travel / travel magazine / winter 2007


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.


Click map to enlarge
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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