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One step at a time

The evolution of backcountry guiding in the Sea to Sky



Keith Read is patiently placing one foot in front of the other, climbing his way up the powdery slope, passing by scraggly Christmas trees at the glorious rate of a few hundred steps an hour. The wind whips overhead, sending a sugary mist of snow cascading from the treetops. Above the muted green of the alpine forest is the electric grey sky. We are but a huddled bunch out in the wild, slowly making our way in the cold world of the Whistler backcountry with guide outfit Extremely Canadian.

The climb is perfection incarnate — a wheelchair ramp incline, with wide, perfect switchbacks. As the president of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) and the lead guide and program supervisor with Extremely Canadian, Read— now 52 and skiing since he was three — is the master of efficient travel and movement in the backcountry. Under his belt is a repertoire of skills, from all things switchbacks and kick turns to crevasse rescue and wilderness first aid. But above all stands the ACMG motto: to serve the public. His gentle demeanour belies an intense depth of knowledge and experience drawn from some 49 years of skiing. Every second of a lifetime spent guiding rock, alpine, and skiing in the mountains has been subtly shaped into this meditative walk up and out of the Oboe drainage. Over the course of an hour or so, we wind our way up and out of the valley to the Flute col.

We are on skis, with climbing skins clamped to tip and tail, our touring bindings unlocked and our heel risers up. We are part of a growing legion of foot-propelled backcountry travellers who are returning to the roots of the sport: before chairlifts, machine-cut runs, and restaurant-to-restaurant cable cars, there were skiers on long, waxed, wooden planks, skinning up hills and schussing back down. In this simple fact, little has changed, which explains something of the allure of the backcountry. It's certainly not about some faux adrenaline rush from ducking the ropes; backcountry travel has nothing to do with being a daredevil. Though there are unfortunately a growing number of newcomers who duck ropes without the knowledge, training, or equipment — an issue this article will grapple with by emphasizing that users should get trained and hire a guide — the majority of travellers are educated and aware, and moreover, considerate and thoughtful in regards to the consequences of their actions. Once out in the untrammelled wild, it's all about simply putting one foot forward in front of the other, taking in the alpine air, gazing with a critical eye on the terrain, making careful and responsible decisions using the right tools and knowledge — and then letting it all come together in the mindless moment that is the descent. Backcountry travel is a reflective endeavour that culminates in the gestalt of powder goodness — and this is what it means to take part in the evolution of ski culture as it rewires the clock by combining the benefits of mechanization — lift-access to the high alpine — with the pace of self-propelled travel.

The mutant offspring known as the ski guido

With our touring boots set to walk mode for ease of motion, we are able to tromp our way up the track that Read has established, gliding on the flatter bits, stair-climbing when it gets a tad steeper. Keith has his layers stripped, sunglasses on, and is using his poles to pack down user-friendly corners. Expending his caloric cache at a tremendous rate, Read demonstrates what he means when he says that "being a guide means being a life-long athlete." Thanks to his efforts, the rest of us are scarcely breaking a sweat, following in his footsteps, taking in the view, talking about the beers we'll down when complete. But Read, he is sweating and moving and gazing up at the slope, trying to ascertain the path of least resistance — and of the highest margin of safety.

Such is the labour of a professional mountain guide: lead the way; break trail; ascertain and manage risk; do so with an eye to the client's desires and abilities (or lack thereof); and above all, with an effortless grace and calm that pays ultimate respect to the mountains. But there are two traits that are becoming newly emphasized in the ACMG repertoire: objective-based guiding, with an emphasis on goal-based touring (as distinct from the routine of mechanized guiding at helicopter/snowcat operations); and backcountry coaching, with a focus on teaching backcountry travel skills, and at the more advanced levels, managing complex and challenging terrain such as couloirs, steep chutes, and long-haul tours.

Canada has a rather unique guiding certification; unlike other countries, the ACMG breaks up what is elsewhere a unified program into the disciplines of ski, rock, and alpine, along with newer certifications such as indoor gym climbing and hiking. The specialization of guide disciplines was undertaken to feed the high demand for snowcat and heli guides throughout the '80s and '90s, primarily in B.C. As Read notes, in this respect the ACMG has responded to the needs of the public. But whereas heli-ski guides were needed 20 years ago, today the emphasis is increasingly on backcountry travel. The Canadian Mountain and Ski Guide (CMSG) program is now emphasizing objective-based guiding and backcountry coaching.

