed with puffy cloud.

It's cosy sitting shotgun in the big, beefy snowcat; the engine has idled out and it's quiet as we take in the 360-degree silent symphony of sky. The inside is alight in the alpenglow's warm flush. It almost makes you forget that we're sitting on top of the Couloir Extreme, the sides around us falling off into a double black diamond chute.


How are we going to back up out of here, this perch, which seems to be getting smaller with each passing minute as darkness falls?

"Relax," grins Dwayne Pryor with his trademark laugh, as he turns the half-million dollar, six and a half tonne (6,500 kgs) machine around on a dime, the movements of the joystick controls an automatic extension of his hands.

The sunset is over and there's a lot of work to do. Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is now in full night operations.

While everyone else is in the throes of après, or winding down for bed in the valley, up above the mountains are coming alive with a cast of characters in their own behind-the-scenes drama. This is the stuff no one gets to see — maintaining the lifts, stocking and cleaning the restaurants, fixing the machines, making the snow, which is done in the early season.

Not to mention, the biggest grooming operation in North America that unfolds every afternoon, the machine's lights twinkling as they move around the dark mountains, as familiar a part of Whistler life as the random boom of avalanche bombs in the morning.

Here is just a snapshot of what happens... after you ski out and while you are sleeping.

Goodbye Blue Sky

It's hard to fathom the size and scope of what 485 hectares (1,200 acres) of grooming looks like.

Think of it this way: it's about 1,000 vertical football fields.

That's how much is groomed every 24 hours on Whistler and Blackcomb — two 10-hour shifts, two mountains, roughly 50 groomers.

Work must begin before dark to get it all done.

On this particular day, just an ordinary Saturday afternoon, 11 groomers take off in a row, sirens beeping, skiers giving them wide berth. They're heading straight to 7th Heaven around 3:30 p.m.

This is the first lift to shut down every day on Blackcomb Mountain, one of the hardest hit too on a sunny day, and the first area to be swept by patrol, and so it's first to be groomed.

The groomers want to get there before the snow starts to freeze, all part of the snow science and the art behind grooming.

On the way over, snow cat operator Pryor keeps his eyes on the far ridge, past Lakeside Bowl, looking for any backcountry stragglers making their way in-bounds.

He puts out the call to see if anyone has put in a "sucker pass" on Cloud Nine which is an access pass on the run to divert backcountry travellers away from the freshly groomed snow that's about to freeze and set.

"Let's get one over there so we don't get schralped," he says over the radio.

The groomers work in concert during this first part of their shift, before they all head off on separate assignments around the mountain. The first machine down Lower Hugh's Heaven follows the tree bands, grooming on the very edge. The next one down does a double pass, straightening out the grooming so that the lines of corduroy are straight with the fall line of the slope.

Picture, says Pryor, putting a marble in one of the tracks at the top of the lift and rolling it straight on to the load in at the bottom — that's the idea.

By 5 p.m., still light outside, roughly 20 patrollers gather above Solar Coaster, a few are on sleds, and there's one dog team. This is sweep. You can hear their radio chatter in the snowcat as they deal with late-day skiers and riders.

"It's the end of the day; patrol is getting a lot of people that have given up — CGO's — Can't. Go. On," jokes Pryor.

This as a growing pattern as more beginners enter the sport and come to Whistler's 4,000 vertical feet to ski. Skiers and riders head to the top, and while there are green runs stretching from the alpine to the valley floor, one of the beauties of WB — its sheer size and scope — can overwhelm beginners, particularly at the end of the ski day.

"We're actually trying to deter people from starting at the very top," ski patrol manager Bernie Protsch later explains.

"It's a whole new demographic here. It's just becoming more prevalent."

It also underscores the importance of the patrol sweep, which begins in the high alpine and winds down through the marked runs on the map, covering as much area as possible.

"We want to make sure that there's no-one on there, that we're not leaving anybody behind," says Protsch.

Patrol also deals with missing people, working with search and rescue and the local RCMP when people don't turn up as planned.

Fortunately, no one is missing tonight.

"Patrol is fading out and I'm fading in," says Pryor, who is the grooming supervisor for the afternoon shift, which means he's directing the flow of information and work over the 10-hour shift.

You can feel the energy readjust as night falls. The vibe is changing, easing off as the last remaining skiers and riders disappear and gearing up at the same time too.

"What do you want to listen to?" asks Pryor.

There are more than 12,000 songs on random on his iPod, everything from death metal to classical.

Kathleen Edwards comes on. It's a country music kind of night anyway — no blinding blizzards to set us on edge, no star-filled night sky or super moon to commune with nature.

"On graveyards (the 12:30 to 10:30 a.m. shift) there would be some nights when you're free grooming and you put on some Pink Floyd and kind of melt into the seat," says Pryor.

The radio, seldom quiet, crackles again, another garbled message to the untrained ear.

