Whistler Blackcomb adopts zero tolerance policy 

Unstable snowpack creates long-term backcountry danger

Whistler Blackcomb has adopted a zero tolerance policy toward skiers going into closed areas following two deaths in two separate avalanches last week.

The avalanches claimed the lives of Whistler’s Steve Clark, 37, and Aaron Fauchon, a 26-year-old snowboarder from North Battleford, Saskatchewan. Both were found dead on New Year’s Day.

Clark was skiing in the Ruby Bowl area near the Blackcomb Glacier on Dec. 31. His body was found New Year’s day. The area was marked beyond boundary due to snow conditions.

Also on Jan. 1, Whistler RCMP were notified at around 3 p.m. of Fauchon’s death on Whistler Mountain in the Secret Chutes area near the Symphony Bowl.

Fauchon was riding alone in the area, which was designated “beyond boundary” due to snow conditions. He, too, was buried in a class 2 avalanche, believed to have been caused by the snowboarder.

Meanwhile a third avalanche took place in bounds on Whistler Mountain on Jan. 1, but no one was caught in the slide. The avalanche occurred on Little Whistler, an area that was open but was closed immediately after the slide.

An underlying weakness in the snowpack exists across southern British Columbia. As of Wednesday the avalanche danger was rated High to Extreme and backcountry travel was not recommended.

In light of this year’s unusual snowpack Whistler Blackcomb brought Chris Stethem, an internationally recognized snow science authority, to town to provide additional insight.

“We are dealing with a continental snowpack more common in the Rockies,” Stethem said in a release issued Wednesday by Whistler Blackcomb. “This deep-seated instability hasn’t been seen to this degree in the South Coast region since the late ’70s. It requires backcountry users to tread cautiously, and inbounds avalanche control to be undertaken with extra vigilance.”

“The snow is reacting differently this year, and the avalanche control teams need to approach inbound avalanche control differently after each storm system,” said Doug MacFarlane, Whistler Blackcomb’s mountain manager. “Ski Patrol records where slides are triggered from explosive testing, and pinpoints areas that are not sliding, to understand daily and weekly what is happening on the mountains. This approach may mean additional time spent on avalanche control prior to opening terrain for our guests.”

MacFarlane is urging the public to recognize the effort that is going into opening inbounds terrain and ensuring the safety of Whistler Blackcomb’s skiers and snowboarders. “When we feel that it’s ready to open, we will open it. We want to get it open,” said MacFarlane. “There may be longer wait times for the opening of alpine lifts and there will be limited terrain open in the high alpine with some areas potentially not opening for extended periods of time, but it’s all with safety in mind.”

Patrollers are working on the terrain systematically and are utilizing more explosives. Ski cutting, a technique commonly used to start avalanches with your skis, is problematic as the snow pack is too shallow to safely cut the slopes meaning that more explosives are required to effectively control.

Outside the ski area boundary, this is a pattern that could play out over the rest of the season as that persistent weak layer becomes deeper and harder to trigger. “This is going to be a dangerous season for backcountry travelers,” said Stethem. “Extreme caution should be adhered to.”

To dissuade people from entering high avalanche risk areas, Whistler Blackcomb will continue to designate some inbounds areas as “Closed.” Anyone caught entering into a “Closed” area will face the consequences of losing their mountain access privileges at Whistler Blackcomb for one full year.

MacFarlane added, however, that there’s a difference between a closure and an area boundary.

“Outside an area boundary nothing happens to you,” he said. “If you enter a closed area, you will lose your pass.

“(Outside) the ski area boundary, the expectation is that you’re on your own, you are responsible for yourself. From that point on, you should know where you’re going, you should be prepared to self-rescue.”

As for the upcoming weekend, MacFarlane said Tuesday that the forecast is for a “fair bit” of snowfall.

“We’ve just closed the alpine because of the storm that’s coming in right now,” he said. “We’re expecting it on us for 24 hours. We probably won’t be skiing up in the alpine areas tomorrow. We probably won’t be able to get control work done until Thursday morning probably.”

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