Although we all love a powder day, it doesn’t always snow 45 cm in 48 hours like last week. However, on the days without fresh snow there is still plenty of fun to be had on the mountain — a lot of which is made possible by the dedicated team of professionals who drive the snocats all night, grooming the runs for us the next day.
Today there are 39 snocats on Whistler Blackcomb — making it the largest fleet in the whole of North America. This includes specialized cats for different jobs — winch cats for steep pitches requiring a winch and anchor — and park cats specifically designed for park building and maintenance.
When Whistler Mountain first opened the grooming equipment was a little less fancy. For a start, in the opening season there were still a lot of logs left on the runs, meaning that deep snow was essential for any operation. Even if there was adequate snow there was very little snow grooming until “over the snow” vehicles became available, such as the early Tucker Snocat.
When Whistler’s first Tucker arrived it was used as a passenger carrier, but was also used to pull “home-made” snow packing equipment. It appears that the first groomer on Whistler Mountain was constructed out of a circular steel culvert, borrowed from the Highways Department. The culvert was about thirty feet long and was closed at each end, and filled with water (ice) and pulled over fresh snow. Apparently this device gave “surprisingly good” results, but I am skeptical. I’m not sure that the culvert would give me that lovely corduroy effect that I am accustomed to.
Nowadays, Whistler Blackcomb has a mighty snow making capacity with 220 snowguns that typically use 200 million gallons of water per season. Back in the day the trail crew had to make do with plastic chutes, which they used to move snow from uphill between the trees onto downhill runs.
However, as Ken Melamed, Whistler’s ex-mayor and long-time ski patroller says in Whistler: A people’s history, a film made by the Whistler Museum, “the powder never got skied out.” So, on balance, it can’t have been that bad!
Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.