The snowmobile zoomed right past Maya, passing literally a few meters behind her. I held my breath to avoid inhaling the black smoke, and almost put my fingers to my ears to protect them from the racket. In the distance I could see about a dozen other snowmobiles, milling around like bees in a flower bed. But they aren’t bees, and they weren’t in a flower bed. In fact, they were in a “non-motorized” zone and in addition in the Whistler watershed – the area that Whistler gets its water from. Understandably, the residents of Whistler aren’t interested in drinking water polluted by the inherent gas and oil leaks and rubber pieces that snowmobiles appear to shed on every turn.
We teamed up with Fiona and Richard for this trip. I suggested heading to Gin Peak, since I like skiing out of Callaghan due to the convenient access to the alpine. Fiona was feeling under the weather so she decided last minute not to join us for the skiing portion, but rather spend the day in Whistler. This was ironic, since it was Fiona that organized the trip! It was such a treat to be driven around, it’s rare for me to go on a trip and not have to drive. Fiona dropped us off at the Biathlon Range and we quickly disappeared into the forest. Following the instructions from the VOC wiki, we arrived to the huge sign at the trail head. From there the trail is marked very well with orange markers all the way to Hanging Lake. The forest is, for the most part, open and easy to travel through. There is one steep section that can be icy at times. When we arrived to Hanging Lake, I triggered a tiny slide on a steep convex roll leading down to the creek. It slid quietly and suddenly, like a serial murderer in a horror movie, swift and potentially deadly.
We took a short break, and I was surprised to see snowmobiles there – I had expected to see some that day, but not so close, and not over there. The reason they were there soon became apparent. They were “highmarking” a nearby steep slope. This appears to consist of driving a snowmobile at speed up a steep slope until it stalls and then the snowmobile and rider roll down the slope, out of control. From below, this seemed like a rather dangerous maneuver. Looking more carefully, we noticed that the slope they were on had avalanched that day, no doubt as a result of the highmarking. Later we watched as a snowmobiler triggered a small slide, but they kept on going up and down that same slope. We resolved to ski very conservatively.
We made our way up to the ridge that separates Hanging Lake from Rainbow Lake, and then along that ridge towards Gin Peak. Here we encountered a “snowmobile highway” – a route that many snowmobiles had obviously used that day and during previous days or even weeks. We made sure to stay off their tracks so that we wouldn’t get run over. Higher up they zoomed past us, and it suddenly occurred to me that they aren’t doing it on purpose. It just doesn’t occur to them that their presence ruins our wilderness experience.
In the meantime some fog rolled in, and the visibility was very low. The snowmobiles kept on driving past us at speed, so we tried to stay close to the trees, where they were unlikely to go. Just below the summit we arrived to a snowmobile congregation. It turned out that they were taking turns to shuttle each other up Gin Peak, after snowboarding down it to Rainbow Lake. I asked them if they had triggered any avalanches, and they said “yes, but all small ones”, and didn’t seem too worried about it. We had our lunch break on the summit, just around the corner from them.
After lunch we skied down along our tracks, arriving back to the Biathlon Range exactly at 4pm, the time we had told Fiona we would be back. What great timing. It was a fun trip, but the presence of the snowmobiles obviously detracted from the experience. It is time for some policing. The only way to force snowmobiles to avoid the non-motorized area in Callaghan and the Whistler watershed, is to prohibit them from parking at their usual launch off points. Backcountry skiers in the lower mainland have so few roads that they can use to get into the alpine in winter, that this area must be set aside. Snowmobiles have many more options, and driving slightly further is less of a bid deal for them.
Please head out to Callaghan and document snowmobile activity in the forbidden regions and fill out this survey: there is hope that something can be done about this. I hope this post doesn’t discourage people from going there – now, more than ever, we need to show that non-motorized users in fact benefit from this area, and to document illegal activities. As far as I can tell, they are allowed to go to Hanging Lake, but not Rainbow Lake and most of the area around Gin Peak.