Pryor translates: the "bun wagon" has broken down.

It's Saturday night in peak season. With no bun wagon, there's no food getting up the mountain for Sunday skiers, and no garbage coming down. Time to solve some problems.

Welcome to the Machine

Run by a steady stream of "Bun Heads" over the years, the bun wagon is the critical link for getting the food and drinks up Blackcomb Mountain and taking the garbage and recycling off. The bun wagon is a snowcat with space for trucking things around. Whistler Mountain has the village gondola to do its heavy lifting.

Tonight, a wheel has fallen off and the machine is stuck in the loading bay of the Rendezvous. Making matter worse, the secondary bun wagon is in the shop for repair and the garbage, compost and neatly ordered recycling, which wasn't removed the night before, is really starting to pile up.

Sunday is going to be busy. The restaurants need supplies — Rendezvous, Glacier Lodge, the Crystal Hut, the Horstman Hut. Every week, on average, 74 pallets of food and drinks are carried up Blackcomb in the bun wagon. Each pallet is about 1,200 pounds.

Put it this way: more than 12,000 ramen bowls have been sold this winter at the Rendezvous alone, along with another 11,826 noodle bowls and 14,941 rice bowls.

Since opening day, WB has purchased a staggering 85,630 pounds of French fries.

In other words, the bun wagon needs to be fixed right away.

Vehicle maintenance mechanic Andrew Atalla is called in and makes his way up the mountain on a snowmobile. The bun wagon is driven slowly to the maintenance shed where an upbeat Atalla gets to work, not bothered about the last-minute change of plans to his evening. All the repairs to the multi-million dollar Piston Bully fleet happen in-house with a crew of WB mechanics. They keep these machines greased and primed for action. In peak season, the snowcats are working 20 hours a day. And so, if the bun wagon needs to be fixed at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night, the bun wagon needs to be fixed at 6 p.m.

In the meantime, Pryor puts Plan B into effect — another snowcat will be used while the bun wagon is out of commission to keep the flow going.

As vehicle maintenance heads into overtime, lift maintenance is chugging along, business as usual.

Ian Jennings (I.J.) climbs down from somewhere in the upper bowels of Solar Coaster's offload station. The sun is long gone and it's dark and chilly standing by the lift.

Jennings doesn't look as though he feels the cold.

There's a crew of three on Solar doing a mid-season station service.

They're going over the machinery, pulling apart the stuff that can't be pulled apart during the day and making sure it's all in good working condition.

"If not, then we're replacing it and switching it out," says Jennings.

They'll be here all evening on Solar Coaster, until their shift ends at midnight.

There's another crew of three down at the Wizard changing out some sheaves on a tower. The sheaves are the wheels on the lift towers. Some of the rubber lining is wearing thin.

"It's been a lot of freezing and melting so in the morning sometimes when they start the lift up it's just so iced-over that the sheaves just don't want to spin and the rope will just glide on them and burn them," explains Jennings.

"It happens every year. We try to stay on top of it. If we know it's going to be a bad melt-freeze then we try to run every lift before we leave at the end of the night to try to get through that freezing section."

There are no surprises on Solar Coaster tonight.

"It's all pretty much standard," said Jennings of the old mechanical workhorse lift, easy to work on compared to some of the new, tech-heavy lifts like Harmony and Symphony, not to mention the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, with its recording-breaking stat as the lift with the highest point above ground — 436 metres. That was a curveball for lift maintenance when it came online in 2008.

"It's definitely a little bit crazier working on for sure. If you're not comfortable with heights, you're not going to like it very much," says Jennings.

Dark Side of the Moon

At 7:30 p.m. it's pitch black on Lower Cruiser.

Jason "Goldie" Smith is in his winch cat, out of sight from above, below a "break-over" or rollover. The one km long 11-millimetre steel cable is holding his machine on the steep pitch as he works to smooth out Lower Cruiser, a busy blue run on the lower mountain.

As the powerful winch pulls his cat straight up, his lights catch something in his windshield ahead — a snowboarder trapped in the cable.

Goldie stops and gets out of his cab.

"He didn't even know what was going on," explains Goldie later of the snowboarder. The snowboarder and his friend, Europeans who didn't speak much English, were coming in-bounds from the backcountry. They were equipped for backcountry travel and they had flashlights to light their way, prepared for the dangers beyond the boundaries.

But they were wholly unprepared, however, for the night-time dangers in-bounds.

They said they saw the flashing white light from the beacon and the stop sign, a warning of the winch cat at work ahead.

And still...

As they turned down Lower Cruiser, one snowboarder was stopped dead in his tracks, his bindings hitting the winch cable, hanging taut just above the snow and, as Goldie navigated up the mountain, the cable started digging into the snow, putting pressure down on the board, trapping the rider.

A veteran groomer, working for WB for the last 25 years, Goldie has seen the explosion of backcountry travel first hand, especially at this time of year.

