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travel / travel magazine / winter 2007

Backcountry



Steppin’ up
By David Leach with photography by Andrew Doran

Forget the sushi bars and snow-bunny-packed slopes in Whistler, B.C. Strap on some snowshoes, and hip-hop to a mountaintop in Canada’s winter playground.

We have been snowshoeing for only an hour when Guillaume Otis drops to one knee and traces a line in the frozen crust. This mark, explains our 31-year-old alpine guide, represents the path of an avalanche. And that one, he says, is the "deposit zone," where, should we get caught, our unlucky bodies might be - to use the bloodless euphemism - deposited.

"Especially in the spring," he says, "we’re dealing with massive melted-snow avalanches." In mid-May, we’re standing in a clearing in the subalpine forest, a 1½-hour drive northwest of Whistler, B.C. The Coast Mountains are still topped with Dream Whip swirls of deep white. "All that snow wants to come down," he adds.



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MAP: STEVEN FICK/CANADIAN GEOGRAPHIC
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Otis buries his avalanche beacon, and with mine switched to “receive” mode, I learn how to follow the “getting warmer” beeps until I zero in on the signal. Photographer Andrew Doran, who shoots heli-skiing trips every winter, is an old hand at alpine safety. I am the mountain greenhorn of our trio. In an emergency, neither of my companions wants me fumbling over my beacon like a monkey with a cellphone.

They aren’t trying to spook me. Otis triple-checked the avalanche forecast. After 10 years as an accredited guide, he can read the snowpack like a paperback novel. The chances of getting caught by a big one in this area, he says, are a million to one — but there is always a potential risk. He simply wants us to play safe and to tutor me in the subtleties of alpine travel. I remind myself that I’m here to discover the wild side of Whistler. Despite the warnings about potentially fatal “deposits,” it is too late to make a noble withdrawal from my trip into avalanche country.

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