Whistler Blackcomb (WB) is reminding guests to respect the ski area's hours of operations and resist the urge to stay in the mountains after dark, after a St. Patrick's Day party had the company on alert.
"We're just trying to create a bit of awareness," said WB safety manager Kira Cailes.
WB's warning stemmed from a raucous St. Patrick's Day party held just outside of the ski area boundaries that drew hundreds of attendees and stretched into the early morning hours.
"That prompted this reminder, but it's not a new situation for us," said Cailes. "We get it. If it's such a gorgeous spring afternoon, it's understandable. It's just that there are a lot of risks involved with people coming back into the ski area after hours."
An internal WB email posted to social media said ski patrol and Whistler Search and Rescue had to stay mobilized until 3 a.m. to respond to calls for help, and groomers were forced to cease operations because of the high number of people making their way in from the backcountry.
"In this case, everyone made it home, but only by the good graces of a lot of hard working and quick thinking Whistler Blackcomb staff that coordinated rescue efforts," the email continued.
Whistler RCMP was also kept busy on March 17, responding to several reports of missing skiers.
"We strongly discourage this type of activity. It's a recipe for disaster," said Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair. "There have been fatalities in the backcountry and the near-boundary backcountry without liquor being involved, We don't need to see this kind of stuff happening. It could easily bring tragedy to our community."
The mountain's spring operating hours run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Ski patrol does its final sweep of the ski area at approximately 4:45 p.m. to ensure everyone is off the mountain and to confirm the start of nightly operations. When the weather warms up late-season, Cailes said patrollers encounter after-hours guests in-bounds "almost every day."
Potential hazards at this time of day include groomers, snow cats, snowmobiles and snowmaking equipment.
"What (people) don't understand is there's a whole operation that happens in the evenings; there are snowmakers driving around on snowmobiles, whether they're making snow or not, they might be fixing machinery, they're travelling around. You've got groomers all over the place, you've got winch cables," explained Cailes. "If someone does get hurt, it ends up putting a lot of our staff at risk. Now we're looking at potentially night searches, grooming being involved, patrol coming back into the scene."
The greatest risk after dark, Cailes said, is posed by winch cats, which can use cables up to a kilometre long to groom steep slopes or other difficult terrain.
"That's an extremely dangerous hazard to be near," she added, noting there have been injuries involving winch cats on WB property in the past. "It's a cable with an enormous amount of tension, and you're not going to be able to see that cable in flat light or in the dark. It's one of those things you want to make sure you steer very clear of."
Whistler Blackcomb offered some tips to ski-out safely for guests accessing in-bounds property after a trip in the backcountry:
Avoid advanced runs (which often get winched) and stick to the main/easy ski out runs.
If you see a groomer, do not hide. Make yourself as visible as possible so the groomer can direct you to the safest ski out route and alert other operators you are in the area. Cailes said there will be no repercussions for guests caught in-bounds after-hours unless "they are behaving in such a way that requires intervention," such as refusing to leave, or being aggressive towards an employee.
Runs being winched are marked by strobe lights and stop signs at the anchor points and road crossings. If you see one of these signs, stop and be patient. The groomer will see you and will eventually come and give you clearance to pass through.
Do not take shortcuts or dip in and out of the trees. Watch for groomer track marks and please stay off the fresh grooming if you can. Ski or snowboard ruts can freeze overnight and can turn into hazards for other guests the following day.
For more information about mountain safety at Whistler Blackcomb, visit www.whistlerblackcomb.com/mountain-info/mountain-safety.