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interview by Steven Trendyle | photgraphs by Robin O'Neill
A retired geologist who helped pioneer much of the skiing in and around Whistler, Karl Ricker attended the University of British Columbia where he fell in with the Varsity Outdoor Club. His thesis examined glaciers in Canada's Yukon Territory, and since that time he's had a keen interest in what he terms the "health" of Coast Range glaciers. An icon of the Whistler scene who helped set race courses for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Ricker's daughter Maelle brought home gold for Canada in the boardercross event at the 2010 Winter Games.
Many of the early Coast Range explorers were World War II veterans who joined the Varsity Outdoor Club in the 1950s. They were a rambunctious lot.
After the  Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, there was a lot of interest in the mountains around Alta Lake for a possible Winter Olympics bid in 1976. I'd been up there and recognized that the horseshoe shape of the Spearhead Range would make the perfect ski tour, so we scouted the area for potential ski areas.
We took nine days to do the traverse, under pretty much perfect weather. The map we were using was from 1928. Whistler Mountain, which is what all the locals called it, was named London Mountain. There was a meadow on the map called Singing Pass, so we got a bit carried away and named three of the peaks after musical instruments—Flute, Oboe, and Piccolo. We submitted the names to the Dominion Geological Survey in Ottawa, and they approved most of them, including changing London Mountain to Whistler Mountain.
They've done a pretty good job of developing Whistler. At least they've run the miners and the loggers out. Now, they just have to make sure they don't expand too much up or down the hghway.
The gear that we used at the time was not much different than today. We had Head metal skis, alpine touring boots, and Secura releasable bindings. And we had nylon tents and aluminum poles. We didn't have avalanche beacons at the time. You selected the gentlest terrain that you could find, and often descended ridgelines on foot.
On a trip to Wedgemount Lake [north of Whistler], I noticed a glacier protruding halfway across the lake. For 33 years, I've returned there to measure the rate of recession. We've had three generations of teachers and students study the glacier. When we first started measuring the Overlord Glacier, it was actually in the final stages of rapid advance. In fact, many glaciers in western Canada advanced until the mid 1980s.
The Wedgemount Glacier has declined by several hundred meters since my first visit. Our field studies indicate that the glaciers are receding, even in years in which Whistler receives a lot of snowfall and there's plenty of new snow on the glaciers.
Geology is a "ground truth" science. Whether you are working on a mountainside or on a glacier, your evidence is what you can measure from where you're standing. Technology is just a tool to help you out.
I started skiing in Grade 12 on Mount Benson, a small rope tow hill outside of Nanaimo, BC, that has been wiped out by rising snow lines.
I started out ski racing but I was never very good at it, so I got involved in course preparation. I helped out with World Cup races at Whistler in the 1980s and 1990s. We became known as the Weasel Workers because there was a narrow part of the Dave Murray Downhill course that needed to be manually boot-packed. To do it properly, everyone had to link arms and walk up and down the course to compress the snow.
My daughter Maelle was a talented ski racer. In fact, she's a good athlete at everything. She tried snowboarding in high school and picked it up very quickly. She competed for Canada in the halfpipe at Nagano in 1998, and then in boardercross in Turin, and again in Vancouver.
Parents, if they're smart, don't go anywhere near where their kids are competing. I've never seen her race. During the Olympics I was working the alpine course in Whistler. I found out she won the gold medal from some of the other guys working on the course, talking on the radios. I was able to make it down to the medal ceremony the next evening. It was a spectacular night.
From the Spring 2012 issue