With Extremely Canadian, these two aspects are pushed to the forefront, as Read says, in a way that is "pushing and rewriting what we're trained to do as certified guides." In the Spearhead, says Read, this mean learning to "utilize the terrain far more than it has been in the past," alongside an emphasis on backcountry skills and ski coaching. "It is really challenging," says Read. "Extremely Canadian has done a really good job challenging people with terrain. Now we're taking that into the backcountry, potentially doing bigger lines. . . it's fascinating, and there's a lot of skills to be developed."

At the moment, however, we're just past the ropes off Whistler Mountain.

Extremely Canadian's client is an affable Brit, whom we'll call Simon. He's been to the outer reaches of chair-assisted skiing in Gulmarg, India, but this trek up and over Flute and down into Oboe Creek — an introductory skills tour, indeed — has him breathless and dripping. Read is a patient teacher, throwing down tidbits of useful information on everything from folding skins to pointing out terrain traps. Down in the quiet drainage over a huddled lunch, Simon keeps glancing back up at the powder football fields we have just descended. Finally, he asks: "Do we have to go back up there?" Yes indeed, indeed we do. Such is the way of the backcountry: what goes down must go back up. Earlier, on the down, the thigh-deep powder had him nearly defeated, but he's nonetheless mind-boggled by every turn, as the rest of us revel in what has been one of the deepest Decembers on record. Read led the descent, directing us where and how he'd like us to ski. "One of the primary safety tools that we have, to manage people in terrain," says Read, "is coaching and controlling how they move — that's how you keep them safe."

Simon is Extremely Canadian's first client in the Whistler backcountry.

A leap beyond boundary steeps

The infamous steeps camp in Whistler founded by Peter Smart, Greg Dobbin, and Jill Dunnigan has been around since 1994, surviving the dual mountain merger and various owners, expanding worldwide to teach the steeps, powder, and what the neon-attired ski media used to call "extreme skiing" in locations such as La Grave, France and Niseko, Japan. But ever since being inspired by Trevor Peterson and Peter Mattsson's No Wimp Tours in the early 1990s — which was "hardcore," says Dunnigan, pushing first descents in the Coast Range — Smart and Dunnigan's vision has included backcountry guiding the steeps, couloirs, and long tours around Whistler. It is finally with the 2012/13 seasons that the approvals, paperwork, and politics have been resolved.

With every step, Read is redefining the nature of Whistler Blackcomb as a resort. As a Whistler Blackcomb affiliated program, Extremely Canadian is the first such service to go beyond the ropes. True, while Whistler Heli has been dropping off powder-seekers for some 30 years, and guide associations such as Canada West Mountain Guides and the Whistler Alpine Guides Bureau have provided private guiding services throughout the region, this is the first official foray of Whistler Blackcomb into the non-mechanized backcountry. As such, it redefines the very idea of resort skiing in North America.

Think on this for a second: it makes the backcountry a marketable aspect of the Whistler experience, but it also responsibly addresses the needs of a growing public turning to adventure beyond the resort ropes.

"It's a natural progression for what our clients are looking for and what we've always wanted to offer," says Smart, who thought up Extremely Canadian during a fateful daydream on a staff-housing couch. "Whistler Blackcomb has world-renowned terrain both in and out of the boundary, and there's no reason our clients shouldn't be able to experience that," he adds.

"We'll start to gain more recognition for (backcountry) skiing around here," says Smart. He points out Chamonix, France, where the number of mountain guides rivals the number of instructors; compare this to Whistler, where the number of guides could fit into a few ratty Hagglund snowcats whereas the instructors would pack out the Conference Centre. "Look at our skiable terrain — it's not that bad," grins Peter. "In comparison [to the Alps], it's pretty damn good in my opinion, and we have a hell of a lot more snow. And a lot more stable snowpack. So why shouldn't we trying to exploit that market as a resort?"

