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Playgrounds in Peril: Summer Skiing on the Rapidly Melting Horstman Glacier

The effects of global warming are wildly obvious when looking at glaciers: More brown means warmer temperatures. Ashley Barker/Camp of Champions photo.

In the 1980s, Whistler and Blackcomb were competitors in the midst of a marketing war. The separately owned ski resorts were constantly trying to one-up each other and opening new chairlifts that pushed higher into the alpine was key for bragging rights and attracting loyal customers. Whistler Mountain held summer race camps starting in the 1960s, but when Blackcomb opened the Horstman T-Bar in 1987, access to the Horstman and Blackcomb Glaciers became much easier, shifting the summer skiing from Whistler over to Blackcomb.

Over the next 30 years, Blackcomb grew to host the biggest summer ski scene in North America. As the race and mogul camps of the ‘90s made way for the park and pipe camps of the 2000s, the amount of progression that went down on the Horstman Glacier during the turn of the century played a huge role in forming the tricks and athletes that left an indelible mark on skiing and snowboarding.

Unfortunately, progression sessions are not the only thing that went down during this time. According to Arthur DeJong–mountain planning and environmental resource manager at Whistler Blackcomb–these glaciers have been melting at a rate of half-a-million cubic meters every year. To put that number in perspective, Ken Achenbach–who ran Camp of Champions from 1989 until deteriorating glacier conditions forced him to close doors to the camp in 2017–recalled putting on his boots every day on the same rock during the inaugural season in 1989. Now, that rock is more than 140 feet up a cliff wall that towers above the snowpack. With each passing year, the glaciers on Blackcomb and the surrounding area continue to recede, taking away businesses like Camp of Champions, and with them, part of the history this legendary playground provided.

RELATED: Camp of Champions forced to close permanently due to warming conditions

Matt Sterbenz–who lists professional skier, former Camp of Champions coach, and founder of 4Frnt skis on his resume–has been skiing on the glacier since his mogul days in 1995 and has seen a tremendous amount of change in that time. Sterbenz recalls the glory days of Camp of Champions around the turn of the century.

A photo from one of COC's last years in business. Camp of Champions photo.

“There was a time when we had big jumps, a big base camp with tent spots for the lunches, we had a huge rail garden, some small junior features for kids to learn how to start jumping,” Sterbenz told TGR. “Nowadays, one or maybe two rails can fit in there, if that. The place is completely different from how it was 15 years ago.”

Aside from the environmental impacts, Sterbenz points to the human toll the receding glaciers bring.

“There is a whole community disrupted. When Camp of Champions ceased to operate, it left behind an entire community,” Sterbenz continued. “People who are now retired, but were established pros; people who were campers but are now active pros; those aspiring to become pros one day: It affected three generations of shredders.”

Trennon Paynter, the Canadian Ski Halfpipe Team Head Coach, spent every summer on the glacier from 1992 to 2015, until the lack of snow prohibited construction of a halfpipe. In the early ‘90s, Trennon spent his days on the glacier training as a member of the Canadian National Mogul Team. Towards the end of those summers, Trennon remembers hitting glacial ice as the mogul ruts deepened from a summer of bashing slushy bumps. By 1996, the ice was gone, and they were hitting rocks, and by the time 2004 rolled around, the entire zone he had been skiing on for more than 10 years was now all rock.

“That was a giant area of glacier and terrain that was all usable, and we just watched it go away year after year,” Trennon recalled.

Since the 1970s, Whistler has analyzed data from the Horstman Glacier finding that even in years when recorded snowfall is above average, the glacier still shrinks. The resort has taken several measures over the last few years to combat receding glacier levels. Despite using glacier blankets to help improve summertime snow retention, and installing snowmaking to help build the early season base, these efforts have not made a significant impact. Instead, the short-term plans call for the resort to focus on using its snowmaking to improve entry and exit points to the glacier and repositioning its T-bars to take advantage of the highest elevated terrain.

Long-term plans call for removing the Horstman and Showcase T-Bars on the Horstman Glacier altogether, and replacing them with a gondola and tunnel that can access both glaciers. While none of these efforts directly address or seek to fix the root cause of climate change (it can be argued that the energy used further exacerbates the problem), ski areas are caught in the dilemma of trying to address the problems they face this season, as well as creating sustainable practices that allow them to operate well into the future. As the global economy goes, so does the direction of business. If there is the demand to go skiing, ski areas will do what they can to build infrastructure that allows them to meet their guest’s immediate needs.

What a difference a quarter century makes: Horstman Glacier cloaked in white circa 1993. Whistler Hisorical Society photo.

Glaciers have long been a symbol of the effects of climate change. For one, the reduction in their physical appearance can be seen by comparing past photos to present-day conditions. This creates a tangible vision for people to latch onto, whereas many consequences of climate change are harder to quantify by the average person. Glacial ice is also the keeper of climate records, which give scientists valuable insight about past climates. By knowing our history, we as humans can frame a better thought process about how to approach the challenges of our future. As glaciers from around the world hold clues from the past, Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier holds a key part of the history of freestyle skiing and snowboarding. This is a sacred place that defines us and our sports. As the consequences of industrialization continue to erode our natural environment, we risk losing the wild places that have allowed us to thrive as humans. When we cease to thrive, we are forced to merely survive, and that is not nearly as much fun as sending slushy jumps with your friends in the summertime.

From The Column: TGR Playgrounds

That 1993 photo needs to be flipped horizontally. Blackcomb peak should be on the left hand side.

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