Whistler makes changes following avalanche deaths
WHISTLER, B.C. -- While it can't build a "Berlin Wall" to keep determined riders from venturing into off-limits areas, B.C.'s Whistler Blackcomb resort has made changes to discourage backcountry and out-of-bounds skiing after the deaths of two people in separate avalanches this week.
Snowboarder Aaron Fauchon, 26, was killed Thursday and a 37-year-old skier died on New Year's Eve -- both on runs marked off-limits due to a high avalanche hazard.
"There are poles and rope all along these areas, it's not like you can inadvertently go past this," said the resort's senior vice-president of operations, Doug Forseth.
"We can't build a Berlin Wall, that's not practical."
Still, Forseth said the resort is clamping down on riders who flagrantly disobey the signs and fences designed to keep them out of dangerous areas, adopting a zero-tolerance policy and kicking out anyone caught where they shouldn't be.
For season pass holders, that could mean losing their $1,800 pass with no refund.
The resort has also suspended selling backcountry passes that allow riders to use its lifts to access backcountry trails, said Forseth.
"We do not want to encourage anyone to go out there right now," he said.
The pair of fatal avalanches come a little more than a year before Whistler will host several events during the 2010 Winter Olympics, and just weeks after a gondola collapse left riders dangling above the slopes, making headlines around the world.
The resort has cast its recent misfortune as a collection of isolated incidents -- the gondola collapse caused by a extremely rare build-up of ice, and the avalanches the result of rogue riders determined to break the rules.
Olympic organizers simply referred questions about the issue back to Whistler Blackcomb.
The Olympic committee brushed aside concerns about the gondola collapse, saying only that it was confident the resort will be ready to host the Games.
Avalanche warnings are currently in place for much of southern B.C., including Whistler.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre issued an updated warning on Thursday, saying that a weak snowpack has created fragile conditions.
The centre said clear skies forecast for the coming weekend will likely bring more people into the backcountry, increasing the risk that someone could be caught up in an avalanche.
The latest deaths also come in the shadow of disastrious back-to-back avalanches in the B.C. Interior near Fernie last Sunday that killed eight snowmobilers from the nearby Sparwood.
The dead snowmobilers were among 11 men caught in the avalanches while riding in a rocky backcountry bowl.
The three who survived were forced to leave their friends buried in the snow in order to find help and escape the danger of yet another avalanche.