Last week, a 42-year-old man died in an avalanche near Pemberton, B.C. He was skiing in the Pebble Creek backcountry with a group of fellow skiers when the avalanche struck around 3 p.m. The man’s body was eventually found thanks to his transceiver, but he did not survive. The rest of the group was unharmed.
The man was an experienced skier, but even the most prepared and experienced backcountry trekkers can be taken unaware by an avalanche. It’s difficult to plan around these unpredictable forces of nature, but it’s important to know as much as you can before embarking on a winter trip to the slopes.
Avalanche conditions are caused by sufficient snow fall and a steep slope, says James Floyer, a warning program supervisor with Avalanche Canada, a non-government, non-profit organization that tracks avalanche conditions in an attempt to mitigate fatalities. “Once you start getting into the region of 20 to 30 centimetres of new snow, you start to worry about avalanches occurring even naturally, or because someone’s standing on a slope.”
“The kind of slope angles for slab avalanches, which is the dangerous avalanches, which tend to kill people, is 35 to 45 degrees,” Floyer says. The equivalent to a black or double black diamond ski hill. If the slope is less than 35 degrees, it’s difficult for the avalanche to get going, and if it’s steeper than 45 degrees, the avalanche tends to break up into smaller avalanches.
Beyond snow fall and slope gradient, temperature also plays a role in causing avalanches. They generally occur on warmer days when the snow is melting and shifting, but can also occur on cold days if there’s enough new snow fall and strong winds. Floyer refers to avalanches caused by wind as wind slab, where the strong gusts stiffen the new snow, making it denser, potentially causing it to break off in one big piece.
In order to avoid being caught in avalanche conditions, Floyer suggests monitoring the weather and checking mountain conditions. Avalanche Canada provides a map that tracks weather conditions, including avalanche problems such as wind slab and risky cornices, where snow hangs over the lips of ridgelines. “That’s what people going out into the mountains do is match the terrain that they use to the type of conditions that are out there,” Floyer says.
If you are heading out into potential avalanche conditions, Floyer says you should adopt safe travel habits. One of these habits is ensuring you bring the right equipment. “The avalanche essentials are three pieces of gear. There’s an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel.” An avalanche transceiver sends out a signal in case someone becomes buried beneath the snow. The transceivers can also act as receivers, catching the signals. A probe is a three-metre-long aluminum stick that helps search deep snow and pinpoint the location of a buried person. Finally, an aluminum avalanche shovel can be a lifesaving tool, used to dig someone out.
Another travel habit is, if skiing in a group, you should only expose one person at a time. “If you go one at a time down the slope with everyone watching, there’s quite a reasonable chance of a good outcome,” Floyer says. Before heading down the slope, you should “choose a line that has a way to escape.” That way, if an avalanche does bear down on you and you react quickly, you can avoid the avalanche by using this line of escape.
“We do see the occasional tragedy,” Floyer says, “but we also believe there’s a great benefit to society in being able to use the great outdoors and the backcountry that we have. It can be done in a safe, responsible way.”