Big Terrain, Big Decisions: Sledding on the Pemberton Ice Cap
Sledding the big terrain of the Pemberton Ice Cap has its perks, but it also comes with challenges. For Head-Line, which operates on the icefield—one of the largest temperate latitude icefields in the world—the benefits include high elevation riding, which offers more snow than the lower, rainier valley elevations, and an extended season which often runs well into September.
The Pemberton Ice Cap is an immense icefield that sprawls 300km2 over a series of jagged volcanic peaks in the Southern Coast Range of British Columbia, just on the doorstep of Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s largest 4-season resort. Arguably one the best places on earth for sledding, the Ice Cap is so vast that it literally creates its own local weather systems. It features big lines, ice caves, crevasses, seracs, bergschrunds, open icefields, monster windlips and copious amounts of powder created by Pacific weather systems cooling over this milder, but arctic-like environment.
Sledding on the Pemberton Ice Cap
On a clear bluebird day, nothing beats riding the expanse of the icefields. You can pick a line a mile away to a major feature on the Ice Cap, and the sheer immensity of it all makes you really appreciate how small you are out there. But when the weather socks in, you need to know this terrain like the back of your hand and to lead a group through the maze of features and hazards requires skilled guides with tools that are beyond the kit of a normal guiding scenario.
Big Terrain, Big Decisions
Our toolbox is filled with 2-way radios, satellite phone, inReach two-way communication device, cell phone, air horn, laser (yes laser for flat light conditions), crevasse rescue and first aid gear. But our most important and most often used tool that keeps us out of trouble is a series of hand signals that we use to share information between guides and guests. The hand signals are just as critically important in big mountain sledding as they are in expedition river running, which is a big part our DNA, and from which we modified the hand signals. Given the ambient noise of idling engines and separation that can take place between riders, hand signals are the easiest and most effective means to ensure that crucial information is passed along. That information might be that the guide’s line should either be followed or avoided, or that the group should spread apart while travelling through a potential avalanche zone, or an instruction to regroup in order to assess routing and terrain options.
Group management and communication has come to be recognized as one of the core issues in snowmobile safety as identified in various initiatives by Avalanche Canada, especially in big mountain terrain. And while a few hand signals won’t solve all your challenges out there, it’s amazing how a few simple hand gestures can make such a positive impact on your day.
Another challenge we face daily is ascertaining the actual weather and snow conditions up on the Ice Cap from down at the Whistler heli-port where we outfit our guests with all the appropriate mountain gear before flying up to the Ice Cap on our heli-snowmobile tours. To address this, we confer with a series of weather system links, avalanche reports, web cams and our nearest neighbours before leaving the heli-port. This helps us to anticipate the snow and avalanche conditions, as well as determine the visibility, which is the number one challenge on the Ice Cap, given that its entire expanse is above treeline.
The reality is that even when it’s a challenging snow year like this one with limited trail and FSR access, we have awesome snow conditions on the Ice Cap and the riding will carry on for months to come. So if the decision you’re trying to make is to ride or not to ride, know that you can join us on a heli-sled or snowbike trip for an awesome day of sledding in some of the most spectacular terrain anywhere. The Ice Cap is the epitome of big mountain sledding and whether you’re looking for a tour, riding clinic, somewhere epic to film or just a sled rental on a sunny day, call us and we can help set up your next sledding adventure.”
Doug Washer is the CEO of Head-Line Mountain Holidays based in Whistler, BC and developer of the Master Snowmobile Trainer Program for the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. Doug has been operating snowmobile tours in the Whistler backcountry since 1989 and pioneered the early mountain snowmobile film industry.
In addition to a variety of services including guiding, film support services, and multi-day accommodation packages, Head-Line offers heli-snowmobile tours in which guests fly directly from the base of operations at the Whistler heli-port to a mobile heli-dome (snowmobile and snowbike staging area) on the Ice Cap, allowing direct, early-bird access to the powder.