Avalanche risk within 'normal bounds' as holidays approach but snowpack concerns remain

Low to moderate avalanche risk is expected in the mountain parks near Calgary this weekend but things get touchier the farther west and south you go.

Backcountry expected to get busier between Christmas and New Year's

Backcountry skiers approach Crowfoot Mountain in Banff National Park. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Low to moderate avalanche risk is expected in the mountain parks near Calgary this weekend but things get touchier the farther west and south you go.

"We certainly have some concerns with the snowpack right now," said James Floyer, forecasting program supervisor with Avalanche Canada.

An unusually warm period in mid-December led to a crust forming on the snow's surface in many regions, Floyer said, and recent storms have dropped fresh snow on top.

That fresh snow could also sit on other types of weak layers, such as hoar frost or faceted snow, according to avalanche bulletins published on Friday.

Purcells, South Rockies, Glacier National Park

Avalanche Canada forecasts greater risk in the South Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Glacier National Park, with danger ratings in the moderate to considerable range.

"We're certainly well within normal bounds for winter hazard and I think there's a lot of opportunity for people to go outside and recreate and do that in a very safe and very positive way, provided that you match the kind of terrain with the conditions," Floyer said.

"It's always possible to go out and have a good time, you just need to choose the right terrain for the day."

He advised, in particular, to watch out for wind slabs forming at higher elevations and to not take the stability of the snowpack at lower elevations for granted — especially in steep, unsupported terrain with sparse trees.

"That's where we're also seeing some avalanche activity and that could surprise people," Floyer said.

Kananaskis, Banff, Kootenay and Yoho 

In the mountain parks closer to Calgary, things look more stable, with risk ratings ranging from low to moderate, depending on location and elevation.

"People are skiing a lot of different areas," said Stephen Holeczi, a visitor safety specialist with Banff, Kootenay and Yoho national parks.

"For ice climbers, too, a lot of the ice climbs are in. You just have to watch if the wind picks up. There's a lot of light snow kicking around that could potentially come down in smaller avalanches."

Temperatures are expected to be cold for the weekend, so Holeczi advised to dress appropriately.

He also said venturing into higher terrain should always be done with caution.

"We're seeing that there could be some wind slab developments up higher in the alpine," he said.

"So people just need to look out if the snow is changing texture or cracking underfoot and those kinds of things."

Busier time in the backcountry

Floyer said the number of people out in the backcountry tends to rise during the holidays.

"We often see an increase in that week between Christmas and New Year," he said.

He reminded everyone venturing into avalanche terrain to check conditions before they go and to always carry an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel.

The most recent avalanche forecasts and detailed descriptions of the risks can be found at