Whistler Snow, Then and Now

By Jeff Slack, Whistler Museum.

Snow. For all the changes around us, frozen water is still the fuel that keeps this town’s fire stoked and hot.

While mountain-folk like to play armchair meteorologist year-round, we’re currently in the midst of prognostication silly-season. People are dusting off the almanacs, scouring long-term forecasts, and wildly over-reacting to Mother Nature’s every turn.

A metre of snow in late September had everyone buzzing about the epic winter to come. A few weeks of high pressure later and we were in a mild state of premature panic. Things appear to have returned to normal now, but really, all we know for certain is that it will snow this winter, probably a fair bit.

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Here at the Museum, we’re more comfortable with facts than forecasts. So here’s one for you: Whistler has enjoyed some amazingly deep winters in recent years, but they’ve got nothing on what Whistler’s first skiers enjoyed.

We speak to a lot of old-timers here, reminiscing about the good ol’ days, and all attest that Whistler just doesn’t get snow like it used to.

Check these photos of the Whistler Mountain alpine from the early 1970s. For those who know the terrain well, pay close attention to familiar features such as The Coffin chute, or Excitation on little Whistler Peak.

Courtesy Whistler Museum.
Courtesy Whistler Museum.
Courtesy Whistler Museum.
Courtesy Whistler Museum.
Courtesy Whistler Museum.
Courtesy Whistler Museum.

Compare it to a recent photo of the mountain and it still looks epic, but it’s clearly not nearly as coated in the coastal powder we all love.

Photo courtesy Whistler Blackcomb.
Photo courtesy Whistler Blackcomb.

Certainly some of the discrepancy can be explained by the increase in skiers and avalanche bombs knocking a fair bit of storm snow off of these steeper aspects. Still, there’s data to indicate that this is more than just some old-timers’ nostalgia-induced exaggeration.

Whistler legend John “Bushrat” Hetherington, in his years of snow study as an avalanche professional, found clear evidence from many data sets that all across BC the decade from 1965 to 1975 was a period of abnormally large snowfall.

He also experienced it firsthand, arriving in Whistler in the autumn of 1967 with the town still buzzing about how much snow they had received the previous winter.

John stuck around to ski more than his fair share of bottomless pow in ensuing years, but nothing compared to the 1973/74 season. As John recalls, “this was the first winter they had really good data on, and it’s still the record.”

By mid-April 1974, the snow study plot (which was three-quarters of the way down Green Chair at the time, an even lower elevation than the currently used Pig Alley snow plot at 1650 metres) measured a snowpack 17 feet deep. Anyone remember a 518cm base at mid-mountain in recent years? Me neither.

Jealousy-inducing? Maybe a little. But if it happened before, who’s to say that we aren’t about to see a return of this near-forgotten weather cycle? That’s the thing about weather: you never know.

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