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Feature - Lure of The Backcountry

Out of bounds

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The lure and the dangers of the backcountry

So maybe you are from California or Florida, or maybe you have come from the UK, or even all the way from Australia. You might even be up for the weekend from the Lower Mainland. Whatever the case, you might find yourself at the peak on Whistler Mountain on a beautiful sunny day with a glistening fresh layer of untracked powder just beckoning you to take the plunge into the bowl above the Cake Hole.

According to Whistler Search and Rescue, that would be a spectacularly bad idea. Once past the bowl at the top, you could find yourself in a gully and end up perched at the top of a frozen waterfall, where Search and Rescue have plucked many a hapless skier or border after he has spent a chilly night out in the mountains.

What is the allure of the backcountry; of going beyond the ski area boundaries? Despite two backcountry skiing tragedies in Revelstoke this winter, very few expert or even less experienced skiers will be dissuaded from going into the backcountry.

"It’s like a woman, you know; sometimes you just have to go for it," says Eric Pehota, a member of the Whistler Freeride Team.

Pehota was once called the best freeskier in the world by an American magazine. He has years of experience under his belt, and an understanding of the various snow and terrain conditions that comes with skiing mountains around the globe. With that experience came some close calls that occasionally cause him to pause and shake his head. But a pause is all it ever is.

"I remember this one time in Atland, I had scored an extra seat on the helicopter heading out with a Japanese photographer, a tourist and a guide. I was feeling a little laid back, so on this one run when normally I would have just gone for it after the guide and the photographer had skied down, I hung back and let the other guy go. As soon as he pushed off, a class 2 slab broke just below my ski tips. That triggered a class 3 slab. There were two fatalities. What do you call that? Fate I guess."

To the uninitiated hearing those kinds of stories, backcounty skiing seems to involve a fatalistic attitude; a matter of "when" your number is going to come up, rather than "if". Pehota recounted several more stories of close calls that he or his friends have had in the backcountry. Multiply that by several thousand hardcore backcountry skiers and there is potentially a lot of tragedy around something people do for enjoyment.

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