Snow whips sideways. Wind hammers every square centimetre of exposed skin. Frigid air finds its way to your body through every clothing crevice. Chair lift rides thrust you into the fray and hoods tighten as couples, friends and even strangers huddle for warmth.
Storm riding can be an acquired taste, and if you're not yet a fan, you'll soon learn to love it.
Some mountains have the uncanny weather pattern of snowing at night and opening up to beautiful sunny days. No so here in Whistler. Daytime storms are par for the course; a celebrated occurrence; a local's rite of passage. Entering the eye of the snow storm can yield the deepest powder days (such as those celebrated during December 2018's record-breaking snowfall month), but it can also level those not prepared. To give you the best chance of surviving this winter's mean, wet snow storms, Pique presents you another Outsider's guide.
Do your Homework
Everyone is great at checking the snow report in the morning (and the forecasted amount the night before), but in Whistler there is a massive crowd affect when the centimetre count climbs past a couple dozen. Forty to 50 cms in Whistler is a red flag in my experience, especially if that same amount falls in the valley before a warming event (like we saw in everyone's buried-car Instagram posts last week). People get so wrapped up in the FOMO of missing a big storm they often forget to check all the facts before running out the door and merging onto a crowded highway before merging into a crowded lift line.
Overnight snowfall is the first figure I check. Then I look at the day's forecast and maximum temperatures, noting that the higher the freezing level, the earlier I need to be up there skiing before it gets rained out. Wind is what determines whether alpine lifts open or not (after avalanche control is done) and the forecasts for winds are generally pretty accurate. So I weigh the probability of skiing the alpine that day on the speed and trend of those winds. I then check the live temperatures and see how it varies around the mountains. If it's raining at Pig Alley at 7 a.m., the day is probably a wash and I'm usually better off trying to get some chores done. Like shovelling.
Coastal storms hit us with more intensity here in Whistler than our continental cousins, and consequently, with a lot more moisture. The key to staying warm in these storms is first staying dry, so if your gear resembles a recently-used bathmat after a couple of runs, it's probably time to shell out for a real shell. A durable waterproof membrane should always stand between your insulating garments and the elements (e.g. Gore-Tex, but there's plenty of other good membranes out there). But even then, waterproof garments will only hold out for so long when you're patiently waiting for Blackcomb Mountain to open on a wet 40-cm day. People hate those Whistler Blackcomb (WB)-issued plastic ponchos; they look ridiculous and seem like yet another an unnecessary plastic product. But if you're stuck at the bottom with no idea when you'll be loading, swallow your pride and don the poncho, at least until the lifts move. I guarantee you'll have the last laugh. When you get home, run your jacket and pants through the dryer on the hottest setting to liven up the durable water repellent (DWR) coating for the next pow day. If that doesn't work, it's time to retreat your DWR, something most Whistlerites should do a couple of times during a stormy season.
Choose (Terrain) Wisely
The very capable folk who staff WB mountain operations and ski patrol will often decide this for you since chairlifts have to remain shut during unsafe avalanche conditions and/or high winds. When the weather is temperamental with rapidly rising freezing levels—like this last series of storms—staying above the rain with no open alpine lifts can get a little tricky. If you can access the alpine, good storm skiing comes down to managing visibility. The drop-in entrance into the abyss never fills one with confidence, but often these runs aren't as bad once you get past the first vertigo-inducing turns.
As I've written in this space before, big storm days are often a gamble between sticking to safe bets—where everyone else is skiing—or risking it all on the hope that the next chair will open. Trees are a haven for visibility, but a high-freezing level can turn these powder alleys into immovable mounds of mucous. Sometimes it's worth hitting the highest pockets of trees and suffering through the schmoo to get back to the chair.
The biggest danger on storm days is Snow Immersion Suffocation (SIS). This can happen when skiers and riders fall into tree wells, creeks or simply get stuck in deep snow with no way to breathe. Always ski with a partner in the trees, and try to maintain line of sight between you. Failing that, stay within earshot and yell at each other about how awesomely deep the turns were. Carry a whistle in a jacket pocket somewhere near your face or chest and be ready to respond if you see someone who has fallen and can't get out of the snow.
Intense snow storms—and the crowds that follow them—can be intimidating. Deep snow can be fatal. But with the right tools, a few savvy decisions and someone watching your back, it should take a lot more than wind and snow to blow you over.
Vince Shuley gets high on storm skiing. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email email@example.com or Instagram @whis_vince.