British Columbia

Skiers, beware: How to stay safe in the backcountry

It's been a busy season already for emergency rescue teams across the province as threats of avalanche loom. Jan Neuspiel, founder and expert advisor of the Vancouver Island Avalanche Centre, joined CBC to offer safety tips for those venturing in avalanche territory.

It's been a busy season for emergency rescue teams across the province as threats of avalanches loom

Backcountry users are advised to wear an avalanche beacon in transmit mode and carry a probe and a shovel in their pack. (CBC)

Big dumps of snow across the Lower Mainland have already made for a fruitful ski season — and a stressful year for emergency rescuers.

Earlier this week, North Shore Rescue saved two stranded skiers on Cypress Mountain after they decided to venture into the backcountry, where they were hit by an avalanche and stranded for over 21 hours.

Mike Danks is one of the men who was part of the rescue operation. While he was relieved to see the two men were still alive when the rescue team rolled in, he has a firm message for anyone who dares cross the boundary ropes: don't do it.

Two men who spent the night stranded on Cypress Mountain were rescued by North Shore Rescue from a steep gully with a helicopter line. (Don Marce/CBC)

"I don't think people understand the impact this really has," Danks told stand-in host Gregor Craigie on CBC's BC Almanac

"When they go out of bounds and they require rescue, they're putting a lot of people at risk. It's not just the rescuers themselves, but it affects their families at home. It's a considerable impact," he added.

"If you go out of bounds, you're taking your life in your hands. The rescuers can't be there for you every time."

Staying safe in the backcountry

Danks said every emergency rescue is a stern warning to skiers daring to enter the backcountry. He noted that there will always be another rescue.

Jan Neuspiel, founder and expert advisor of the Vancouver Island Avalanche Centre, said skiers need to be prepared when putting themselves in those dangerous situations.

"The way that we want to plan trips is to first have avalanche education — go out and take a basic avalanche course to get started — and use that knowledge so you can understand your local avalanche bulletin."

Avalanche Canada has an official bulletin for B.C.'s South Coast region — but it only provides a general overview of the region.

"You have to scale down further ... to the local area that you're skiing in," he said, adding that it's important to consult with mountain officials.

Learning by experience

Neuspiel said it's important to go out in pairs, and to make sure at least one is experienced in the backcountry,

"Becoming competent in the mountains in the backcountry comes from a mixture of training ... but there's a big component that is just about going out and gaining experience.

"And doing that with the mentorship of more experienced practitioners is a really good way to get a solid foundation of what you need to learn and how to manage risk."

Backcountry skiers should always carry the survival equipment to survive. Adventure Smart has a list of equipment specific to backcountry safety.

  • Avalanche beacon
  • Probe.
  • Shovel.
  • Warm, waterproof jacket and pants.
  • Thermal underwear with an extra thermal layer.
  • A second layer for warmth on colder days.
  • Warm gloves, socks and hat, with extras of each.
  • Winter tent and sleeping bag.
  • Stove and fuel.
  • Backpack with good support.

Of course, there's only one way to ensure you don't get caught in an avalanche: keep away.

"The fundamental [rule] is ... when you have a high avalanche risk area, stay out."

With files from CBC's BC Almanac

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Skiers, beware: How to stay safe when skiing in the back country