Whistler Backcountry Touring
TOURING IN THE Whistler Backcountry
The Spearhead area in the Whistler backcountry is one of the best backcountry assets in the southern Coast Mountains. By using the Whistler Blackcomb lift system for access, the effort-to-reward ratio is unparalleled in the region. A short skin beyond the resort boundary leads to an expanding range of glades, peaks, glaciers and chutes the farther out you venture
Unquestionably one of the classic tours of the South Coast, the Spearhead Traverse is a spectacular route linking Blackcomb and Whistler ski resorts via a horseshoe of glacier-clad alpine terrain. The traverse links 11 glaciers while weaving around 17 peaks
The Whistler backcountry is made up of two ranges: the Spearhead and the Fitzsimmons. The Spearhead Range stretches from Blackcomb Peak to Mount Macbeth along the north side of Fitzsimmons Creek. The Fitzsimmons Range runs from Whistler Mountain to Mount Iago along the south side of Fitzsimmons Creek.
Whistler Backcountry seasons
Early Season (Mid-November–December)
Traditionally, touring in the Whistler backcountry begins when the alpine lifts at Whistler Blackcomb Resort open, usually near the end of November. Snowpack coverage at this time of the year can be highly variable. In some years, there’s enough snow above treeline to allow the alpine lifts to open immediately. Other years, the snowpack at higher elevations isn’t deep enough to cover the many rock features, and upper mountain lifts may remain closed for a number of weeks. At these times, ski patrol may allow parties to tour into the alpine on specific runs within the resort boundary. (Check with ski patrol at these times to determine where it is possible to tour.)
Pushing far beyond the resort before the alpine lifts open isn’t that common given the lengthy approaches at that time. However, the construction of the Kees and Claire Hut and the ability to access it from the Singing Pass Trail make it likely that keen parties will head to the hut before the resort opens, despite having to hike lower-elevation sections of the trail.
Early season skiing carries a significant chance of injury from hazards such as rocks, stumps, etc., that lie just below the surface of a thin snowpack. Glaciers may have significant open crevasses; these can be hidden by thin snowbridges during early season storms. A lack of visible slumping or cracking on these bridges can make the crevasses next to impossible to see. Solid glacier travel skills are required at this time of year. Several parties skiing in the Sea to Sky corridor following the first snowfall of the year have suffered broken bones as well as crevasse-related accidents. Be cautious, particularly because the early sunset makes it difficult to deal with emergencies. Many forgo backcountry skiing at this time of year and wait for better conditions later in the year.
As soon as the snowpack is significant enough to allow high-alpine access using the lift system, parties will begin to flood into the backcountry. Cold temperatures at this time of year can result in excellent snow quality, but freezing levels can swing wildly and it’s not uncommon to have rain reach the summits, ruining the snow. Significant arctic outflows are possible with the typical southerly wind patterns replaced by reverse loading from intense northerly winds, usually accompanied by clear skies and bitterly cold temperatures. These winds can destroy the alpine and treeline snowpack for touring, leaving a wasteland of sastrugi. These same weather patterns can occur throughout the winter.
As snowfall accumulates across the range and glaciers become better covered, travel deeper into the range becomes more popular. Winter in the Coast Mountains is typically known for extended periods of low-pressure systems that provide the deep snowpack but come with thick clouds and limited visibility, often resulting in whiteout conditions. Travel in these conditions requires strong whiteout navigation skills. Storm days tend to limit touring to tree-skiing areas such as the Musical Bumps.
On cold mornings when the weather breaks and blue sky shows up, the Blackcomb Glacier backcountry gate becomes a busy place as groups stampede out to ride the incredible alpine terrain. Longer days and better snow coverage in February tempt more parties to travel farther into the range for descents. This pattern continues through March and into early spring, with many parties venturing deeper for significant descents or to complete the Spearhead Traverse. This is prime season for touring in the area. On good weather days, easily hundreds of tourers head into the backcountry. Fortunately, a large proportion of groups stick to terrain close to the boundary, making it possible for competent, motivated parties to find more space by venturing farther afield.
After the Easter long weekend, the number of touring parties venturing into the Whistler backcountry begins to diminish as weather warms and thoughts turn to neglected summer activities. Despite this trend, April and May remain excellent months for touring in the area. Better weather and milder temperatures make for pleasant touring conditions, and it can still be possible to find high-quality snow, particularly in early spring on high-elevation north aspects protected from solar impacts.
Later in spring, the snowpack enters an isothermal cycle where temperature becomes a primary influence on stability. Afternoons tend to be less pleasant for touring, as the snowpack heats up and takes on the consistency of mashed potatoes. At this time of the year, typically mid-April, the resort opens lifts later in the day, at 10:00 am. Overnight trips can be excellent at this time of the year. Mild temps and good weather can make spring touring a far more pleasant experience than mid-winter camping.