It used to be just a handful of people coming back in bounds on their way home after a day on the Spearhead or on a makeshift booter just out of bounds. Now, so many more are out there. As spring approaches, it's getting busier with people taking advantage of the longer, warmer days and heading home long after the lifts have closed for the day.

"People aren't in trouble when they come out of the backcountry late at night but they have to be aware that there's night operations going on and to proceed with caution," says Goldie.

Disaster is averted this night. That's not always the case. Still, Goldie is bothered by what's happened.

"I don't want to hurt anyone," he says simply.

Further up on Cruiser, Rob Dombowsky, coming up on his 30th year at WB, is winched in to a tree on the side of the run.

It feels as though the cat is free falling backwards down the mountain as Dombowsky moves up and down on the winch.

It's fast-paced work as he works to move snow that's been pushed down the mountain back up and over a bald spot.

"Right now we're into pretty sloppy conditions," he says of the slush on the lower part of the mountain.

That's all part of the trade — grooming based on conditions. Slush at the bottom, melt-freeze in the middle, winter conditions up top. And knowing how to work them is part of the job.

After half an hour, Dombowsky is pleased with what he's got; the snow set up with a sheen on it that will last throughout the day tomorrow.

"It'll be good skiing," he adds.

That's the name of the game.

Another Brick in the Wall

It helps when your halfpipe groomer knows where all the little flaws are hiding along its massive walls. Bailey Mitchell rides the pipe... so he knows.

"When you ride it you notice the slight imperfections so when I come in that night I'll just keep that in mind and work those areas a bit differently, just trying to fine-tune it as much as I can," says Mitchell.

Mitchell has only been in the job for three years, a virtual newcomer compared to some of the veterans who have been at it for a quarter century. Before grooming however, he was a night cleaner on Blackcomb, so he's no stranger to the mountain in the dark.

And he is no stranger to grooming terrain parks, working at it year round — Whistler in the winter, Australia in the summer.

We're sitting at the bottom of the 18-foot wall in the Blackcomb Halfpipe. It opened in February, after a massive push to get it ready — making snow, storing snow, moving snow, sculpting snow. It will last until the first mud pokes through.

A big auger attached to the front of the snowcat is speeding around the walls, bringing all the snow down, which is then recycled and blown back onto the walls, all with a goal of giving it a nice radius once again.

Sometimes it can take the whole night, going up and back down the halfpipe, making the walls and the transitions perfectly smooth and perfectly fun.

Every night, says Mitchell, he discovers a new trick, something that makes his job a little better. It keeps it interesting.

Does it ever get lonely?

"It's good for people like us that are good at being alone," he says. "Just turn on your music, do your job, rock out, go home."

Like the massive push to get the halfpipe ready, the same was true up in the alpine on the Horstman Glacier to get the Horstman T-bar ready.

This glacier, home of summer ski and snowboard camps, is becoming a constant struggle, more so in the last five years as the glacier recedes.

"We're at the interface of the glacier and the mountain," explains Pryor. "As the glacier melts away we end up with these big cliffs and rock drops at the top that we have to fill in and overcome to get the grades in."

In some spots, the snowpack was as low as 11 metres, according to the tower markers.

Pryor and another groomer used a combination of winch cats and free cats to build up the snow, consolidating it into a high-level roadway under the T-bar.

The Ministry of Transportation gave the go-ahead to open it in February.

"It's the biggest push job I've ever done," says Pryor of the three-and-a-half week effort.

The T-bar is a critical link on Blackcomb Mountain. Without it, there is no lift access over the 7th Heaven from the north side of the mountain. But, are its days numbered?

The Show Must Go On

As they pull into the fuelling station above Lot 8, the afternoon shift begins to change over. It's 12:30 a.m. The snowcats are cleaned and refuelled, each taking 260 litres fuel, primed for another 10 hours. The graveyard shift is about to begin.

Photographer David McColm, who is another familiar nighttime face on the mountain, has captured the nightly drama from across the valley, doing a time lapse over several hours. He calls it "the dance of the groomers."

It sounds elegant and orchestrated. There are times, however, when raging blizzards can turn you around, make you lose perspective. You may think you're driving up when you're driving down. You may think you're in the middle of the road, when you really hugging the very edge.

It's not all Pink Floyd, all the time.

And yet, there something about this job that keeps itspeople coming back year after year. This particular night there are 212 seasons of experience among the 11 groomers. These are lifers.

"It's a perfect ski bum job," admits Goldie.

The veterans have watched WB history unfold before them and they are a piece of it, shaping and moulding the mountains, part of the reason why WB is ranked No. 1 as a ski resort.

They remember what it was like before the mountains merged together in 1997 and old rivalries, it seems, die hard.

Blackcomb says Pryor will always be "the dark side."

But that, perhaps, is another story.

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