British Columbia

How risky is too risky in avalanche terrain? Depends who you ask

A recent string of avalanche warnings across British Columbia, Alberta and northwestern United States, and the death of two skiers in avalanches recently— one near Pemberton, B.C. and one in Colorado — has reignited the discussion about how risky is too risky in the backcountry.

Many skiers who brave high-risk areas and escape unscathed are pushing the limit, warns Avalanche Canada

Some people have more tolerance for risk-taking in the backcountry, says skier Adam Braverman. (Submitted by Adam Braverman)

There was a time when Adam Braverman, a skier with two decades experience in the back country, would never venture onto a mountain if the avalanche risk was high.

Today, Braverman, a Vancouverite in his mid-thirties, doesn't just look at the risk warning of the day. He weighs other factors like the size of the snowpack, his knowledge of the area and the planned route before deciding when and where to ski. 

Many of his friends won't ski when avalanche warnings are high.

"I used to not go out when the [avalanche risk] was considerable," he said. "I still have friends like that, friends that are very conservative."

When it comes to risk tolerance in the backcountry, Braverman says skiers and guides have mixed opinions about whether to venture out when avalanche warnings are high.

But a recent string of avalanche warnings across British Columbia, Alberta and northwestern United States, and the death of two skiers in avalanches recently— one near Pemberton, B.C. and one in Colorado — has reignited the discussion about how risky is too risky in the backcountry.

Adam Braverman considers more than just the avalanche forecast when deciding where and when to go backcountry skiing. (Submitted by Adam Braverman)

Some skiers say high risk avalanche warnings keep them off the hills. But that's not true for everyone.

One safety expert noted that some skiers — especially those with years of experience —  feel confident heading to the mountains, despite warnings. But gaining the experience to make such judgement calls often comes from pushing the limits.

That mindset could push a skier into dangerous situations, said James Floyer, forecasting program supervisor with Avalanche Canada,

"It's possible for people to build up an experience that may make them feel that the danger isn't as high as it is," Floyer said.

"And if you're building up your experience level close to that [danger] line … you may go out one more time and get caught in an avalanche."​

Braverman agreed.

"Those that have more experience — I don't want to say they want to take more risks, but I think they are more comfortable in knowing how to be in an area that has been given a high or extreme rating," he said.

Avalanche danger in North America is rated on a scale of low, moderate, considerable, high or extreme. Last week, many areas around southern B.C. had high or extreme danger ratings. (CBC)

Grey areas of danger

Experience isn't a guarantee of staying safe though.

The 42-year-old B.C. man who died in an avalanche last Thursday was described as an experienced skier. The Colorado skier died while taking an advanced avalanche safety training course.

"It's not black and white," said Jennifer Olson, a mountain guide who lives in Squamish.

"I think it's really hard after these incidents to have so much judgment."

The risks associated with avalanches are often misunderstood, Olson said, which can lead to mixed reactions after an accident.

Avalanche Canada recommends taking an avalanche safety training course to better recognize dangers signs and to carry emergency gear like a beacon, probe and shovel. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

"People who are in avalanche terrain take calculated risks on the moment-to-moment basis," she said, comparing it to other day-to-day risks like driving in icy conditions.

"But if you don't know what you're doing, you shouldn't be outside in avalanche terrain."

Avalanche Canada, based in Revelstoke, puts out a daily avalanche bulletin that rates the danger in specific regions as low, moderate, considerable, high or extreme based on likelihood and expected size.

Last week, many areas of southern B.C. were rated between high to extreme.

Avalanche Canada publishes a daily avalanche bulletin online that rates the danger in specific regions based on likelihood and expected size. (Avalanche Canada)

Mitigating the risk

"If it's an extreme risk, I never go out," said Virginia Hourihane, who has been skiing for seven years and heads out nearly every weekend during the touring season.

"You definitely have to take some risk but it's very possible to always practice good safety."

Hourihane takes the avalanche forecasts with a grain of salt and emphasized the importance of assessing the situation in the moment.

Even when danger isn't forecasted as high, she's turned back when conditions seemed too risky.

Virginia Hourihane on Mount Baker in Washington. She says extreme conditions "aren't worth the risk" and instead chooses safer areas, like more simple terrain or ski resorts. (Ian Stotesbury/Facebook)

Individual decisions

Floyer, with Avalanche Canada, described risk management in the mountains as an "interesting combination of society's expectations and individual determination."

"It's up to the individual to determine how much experience they have and whether or not they feel as though they can manage the risk," he said.  

But an extreme danger rating should be an "alarm bell" though because of the very high risk and unusual conditions, he emphasized. They are forecasted less than 2 per cent of the time.

Carrying avalanche safety equipment — including a beacon, probe and shovel — is crucial to safe travel in the backcountry. (CBC)

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the B.C. man who died in an avalanche near Pemberton was in the midst of taking an avalanche training course. In fact, he died while on a recreational trip. A skier from Colorado died while taking a training course in a separate incident.
    Jan 14, 2019 11:44 AM PT

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