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Spring avalanche conditions raise backcountry risks, experts caution

They’re about two weeks late, they can rise a lot from morning to afternoon and they have experts urging caution. They are spring avalanche conditions and they’re in effect right now in and around Banff National Park.

What's 2 weeks late, can jump from morning to afternoon and have experts on alert?

Experts say backcountry users should get in and out as early as possible to reduce avalanche risks. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

They're about two weeks late, they can rise a lot from morning to afternoon, and they have experts urging caution. They are spring avalanche conditions and they're in effect right now in and around Banff National Park.

"This snow has already lost its structure due to direct sunlight," Barry Blanchard tells CBC News.

"It's quite moist, no longer sticking together. The next stage in its evolution is it gets like wet oatmeal. All you have to do is touch it and you'll get a surface slough release of an avalanche."

Blanchard is a mountain guide and associate director at Canmore-based Yamnuska Mountain Adventures.

"When you get a cold, clear night and the snowpack freezes and forms a frozen crust we have literally almost no avalanche hazard, and that can go to high avalanche hazard by the afternoon. It's no longer bonded by an ice freeze, it's now like wet oatmeal. It's ripe for an avalanche, it just needs to be touched."

Barry Blanchard is a mountain guide at Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in Canmore, Alta. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

A Banff National Park visitor safety specialist urges backcountry users to get in and out early in the day.

"Start really early, perhaps before sunrise and be on top of your objectives by mid morning and down before noon and for people just going out hiking, don't forget there's still avalanche hazard," Conrad Janzen said.

"If you're going out into the backcountry start early, finish early, and if you don't have avalanche training don't forget it's still avalanche season."

This year's spring conditions came a little later than in previous years, he said.

"We're probably, I would say, two weeks behind our normal period at least," Janzen explained.

"It's great for the ski season but it's a bit of a concern for us now because it's all warming in one big warm up instead of a gradual warm up."

He said avalanche hazards could exist well into June this year.

Conrad Janzen is an avalanche safety specialist with Banff National Park. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

But Blanchard says it's possible to reduce those risks.

"People are pushing their scrambling right into the heart of winter and they're getting in trouble with this phenomenon of spring avalanche conditions," he said, adding people need to spread out.

"Minimizing exposure by spacing out 15 or 20 metres, not everyone is trapped in the same avalanche. If they need to go through a path, go one at a time, minimize exposure."

Spring avalanche season in Banff National Park runs until mid-June. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

With files from CBC's Dave Gilson and Sarah Rieger