Smart adds that there are thousands of people worldwide who travel yearly for backcountry skiing; by attracting them to Whistler there is the potential for spin-off business, including more interest in ski guiding throughout the region. As Peter says, "Why shouldn't we be recognized as a destination (for backcountry skiing)?"

Dave Brownlie, CEO and president of Whistler Blackcomb, says that backcountry users are "a growing part of the market, an important part of the market, and ultimately Whistler Blackcomb is positioned to be a leader in that market." We're chatting high up on the balcony of 7th Heaven's Horstman Hut, soaking in the sun; Brownlie has already demonstrated his own skills in the steeps by slicing-and-dicing down the soft steep bumps of the Bite in Blackcomb's Jersey Cream zone, my own bouncing body and camera pack in tow.

The numbers speak. Mountain Equipment Co-op reported a 40 per cent increase in backcountry equipment at the start of the 2012/13 season; U.S. online retailer Backcountry.com clocked in with 43 per cent. sales of avalanche safety equipment are on the rise, particularly inflatable airbags designed to keep a skier's head above the deadly rough and tumble of a suffocating slide. With a range of sturdy backcountry gear on the market designed to perform inbounds and out, skiers are turning to the backcountry for solitude, adventure, exercise, and powder — much like the freeheel pioneers of modern skiing back in the first decades of the 20th century.

"We encourage it, it's a great experience, a healthy experience, and truly an adventure," says Brownlie. "But the important thing is education. How do you ensure that the people taking that step have the tools, have the knowledge, have the partner, so that they do it safely? That's what it's all about, is the education. That's a challenge for any [resort], it's a challenge for our community."

Though there has been an open gate policy with BC Parks — indeed, this is part of Blackcomb's agreement for t-bar access to the Blackcomb Glacier — offering a backcountry guiding service as an extension of Extremely Canadian's inbounds programs represents a step forward toward emphasizing guiding as the proper means to exploring what lies beyond patrolled terrain. It's a model that has been established in Europe for some time, throughout the Alps and especially in non-patrolled lift-accessed terrain such as La Grave. The point being that if you want to go somewhere, you have to have a guide — unless you really, really know what you're doing.

But that's not really the culture here yet; backcountry guiding hasn't developed in the same way, and many travellers, says Read, haven't even begun to consider what is possible within the Spearhead Range.

Whistler, says Read, has "easily the best lift-accessed backcountry in North America — there's no question that at alpine and tree-line, there's very little that compares," adding that he'd be happier than a clam working and living in the Spearhead Range for the rest of his days (especially now that he has a two-and-a-half-year-old son).

"From a guiding perspective," says Read over a tea at The Lift's steamy Nesters locale, "there's an incredibly broad range of options relative to hazards, to conditions, to abilities (in the Spearhead). . . . In terms of challenging terrain, one of the (Extremely Canadian) edicts is to tactically challenge your guests by terrain and coach them through it. The Spearhead Range has close to endless opportunities that function effectively in all conditions."

Hot tub time machine: Bela Lugosi is dead and Kurt Cobain is still alive (a.k.a an alternative history of Extremely Canadian)

The hazy and at times somewhat strange story of how Extremely Canadian got its start is an important part of the puzzle when it comes to understanding how backcountry guiding developed for Whistler Blackcomb. Extremely Canadian grew out of that strange conflux of passion and impulsiveness that drove the '90s here in Whistler, when smaller, start-up guiding and teaching outfits operated independently on what were two distinct and separate mountains. It also grew out of a need to put Canada on the map, and to think in world-class terms; to grasp that the local talent that lay all but latent here in the Sea to Sky could be showcased alongside the brash glamour of the American "extreme skiers" and the European ski mountaineers. So locals and visitors beware: it's time to rewind the time machine to the early '90s...

It's 1993, and Whistler Village is awash in the cartoons and satire of locally made Toad Hall t-shirts — then located next door to Araxi, now in Function Junction. Rollerblades and tie-dye headbands complement neon spandex and Hammer pants. It's late spring, and long before Whistler mountain began digging out the bike park as a new means of adrenaline addiction, the local ski bums are hackey-sacking outside Citta's in faded and torn jeans. It's the height of rave culture, grunge, and neo-90s hippies. The village ends just north of the square, and the commercial scene is otherwise dead. Lost Lake is still hard to find, and full of the buff and naked. At this time Whistler Marketplace is but forest, and there are more windsurfers living here than hardtail mountain bikers. Blackcomb staff housing, however, is already built — and well broken in — and Dunnigan, then working as a ticket validator for the mountain, thought she was going to be a dentist. With the end of the season in sight, all the cards were lined up to take over her Dad's practice back home in Ontario.

