The sun was struggling to burst through the clouds as 10 ski patrollers practiced their toboggan rescue skills at Revelstoke Mountain Resort last week. About 500 feet below, another group of patrollers were doing rope rescue training. Between them was nothing but untouched, virgin powder thanks to the 16 centimetres of snow that fell overnight and the lack of people on the slopes in its pre-opening day state.
The urge to ski was strong.
I was at the resort to look at what goes in to getting the mountain ready for opening day. With the resort having just announced a sneak peek weekend for Nov. 26 and 27, training was in full swing. In addition to the ski patrol up top, the lifties were receiving classroom training in the day lodge, the Revelstoke Outdoor Centre staff were getting a primer on the resort in the Nelsen Lodge, and the rental crew were busy sorting out the new gear for the coming ski season.
I met with Sarah Windsor, the resorts marketing co-ordinator first thing in the morning. She introduced me to Steve Parsons, the resort’s director of mountain operations since it opened, and we hopped in his van and drove up to his office at the day lodge. He moved out to the mountains from Newfoundland at the age of 18 and since then has worked pretty much every role at a ski resort, from lifty to ski school to patrol. He is responsible for everything on the mountain, from the chairlifts to the grooming to the ski patrol.
Preparations for the ski season begin pretty much right after the last one ends, he told me. In past years there was new terrain that was opened, glades and runs to brush and other work. This year, the focus on the mountain was on the new Turtle Creek beginner area at the resorts base.
“Every year we’ve done a bunch of things to make it a better winter,” Parsons said.
At the day lodge Parsons introduced me to Graham Tutt and Don Robertson, the heads of ski patrol. In the cafeteria the lifties were receiving a lesson in fire safety. Parsons went to address them.
“You guys are ambassadors for the resort,” he told them. “Plus you are running the most expensive lifts and machinery on the mountain and these lifts have the capability to tear people into little bits.”
His talk wasn’t all ominous – he reminded them about the great skiing and the possibility of going heli-skiing if they work hard.
After that we suited up into our ski gear and wandered to the gondola mid-station where the ski patrol were practicing gondola evacuation. I watched as they rappelled down from the cabins onto the run below. Pretty much the entire ski patrol has returned, so the practice served as a refresher for most of them.
As we waited for the exercise to finish, I chatted with a few members of the resorts cat skiing operation. They told me seats were pretty much completely booked for the coming season and that a groomer would be heading out in the coming days to prepare the cat roads. Over the radio I heard the avalanche forecasters were doing control work in North Bowl.
Soon enough we crowded into the gondola for the ride to the top. We passed through the first layer of clouds into a classic RMR day, with fresh snow carpeting the runs and the sun and clouds fighting for space in the sky (the clouds won). We cruised on over to the Stoke Lift to complete the rest of the trip to the top.
Seeing the resort in its pre-opening state was a new experience. The terrain is all the same but it’s not as polished. The boundary ropes weren’t up yet, there were no cliff markers, no slow signs and no seat pads on the Stoke lift. The runs were a bit more hazardous, with the drainage ditches still not completely covered over.
Parsons and I took our first run through Hollywood Gully and then onto Pitch Black. The snow was deep and the only tracks were the nearly-covered remnants from the staff appreciation ski day the day before.
On our second trip up the Stoke we were joined by Tutt and Robertson, who talked about what goes into training. By now the ski patrol were fully into their training sessions. We took a couple of turns down Separate Reality to the first group, who were practicing steep-slope toboggan rescue. One patroller was laid out in the toboggan, a second was anchored in above, and a third was below. A rope system provided for a controlled descent on the steep terrain.
We then headed to the second group. On the way down I took one turn that landed me in a wind-loaded spot for my first over-the-head faceshot of the year – the first of many, I hope. The second group of patrollers were practicing their rope rescue for when skiers get cliffed out. They had an anchor set up in the snow and one patroller belayed another as he walked down to the party in distress.
The patrollers started their season the previous week with a First Aid course. The day before my visit they practice avalanche rescues. Over the coming days they would be doing more training and eventually moving on to set up the boundaries and all the other signage that exists to create “a bubble of perceived safety in the mountains,” Parson said. As he pointed out, it’s up the guest to make sure they ski as safely as possible.
The ski down to the mid-station was doable but quite hazardous. Drainage ditches – water bars as they’re known in resort lingo – were everywhere and meant you couldn’t make more than few turns before slowing down to avoid another hazard. Eventually we starting hitting rocks so we turned on to the Last Spike and skied on the the road the rest of the way.
On the way, we stopped at the maintenance shed where two mechanics were repairing one of the groomers. The resort added a sixth groomer to its fleet this year, Parsons said.
We arrived back at the base as Dan Sculnick, the director of the Revelstoke Outdoors Centre (ROC), was training his staff. Other staff were cleaning the floors and the walls sported a fresh coat of paint.
In preparation for an expected increase in skier-visits, the fleet of rental gear was expanded, there were more registration stations set up and one more tech bench was set up in the repair shop.
Also new is the third building of Nelsen Lodge, complete with an outdoor pool and hot tub; the opening of Wino’s and the launch of Kid’s ROC.
Sarah Windsor was excited. She told me recent visits to trade shows in Montreal, Toronto, Denver and Vancouver attracted big crowds. Last year’s heavy snowfall generated significant buzz, she said, and a lot of people were asking about the resort.
With meteorologists expecting another big winter (see page 5), anticipation for opening day is as high as it’s ever been.