I’m four turns into my run and I’ve just cleared the steepest convexity on the slope when I see the crack shoot out from my ski tips across the slope. No biggie I think, I’m pretty sure the avalanche is shallow, and it’s unlikely it’s even going to propagate into a real slab that moves. Five minutes ago, I’d dug a snow pit with my co-worker, and the only weak layer we had found was some surface hoar buried 10cm deep.
It must be a thin low-density storm slab, I thought to myself, already mentally preparing what info I’d be passing on to the Avalanche Canada forecasters for the public avalanche bulletin. Not a difficult avalanche problem to manage, but with more load from the snow and wind, it certainly will be. During our skin track up there had been shooting cracks. We’d heard the rumble of a few avalanches off steep alpine headwalls somewhere nearby, but they’d been lost to sight in the white of the blizzard.
Over the years, I’d ski cut avalanches over a meter deep and thrown bombs out of helicopters that had created enormously destructive slides. It’s just too bad the mountain didn’t know that I was an expert, nor did it care much for my theories on the current hazard its snowpack presented…
I’ll straight-line out and towards a safe spot on the side, just in case I have triggered something big, was my next thought. I didn’t have time for another before a surprisingly strong wave of moving snow hit me from behind stealing my right ski and sending me flying headfirst into the snow. I pulled my airbag and saw a stand of old growth spruce trees below me rushing up at enormous speed. “Too fast!” I thought, this is really going to hurt. Then my head was under the snow, and I braced for impact.
Thirteen years in the avalanche industry, as a ski patroller, a ski guide and now an avalanche field technician with Avalanche Canada, and I’d never been caught in an avalanche. I guess my luck had to run out sometime.
Currently, it’s my job to gather information for the public avalanche bulletins for two large regions; the South Rockies and the Flathead & Lizard Range. Together these areas comprise approximately 11,000 square kilometres of mountain wilderness and avalanche terrain, which form a beautiful, wild, and often dangerous playground for the skiers, snowmobilers and other winter recreationists that visit each year. To compare – the entire country of Switzerland is a little over 25,500 square km.
Avalanche Canada is a non-profit, non-government organisation dedicated to reducing avalanche fatalities in Canada. It’s thanks to sponsors like Rab that we are able to have an enthusiastic and well-equipped team operating a world-class avalanche warning service. I love every aspect of my job, not least the remoteness, the powder riding, the epic scenery and the feeling that I’m making a difference in the recreational community.
I felt myself slow down within the moving snow. Nothing happened, no sudden impact. I stood up. The avalanche had carried me headfirst, a hundred metres downslope, where I’d come to a rest against a big spruce. Somehow, I’d avoided hitting all the trees in between, and the debris of the avalanche carried on without me for another 50 metres or so.
I was right, it had been tiny, the fracture line was only 10-15 cm deep, and the slab was super low-density snow. Yet somehow it had gained enough potential energy to snap my neck like a twig had I hit anything on the way down. I’d underestimated the power and consequence of even a small avalanche that day. Luckily, I was able to find my lost ski and poles in the debris after just a few minutes of searching and I skied away with a lesson to share.
“Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” -Eleanor Roosevelt
I was lucky, many people in my area have not been. In 2008, eight local snowmobilers were killed in a single horrific avalanche accident. It changed the communities in the Elk Valley where I live forever.
The silver lining on the cloud was the formation of our field team, the only one like it in Canada. Aimed to gather information in a very data sparse region with a sizeable recreational user group, and to target groups like snowmobilers who are relatively new (historically and culturally speaking) to travelling through avalanche terrain. Without a field team, it was almost impossible to forecast avalanche hazard on a large scale in these regions. Before our team was established, there were only a few remote weather stations and a couple of ski hills and cat skiing operators to report snowpack, weather and avalanche occurrences.
It’s our job as a field team to head out on snowmobiles or skis to gather information from various zones for the forecasters at Avalanche Canada based 500km away in the town of Revelstoke BC. Our info, combined with revolutionary tools like the Mountain Information Network which allow any person to post conditions and avalanche updates, have made for highly improved daily bulletins.
Bulletins are important tools, but they alone aren’t enough to keep you safe. Learning to recognise avalanche terrain and read the warning signs are the most important steps towards avoidance. In 90% of avalanche incidents, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggered the avalanche.
The standard probe, shovel and avalanche transceiver are essential in case things go wrong, but in my mind, those tools are like steel toe boots and helmets in a construction zone. If they’re being used, chances are things have already gone really wrong, and it may be too late. In North America, many avalanche fatalities are a result of trauma from hitting trees or going off cliffs instead of asphyxia from burial. I was very nearly one of those statistics. Not getting caught in the first place is paramount.
There’s always an element of risk if you’re putting yourself into avalanche terrain. I try to calculate and reassess that risk continually throughout my day, and try to be as prepared as possible if things go wrong. Avalanches rarely strike without warning. Often there are many obvious signs and clues that point toward an instability – like there were on the day that I got caught.
Learning to read those signs is what will allow you to push further and spend more time enjoying the mountains. Avalanche Canada’s recommended formula is simple; take a course, read the avalanche bulletin, and travel with experienced mentors. As for myself, I’m still learning every day in the mountains and passing on what I see.