Does the pandemic have you eyeing the backcountry?
A Williams Lake man hopes by sharing his own ‘humbling’ experiences as a backcountry skier it will help others learn from his mistakes.
“I don’t want people to take travelling in the backcountry lightly, but also not be terrified of it,” said Wes Gregg, who is working toward being an avalanche safety training instructor in the Cariboo region.
Recalling one particular self-rescue from an avalanche, Gregg said he thought he was making a good choice, but admitted he ‘clearly had a lapse in judgment.’
He did not understand what was happening with the snowpack and made some poor choices.
“When I got home that day, I basically told Amber, my wife, ‘this is the last time I come home and tell you I skied out of a sizable avalanche.’ It had happened quite a few times.”
That ‘last time’ was a turning point for Gregg. He resolved to learn more about avalanche safety and train so he could teach Avalanche Canada safety courses in the Cariboo region.
His own avalanche training began 13 years ago when he moved to the Cariboo and began ski touring with friends.
By taking the Avalanche Safety Training level one (AST1) course with Avalanche Canada he learned how to read avalanche terrain and do a companion rescue.
“A big part of travelling in the backcountry is not just recognizing terrain, but knowing what to do in the event of an avalanche and a burial,” Gregg said.
Before he and Amber had their two sons, he would go ski touring most weekends throughout the winter.
About four years ago, he and Amber, and one of their friends, took skills two level training with Avalanche Canada, which focuses on taking stock of touring identification, terrain management and safe route-finding for skiers venturing into the mountains without the luxury of having a professional guide.
“You touch again on the companion rescue,” Gregg said of level two. “It’s something that should be practised and done even when you aren’t on a course.”
Now Gregg is working toward his professional certification and will be taking an eight-day, level one operations course with Avalanche Canada in Smithers this coming January.
If he passes, he will be able to get his foot in the door as an avalanche professional, he said.
“As a level one, your responsibilities and roles are mainly as an observer doing weather observations and snow profiles. You basically shadow other professionals and are not certified to be a guide or anything, but it’s the first step.”
The operations course, however, will give him the certification to teach the Avalanche Skills Training 1 course.
With COVID-19 restrictions in place, Gregg said he thinks there will be a ‘huge’ influx of people venturing into the backcountry.
Gregg said the Avalanche Canada website is the best resource.
“There’s a system there called the mountain information network and it’s more important now than ever that anybody who is out touring submit to it because the operations within our area are going to be running at limited capacity.”
He encouraged people using the backcountry to share information because it will help forecasters generate more accurate information, which ultimately helps users make better choices.
It is no secret that there’s backcountry skiing in the Cariboo, he added.
“Share a photo, share what the snow was like, share what the weather was doing. A report can be super simple, but that information means a lot and a picture of snow means even more for forecasters who are doing any sort of stability test.”
Originally from Ontario where he grew up skiing, Gregg was a ski instructor and freestyle coach for 10 years.
An Avalanche Canada communications associate confirmed about 11,000 people per winter have taken Avalanche Canada training courses in the last three years.
Roughly 85 to 90 per cent take AST1 and about 10 per cent take AST2 and the rest is split between companion rescue skills and managing avalanche terrain.
Canadian correspondent for U.S. podcast series
Two years ago Gregg was thinking of starting an avalanche podcast series to interview guides and avalanche professionals about their experiences of mishaps and close calls.
He developed plans and had a concept and started doing some market research. He discovered The Avalanche Hour created by Caleb Merrill, an avalanche educator for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education.
Right before COVID took its grip, Gregg reached out to Merrill through Instagram.
From there the two corresponded and eventually Gregg was interviewed for an episode.
“I had an open and honest interview with him regarding my previous experiences. A lot of time as men or women involved with incidences find it hard to talk about and accept mistakes that were made or things that happened,” Gregg said.
Eventually Merrill invited Gregg to do some interviews of his own for the podcast with people from Canada.
Gregg’s first interview, featuring Ontario ski guide Kyle Lamothe, was published at the end of November.
Merrill said Gregg brings a new voice and perspective to the show.
“It seems like it’s going to be a great partnership. I’ve learned a lot from Wes just in the short amount of time that we’ve been working together.”
Gregg will be releasing a podcast every third Thursday of the month and has been lining up guests from the Prince George and Nelson areas.