On-mountain conditions can change in the blink of an eye, as one skier and two snowboarders discovered on Sunday, Jan. 12, when they were caught up in an inbounds avalanche on Whistler Mountain.
The avalanche — about 25 metres wide, 30 metres long and about 20 centimetres deep — happened on Pika's Traverse, a green run, in an area that had been bombed and ski cut by patrol as part of routine avalanche control over the weekend.
Though the trio was knocked over, and the skier lost a ski, there were no injuries in the avalanche, which they triggered as they skied on Downhill Start.
That was not the case in the trees by nearby Ratfink on Saturday, where a 63-year-old male skier from West Vancouver, who was with a partner, died after falling into a tree well on Saturday.
"The partner was with the person that went into the tree well and I know there was some communication between them at some point," said Peter Jean, assistant manager of safety and risk at Whistler Blackcomb.
The cause of death is under investigation because it is not clear if the skier suffocated, or if a medical condition played a role (see related story page 27).
The separate incidents serve as a reminder to the snow-starved skiers and riders who flocked to Whistler Blackcomb for the 76 centimetres that fell over the weekend: even when you're doing all the right things and playing by the book, it's critical to be aware of the changing conditions on the mountain, particularly this year.
"We have a shallow snowpack still," cautioned patroller Wayne Flann who regularly updates his avalanche blog — www.wayneflannavalancheblog.com — now seeing 3,800 page hits per day. "There's still lots of hidden hazards, there's still lots of rocks that are partially buried... There's just not enough snow to just be going 'let's go for it.' There's just not enough snow to do that.
"People are so keen and they haven't really had their fill. There's a lot of angst. There's a lot of keenness to get out there and get the powder."
While the fresh snow has brought the powder and conditions are good, don't be fooled: the snowpack is not the same as it has been in years past.
This season a total of 186 centimetres fell in November and December. Compare that to 560 cms last year, 449 cms in 2011/12, 629 cms in 2010/11, and 708 cms in 2009/10.
"One little small slide (can be) catastrophic because you're sliding over rocks," said Flann. "It's not like last year with the big snow base."
At the site of the in-bounds avalanche there was what's called "a building hazard" created by the south/southwest winds blowing snow on the leeward slope.
"That would create loading on the leeward side to the east," explained Jean.
"Building hazards from the wind can get built up in a five, 10 minute period if you've got funky gusts all the time."
Around 1:30 p.m. those conditions aligned, setting the stage for the Class 1.5 avalanche.
A patroller, who was on a snowmobile going uphill at the time, witnessed the avalanche, calling in a "Code A response."
Patrollers responded and conducted a course probe, a transceiver search and a dog team was called in as well to clear the site.
Jean said it's important to think about your surroundings at all times:
• travel single file and ensure you can see where you're going — good practice for any sort of double black diamond terrain
• try not to drop in on someone who is below you — this applies in the backcountry too, where people may be skinning up
• don't ski directly above someone else
• ski or ride within your ability
• know where you're going, know your route and the names of the runs you're on
• know where your fall line path will take you
• ski with a partner, particularly in the trees
• don't struggle if you find yourself in a tree well
• keep your phone close to your chest so it's easy to access
• program 604-935-5555 into your phone to reach Whistler Blackcomb dispatch.
"People basically have been starved for snow so they're getting out there and going into all these places that they wouldn't normally ski," said Jean.
"Enjoy the place but remember to have your wits about you."