Returning to the village in later spring can present additional challenges. Lower sections of the Singing Pass Trail will have melted out as the snow line goes up, mandating a hike down to the valley. In addition, either Whistler or Blackcomb typically close their runs in the second half of April while the other mountain typically remains open into the third week of May. In this final month of operations, access roads are plowed into the alpine on whichever mountain gets closed first, resulting in deep, steep-walled trenches that makes a ski descent of the runs a frustrating process.
Whistler Backcountry Hazards
There are many significant hazards associated with backcountry touring in the Whistler backcountry. A few of the hazards are described below.
The majority of the Spearhead Range is avalanche terrain, and it is important that those touring in the area have sufficient avalanche training, equipment, experience and judgement for safe winter mountain travel. A lot of terrain in the range can produce slides that could injure or kill tourers; the knowledge required for good decision-making is required. Professional avalanche training should be considered mandatory for winter travel in the backcountry, and those who do not have appropriate skills should use professional guides.
It is important to be aware of the potential for rapid daily change in the Coast Mountains snowpack. Strong winds, heavy precipitation and significant temperature fluctuations can cause the avalanche hazard to increase from low to high over a period of hours. Be sure to review the avalanche bulletin and weather forecast before entering the backcountry. Also, while the coastal snowpack is known to settle quickly after a storm, this is not always the case. Parties riding in avalanche terrain immediately following a significant snowfall, without giving the snowpack enough time to settle, increase the risk of triggering avalanches.
Skiing the steep terrain often found on big alpine faces or in couloirs presents the risk of falls that can result in uncontrollable slides, regardless of snow conditions. Getting caught by snow sluffs or avalanches can be catastrophic in this terrain. And the risks are exacerbated when the steep terrain is above rock features or cliffs, or in a chute or couloir, particularly if the chute has a dogleg where it changes direction. In these situations, a fall could lead you into rocks or over cliffs, which can cause significant injury. This hazard is often referred to as “exposure” in this book. Snow conditions also affect the risk: firm snow can increase the chances of falling and result in rapid acceleration with little or no chance of self-arrest.
Many of the trips in this Whistler backcountry involve travel on glaciers, most of which are heavily crevassed. The deep coastal snowpack covers many of these crevasses over the course of the winter, but they are a significant hazard for touring in the range. Even some of the most heavily travelled glaciers, such as the Spearhead Glacier and Decker Glacier, are riddled with massive crevasses that, in the wrong circumstances, could be the site of a serious accident. To help illustrate this point, I’ve included summer images of both these glaciers. Expect summer images for other glaciers in the area to be similar.
I have heard of several incidents involving close calls with crevasses in the Whistler backcountry. In other areas of the province, I have heard terrifying stories from rescue technicians of harsh deaths that have occurred in crevasses, either instantly from direct impact or, even worse, slowly, by a combination of trauma and hypothermia when people are trapped between crushingly narrow ice walls deep in a slot. Do not take glacier travel for granted.
Only parties that have sufficient training, equipment, experience and judgement to appropriately manage the risks should travel on glaciated terrain. Training in glacier travel and rescue systems is an absolute prerequisite for touring onto any of the glaciers in the Whistler backcountry. This is not to say that inexperienced and unequipped parties don’t regularly travel over glaciated terrain without incident. Do not be lulled into a false sense of security just because you are following tracks or see other groups in the area. Recognize the inherent risk that unroped glacier travel presents and the possibility of fatal outcomes from crevasse falls.
The historical deep winter snowpack and mild summer weather have often resulted in well-bridged crevasses. However, milder winters and warmer summers in recent years have reduced the snowpack and led to more exposed ice and poorly bridged crevasses in the early season. While many of these features become covered over the winter, the possibility of accidents occurring where crevasses are poorly bridged seems to be increasing. Some groups continue to have a blasé attitude towards glacier travel and many others are ill equipped and inexperienced. I would not be surprised if serious accidents involving crevasse falls become more frequent in the coming years and decades.
The deep snowfall in the Coast Mountains can be accompanied by regular periods of overcast and cloudy weather. In alpine areas of the Whistler backcountry where there are no visible trees or rocks, these flat-light conditions—sometimes referred to as being in the milk bottle or ping pong ball—make it difficult to identify slopes or features. At these times, it is easy to ski off wind lips or into depressions and injure yourself or break a ski. Move slowly in these conditions and use a strategy to safely identify what’s going on in front of you, such as throwing your ski pole ahead repeatedly.
