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Reflecting on U.S. Avalanche Deaths

News of 15 avalanche deaths in one week in early February in the United States has left us deeply saddened. We have been in touch with our American colleagues in sympathy and to determine if there is any link to these tragedies. A number of the incidents involved multiple victims and most victims were experienced. This is not the scenario of novice users flooding the backcountry we’ve been anticipating.

The snowpack in Colorado and Utah is unusually weak; our colleagues there are calling it a one-in-ten-year condition. But there’s also some indication Covid is producing “risk management fatigue”—people fed up with Covid safety messaging and restrictions in their daily life, paying less attention than normal in the relative freedom of the backcountry. A survivor of one of the accidents in Utah said, “I realize now that I am exhausted from the 10+ months of near-constant stress Covid brings… As a result, my typical training, motivation, and mental reflection has been much less than a normal fall/winter.”

We’re always looking for opportunities to learn and improve our risk communication messages. Risk management fatigue can affect everyone, and we all must continue to be vigilant with ourselves and our friends in the backcountry.

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In this issue:
South Coast SPAW
AST 2 Curriculum
Youth AST 2
Backyard Backcountry Challenge
Polaris Sled Loan
Glacier National Park Map
Upcoming Webinars
Senior Forecaster Grant Helgeson speaking to media about conditions in the the North Shore Mountains.
Screenshot from CTV News.

South Coast SPAW

In late January, we sent our Revelstoke-based roaming field team to the North Shore Mountains outside Vancouver while we prepared to issue a Special Public Avalanche Warning for the region. An unusual weak layer in the North Shore Mountains had created challenging conditions and there had already been a report of one non-fatal avalanche incident. 

Forecasters Grant Helgeson and Arienne Hanna made valuable observations in the region, and created videos on the conditions. They travelled into the backcountry outside Cypress Mountain on Thursday, Jan. 28, the day we issued the SPAW. Their reports were extremely valuable and we were able to use videos they took in the field to highlight the dangerous conditions in the region. Those videos were highly appreciated on our social media channels and broadcast that evening on CTV Vancouver News at 6.

The SPAW ended up being extended to a full week and expanded to include Vancouver Island. Having a team on the ground definitely helped raise awareness and coverage of the unusual conditions.  

Updated AST 2 Curriculum

We are close to completion on a significant update to our Avalanche Skills Training 2 course curriculum, with a new instructor manual that builds on the foundation laid by the AST 1. This new manual incorporates the Daily Process, which is a structured approach introduced in the AST 1. The AST 2 takes those concepts further, giving students lots of opportunity to apply all the steps—pre-trip planning, slope evaluation and verification during the trip, and post-trip debrief—under the guidance of the instructor.

In both the AST 1 and AST 2, the central focus is learning how to make terrain choices that are appropriate for the conditions. These courses provide students with a strong foundation in planning and decision making in avalanche terrain. The AST 2 is a must-have for any serious backcountry recreationist, whether they access their winter playground by ski, board, sled, snowshoe, or climbing.

The AST 2 curriculum is in the final stages of production and will soon be sent to instructors. We expect it to be fully incorporated into courses for next winter.

Learning how to select terrain appropriate for conditions is central to the Avalanche Canada Training program.
Photo by Mark Bender

First AST 2 Course for Youth

Our first ever Avalanche Skills Training 2 course for youth was taught by the Open Mountains Project over the Christmas holidays. Six teens aged 16–18 took part in the four-day course, based out of Revelstoke. It was very well received and the youth enjoyed the material and activities.  

We are extremely grateful for the Columbia Basin Trust and Stoke Youth Network for allowing us to provide this course. 

We have supported numerous AST 1 courses for youth over the years, but this is the first time an AST 2 course has been offered specifically to teenagers. We are very encouraged by the keen interest in avalanche education shown by these youth and we hope to expand this opportunity to more locations in Alberta and BC. 

We have also subsidized AST courses for youth in Fernie, Kaslo, Revelstoke, Rossland, Trail, Creston, and Kimberley so far this winter. Thank you to Parks Canada, AviSmart, Columbia Basin Trust, and the Hugh & Helen Hincks Foundation for making these courses possible.

Six teens and their instructor posing happily in front of Revelstoke's iconic Mount Begbie, during the inaugural youth AST 2 course. Photo by Bruno Long/Open Mountains Project

Backyard Backcountry Challenge

Are you looking for an excuse to get outside close to home? The Avalanche Canada Foundation is holding the Backyard Backcountry Challenge to raise money for public avalanche safety programs.

This is not a race. It’s not about the fastest or longest journey. The challenge is to motivate, energize, and share your backcountry activities in your backyard. Spend the month of March connecting with your friends safely in the great Canadian outdoors. 

The goal is to climb the height of Mount Everest over the course of the month—8,849 metres (29,028 feet). We'll be using tracking software to log your journey from basecamp to the summit. 

Registration opens Monday, Feb. 15. Details will be announced soon on the event webpage

Avalanche Canada's executive director Gilles Valade (right) picks up the Polaris snowmobile from Aaron Bernasconi, owner of Mountain Motorsports. Photo by James Floyer.

Polaris Snowmobile Loan

We are extremely grateful to Polaris for their continued support of our programs. They have been committed to loaning us a mountain snowmobile since 2012, and that support has continued this winter. We recently took a trip to Mountain Motorsports in Golden, BC, to pick up a Polaris RMK Khaos 850 155, which will be used by our field teams this winter. 

Snowmobiles are essential to Avalanche Canada’s public safety programs as they allow our field teams to get out in the mountains where they collect important snowpack and weather data, and, in normal years, engage with recreationists. They are particularly important this year as they have allowed us to expand our field work to compensate for limited data from professional operations. Thank you Polaris for continuing to support our field teams in this way.

Glacier National Park Permit Areas

Users of our website can now see the Glacier National Park winter permit areas on the main map. We are happy to bring this feature to ski tourers in Rogers Pass and know it will strengthen our partnership with Parks Canada. The map will not indicate whether or not the restricted areas are open; it simply shows the boundaries. This feature is only available on our website right now, but we will be including it on the app shortly. For restricted area status, visit the Glacier National Park website.

Upcoming Webinars

Our online webinar series continues to be a big success, with several hundred people attending every night. Last week, our new Newfoundland & Labrador Field Team hosted a special webinar on close calls in their home province. We are overwhelmed by the interest in these webinars and are grateful to be able to spread our messages across the country using this format.

We have six webinars remaining this winter:

  • Feb. 11: Choosing Terrain for Skiers, with senior forecaster Grant Helgeson 
  • Feb. 18: South Rockies Update—State of the snowpack and crowdsourcing for a better backcountry community. 
  • Feb. 25: Low-Probability, High-Consequence Situations—Learn how to manage situations where the chance of an avalanche is low, but the risk if you do trigger one is extremely dangerous.
  • Mar. 4: Yukon Update—Hear from our Yukon field team as we head into peak riding season up north.
  • Mar. 11: North Rockies Update—Our NoRo field team will talk about the snowpack, avalanche problems and the MIN.
  • Mar. 25: Prepping For a Ski Traverse—Get some tips and inspiration from pros who love to head off on big spring adventures.
Visit our Events page for information on registering for our webinars.
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