Alberta Parks triggers controlled avalanches on Mount Rundle

Unstable snow crashed down onto the highway on the east side of Mount Rundle on Friday morning, but there were no vehicles in sight to witness the avalanche — because the disaster was a planned one.

Explosives were detonated to mitigate risk of unstable snowpack

Alberta Parks detonated multiple controlled avalanches on Friday morning on Mount Rundle. (Mark Matulis/CBC)

Unstable snow crashed down onto the highway on the east side of Mount Rundle on Friday morning, but there were no vehicles in sight to witness the avalanche.

That's because the disaster was a planned one. Alberta Parks staff detonated explosives near the top of the mountain to ensure that an unstable snowpack — created by heavy snow, warm temperatures and strong winds — wouldn't tumble down on unsuspecting motorists or skiers travelling in the Canmore and Spray Lakes area.

The snow was quickly cleared, and the road reopened. 

A team of six people used a helicopter to access what parks staff call "start zones" at the top of the slope. They placed the explosives, and then took off to a safe distance before detonation.

Complex snowpack

Mike Koppang, public safety specialist with the Kananaskis region, said his team triggered a number of avalanches on Friday, but only one reached the road.

"We'll often go up after a storm or when we're anticipating another storm to come down the valley, and control the amount of snow in the start of that path so there's no potential for an avalanche to reach the road," Koppang said.

Koppang said even with mitigation measures, it's important for people heading up into the mountains to recognize they're in avalanche terrain.

"The snowpack this year is a fairly complex snowpack, there's lots going on, so you have to be fairly experienced to know where the snowpack is safe," he said.

Kananaskis Public Safety crews take an injured skier from the scene of an avalanche in November. (Kananaskis Country Public Safety Section)

He suggested anyone venturing into the back country should take an avalanche safety course, and learn how to use devices like beacons, shovels and probes. 

Avalanche Canada is hosting an awareness day event on Sunday, where visitors can learn how to dig snow pits, watch rescue dog demos and take part in shovel dig races.

Koppang said it's especially important for visitors to the region to be aware of avalanche safety during this time of year, when weather changes can increase the risk.

"The snowpack doesn't like things that happen to it rapidly," he said. 

Adventurers can visit Avalanche.ca for daily updates on avalanche risk, as well as backcountry resources. 

With files from Genevieve Normand