Cornices can be a significant mountain hazard as they grow throughout the season, particularly during warm spells in the spring. Minimize the risk associated with cornices by avoiding any travel on, or directly adjacent to, cornices when following ridgelines and by choosing routes with little to no exposure to overhead cornices or to avalanche slopes that could be triggered by a cornice’s collapse.
It’s easy to underestimate the intensity of the sun in the cold winter environment. However, the sun’s reflection off the snow can increase exposure, and even on overcast days it is possible to end up with serious sunburn or snow blindness. To avoid getting scorched, wear good sunglasses and goggles, a ball cap, and apply sunscreen and lip balm frequently. In recent years, I’ve worn lightweight, loose-fitting hooded long sleeve shirts for spring touring.
Storms, Cold, Wind
Frequent low-pressure storms lash the Whistler backcountry. These storms can be accompanied by massive snowfall and extreme winds that can make travel very difficult or dangerous by making it impossible to navigate and increasing avalanche hazard. Arctic high-pressure systems can also bring intense cold weather and winds, which make travel above treeline very unpleasant and can lead to higher avalanche hazard. Hypothermia and frostbite are real risks during any winter travel in alpine environments. Proper clothing, extra layers and appropriate route plans are important to maintain safety in the mountains.
travel through whistler blackcomb Resort
Most groups will travel through the Whistler Blackcomb Resort en route to backcountry terrain. When travelling through the resort, please respect the rules they are using to manage hazards in a complex mountain environment that hosts thousands of visitors each day.
A number of areas in the resort are subject to avalanche hazard, and ski patrol staff manage them with closures. Most routes from the resort into the backcountry travel through these areas and can only be used once ski patrol has provided clearance. Please respect the signage, which clearly indicates when the area is closed because of avalanche danger. These are active avalanche problems that ski patrol cannot access or are working on by trying to initiate avalanches, sometimes with explosives. Travelling through an active avalanche control route puts you at risk, puts the working control team at risk and can delay the opening of the area for everyone at the resort. Getting caught crossing these closures will result in a one calendar year loss of ski and bike-park lift privileges.
Uphill Travel Routes
Bootpacking or skinning uphill is only allowed in specific designated areas of the resort and only when signage indicates that the route is open for use. Designated uphill travel routes use a “green hiker” sign to show they are open and a No Uphill Travel stop sign when they are closed. Travelling uphill in areas other than designated uphill travel routes will result in a one calendar year loss of ski and bike-park lift privileges.
Whistler Blackcomb does not permit uphill travel beginning at the village on either mountain, with the exception of the Singing Pass Trail, which is mainly outside the Whistler ski area boundary. Some backcountry recreation advocates have been working with the resort to establish a parking area closer to Singing Pass and an uphill travel route through Blackcomb resort. More information about these projects can be found at backcountrybc.ca.
Within the resort boundary, uphill travel is only permitted on designated routes, and all designated routes are signed. The established uphill travel routes relevant to backcountry touring on Whistler include:
- Flute Footpath to the access point at the top of Flute, which is accessible only when signage along the avalanche sign-line indicates that the route is open; and
- Granville and Georgia to the Lesser Flute access point on Encore Ridge, which is accessible only when signage along the avalanche sign-line indicates that the route is open.
Other backcountry access points on Whistler include:
- Singing Pass at the water tower just above Skiers Plaza, which is always accessible; and
- The bottom of Harmony 6 Express onto the Oboe Traverse, which is always accessible once the mountain is open to the Roundhouse and there is sufficient snow coverage in the forest to make the route viable.
On Blackcomb, the established uphill travel routes relevant to backcountry touring are:
- The short connection from the base of 7th Heaven Express along Lower Cloud Nine run to the Last Chance Backcountry Access Trail, always accessible once travel to 7th Heaven Express is open; and
- The short connection from the top of Showcase T-Bar to Blackcomb Glacier.
The other Blackcomb backcountry access point is:
- The ski area boundary at the edge of Lakeside Bowl below Blackcomb Peak, which is accessible only when signage along the avalanche sign-line indicates that the route is open.
Remember: Uphill travel is only permitted on these designated routes when the green hiker is visible. If you do not see the green hiker, you are not permitted to hike, skin or ski uphill.
A number of areas in the resort are permanently closed for safety reasons. Do not travel through these areas, regardless of your intended destination. Travelling in these areas can trigger avalanches, which can injure or kill you and/or resort guests below. If you get caught in an area of permanent closure, you will lose your ski and bike-park lift privileges for one calendar year. Permanent closures are shown on the maps and images in this book, but note that they are approximate. Please respect the posted signage, which reflects the actual boundaries of these closed areas.
