Backcountry sports still chugging right along

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      Despite a bad case of the avalanche blues that rocked the new year, reports from the Canadian Avalanche Centre indicate that the local Coast Mountains’ snow pack has begun to stabilize. Recent advisories from the CAC have downgraded the threat of slides from Level 3, “considerable”, to Level 2, “moderate”, and even Level 1, “low”, along both the Sea-to-Sky and Duffy Lake and inland corridors.

      This is welcome news for those who venture into the backcountry, whether on snowshoes, skis, or snowboards. In a survey conducted by the Georgia Straight, lodge operators and alpine guides may not have awarded top marks to snow conditions thus far, but they aren’t giving this winter a failing grade, either. However, as a consequence of the steadily souring economy south of the border, they do point to an avalanche of cancellations. On the phone from Whistler, Dave Sarkany, a member of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, said that many U.S. clients are walking away from their deposits. “This is not small change, either,” he said. “Some of them have put down as much as $20,000 to reserve helicopter skiing at a backcountry lodge.”

      In the silver-linings department, belt tightening is credited as benefiting less expensive backcountry operators. Powder Mountain Catskiing Catboarding’s general manager, Gordon Calver, told the Straight that he would give this winter a “really good” grade. “We’ve taken a lot of heli-ski business, especially when they see we’re half the price,” the 38-year-old lifelong Whistler resident said. “We’re running at about 70 percent capacity. The majority are tourists. While the U.S. market has slowed down quite a bit, we’re seeing more Scandinavians coming than before.”

      Although Whistler-Blackcomb has struggled to exceed a 150-centimetre base all year, Powder Mountain’s terrain surrounding Cypress Peak currently measures 430. “We’re spending more time with clients in the high alpine,” Calver said. “Unlike typical Coast Mountain conditions, this year’s snow is dry and light, with effortless skiing in the wide-open, huge bowls.” As for the sustained avalanche danger, Calver cited the expertise of his company’s guides as the reason that “we’ve never had a problem, never an accident.”

      Callaghan Country’s manager, Brad Sills, a long-time leader with Whistler’s search-and-rescue team, dealt with two avalanche-related fatalities on the same day in December. Despite this, he said that this winter’s unusual conditions—both meteorological and economic—couldn’t have come at a better time for his backcountry lodge. “Our guests used to be 70 percent from the U.S. They’re not coming this year, but our business is up, thanks mostly to Vancouverites drawn to the Callaghan Valley because of the new Whistler Olympic Park. People who used to cross-country ski are coming back into the sport because it’s affordable.”

      Sills characterized newcomers to Callaghan, which lies immediately south of Whistler, as falling into two categories. “On one hand, you have the over-60 types who grew up at Hollyburn and ski-walk 15 kilometres a day. Then there’s the younger set, many from the mountain-bike community, who want to stay in shape. They’re used to single-track riding and aren’t shy about uphill challenges at all.” He also pointed to a new trend spawned by the groomed 12.5-kilometre trail that links the Nordic centre with his lodge: ski touring on skate skis. “Grooming has introduced a new level of backcountry touring. Elite skate skiers can make it up to the lodge in an hour. It also means faster, safer descents. If you come from an alpine background, this will put the fear back into you.” Sills advised lesser mortals to budget three to four hours for the ascent through the old-growth forest, half that for the ski out.

      Is Sills surprised at how the valley has suddenly blossomed into a sports hub? “We started a lodge here in 1981. In our first ever management plan, we envisaged creating the most comprehensive Nordic ski facility in North America.” That dream came true with a cost. The province is Callaghan Country’s landlord. Apparently, there’s been a lot of blood under the bridge in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics. “It’s been a six-year nightmare,” he said. “Dealing with the government is worse than the Mafia. At least the Mafia has ethics.” This makes Sills’s hard-earned success even sweeter.

      Another sector of the snow-sport market enjoying growth this winter is backcountry-skills training. Programs offered by groups like the Vancouver-based Canada West Mountain School are oversubscribed. When reached by phone at the CWMS’s midtown office, director Brian Jones told the Straight that he noticed a marked increase in enrollment even before there was snow on the ground. “It’s been a cumulative effect of seeing several major figures killed in avalanches in the past, coupled with a constant media barrage, plus the new crop of backcountry skiers entering the market each year.” Jones highlighted the curriculum covered in a typical two-day course: measuring snow packs, then learning to understand and apply the results; crucial equipment needed to adventure safely; and avoiding avalanche terrain by knowing how to recognize it. Bonus marks are awarded for hiring a guide like Sarkany to safely—and quickly—take you where the best snow lies.

      Access: Current South Coast snow conditions are posted at Details on Powder Mountain Catskiing Catboarding are posted at For Callaghan Country, visit Canada West Mountain School courses are listed at