Meet the Whitewater avalanche squad
They’re kind of like invisible superheroes.
Whitewater Ski Resort has over 20 people on their avalanche squad, keeping their skiers safe, but if all things go according to plan you’ll never have to see them.
You might hear them, though.
That’s because they’re routinely chucking explosives to trigger avalanches, creating those curious booms you hear echoing from the treeline while riding the Silver King Chair. Every day they trek off-course to make sure the snow is where they want it to be.
“There are these moments, when you’re up in the sunshine starting avalanches, and then when it’s finished you go ski some sick pow,” senior avalanche forecaster Jason Wishlow told the Star.
“It’s unlike any other job.”
They carry around bags with supplies — from First Aid kits to blankets and snow tools — and if the ski chair breaks down they have everything they need to rappel down to the slope below like a scene from a James Bond movie.
“We have fun when we’re up there, but you have to take it serious too,” he said.
Much of their time is spent on control routes, which neighbour the ski runs, and they use a technique called ski-cutting, which entails knocking snow down-slope with the side of their skis. They also use explosives to ensure the avalanches coming down are under control.
“We also have closures lines, and closures areas, and those have flip signs that say ‘avalanche area, ski at your own risk.’ That means we’ve controlled the areas to best of our ability, but there’s no 100 per cent certainty. But if we flip it, that’s because there’s too high a risk of avalanche.”
Basically they’re trying to get ahead of the avalanche, so they know it’s coming before it comes.
“It would be a perfect science if we knew every time where an avalanche is going to come down, but the truth is it can be completely random.”
So they have to be fastidious.
“We forecast to the best of our ability, knowing how much snow we’re having, where the wind is coming from. The same snow from November is still down there, but it’s just changing forms. So we keep track of that too. If it takes a form we don’t like very much, we know we have to track that.”
And the only way to check is to get out there, in person.
“Most often we’re physically out there checking. We dig snow profiles, we dig in the snow and find resistances and plot it out like that. Our reports might look like Japanese to one person, but an avalanche forecaster can look at it and know exactly what it means.”
In other words: “It gets pretty scientific. We’re all giant snow nerds.”
And he wants people coming to Whitewater to avail themselves of their information. A big part of what they do is educate the public, holding courses and information sessions for skiers of all ages.
“You need to know how to look at a slope and ask yourself ‘is that a safe place for me to go skiing or not?’”
Because he knows firsthand how gnarly things can get.
“There’s so much that could happen while you’re out there. There have been times I’m up on the ridge and the winds going 70km/h and it feels like somebody’s taking handfuls of sand and throwing them at your face.”
Once they’ve done all their education and forecasting tasks, there’s still lots of work to do marking off closed areas and making sure signs are in the proper places. That’s where patrol team members like Kevin Armstrong and Laura Waterer come in.
“We get in around 7:30 a.m., and come up with our plan for the day. If it’s snowed we’ll go check out our in-bounds conditions. We have some terrain that can trigger avalanches, so we ski cut and try to initiate avalanches as we come down,” said Waterer.
“We work with the forecasting team to make sure their control routes get done in a timely matter.”
And yes, she’s rappelled off the chairlift.
“I grew up in Nelson and I always dreamed about climbing the towers,” she said. “So when, during my first year, I got to do that it was pretty great.”
She’s not sure if she qualifies for superhero status, though.
“I would say that every day I come to work, I feel lucky.”