Returning to the Ski Resort
When returning to the ski area from the backcountry, ski patrol requires groups to check the status of avalanche control work and the boundary by phoning 604-905-2324 for a recorded message. This is not required if it is apparent that resort guests are skiing in the terrain in question.
In addition, groups entering the ski areas outside of normal hours might encounter winch cats with a tensioned steel cable anchored to a pole or concrete block at the top of the run so they can groom the steepest slopes, or snowmobiles and other machines on the ski runs. Proceed with extreme caution. I’ve heard horrific stories of individuals striking winch cat cables at high speed in the dark with catastrophic results. If you encounter flashing lights, winch cables or snowcats, stop and wait for the operator to wave you on before proceeding. Mountain operations request that touring groups stay off freshly groomed slopes when returning after resort hours.
Planning trips to the Whistler Backcountry
The Whistler backcountry is located within Garibaldi Provincial Park. BC Parks regulations allow camping in the more remote (eastern) areas of the Spearhead but prohibits it in areas closer to the resort. Specifically, the north-south-running UTM 511E meridian is the boundary. Wilderness camping is prohibited west of this line of longitude. On the southern half of the Spearhead Traverse, behind Whistler, this line roughly bisects Fissile Peak and the Overlord Glacier east of Russet Lake. On the northern half of the Spearhead Traverse, behind Blackcomb, UTM 511E bisects Decker Glacier.
Detailed regulations regarding overnight camping in Garibaldi Park can be found on the BC Parks website under Garibaldi wilderness camping (bcparks.ca/reserve/wilderness/).
Wilderness permits are required and can be obtained by emailing SCParks.email@example.com with the subject line “Garibaldi Wilderness Permit Request: NAME.” Include the following information in the email: group size, names of participants, dates of trip, entry & exit points, and a brief trip plan including campsite locations and general route. Touring parties must carry a valid copy of the wilderness camping reservation confirmation letter. BC Parks also specifies that the group size must be 10 or less and that campsites must be 2 km from an established trail or campground and 30 m from any lake or stream.
Overnight camping is most common for parties completing the Spearhead Traverse and is more popular from March onward to take advantage of better weather, longer days and warmer temperatures.
One upside of winter camping is the ability to create flat tent sites and melt snow anywhere, making any location a potential campsite. The downside is the lack of facilities to manage human waste. On glaciated terrain, the waste does not end up in bacteria-rich soil to be broken down. Having completed the traverse in late May, I can confirm that snowmelt reveals all of the waste from the season. Popular camping locations become minefields of toilet paper and waste. BC Parks encourages Leave No Trace practices, including carrying out toilet paper and human waste that cannot be buried in solid ground. This practice is not uncommon in other heavily used areas and is warranted for a trip as popular as the Spearhead Traverse. One significant upside of the proposed hut chain is that it should minimize the environmental impact of human waste by concentrating it in locations where proper management facilities exist.
Users of the Spearhead Backcountry Atlas are expected to be properly equipped for the routes and destinations they choose and the conditions they could encounter. All routes described in this book involve avalanche exposure, which makes it mandatory to carry a beacon, probe and shovel and know how to use them effectively. Wearing a helmet has largely become the norm, and with good reason. The possibility of encountering rock just below the surface of the snow, particularly near ridgelines or windswept areas, exists even in mellow terrain. And the prevalence of descents that work around rock bands or through couloirs is another reason to wear a helmet.
For the most part when describing individual routes in the atlas, I do not attempt to identify appropriate gear for particular objectives. Travelling in steep terrain in some conditions may warrant the use of an ice axe or crampons. You will need to assess the need for this gear on your own. Ski crampons are useful in certain conditions when surfaces can provide minimal purchase for skins, such as following significant arctic outflow events or in the spring when the snowpack has frozen overnight.
While many groups travel on glaciers without glacier gear, this choice carries real risks given the crevassed nature of most glaciers in the area. I find it challenging to address the topic in this book. On one hand, parties regularly travel on several of the crevassed glaciers without incident, and while uphill roped travel is practical, downhill roped travel is very challenging and makes continuous use of ropes on glaciers almost unheard of. On the other hand, I believe there is a real risk of people falling into a weakly bridged crevasse with fatal consequences. Personally, when travelling on glaciers, I like to have rescue gear and two glacier ropes within my group (one rope does no good if the person carrying it falls in a slot). There are excellent choices these days for very lightweight glacier-specific ropes.
The mild temperatures common on the coast make skin wax a regular necessity to avoid the frustration of clumping snow underfoot. Applying wax to your climbing skins is even more important in the spring when warm temps can saturate the skin material.