That is, until she laid some smackdown on an ungentlemanly suitor at Tommy Africa's. Now, the story has to be told delicately, but such serendipity is the stuff of legend. If it weren't for the following moment, Extremely Canadian would never have existed.

Extremely Canadian's inception can be traced right back to that one night at Tommy's, when an inebriated visitor's unwelcome advances were sharply rebuked by a few valiant retorts from Dunnigan. She then proceeded to do the right thing, and shamed his nationality while calling-out that the (extremely) Canadians in the bar would never do such ungentlemanly things. Needless to say, this grabbed the attention of a few local Canucks.

Watching the incident go down, Smart, a volunteer videographer for Ski Esprit at the time, turned to his childhood friend Dobbin and said, "Look at that little girl beating up that guy!"

It was love at first smack. And it all started from there, in a creative partnership that went on to define steeps camp guiding in Whistler. The chance incident sparked not only a lasting partnership between Dunnigan and Smart — hitched ski bums of the highest order — but the founding of Extremely Canadian.

But it didn't all roll out right away. That summer, now smitten, Dunnigan and Smart decided to get their Lives™ in order, and so packed up and headed down to the city. It didn't work out. While Smart was supportive of Dunnigan's drive toward dentistry, her Dad, the dentist par excellence, wasn't. "You guys have got to back to the mountains," said Dunnigan's Dad. "You're like caged animals down here."

And so they did. Dunnigan recalls her Dad laying down the life-advice: "You can live to have a lifestyle, or you can live the lifestyle," he said. He was doing the former, fixing up teeth so he could ski; but Dunnigan, he figured, could just get on with the real business, sans the bad breath and fillings.

So it was that summer that Smart, who had arrived in Whistler in 1991, got his daydream on. He had a radical, no extreme — dude — idea: provide Canadian-led steeps camps that showcase the Coast mountains. And this came about because he had been invited to ski in a few Warren Miller flicks; and he quickly realized that the stars of the mostly American extreme skiing pantheon were just about as good as the cats he knew ripping around Whistler.

Smart had ditched Ski Esprit to appear in Warren Miller's Black Diamond Rush, undertaking ridiculous stunts in a sumo suit, which also starred World Extreme Skiing Champion and Whistler resident Wendy Brookbank. Wendy, who at age 20 was hucking her meat on skinnies — which is to say, sending massive cliffs on 200cm+ toothpick skis — had been discovered by Glen Plake. She appeared in close to a dozen Miller flicks and went on to become one of Extremely Canadian's first ski coaches — in fact, she's still throwing it down today. Smart's ski celluloid would continue with the Miller flick Vertical Reality; his latest film stunts include Hot Tub Time Machine.

Dunnigan says it was Smart who threw down the gauntlet when he realized that local talent could provide a unique steeps-camp experience not only here in Whistler, but worldwide.

"Peter said that we should be showing what Whistler and Blackcomb have to offer," says Dunnigan. At the time, Warren Miller skiers Eric and Rob DesLauriers and Siamese twins Dan and John Egan were coming up to Canada to teach steep skiing camps in Whistler. So, Dunnigan says, "Peter was like 'This is ridiculous — sure they're good skiers but there's tons of good skiers in Whistler'." It was put up or shut up night, as Smart recalls, throwing down the fateful words of maple syrup challenge: "'Why aren't there any Canadians doing this?'"

Dunnigan, Smart and Dobbin got busy. As a junior racer who made it to FIS competition before having to face the fact he didn't have the funds to continue, Smart had all but burnt himself out after working his formative years in the ski industry, moving from his hometown in Montréal's Eastern Townships to Banff. At age 24, he had arrived in Whistler to flee the ski industry's rat race. After his second year in town, Smart was working for Dave Wilson, who was heading up Blackcomb Ski School. As we say in the ski world, Smart sacked it up and pitched the idea on a one-page piece of paper. It all came down to a handshake deal at a construction site Wilson was working on. "We had a program," says Smart, just like that." Game on.

