A steady stream of men and women file into the room and begin putting on ski gear. The mood isn’t enthusiastic, but it isn’t fatigued either. If anything it’s confident. After a few moments the room falls silent as Chad Hemphill begins discussing last night’s weather as well as today’s snow forecast and snowpack, followed by a game plan for the day. Everyone is taking notes.
It’s 7 a.m. and normally I would still be lying in bed, scrolling through the snow report on my phone. But today I’m sitting in the ski patrol hut at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, about to spend the morning with the resort’s ski patrol.
With eight centimetres of new snow and high winds overnight, it’s the first time in about six days that ski patrol will do avalanche control.
Hemphill, the resort’s avalanche forecaster, assigns the patrollers jobs and the number of explosives that will be used to safely open the slopes today. Wasting no time, the team heads out into the dark blue morning and up the gondola.
Stopping at the top of Revelation Gondola we head into a warming hut where the team assembles the explosives they will use in less than an hour to open up areas like North Bowl, Sub Peak and Greeley Bowl. Although the assembly is quick, it’s not rushed. Within minutes we are heading up the Stoke Chair.
I tag along with patrol volunteer Phil Bélanger-Lamontagne and we head down Pitch Black for a run check. Stopping a few times, Phil takes any signs out from the sides of the run and places them in their proper spot for the day and we quickly head back up.
In the patrol hut at the top of the Stoke Chair I sit with a few others while I wait for Steve Whale, the resort’s slopes manager. Radios go off as bags get packed, and patrollers come and go. It’s a very smoothly run process. The patrollers are a mix of young and veteran staff.
Outside, Hemphill leads the way up to Sub Peak, putting in the first tracks of the boot-pack for the day. Thank god I’m not shadowing him, I think to myself.
Patrollers follow him, bringing the explosives soon to be set off in North Bowl.
Soon after, Whale is ready to take me over to North Bowl with fellow patroller Meg Wallace. Hiking to Sweet Spot, snowboard in hand, I struggle along the non-existent boot pack in my snowboard boots. By now the team at Sub Peak are just about ready to detonate the explosives by using a zip line that goes over the bowl.
As I prepare to take a photo of the avy bomb about to explode, Whale mentions how loud it will be, and that the patrollers blocks their ears with their hands. With my hands holding my camera, Whale insists on blocking my ears with his hands while he wears earplugs. I hesitate, but when the patrol manager of RMR says ‘trust me’ just before a bomb is about to explode, you do as you’re told. Standing on the cliff edge of North Bowl, eye through my camera’s viewfinder, Whale standing behind me, his hands on my ears, I wait for what I think is going to be the apex of my day. With a thundering crack the explosion makes my camera jolt slightly in my hand.
To be honest, I didn’t see much. Whale explains that the low visibility is typical of days that require avalanche control.
“That was a low-end result”, Whale explains to me after. “A 10- to 15-centimetre soft slab easily triggered and easily controlled.”
Looking down into the untracked bowl, I begin to get a good idea of how much work it is to open this resort which has 1,263 hectares of terrain and boasts North America’s longest vertical. Giving credit to his patrol team, Whale explains that it has well over 100 years of experience among its staff.
“We have a very professional team and we are very good at opening large amounts of terrain efficiently, quickly and safely which is something we are proud of,” he says, “I’d like to think that we have that down to a fine art.”
After we do some ski cutting through Drop In and the Three Bears, this efficiency and professionalism is displayed once again in the form of a rescue.
After only a few minutes of down time back at the top of the Stoke Chair, Whale and Wallace are called out to a skier who has fallen down a chute at Unlimited Assets.
In the warming hut Hemphill, Whale and the other patrollers quickly discuss their approach to rescue. It will require sending a toboggan down the side of the cliff to reach the skier. Again, very calmly and collectively, Whale and Wallace pack their gear and navigate through the skiers and riders on the traverse, eager to drop into North Bowl themselves.
They join Josh Morris who is already on the scene anchoring a rope at the top of the cliff to repel the toboggan down with.
I watch from above as Whale slides down the side of the cliff holding the front bars of the toboggan. Morris gives him slack on the rope while Wallace, following her partner for the day, relays the messages back and forth between Whale and Morris.
At the bottom of the chute, out of my line of sight, a skier awaits with a dislocated shoulder.
The whole process takes about 20 minutes, with Morris staying in his exposed position at the top of the chute, cold winds gusting and snow blowing around him as he belays.
The team take the injured skier down — and then up slightly, over a small traverse that brings myself to exhaustion without pulling a person behind me — to the Downtowner. Another patroller is waiting on a snowmobile to speed up the process of getting the skier to the base of the mountain.
In my mind it’s been an eventful day (and it’s only 11 a.m.) Later Whale tells me that this type of complex rescue happens about 20 percent of the time.
“It’s not very often we bring out the rope and repel a toboggan down there,” he says. “It was slightly more complex than normal.” That being said, you would never know by watching the scene unfold that it wasn’t something these patrollers did on a daily basis.
It’s these complex rescues combined with the size of the mountain and the amount of avalanche control which make working on the ski patrol in Revelstoke challenging and unique.
Mike Verwey, mountain operations manager at Revelstoke Mountain Resort, has seen the mountain patrol program develop over the years. “[They] are a team of very hardworking mountain safety specialists who are highly trained and capable,” he explains. “I’m proud of the professionalism and stability that they convey.”
As I leave, Whale, Wallace and the rest of the team as they meet up with the snowmobile and prepare to take the injured skier the rest of the few hundred meters down to the base. Physically, I’m drained, and decide it’s best not to subject Whale to any more waiting on me.
Perhaps this morning was slightly more eventful than average for the RMR ski patrol, but Verwey’s comments proved true, and the morning couldn’t have unfolded in a better way to exhibit it.