Groups venturing into the Whistler backcountry should be equipped to deal with unexpected incidents and emergencies, including the possibility of spending the night in the mountains. In addition to avalanche and glacier gear, every backcountry tourer should carry extra clothing, sun protection, a headlamp, food and water. Every group should have a map and compass for navigation, both first-aid and repair kits, a form of emergency communication and possibly a small tarp that can be used as an emergency shelter. If you use a phone for navigation or communication, carry a power bank so you can charge it. A lightweight, high-output liquid propane gas (LPG) stove and a pot set for producing water are good additions. On mild days when temps permit longer breaks to melt snow and boil water, these stoves can also be a good alternative to carrying many litres of water.
Being able to locate your position at any time while travelling in the mountains is a critical skill. Traditionally a map, compass and altimeter were the standard tools for determining latitude and longitude. Things have changed dramatically with the ubiquity of GPS-enabled smartphones. Apps like Gaia, Fatmap and Caltopo dramatically simplify navigation but smartphone batteries can fail. Carrying a paper map is recommended, and having a watch that provides an altitude reading is very helpful for determining your location on the fly. GPS watches provide this information along with the ability to track your route. It’s hard for me to imagine going back to touring without a GPS watch, particularly given the benefits of tracking your outing for review.
A few excellent resources have been specifically developed to assist with navigation in the Whistler backcountry and are worth carrying on trips. John Baldwin’s excellent Backcountry Whistler map (johnbaldwin.ca) provides a comprehensive overview of routes and can be purchased from Whistler’s outdoor retailers. The mobile phone apps from Ullr Adventure Maps (ullrmaps.com) are an excellent digital option for navigation in the field.
Winter travel in the mountains involves serious inherent risks. A few broad terrain strategies can be used to reduce this risk in the Whistler backcountry. By no means is this list comprehensive, however; more detailed terrain strategies can be learned through avalanche education courses and time in the field with certified mountain guides.
To reduce avalanche risk, Avalanche Skills Training courses recommend using the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale (ATES) to guide decision-making. Parks Canada developed this rating system, which is based on the landscape and used by Avalanche Canada. It defines Simple, Challenging and Complex terrain. One way to reduce avalanche risk is to limit travel to lower-rated terrain on the ATES scale.
An ATES map of the Whistler backcountry is included on the inside of the back cover of the Spearhead Backcountry Atlas. A quick review of that map highlights that there is a lot of complex terrain in the Spearhead Range; however, Flute and Oboe in the Musical Bumps provide some of the easiest-to-access areas where groups can tour in simple and challenging terrain without exposure to complex terrain. Lower Disease Ridge and Body Bag Bowl is another area with similar possibilities.
To avoid hazards related to glacier travel, ski in unglaciated terrain. There are no glaciers in the Musical Bumps area or in the Cowboy Ridge and Russet Lake area behind Whistler. Glaciation is extremely limited in the Circle Lake and Body Bag areas behind Blackcomb. A few small remnant ice fields can be found in the Circle Lake area but at present they appear to provide limited hazard.
An important aspect to planning a backcountry tour is taking into account the number of daylight hours and ensuring you plan your route with a buffer to accommodate unforeseen delays and get back to the village with enough light to travel safely. Sunrise and sunset times for the 2020/2021 season are included below. Note that the start of Daylight Savings Time in mid-March results in an extra hour of light in the evening at that time. These times will change if British Columbia implements year-round Daylight Savings Time. A conservative approach is to plan to be back within safe terrain early in the afternoon, to ensure you have time to address emergency situations should they arise.
Freezing levels are a key consideration when planning trips in the Coast Mountains at any time of year. Freezing levels can move well above mountain summits in any month, which results in rain. Not only is rain a recipe for bad ski quality, it also creates a situation of significant avalanche instability. Prior to heading into the Whistler backcountry, check the freezing levels forecasted during your trip. Find them at whistlerblackcomb.com under The Mountain > Mountain Conditions > Weather Report.
Treeline in the Whistler backcountry is roughly at 1800 m. Specific elevations are included below to provide context for evaluating the potential impacts of freezing levels when planning a tour.
Several excellent resources exist to support trip planning. The most important is the avalanche bulletin produced by Avalanche Canada, which is hosted at avalanche.ca and accessible through an Avalanche Canada app. The Whistler backcountry area is located in the Sea to Sky bulletin area, specifically at the south end of that forecast.