Extremely Canadian launched the winter of 1994/1995 with two clinics on Blackcomb and five in Banff, during an era when close to a dozen independent ski camps peppered both mountains with a variety of skier-branded products. The early days were thin, as Extremely Canadian paid a cut to both mountains. Dunnigan remembers splitting a grand total of three thousand bucks between the three of them, with most of it going down the gullet during an epic dinner at Sushi Village. They were about ready to call it quits, but then the unthinkable happened: Whistler and Blackcomb became one big mountain. Whistler would never be the same.

With the Intrawest merger of Whistler and Blackcomb in 1996, over a dozen independent operators were cut during an era of corporate consolidation. Various programs operating across both mountains, however, were kept on. It was in part thanks to Rob McSkimming, who at the time was General Manager of Dual Mountain Programs (and a jackknife of job titles), that Extremely Canadian soldiered on, along with the Dave Murray Ski Camps and Ski Esprit. It was also 1997 when Smart and Dunnigan put forth their first proposal for backcountry guiding based upon the steeps camp model they had established. Such a proposal was no small feat, encompassing a full business outline, detailed marketing, tenure permissions, insurance and safety considerations, technical details and maps; however, as Dunnigan says upon retrospection, the idea was "ahead of the time for the market," and the proposal was respectfully shelved. It would take another 15 or so years to see the light.

Meanwhile, the steeps camp flourished. By 1997, Extremely Canadian had dropped Banff, added Whistler Mountain, and were undertaking 36 camps a year, with world tours to the big line Meccas of Chamonix, La Grave, and the resorts of Les Portes du Soleil that straddle Switzerland and the French Alps, adding Japan and South America as the seasons rolled along. They had not only demonstrated that Canadian coaches could teach the steeps in Whistler, but they had proven their technical skill and coaching acumen worldwide, by undertaking travel camps to the globe's most adventurous, resort-based ski locations for steep-and-deep skiing.

Fast forward to 2009, and one year before Whistler became dotted with the RCMP tents known affectionately as pigloos and stormed by the celebratory hordes here for the Winter Olympiad, the hard-working gnomes at Whistler Blackcomb gave the greenlight to Dunnigan and Smart's backcountry guiding concept — some 12 years after its initial pitch. Extremely Canadian had proven itself capable of exporting and undertaking steeps clinics worldwide, in challenging terrain from the Alps to South America. Now, the market had proven itself ready for backcountry guiding, with increasing numbers of visitors heading beyond the resort boundary.

For the past three years, Dunnigan, Smart, and Read have been getting their logistical ducks in a row. "The stars had to be aligned," says Dunnigan. "We needed Keith Read. . . we needed the market as it is, and the desire of the general public looking for education and guided tours into the backcountry."

As Dunnigan explains, the biggest part of such approval is achieving the official go-ahead from BC Parks, which requires a thorough analysis of operational infrastructure including rescue plans, logistics, tenure, and community approval. Unlike independent Guides that operate in the Sea-to-Sky, Extremely Canadian as a guiding organization requires a tenure license to operate within Garibaldi Park. This means providing detailed information on the environmental, social, and commercial impact of the service. The process took three years.

Smart, today a Level III CSIA instructor and Level I Coach is, in a signifier of the times, stoked on the backcountry program.

"It's also about the first-timer," says Smart, "who is skiing more and more challenging terrain, who has always been inspired to (ski the backcountry), but doesn't want to make that jump into being a full-time alpine touring (AT) skier."

Are you going to die?

It was the fluorescent yellow flyer that caught my attention. Deep into my third pint while lounging on a leather couch at Merlin's, I was not particularly given to meditate upon the inevitable demise of all mortals. Indeed, I was rather focused on recovering from a day spent out balancing on edge among Whistler Blackcomb's chalky and spooky steeps. This recovery operation included devouring vast amounts of nachos and hot wings while matching each bite with the delights of fermented barley. Little did I know that death was staring me in the face.

