Zero Ceiling tackles the backcountry 

Avalanche course ‘next step in evolution’ for program participants

The long journey from a life on city streets to a life in the mountains continued last weekend for a group of four Whistler snowboarders.

With the help of a local program called Zero Ceiling, all four have already made the jump from tough and sometimes dangerous circumstances in Vancouver to the refuge of Whistler. They live here, work here, and in return for the opportunity they were given, they donate their time back to Zero Ceiling to expose more street kids to the possibilities that exist in the mountains.

Last weekend, Zero Ceiling took them even further, exposing them to the possibilities that exist in the backcountry through a recreational avalanche course.

"It’s kind of the final level of education for living in the mountains," says Chris Winter, the accomplished freeskier and journalist who started Zero Ceiling four years ago. "It’s good for them to have that avalanche course, and it’s a chance to share the backcountry with the kids, and show them what it’s all about. None of them have ever really been in the backcountry before, and it’s one of those experiences that you come away from a little bit changed.

"They may decide they want to go even further with it, and becomes guides or whatever, but it’s another opportunity to get deeper into the mountain life. It’s also a real certificate they can put on their resumes, and use to develop a career in the backcountry."

The four came up for one day with Zero Ceiling through various youth groups in Vancouver, then asked to return to participate in a snowboard instructors’ program. From there they were hired to work for the Whistler-Blackcomb Snowboard School. The participants in the recreational avalanche course have been with Zero Ceiling for between one and a half to four years.

Callaghan Country Wilderness Adventures donated the use of their backcountry lodge for two nights for the course.

According to Jeannette Nadon, the sales and marketing manager of Callaghan Country, they jumped at the chance to work with the Zero Ceiling program.

"We’re in the guiding business, and the reason everyone is involved with this company is because we have a passion for the backcountry experience, and we have a desire to share this experience with other people," says Nadon. "The backcountry is so vast, and it’s an eye-opening experience to be out there. We were looking for ways to enable all members of the community to have that experience themselves."

Mark Schoenrank of Spearhead Whistler Mountain Guides donated his weekend to teach the course.

"I’m participating because it’s a good project and a worthy cause," he said. "There’s some interest for other guides and we’re keen to see how this program can develop."

According to Schoenrank, the Level One Recreational Avalanche Course (RAC) includes both theory and hands-on training. In the classroom, students learn about the factors that contribute to avalanches, as well as a foundation of the techniques and technology you can use to avoid them – "a frame of reference, and some basic common sense in the backcountry." They also learn what equipment should be in their backpacks and how to use it to perform slope tests and rescues.

Outside, they practice slope tests and use transceivers, probes, and shovels to practice rescue techniques. They also learn self-rescue.

"The rest is mileage, getting used to the equipment and practising with it, and teaching them to respect the mountains."

Scott Fennel, the inventor of the Yupi sliding snowshoes, contributed Yupi’s for the avalanche course participants, and Escape Route provided poles and other equipment.

The Zero Ceiling program has been actively bringing groups to Whistler every second weekend for day visits, between four and eight kids at a time, since the middle of December.

Winter is in the process of expanding the one-day project to include kids from Squamish and Mount Currie who may not have had the opportunity to try snowboarding.

Since the program started, 16 kids have been selected from the day program to take the snowboard instructor’s course.

"We’ve had 16 through and 10 are still living here," says Joe Woods of Zero Ceiling. "Some didn’t make it and some worked here for a year and then left."

"We give them an opportunity, and it’s up to them if they want to take it. They do have to change their lifestyle considerably, because they have a lot more freedom. They still have to live with other people in residence, they have to show up to work on time. We’ve had a few problems, but thankfully most of them have made the most of it.

"We couldn’t do this without companies like Spearhead Whistler Mountain Guides and Callaghan Country, who have seen what the potential is and recognize the potential for a lot of good work still to be done."

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