Last week about 40 people – including some backcountry industry heavyweights – discussed the topics and wording of a new backcountry responsibility code at the Whistler Museum. The 10 point code revolves around issues of safety and responsibility of backcountry users for themselves, their party and other parties encountered beyond the boundaries. The wording of the document is still being edited by the panel of five experts, but the gist of it is as follows:

Backcountry code Whistler

  • have the right avalanche safety equipment and navigation devices and the know-how to use them
  • read the avalanche bulletins before going out
  • do not endanger parties below you on the slope
  • know when to make the call for help, but be prepared for self rescue and self evacuation
  • conservative choices are never wrong
  • assist others in need

A code like this is well overdue in a place like Whistler where our ski resort is a gateway to the Spearhead Range – one of North America’s most travelled backcountry destinations. During the audience discussions many points came up that while still being relevant to backcountry safety, didn’t quite fit the “10 commandments” style of document that the code will follow. After talking with Whistler Museum’s Jeff Slack (who organized the event with Wayne Flann) I summarized some of the outstanding topics.

There is no such thing as slackcountry/sidecountry/near country
This term popped up a few years ago as a reference to lift accessed backcountry and has been perpetuated by people looking for for fresh powder after the resort has been tracked out. There is a misconception that near-boundary riding is safer than backcountry simply because it is close to the resort and has more traffic, but this could not be further from the truth. The boundary line makes the definition binary; you are either in bounds or you are not. For example, DOA (a long couloir off Blackcomb Peak) is one of the more popular runs accessed by the Blackcomb Glacier gate and while the snow in the couloir itself is usually safely compacted, the apron after the exit can slide and throw you off massive cliffs. Thinking you can safely hike to and ski it without avalanche gear is a misnomer. The same applies for areas like Corona and Husume on Blackcomb and the backside of Flute an Oboe on Whistler. The number of people you see hiking to these areas without gear or knowledge is alarming.

People respond to images better than words
There are tens of thousands of non-English speaking visitors to Whistler every winter and many are not familiar with the extent of the Canadian wilderness. Heliski pilot veteran Pierre Forand noted during the discussion that affluent heli clients would rarely acknowledge written signage but responded much better to imagery. Having the backcountry code complemented by such universal imagery would help bridge the language and cultural barriers of other nationalities that are curious about what’s on the other side of the rope.

Human Factors
Despite years of training and experience, the most qualified people in the backcountry can make decisions that end up being fatal. The psychology of human decisions in the backcountry is an area that is still under research, but backcountry experts are still not all making the best decisions when skiing off the clock. Keith Reid highlighted this by hoping to change the culture of the backcountry by making conservative decisions more socially acceptable.

This post first appeared in the Whistler Question in December, 2013.