A popular weather forecast for the area is the alpine forecast produced for the Whistler Blackcomb Resort, which is found at whistlerblackcomb.com under The Mountain > Mountain Conditions > Weather Report. The Whistler Peak website is an excellent site that compiles numerous items into an easy to access format. The forecast provides freezing level and wind speed/direction information in an easy-to-access format. The same resort website also offers valuable time-lapse photos captured by several webcams at a variety of elevations and aspects. Another excellent resource is a daily forecast produced by veteran Blackcomb ski patroller Wayne Flann, which can be found at wayneflannavalancheblog.com. More technical weather forecasts that are popular with mountain recreationalists can be found at avalanche.ca, spotwx.com and windy.com.
Another useful resource is the Facebook group South Coast Touring, which shares destination beta and promotes good decision-making, good trips and good community.
Instruction, Guiding and Clubs
Backcountry skiing involves significant inherent risks, and beginners face a long, steep learning curve to acquire the competencies required to participate in this activity.
Avalanche training is considered an absolute necessity for winter travel in the Whistler backcountry. Completing an introductory course, such as the Avalanche Skills Training 1 course, is an excellent first step; however, given the complexity of terrain in the Spearhead, a higher level of training is warranted for most routes in the area. I would encourage additional training, such as the Avalanche Skills Training 2 course, before venturing into the Spearhead area.
Look for opportunities to learn from those with considerable experience. As you build your knowledge and experience, hiring guides certified by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACMG) on a regular basis is an excellent way to learn about and help develop good judgement and decision making. Visit acmg.ca to find a Whistler guide.
Joining one of the local mountain clubs is a great way to connect with others who are backcountry touring. These groups offer training and scheduled trips as well as social functions and important advocacy work. Clubs also build and maintain huts throughout the South Coast area.
Joining a mountain club is an excellent way to ensure your interests in wilderness recreation are considered in land-use planning and access issues. Local clubs include:
Backcountry users in British Columbia are fortunate to have access to comprehensive rescue services courtesy of volunteer search-and-rescue (SAR) teams located throughout the province. Rescues are initiated by calling 9-1-1 to reach the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). There is no cost for rescue service. Key information to provide when initiating a rescue includes the activity, your name and the number of people involved, your contact information, the location (latitude and longitude in decimal degrees), the nature and time of the incident and any medical requirements.
If you have an emergency, call for a rescue as soon as possible. The earlier SAR is contacted, the more options are available. They will assess your request and take appropriate measures to successfully and safely resolve the situation. Understand that the term “rescue” does not necessarily mean evacuation, and that weather, nightfall and other safety issues often preclude immediate extrication. Make sure you and your party have enough equipment to spend the night out in an emergency. Remember, the volunteers who engage in search and rescue put in a huge amount of time and energy for training and rescues. They deserve a high level of respect and support for their work.
Cell phones work in some areas of the Whistler backcountry, particularly from ridgetops closer to Whistler and Blackcomb and within line of sight of cell towers such as those at Black Tusk to the south. However, coverage is spotty or nonexistent at the back end of the range and on slopes and in valleys oriented deeper into the wilderness. Especially in these locations, a satellite communication device such as a SPOT or inReach is valuable for initiating rescue. Devices that enable two-way communication are best, so you can inform rescuers about the nature of the emergency and what resources are required.
Within the resort, you can reach ski patrol during an emergency by dialling 604-935-5555. To contact ski patrol for a non-emergency, call 1-800-766-0449 (Press 2).
Love it or hate it, Whistler is quite the scene. There’s a palpable energy in the village, and the range of shops and services available is pretty incredible. Personally, I find it hard not to enjoy making my way through the village early in the morning, pack on my back and touring skis on my shoulder. There’s a striking contrast between the highly developed tourist atmosphere and the rugged, glaciated terrain you can be immersed in a few hours later. Better yet is riding empty runs down to the sounds of people partying at the Longhorn Saloon. Having spent a lot of time wandering through BC’s mountains, where access means rough logging roads or parking scratched out of a snowbank, I really like making my way to the backcountry through Whistler. A little civilization can’t be bad now and then.
I’ll make no effort to cover the broad range of accommodations, dining options or non-touring activities in the community. A plethora of resources do that far better than I could. Check out whistlerreservations.com, the centralized booking service intended to provide one-stop shopping for accommodations options.
Keeping in mind that I’m pretty easily pleased when it comes to dining out, my only advice is this:
If you’re coming off the mountain before 6:00 pm, visit Purebread for tasty baked goods.
If you’re looking for a post-ski-day dinner, particularly after the Traverse, Splitz Grill makes a fine burger—provided you have the time to sit down for a bit.
If you’re coming off the mountain late and need a quick bite to fill the tank, Avalanche Pizza is excellent.
