Written by Stéphanie Major
SQUAMISH, BC: INSIDE THE WORLD OF A MOUNTAIN GUIDE
The mountains have a language of their own.
They speak with the wind, the rain, and the snow. With a gust blowing down from a ridge when you least expect it, or an avalanche that threatens to sweep away everything in its path, from hundred-year-old pines to experienced skiers.
The mountains are dangerous, too. But danger is something that Jean-François Plouffe encounters every day. Welcome to the world of a mountain guide.
Squamish is a mecca for great outdoors enthusiasts, known by adventure and nature seekers worldwide. As a simple skier from the East Coast, finding myself in front of the famous Chief (the enormous rocky dome that dominates the town), was a dream come true. It was there that I immersed myself in the daily life of Jean-François Plouffe - skier, professional mountain guide, and Helly Hansen ambassador.
JF has been doing this for twenty years. His mission: to accompany his clients on excursions, plan itineraries, ensure the safety of groups, and now educate them about environmental issues. Even though he knows the mountain in the distance inside out, it's no easy feat. "It's a dangerous job," he admitted as we arrived at his home, in the workshop where his equipment is housed. But danger is all around us. “You just have to accept the risks and be well prepared. If you think about it, sitting on your couch all day... that's risky too, but not for as good of a reason!"
On that April morning, we gathered at his house to choose our route to ski the next day in the mountains. Nothing is ever left to chance. One detail JF never neglects is avalanche equipment, including a shovel, probe and avalanche beacon.
Avalanches are part of the job. With the rise of climate change, however, their behavior has become more unpredictable. Guides need to know more than ever how to decode the language of the mountains in order to understand the influence of the weather on skiing conditions. JF pointed out how, just over the last few years, the situation has created wind patches on one of the slopes, with vast expanses of blowing snow forming a dense slab over a layer of light snow, often responsible for triggering avalanches.
It’s clearly avalanche territory - in other words, impossible to go skiing there.
"Snow is always changing, it's alive," he explained, his eyes glued to the weather models, which showed several possible configurations. "It's constantly influenced by the sun, wind and temperatures. I have no choice but to take all these factors into consideration. Just because I have an intimate understanding of the mountains - doesn't mean I can ignore these kinds of details."
He finally decided on a road, the one that climbs Sky Pilot Mountain above Squamish.
Avalanches & company
Wednesday, 8 AM. After having woken up at the crack of dawn, we took advantage of JF's popularity to treat ourselves to the famous Sea to Sky gondola, hoisting ourselves up as close as possible to our starting point. JF is an ambassador for the mountain, and if I had any doubts about his near-celebrity status in the region, all I had to do was look at a portrait photo of him on the wall of our cabin. With the sea at our backs, the Sky Pilot in front of us, and the iodized ocean air reaching us despite the altitude, the view was absolutely breathtaking. We start to climb, and JF quickly tells us to get out our avalanche gear.
Though the aim of mountain safety is to learn how to not need your avalanche beacon, you still have to know how to use it. JF explained the ins and outs during an exercise. He, who comes here every day, takes advantage of these teaching moments to perfect his knowledge and practice digging out objects from under the snow, a crucial skill for experienced guides.
A beacon is a small electronic device carried by members of a group. In the event of an avalanche, it enables those on the surface to locate members that may get buried beneath the snow. When the victim (an unlucky Helly Hansen toque, in our case) is found, the probe is used to determine its exact position, then the shovel to dig it out. You have to act extremely quickly and efficiently, as the chances of survival diminish rapidly. An emergency situation is not the time to use your avalanche beacon for the first time, and risk precious minutes that can undoubtedly cost someone their life. As I said, training is crucial.
So we continued to climb. Under the shades of blue and green, white and black, I soon felt lost in the immensity. The mountain seemed to swallow me whole. We were no match for the Sky Pilot's grandeur.
Understanding the mountain
And yet... our impact on these snowy giants is undeniable. Human activity is having a disastrous impact on our natural environments, and mountain professionals have front-row seats to witness it. There's less snow, it's hotter, and extreme weather events are more frequent. For JF, the point of no return came when he was leading an expedition at an altitude of over 2,000 m. At the top of a glacier, he found a plastic water bottle someone had discarded.
"I was stunned. It wasn't supposed to be there! Plastic is everywhere, in rivers, in oceans. But that high up? It really shocked me," he recounted. JF took it as a sign that, if he wanted to continue his mountain activities, and if he wanted his children to be able to enjoy them too, he had to do something about it. It's now become an integral part of his guiding business.
The mountains are not without their risks, and caution is called for every time you venture into them. The ever-changing weather patterns in high-altitude regions will become even more unpredictable as climate change progresses. More than ever, we have to listen to the mountains. Because we can no longer ignore what they are desperately trying to tell us, today in 2023, in the midst of no longer eternal snows and recurring forest fires.