The backcountry guiding community is operating in a state of anxiety with the treacherous avalanche snowpack, but businesses are finding a way to navigate the terrain to still give patrons the best ski days they can.
Marty Schaffer is the owner and operator of CAPOW – short for Canadian powder – a backcountry guiding company based out Blanket Glacier chalet, south of Revelstoke. In the 10 years that Schaffer has been operating, he’s never had to contend with the uncertainty that a snowpack like this year’s brings. Still, he said business has been steady due to the backcountry community’s clear communication, which has helped manage expectations.
“Anyone that’s skiing or backcountry skiing has certainly been hearing the warnings of what’s going on this year. And it’s just a different year,” said Schaffer.
Schaffer – and other industry experts – compared this year’s snowpack to that of 2003 and 1993.
In 2003, with similarly unpredictable conditions, the backcountry claimed the lives of 14 people in two major slides just 13 days apart at Connaught Creek in Rogers Pass, and La Traviata couloir.
Keeping the current conditions and the previous disasters in mind, Schaffer’s message for the season is simple.
“[It] doesn’t matter how much of a snow wizard you are, you’re not gonna outsmart this weakness,” said Schaffer.
As an operator of a business that still has to work in the backcountry despite the conditions, Schaffer said that business is still good because the guiding and avalanche community effectively communicated the situation, which has helped manage expectations.
Schaffer said his clients are often western Canadians who have paid attention to the messaging from industry experts.
“They see the public avalanche warnings; they follow avalanche Canada,” adding that they feel “just lucky to be out here.”
With client expectations managed, Schaffer said that most of the guides are following a similar method of accessing the terrain safely. Taking less risk and safer lines, the guides are conservative with their choices.
“We’re not skiing those like, big, huge faces, and we probably won’t be doing that for the season,” said Schaffer.
While the opportunity to ski big lines mightn’t present itself this season, Schaffer was adamant that there’s still great days and safe skiing to be done.
“Like avalanche courses have been great, ski touring has been a great product, there’s still lots of skiing out there. Revelstoke still couldn’t be a better place in the world to do it,” said Schaffer.
He said that this year is a “really difficult” one for guides. Schaffer’s had a tough time wrestling with his own angst to pursue the more challenging backcountry terrain for his clients.
“I have guests for a certain amount of days, I want to give them the best possible experience,” said Schaffer.
The communication within the backcountry guiding community and the avalanche expert community has been integral for Schaffer to help alleviate his drive to go bigger.
The best guides that Schaffer idolizes have also clearly communicated that they’re staying out of the challenging areas, which helps Schaffer feel like he isn’t missing anything.
Guiding is a stressful job at the best of times. Guides make choices for their group and “can’t miss a thing,” said Schaffer. The stress of guiding has only been exacerbated by the instability of this year’s snowpack and avalanche conditions.
“It obviously feels, you know, harder to sleep at night,” said Schaffer.
With the margin of error reduced even further, Schaffer said that guides’ decisions have to be “spot on”, which has made the season “heavier” mentally for guides.
The anxiety, Schaffer said, has crept into various corners of the backcountry community, from veteran guides to professionals.
“I think a lot of the old-time guys are just like extremely nervous that there’s going to be a large wreck. So, I think that sort of weight is weighing on all of us guides and we just don’t want it to happen,” said Schaffer.
Given that this is the first year that Schaffer’s seen weakness in the snowpack like this season, he’s looking forward to taking a “deep breath” at the end of the season.
For the time being, Schaffer said it’s “heads up hockey out there,” and everyone should stay vigilant.