Whistler Blackcomb snow making
Snowmaking has been the lifeblood of early season business for Whistler Blackcomb for the last two seasons

Last week The Province ran a cover story titled “Man-made risk: Are local ski hills putting you in danger by opening early?”

It featured Vancouver safety advocate Richard Kinar expressing concerns that Vancouver resorts are opening too early without sufficient snow coverage. To back up his argument, he pointed to the death of 16-year-old Brazilian exchange student Luca Marcondes Cesar, who died while snowboarding on Grouse Mountain on November 29, 2013.

Marcondes Cesar was not wearing a helmet and RCMP spokesman Cpl. Richard De Jong said the injury was likely sustained from striking a tree. Police and rescuers did not mention slope conditions as a contributing factor to the teenager’s death.

Painting snowmaking and early opening as “dangerous” isn’t something you would read about in a Whistler newspaper, partly because people here would find it hard to correlate an early opening with a fatal ski accident. The biggest danger in resorts is actually when we get copious amounts of snow and people fall in tree wells and die from asphyxiation. Yes, people have collisions with natural objects such as trees and rocks, but in Whistler, the safest place you can be right now is on the man-made snow. And when it snows a lot, everyone gets the warning to partner up in the trees to avoid tree well fatalities. The tree runs do not close because of the exponentially higher risk.

Snowmaking Whistler Mountain
Snowmaking supervisor Dave Fortier defrosts a fan snowmaker on Whistler Mountain in November, 2013

The North Vancouver resorts obviously don’t have the snowmaking arsenal that Whistler Blackcomb has, which is likely why the article explicitly stated the danger was at “local ski hills.” I’m not familiar with the infrastructure and operational policy of those resorts, but I can safely say they open earlier than their scheduled date for the same reason as Whistler Blackcomb: it’s good for business. The ski industry is incredibly competitive and the sooner you can start loading chairs, the more leg you have up on your competitors. Whether you open with stellar conditions or not, people are willing to ski it, so why not feed the hungry masses?

So is it fair to say that opening a ski hill with early season hazards is putting guests at higher risk? That I find a bit of a stretch. I respect Mr. Kinar’s work as a safety advocate; he’s done great work towards the prevention of catastrophic injuries in sport. But skiing and snowboarding have always been, and will always be, risky sports. Pointing the finger at resorts coping the best they can with the poor early season weather isn’t going to save any lives. It’s not like the resorts don’t give us fair warning for hazards encountered this time of year and even when we do get the coverage, melt-freeze conditions can turn the mountain into one big concussion-inducing ice block. Whatever happened to “know your limit and play within it?”

We don’t need to raise awareness about how early season conditions are hazardous, that fact is irrefutable. Where Mr. Kinar and the journalists and editors of The Province need to focus their energies is on making people aware of the risks they are taking when they set foot on snow, how they should wear a helmet and how they should pony up for a lesson if they want to ride faster on the hill. People always criticize ski resorts for opening early with little snow, but printing tabloid claims about snowmaking being a killer — that deserves greater criticism.

This column was first published in The Whistler Question on December 9, 2014