An average of 10 people a year die in B.C. each winter as a result of avalanches.
Another 15 or more succumb to hypothermia or exposure.
This year a group of agencies — the BC Coroners Service, Environment Canada, Parks Canada and the Canadian Avalanche Centre — are working together to highlight the risks and stressing the need for proper planning, equipment, training and monitoring of weather and snow conditions before venturing into the backcountry.
“Know before you go,” said David Jones, meteorologist with Environment Canada. “Weather in B.C.’s backcountry can turn nasty in a hurry.
“Calm, clear weather can quickly deteriorate into blowing and drifting snow with driving winds and near-zero visibility.”
Grant Statham, mountain risk specialist for Parks Canada, stressed the need for checking avalanche terrain ratings along with weather forecasts.
Public avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) Peter Marshall noted there are some bright spots on the horizon, however.
“There has been a steady decline in the number of avalanche fatalities over the past four years,” Marshall said. “This is especially significant as the use of the winter backcountry has increased significantly during that period.”
In the Cariboo-Chilcotin, many people enjoy the freedom backcountry skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling has to offer.
Mark Savard, local avalanche expert, said it’s all about preparation and following a simple set of rules.
He recommends anyone seriously considering spending any amount of time in the backcountry to take the necessary Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course, which is offered at a level one and level two degree.
“I’ve been steering people to Smithers and Bear Mountaineering because you get to go out and do some practice,” Savard said, noting currently no courses are being offered in the Williams Lake area.
“There’s just so much good information out there for the public to use. And never assume anything. You could be standing on a five-degree slope with steeper stuff above and get hammered. Everyone should know how to perform a rescue and practice, practice, practice. It’s more than just saving yourself. If you are prepared you could save others.”
Savard said locally there’s more risk of avalanches west of the Fraser River due to its colder, drier and windier weather.
“It can be pretty gnarly,” he said. “But a lot of the areas we ski regularly it’s generally consistent. The snow pack is bigger, which you would think would be more dangerous, but the snow bonds together better.”
Craig Evanoff, owner and head instructor at Dezaiko Alpine Adventures in Prince George, also offers the AST. His next course is coming up on Jan. 11 at Pine Pass/Powderking and can be registered for by calling 250-962-5272.
To help better prepare people for the backcountry Environment Canada and the Canadian Avalanche Centre have issued a fact sheet with several steps to follow:
1.) Speak to an Environment Canada meteorologist four to seven days prior to your departure available at 1-900-565-5555 or 1-888-292-2222. The organization’s Pacific Storm Prediction Centre offers one-on-one consultations with a professional meteorologist. Twenty-four hours before departure call to consult again.
2.) Check for special weather statements issued three days prior to your departure. Special weather statements are intended to advise the public of unusual or inconvenient weather conditions.
3.) Warnings issued 24 hours prior to your departure. Environment Canada is the only agency authorized to issue weather warnings. Visit http://weather.gc.ca/warnings/?prov=bc.
4.) Ensure everyone going into mountainous terrain in winter has essential avalanche safety gear — transceiver, probe and shovel, and knows how to use it.
5.) Ensure everyone has at least basic training in recognizing avalanche terrain and moving safely in the environment.
6.) Ensure everyone travelling in the backcountry checks weather and avalanche bulletins before heading out. Then choose appropriate terrain for the conditions of the day.
Essential Mountain Gear
From the Canadian Avalanche Centre:
Essential gear is the equivalent of a PFD on a boat or a seat belt in a car — the basic stuff that everyone needs. Although you buy them separately, think of the Transceiver-Probe-Shovel as a single piece of gear — two out of three isn’t good enough. Every person needs all three parts.
Avalanche transceivers are small electronic devices worn by all members of a team. When traveling, everyone sends out a radio signal; in the event of an avalanche those not buried switch to search mode and follow the signal towards a buried person. Transceivers have changed dramatically over just the past few years and innovative developments continue to appear.
Amongst three antennae digital transceivers, the fastest search times are posted by people who practice. Practice is more important than brand!
Transceivers get you close fast, a probe is how you actually find someone.
Probes are like sectional tent poles that snap together. An assembled probe inserted in the snow in a systematic pattern lets you physically pinpoint someone under the snow so you don’t waste time digging.
Probes vary in length, stiffness, and materials, which translate into differences in weight, durability, and cost.
Generally, the smaller diameter the more they’ll bend and deflect. Carbon is light and strong (with a sufficient diameter) but more expensive.
The locking mechanism and line are quite important: you want a reliable and durable mechanism and a cable that doesn’t stretch (slack means wear, tear, and breaking).
You think shoveling is straightforward? Think again and check out the V-Conveyor Strategy. Good shoveling technique can save you tens of minutes if you’re trying to get someone out of a 150 cm deep hole! But you need the right tool — not all shovels are created equal!
What makes a good shovel? Obviously lightweight, but you have to balance that with strength. It has to fit in your pack, but within reason bigger is better. Plastic isn’t good — plastic breaks in cold temperatures and hard avalanche debris! An extendable shaft is important. A flat top that provides a platform for stepping on is valuable when chopping blocks.
Avalanche airbags reduce the severity of the effects of being in an avalanche by reducing burial depth (or even preventing burial) and facilitating rapid localization. They also help with visibility and may provide some degree of trauma protection. There are three manufacturers making airbags for the North American Market: Backcountry Access, ABS and Snowpulse.