Among the 10 flyers kept under glass and framed on the wall, all salvaged from Extremely Canadian's 17-odd year history, was a particularly striking, yellow flyer. "ARE YOU GOING TO DIE?" the title read. My mind turned this over. Apparently this is no longer a marketing phrase for one of Whistler Blackcomb's flagship clinics, and according to Dunnigan, was never official to begin with. But I dug the spirit. It captures with precision Extremely Canadian's particularly Canuck blend of gallows humour.

Even though I have been riding Whistler Blackcomb for some 28-odd years, I nonetheless found myself spooked and puckered that morning. Thanks to my teenage years spent on 210cm skinnies, I still execute jump turns when the going get seriously steep. It's something that Chad Hendren, my Extremely Canadian inbounds instructor, is keen to correct.

"Just roll the ankles," says Chad, demonstrating to me the mysteries of the brocage turn, which involves leaning over the tips and swinging the tails around with a snappy motion. The result is the same as a jump turn — you are able to switch direction and descend within the width of your skis — but keeps your planks firmly planted on the snow. I slow down my pace; it's first thing in the morning, there's some dust on the somewhat soft crust, and we've been practicing brocage turns off lower Excelerator chutes with varying degrees of success. Now, we're standing at the rocky and exposed entrance to Stefan's Chute in West Bowl.

I have become a lazy-ass powder skier. I never ski this chute. Especially this year: the entrance is rocky and exposed, requiring samurai turns and/or some brocage-ankle action to slide in.

Chad leads the way with studious calm and flawless technique. Once you've skied La Grave, he says, Whistler is small potatoes. I can believe it. Chad speaks of rappelling clients into chutes steep enough to require platform-chopping in the pack ice. Even as a climber, I wonder how comfortable I would feel, not so much on the rappel, but skiing something steep enough that each turn must be executed with a steady eye for firm control. It's about exposure of the fatal variety: thou shalt not fall. It's a different form of riding than the mach-seven airplane turns in the high alpine, straightline chutes in pow, and pillow-bashing among steep trees — the kind of riding that us B.C. kindred excel at. It's all about executing perfect technique while your parts pucker up. If you are going to die, you're going to have time to think about it.

And once you get a bit used to the sharp edge of adrenaline, and the need for balance both mental and physical, it's damn good times. And it's this level of instruction and challenge that Extremely Canadian is looking to bring to the backcountry.

"The steeps program is relative to ability and inclination, and it's the same with ski touring," says Dunnigan. "We're looking to find the right mix of people looking for the same objective with their day." That week, Dunnigan tells me that they rapped one party into Chamonix Chutes off Blackcomb; another was mission-based for a long day out to Fissile's steeper chutes. Smart talks about pioneering new lines down through the Shooting Gallery off Decker — a series of drainages that eventually lead far down to the Fitzsimmons. There are many long, serious descents reminiscent of what one finds in the Alps that have yet to be ridden, he says, and most of them are right in our backyard. Staring you in the face.

To know which way the wind blows...

Simon is sweating. The Brit is half-grins and half-exhaustion, swamped in the thigh-deep powder, as we stand at the bottom of Oboe Creek, readying for the return skin back up to Flute col. I ask him how it's going on this, his first day out touring.

"This is bloody amazing," he says. Gazing across the valley of whipped-cream trees, he adds, "I didn't think there'd be so much snow!"

Indeed, it's all snow out here in the backcountry, of all kinds, too: from delicious (yet possibly dangerous) buttery powder to scoured windcrust and refrozen ice nuggets; from chalky steeps to the snorkel deepness of the trees. Snow conditions, like the variable Coast mountain weather, can change from the good to the bad within seconds. And knowing how changes in the snowpack affect skier safety is crucial to making one's way safely in the backcountry. It is important to remember that one ridge over from the inbounds terrain of Flute is the backcountry; the slackcountry is a misnomer too easily applied to terrain that can be just as deadly as an objective many kilometres away.

Alongside the avalanche, probe, and beacon, and besides the first-aid kit, headlamp, survival tarp, and food, and in addition to the knowledge of an Avalanche Skills Training Level 1 (AST) course, riders should consider packing along the expertise, instruction, and skills of a guide — whether to develop backcountry travel and skills, or objective-hunting larger goals, a guide is the next step forward in discovering Whistler's backcountry beauty.

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