Winter is Here!
While the low elevation snowpack has been a bit slow to develop this year, higher elevations are seeing fairly normal snowpack depths and, along with the great skiing this brings, comes the ever-present problem of snow stability and the questions whether, when and where to go. The best solution to this problem and answers to these questions are Information, Knowledge, Equipment, and Practice. While there are always risks associated with backcountry travel, these four things will help you to have the best and safest possible days playing in the snow. And, they will help you to be able to keep doing it again and again!
Avalanche Canada is a world-leading, non-profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety. Their website is a one-stop shop for current Information about mountain conditions, snowpack and weather. Regional Avalanche Forecasts, produced by highly trained professional forecasters, using data generated by professional avalanche technicians and guides working in BC’s world-famous Heli, Cat and backcountry skiing industry, as well as BC’s Ministry of Transportation and Highways, put the best snowpack information available at your fingertips. The Mountain Information Network, part of avalanche.ca, is a tool for the public to use to share field observations, incident reports and skiing conditions. And don’t forget local knowledge; long-time, local skiers, snowboarders and sledders may have lots of valuable information specific to the area you intend to play in. Local shops can point you in the right direction and give a unique local perspective as well.
At avalanche.ca you can also use online knowledge and training tools to sharpen your skills, or find out where training courses are being offered near you.
Knowledge and training in snowpack interpretation, terrain identification and management, and self-rescue, in conjunction with publicly available and local information, are the most powerful safety tools at your disposal. Avalanche Canada trains and certifies instructors, mandates course content and produces many of the educational and training tools used in the various courses offered to the public. If you plan to become a regular backcountry recreationist, one of your first steps should be to take the Avalanche Skills Training 1 (AST 1) course. This course is offered by certified instructors all over BC and Canada and is an excellent introduction to fundamental concepts about terrain and snow stability as well as backcountry travel and companion and self-rescue skills. Check with your local shop, or online at www.avalanche.ca for upcoming courses near you.
Having the right, properly-functioning equipment and knowing how to use it are absolutely essential and, in conjunction with all of the above, will help you maximize your safety in and enjoyment of the backcountry. In addition to what you travel on in avalanche terrain, e.g. Skis, Snowboard, Snowshoes, Snowmobile, as an absolute minimum you should carry with you, at all times a modern, digital Avalanche Transceiver, Probe and Shovel. The Canadian backcountry is vast, population sparse and rescue services, are generally hours away from where we recreate. In the scenario of an avalanche or other accident companion/self-rescue and transportation/extraction will likely be your and your group’s only and best chance of survival. Check with your local shop, experienced friends and industry professionals you may know for recommendations on these critical items and other very useful Equipment to carry with you.
In addition to structured training courses, development of Knowledge and skills requires Practice and experience with friends, guides and other professionals who are more experienced and who can act as role models and mentors. Regular repetition of a learned skill is the only way to improve and maintain your ability to use that skill, especially in a crisis situation. Your safety in avalanche terrain, in the backcountry relies on your ability to reliably apply the Information and Knowledge available to you and to quickly and effectively use the tools and Equipment at your disposal. Practice is the only way to be sure that you are giving yourself the best chance to have a good, safe day and, when the you-know-what hits the fan, the best chance of coming home alive! (Link to Cherry Bowl Video?) Getting together with your ski buddies to check gear for proper function, go over Avalanche Forecasts, practice with your transceivers, probes and shovels is a great way to gain and retain proficiency with the knowledge and tools that can save your life. Make it fun with contests, races or other games to test and improve your skills. This will also help with team-building and group dynamic management. If you’ve already taken an AST 1 course, consider taking the AST 2, or perhaps the Companion Rescue Skills course to ensure you have the latest and best information and skills.
With all the progress and developments in avalanche and weather forecasting, and training, and improvements in equipment and gear, there’s never been a better time to play in our beautiful mountains in the winter. So, get out and enjoy, and do so safely!