Avalanches a known risk for backcountry users, guides say

Avalanches are a risk that comes with the territory, and it's up to the individual to evaluate the danger when doing into the backcountry, guides and mountain enthusiasts say.

Two avalanches triggered near Golden, B.C.

Golden and District Search and Rescue responded to an avalanche on the Esplanade Range on Sunday. ( Golden and District Search and Rescue)

Avalanche Canada issued a special bulletin last week warning backcountry users of the heightened avalanche risk in the Golden, B.C. area.

Last Saturday, Calgary fire technician Nick Roberts was killed in a slide while snowmobiling, and the next day, 13 more people were involved in a second avalanche in the same area. 

But avalanches are a risk that comes with the territory, and it's up to the individual to evaluate the danger when going into the backcountry, guides and mountain enthusiasts say.

Ride at your own risk

Though Avalanche Canada and groups like the Golden Snowmobile Club will warn their members of the avalanche risks, the decision to head into the mountains falls to each each skier or rider.

"We don't tell people when they can't go into the mountains," said Tim Grey, the editor of Mountain Sledder Snowmobile Magazine and a volunteer on board of directors for the Golden Snowmobile Club.

"That's not our role, but when Avalanche Canada gives a special public bulletin warning people, we give it a bit of weight and we try to listen to the signs."

"They do so for a reason," he added.

Even with proper training and preparation, backcountry users always face the risk that something could go wrong. According to the Backcountry Lodges of B.C. Association, the skiers who were injured Sunday were part of a larger group staying at Sunrise Lodge. They were experienced skiers, the association said.

John Bell, the owner of Golden Alpine Holidays which operates the lodge, says his company is "very forthright" about any avalanche warnings.

He also says this group, like many, was a self-guided trip and the skiers were all experienced. 

"We offered a lodge to be rented out to a group that made the decision. We're not there to tell them what to do, that's not what this is about. Most trips are self-guided," he said.

"We don't have the authority to tell them [not to ski]. We simply offer them a place to stay."

Avalanche Canada forecasting supervisor Ilya Storm said the conditions were particularly difficult over the weekend. 

"The fact that one of these events over the weekend included a professional with all their training and skills, shows that it's challenging," he said.

Mitigating the danger

Storm said it appears both groups involved in last weekend's avalanches had proper avalanche safety gear with them.

"It appears that they did a pretty reasonable job using it," he said.

That equipment is vital, regardless of a person's skill level in the backcountry, said Storm, who is also a mountain guide.

"I travel with basic avalanche rescue gear including a transceiver, probe and shovel," said Storm. "I often travel with an air bag, I wear a helmet, and I take all those safety precautions because I, like everybody else who travels in the mountains, might get surprised, might make a mistake, might get caught in an avalanche."

However, Storm said it appears that many of the people in the group snowmobiling at Quartz Creek on Saturday were in the potential avalanche path at once. 

"When the avalanche was released almost the entire group was caught up in it," he said. "In the ideal world, you'd have as few people exposed at once as possible and that would allow as many people to be rescuers, and that's a good way to manage your risk in avalanche terrain."

Unstable snowpack

The weak layer in the snowpack in the region is currently deep underneath the surface, explained Storm. That makes it more difficult to determine the likelihood of an avalanche.

"Often when the problem is close to the surface, we get a lot of clues like shooting cracks or whoomphing (collapsing snow), or we see lots of little avalanches or we just see lots of avalanches," said Storm.

"But when that layer gets deeper and it's harder to trigger, a lot of that evidence starts to disappear and so we don't know whether there's a problem or not and it's harder to detect whether there's a problem or not."

Snow "hates" rapid change — be it a heavy snowfall, lots of wind, or the weight of a person, Storm said.

"Just a couple of hundred pounds in the wrong place could trigger an avalanche," he said. "And so by riding in terrain, whether that's on skis or snowboards or a snowmobile that often is enough to be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

How to enjoy

Storm is quick to counter the suggestion that people shouldn't be in the mountains when conditions are dangerous.

"In many ways I think that's the wrong question," he said, arguing it's about how to enjoy the outdoors based on the conditions. 

"There were two really sad events this weekend and there were several more near misses that we've heard of, and I don't know how many actually happened," he said.

"But on the flip side, there were also many, many, many people who were out this weekend, both recreational and professionals, who were effectively managing the risk and that really is the norm."


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