Resort Operating Hours
Given that most trips into the Whistler backcountry use the Whistler Blackcomb lift system, it’s worth noting what time the lifts open. The information presented here reflects the 2020/2021 ski season. Check whistlerblackcomb.com for up-to-date times. From the start of the season to mid-April, the lift system opens at 8:30 am. From mid-April to the end of the season, lifts open at 10:00 am. It’s often possible to get on the lifts leaving the village a bit earlier than the scheduled opening (~15 minutes); however, alpine lifts almost always open later, so an early lift up from the village means a few bonus on-piste runs or some time in a lodge.
Most people touring in the Spearhead Range use the resort lift system to reach a handful of access points into the backcountry. Lift tickets are available from ticket booths located near the base of the Creekside Gondola, the Whistler Village Gondola, the Blackcomb Gondola and the Base II Excalibur Gondola midstation.
Backcountry skiers can purchase a discounted backcountry day ticket ($61.95 in the 2019/2020 season) that allows the use of four lifts to access a backcountry gate. Buy backcountry tickets from one of several Guest Services counters (at the base of all gondolas) or from the ticket booth at Base II. Be aware that ski patrol assesses daily whether or not to make backcountry tickets available; these tickets are rarely released under high or extreme avalanche conditions. Individuals must sign a Backcountry Access Agreement, describe the specific lifts they will use to reach the backcountry and show that they are carrying an avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, skins or snowshoes and a cell phone.
In the 2020/2021 season, Whistler Blackcomb Resort has implemented a mandatory reservation system for lift tickets due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is unclear how this will impact backcountry lift tickets. Access the reservation system at epicpass.com
Getting to whistler
Whistler is located 121 km north of downtown Vancouver along British Columbia Highway 99, also known as the Sea to Sky Highway. Under good conditions the drive takes about one hour and forty minutes. The town of Squamish is located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler at the head of the spectacular Howe Sound, North America’s southernmost fjord. Highway 99 continues north to the village of Pemberton, 32 km and about 30 minutes north of Whistler under good conditions.
Unfortunately, Highway 99 can become quite congested on weekends throughout the ski season, both on the way north in the mornings and on the way south in the evenings. Heading north, traffic can be particularly bad on mornings when significant snowfall is predicted, especially if the freezing level has descended into the valley bottom and rain meets snow somewhere along the highway. On busy days it can be worth aiming to arrive in Whistler by 8:00 am, ahead of the rush. That way you can generally avoid getting caught in slow-moving traffic in the many sections where the highway narrows to one northbound lane and ensure you can find a parking spot. Heading south, the rush is at its worst leaving Whistler as the lifts close and Vancouverites head home from a day at the resort. It’s worth extending your time in the backcountry and aiming to depart later than the resort skiers.
Parking in whistler
Creekside has a large underground parkade as well as a small parking area for overheight vehicles on top of the parkade for a total of 1,365 stalls. If you’re arriving in Whistler from the south, access the parkade by turning right (east) off Highway 99 onto Lake Placid Rd and then turning left into the parkade 125 m from the highway.
The Creekside parkade provides free parking and is the first available parking location if you are coming from the south, which makes it an appealing location to start your trip. Lifts lead up Whistler Mountain from Creekside, giving quick access to the Musical Bumps. However, the return to Creekside at the end of a day touring in the Whistler backcountry is more challenging as the exit routes from both the Whistler and Blackcomb backcountry lead to Whistler Village, 5 km north of Creekside along Highway 99. For this reason, Creekside is worth bypassing if you intend to tour for a full day. If you do end up in Whistler Village at the end of the day, bus service is available. Check the BC Transit Whistler trip planner (bctransit.com/whistler/home) for details. Overnight parking is not allowed in the parkade.
Five large day lots in Whistler Village provide 1,749 parking spaces. If you’re arriving in Whistler from the south, access these parking lots by turning right (east) off Highway 99 onto Village Gate Blvd and drive 400 m to a T-junction. Turn left (north) at this junction onto Blackcomb Way and continue 150 m, then turn right (east) into the centre of the five day lots. To the south are Lots 1, 2 and 3. Lot 1 is the farthest south and closest to Skiers Plaza at the base of Whistler Village Gondola. To the north are Lots 4 and 5. If you are arriving in Whistler from the north, access these parking lots by turning left (east) off Highway 99 onto Lorimer Rd and continue 600 m to a right (south) turn that leads into the north end of Lot 5.
Lots 1–3 are pay parking spaces year-round; the daily rate is $10 for standard vehicles. Buy your parking pass at meters scattered through the parking lots. Lots 4 and 5 are pay parking spaces from December 15 to April 15; the daily rate is $5 for standard vehicles. Overnight parking is prohibited from November 1 to March 31, except for visitors to Garibaldi Park with a valid backcountry permit for Garibaldi Park who have purchased overnight parking as described below. The day lots are closed from 3:00 am to 6:00 am every night, and sleeping or camping in vehicles is not permitted on Whistler roads or parking lots.
