WB urges patience as staff readies slopes

Early-season hikers a safety concern for mountain operations

With early season snow falling in the alpine last week, the pictures of powder were too much for some locals to stay at home.

A handful of skiers and snowboarders decided to hike into the Whistler Blackcomb (WB) resort for the first turns of the season — much to the dismay of officials.

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“We’re excited about the snow, obviously,” said WB safety manager Kira Cailes. “But I think people just don’t know how much work goes into making everything come together to have a product ready for people to ski. It’s (currently) a work site.”

While marketing photos released last week made the alpine look very tempting, Cailes noted that the snow was very low density and fell on bare ground, rocks, creek beds, fallen trees and other hazards. The glaciers are also especially hazardous right now after a long, hot summer and low snowpack last winter, with slots and crevasses much wider than normal for this time of year. On top of all those natural hazards, the freezing levels have oscillated over the weekend, meaning that rain has fallen up to the 2,000-metre elevation mark.

“The freezing level is fluctuating significantly over the next little while, so how much snow is going to be where is going to change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis,” said Cailes. “There’s no base at this point. It might look really nice, but you’re going to be going right through it and you can’t see the hazards. Nothing at this point is marked or signed; there are no warnings.”

Some skiers and snowboarders point to WB’s marketing video released last week, in which skier Mike Douglas and snowboarder Robin Van Gyn enjoyed fresh — and safe — powder turns on glacier terrain. Cailes said these areas were accessed by helicopter and probably aren’t accessible safely on foot. They also had a guide present to ensure the safety of the media team.

“Those people were going up under very controlled conditions. The number of turns that they were doing was limited; they’re not doing top to bottom runs,” said Cailes. “Obviously (the WB marketing department) is looking at trying to get people thinking about skiing and what it’s going to be. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a top to bottom product. We’re still getting ready so we can offer this product to people.”

The mountains are also very busy places for machinery with trucks, snowmobiles, ATVs, crane trucks and snowcats. During the operational season many of the teams such as snowmakers and groomers operate at night to avoid skier traffic, but in the pre-opening weeks all the vehicles are working around the clock to be ready for the scheduled opening date on Nov. 26.

“If people are going up the hill and encounter mountain staff they will be asked to turn around,” said Cailes. “We would ask them to cooperate. We want people to be going into the season healthy and happy.”

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