Under a cloudless, sun-drenched sky and framed by glaciated peaks in every direction, on March 10 a small group of skiers and snowboarders slid into Marmot Basin history.
For years—decades, even—local riders had looked up to the highest point at Marmot Basin ski resort and imagined themselves making turns down the northeast facing cirque known as Marmot 1. Rimmed by massive cornices and pitching out at 40 degrees for a good portion of the 550 metre slope, the terrain has been perennially closed and off limits for riders.
While Marmot’s Peak Run has long been accessible (when conditions permit) via the 800 metre Knob Drive and an ambitious hike, the slopes to the south of the run known as Susie’s have historically been gated. Avalanche hazard, logistical complications for potential rescue missions and the generally unforgiving nature of the rocky, exposed terrain necessitated the rope stay up and the public stay out—a serious order by ski patrol, a breach of which is punishable by law.
As such, those who imagined what Marmot 1’s forbidden fruit might taste like could only look up longingly from below.
On a quiet Tuesday afternoon in March, some of those dreamers finally got their wish. For the first time in its 56 year history, Marmot Basin dropped the rope on Marmot 1. It wasn’t broadcast, there was no marketing campaign. Instead, after word squeaked out that the extensive explosive work and ski cutting taking place over the previous two weeks was to facilitate a new project that would enable skiers and riders to access an area of the mountain previously fenced off, sleuthing shredders put the pieces together. Soon, an entirely-organic swell of stoke was rippling through an in-the-know portion of the local riding community and by 10 a.m. Tuesday morning, a small but determined column of hardcore huckers were bootpacking their way up the ridge that connects the Knob Chair’s return station to the top of the mountain. Once at the summit, these Marmot loyalists basked in the heady space at 2,612 metres above sea level and marvelled at the heretofore inaccessible fall line which was choked with a foot of settled, but still soft, powder snow.
“Dear diary…got into terrain I’ve been looking at and dreaming about for 24 seasons,” wrote local snowboarder, Craig Walsh (@bro_craig), on social media. Another 100 or so riders also relished in the off-the-latch landscape that day.
Facilitating Walsh’s long-held fantasies wasn’t simply a matter of removing the rope at the top of the run and telling him and his friends to have at it. Marmot Basin avalanche control team members, supported by the mountain operations staff, ski patrol and the grooming team, undertook substantial efforts to make the terrain safe to the snow sliding public, including building a network of high traverse trails into the lower portion of the slope which allowed them to nudge into the big face above. Once there, they used traditional avalanche control techniques to knock the air out of the snow and make it less sensitive to potential triggering. One AC member estimated there had been upwards of 50 explosives detonated on the slope and more than 100 separate ski cuts in the two weeks leading up to opening day. Added to that was hours of shovelling to knock back the ominous cornice at the top of the ridge—a hazard mitigated significantly by a newly-erected snow fence system. The fence has altered the eddy pattern of the daily squalls at the roof of Marmot Basin and reduced the build up of deposited snow on the downwind slope, avalanche control members explained.
Director of Public Safety at Marmot Basin, Kerry MacDonald, was touring the top of the newly-opened terrain with a satisfied, if wind-burnt countenance on Tuesday afternoon. It was MacDonald and his team of avalanche professionals who actioned the plan to open Marmot 1. Dropping the rope on the big terrain had been considered in years past—first in 2003, then again in 2007, MacDonald said, but conditions never lined up quite right and before they could try again in those years, the spring avalanche cycles began and time ran out on the season.
This year was different. A cooperative snowpack, a cold, clear forecast and, most importantly, a thorough game plan allowed MacDonald to approach the project with a high degree of confidence. Marmot’s VP of Sales and Marketing, Brian Rode, said when MacDonald presented the plan to upper management and shareholders, it didn’t take long to get the green light, although the decision was made to forgo the fanfare and allow Marmot 1 to open quietly.
“It’s not very often a ski area opens terrain and doesn’t go out there waving the flag,” Rode said. “But knowing full well our local community who enjoys that type of terrain would go up and ski it, we knew word would get out to expert and advanced skiers.”
It did. It’s official. The word is out.
“Lots of familiar faces up there,” Walsh said. “All with big smiles on them.”
Bob Covey// firstname.lastname@example.org