From Lots 1–5, it is a short walk to Blackcomb Village and the Blackcomb Gondola, as well as Skiers Plaza and the base of both the Whistler Village Gondola and the Excalibur Gondola, which give access to the Whistler and Blackcomb backcountry. The return to Skiers Plaza from the Whistler backcountry is easy, which makes these lots an excellent parking option for ski touring. These lots also provide easy access to the resort and they fill quickly on busy mornings.
Lots 6–8 on the lower flank of Blackcomb Peak provide about 1,270 parking spaces. If you’re arriving in Whistler from the south, access these parking lots by turning right (east) off Highway 99 onto Village Gate Blvd and continue 400 m to a T-junction. Turn right (south) at this junction onto Blackcomb Way and follow a curving road for 600 m, then turn right (east) onto Glacier Dr. Follow this road uphill for about 1 km to a junction: Lot 6 is to the left, Lots 7 and 8 are a further 500 m up to the right.
Lots 6–8 are close by the Excalibur Gondola’s Base II midstation, where it is possible to board the gondola that begins at Skiers Plaza in Whistler Village. Lot 6 is just below the midstation, and Lots 7 and 8 are a short distance above the midstation. On busy days, loading at the midstation can take a bit of time because seats in the gondola are often filled in the village. From Base II, it is also possible to ski down to the base of the Blackcomb Gondola for direct access to Rendezvous Lodge.
Parking is currently free at Base II; however, overnight parking is not permitted. Base II provides direct access up Blackcomb Peak to the Blackcomb backcountry. Most of the year it is also possible to ski down Village Run from Base II to Skiers Plaza in Whistler Village to access the Whistler Village Gondola; however, a lack of snow on the lower mountain—such as in late spring—can preclude this route. At those times the Excalibur Gondola can be ridden down to Skiers Plaza. The return to Base II from the Whistler backcountry at the end of the day is easy if the Excalibur Gondola is running. Simply hop on at Skiers Plaza at the base of Whistler and get off at the Base II midstation. If the lift has closed, which can be as early as 5:00 pm, bus service is available from the nearby bus loop. Check the BC Transit Whistler trip planner (bctransit.com/whistler/home) for details.
Ski tourers staying overnight at the Kees and Claire Hut or with a valid backcountry permit for Garibaldi Park can park overnight in Lot 4. Use the 6 parking spots designated for Garibaldi Park on the west side of Lot 4; if these are full, use any other stall in Lot 4. Payment is required during Peak Season (December 15 to April 15). Pay on paybyphone.com (or using the PayByPhone app) for Lot #4078 (the parking number of Garibaldi Park visitors) or in person at Municipal Hall during business hours (typically Monday to Friday, 8:30 am to 4:30 pm). Guests must display a printed Garibaldi Park backcountry permit or a reservation for a Spearhead hut in the windshield of the vehicle.
After April 1, overnight pay parking is permitted in Lots 1–5 with a maximum stay of 24 hours. Overnight parking is also available in the Conference Centre underground lot and at Whistler Public Library as well as some hotels.
The Whistler backcountry area is one of the best backcountry assets in the southern Coast Mountains. By using the Whistler Blackcomb lift system for access, the effort-to-reward ratio is unparalleled in the region. A short skin beyond the resort boundary leads to an expanding range of glades, peaks, glaciers and chutes the farther out you venture.
The atlas provides unprecedented detail about a range of routes, from short tours to multi-day traverses.
KEES AND CLAIRE HUT
The Kees and Claire Hut, located at Russet Lake beyond Whistler Mountain is one of the most impressive public backcountry huts in Canada.
The atlas is the first ski touring guidebook to include comprehensive coverage of the hut,
the first of three in the Spearhead Hut chain.
Unquestionably one of the classic tours of the South Coast, the Spearhead Traverse is a spectacular route linking Blackcomb and Whistler ski resorts via a horseshoe of glacier-clad alpine terrain. The traverse links 11 glaciers while weaving around 17 peaks.
The atlas covers the traverse in thorough detail, including multiple annotated air photos for every section of terrain.
Spearhead: PUshing the Boundaries
‘Spearhead: Pushing the Boundaries of BC’s Backcountry‘ celebrates the history of the Spearhead Traverse, first skied in 1964, while asking how do we manage the impact on these spaces as they gain popularity.
Directed by: Seth Gillis
Produced by: Origin