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Backcountry users advised to reduce risk and report on conditions during pandemic

If you're going out in the backcountry during the COVID-19 pandemic, rescue groups are asking that you choose lower-risk terrain and activities, while Avalanche Canada is asking that you make a point of sharing information on snow and weather conditions.

Rescue capabilities may be limited; Avalanche Canada requests more field reports

Backcountry skiers make their way toward Mount McArthur in British Columbia's Yoho National Park in this file photo. Rescue groups are asking backcountry users to dial back the level of risk in their activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

If you're going out in the backcountry during the COVID-19 pandemic, rescue groups are asking that you choose lower-risk terrain and activities, while Avalanche Canada is asking that you make a point of sharing information on snow and weather conditions.

The Alberta government has asked ski resorts in the province to close, to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Parks Canada has also closed visitor services within the national parks, including washrooms and day-use facilities.

Still, access to the parks remains open and rescue groups expect people will continue venturing out to ski or snowshoe.

Parks Mountain Safety, which responds to rescues in the mountain national parks, has asked people "to keep their personal risk to an absolute minimum."

"Now is not the time to have a backcountry accident, which will stress the capacity of our teams and the medical system," it said in a statement.

"Enjoy the fresh air, but please help everyone out by restraining your activities."

A backcountry skier crosses a frozen Hector Lake in Banff National Park. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

The organization says responding to a backcountry accident could stress the capacity of its rescue teams and further burden the health-care system during the COVID pandemic.

Similar warnings have come from Kananaskis Country Public Safety in Alberta and Fernie Search and Rescue in B.C.

Avalanche Canada calls for more data sharing

Avalanche Canada issued a special COVID-19 message on Monday, saying the pandemic is expected to affect its ability to gather data and field observations from professional sources, such as certified guides.

The organization relies on that information to make daily forecasts of avalanche hazard.

Executive director Gilles Valade says Avalanche Canada will continue to assess the situation and will provide forecasts for as long as they can, but they're expecting an increase in forecast uncertainty as data disruption progresses.

"So we're faced with the possibility of either curtailing some of these forecasts or making sure that people understand that they might not be as accurate as we would like them to be," he said.

As a result, it is asking all backcountry users to step up the reporting of conditions through the Mountain Information Network, an online system used to gather field observations from anyone.

A backcountry skier performs a Rutschblock test to gauge the stability of the snowpack. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

"Our Mountain Information Network (MIN) is going to become even more important than usual," Avalanche Canada said.

"We are actively encouraging all backcountry users to submit their observations. Even the most basic data will be helpful, so please consider posting to the MIN. We are also encouraging avalanche professionals to keep providing whatever data they have."

Avalanche safety expert Chris Stethem noted March is typically one of the busiest times for avalanche-related accidents.

"Going out into the backcountry for a walk is fine," he said. "But is it fair to take much risk — and potentially put other people at risk?"

In another message posted to its website on Wednesday, Avalanche Canada advised users to carefully consider their plans in light of all the effects of the pandemic.

"This could be a time to avoid the backcountry," it said.

With files from the CBC's Dave Gilson and The Canadian Press

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