Avalanche Awareness Days encourage backcountry safety

Trent Ernst, Editor


January 18–19 was Avalanche Awareness Days here in BC.

The days were set aside to encourage outdoor enthusiasts to explore training opportunities, learn how to make good decisions and stay safe.

Avalanche Awareness Days celebrate avalanche safety expertise and provide an opportunity for people to learn how to safely enjoy the winter backcountry with education and training.

“More and more people are heading into the backcountry to enjoy winter sports like skiing, snowmobiling and snow shoeing,” says Attorney General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton. “But as we saw over the holidays, as the number of people in the backcountry increases so do search and rescues undertaken by volunteers. Avalanche Awareness Days are a great opportunity for people to talk to backcountry safety experts and learn how to stay safe during winter recreation.”

According to reports filed with Emergency Management BC, during two weeks of winter holidays the number of search and rescue incidents related to winter recreation activities more than tripled compared to the two previous weeks. Between Dec. 23, 2013 and Jan. 5, 2014, 298 search and rescue volunteers responded to 34 incidents involving 70 people engaged in winter recreational activities in the backcountry.

This compares to 66 search and rescue volunteers responding to 10 incidents involving 18 people between Dec. 9 and 22, 2013.

“When you make the decision to go into the backcountry, you need to be able to take care of yourself and your partners. That means avalanche rescue equipment, first aid supplies and awareness of the risk you’re taking,” says Gilles Valade, executive director of the Canadian Avalanche Centre. In Tumbler Ridge, there were no events held.

However, according to Adam Court, president of the Ridge Riders, the newly-reformed group plans on improving signage throughout the club’s system, especially at the core lodge area. These signs will mark areas where risk of avalanche danger is high. “There’s the old hill climb area, and the Superbowl area. These places always slide. People don’t understand how bad it is. They don’t understand the consequences. We can put a sign up saying ‘don’t go in here.’”

Of course, Court understands that people are not going to respect the signage. “People are still going to go in, but at least we’ll have warned them about it. People don’t understand how dangerous it is. They think the odds are so slim, but the more they push their limits…” He pauses. “We’re sitting here having coffee, and the chance of something happening is one in a million. But out there, it’s one in a thousand. And when you push the limits, the chance of something happening gets bigger and bigger. When you go up that chute, it might be a one in ten chance of setting off an avalanche. Eventually, it’s going to happen.”

Those who venture out-of-bounds need to take all the necessary precautions and recognize they are taking some measure of personal risk. There are a number of ways to respect the mountains and prepare before heading out. Everyone in a backcountry party needs to be equipped with a shovel, probe and transceiver. Court says he refuses to travel with people who aren’t prepared.

“It’s not for you that you carry a beacon, it’s for the other guy. If I go riding with someone without a beacon and probe, how are they going to find me if I get buried? You have to pick the right people to ride with. You have to ride within your limits, too. You see similarities in stories about people who get lost or get into avalanches, and there’s always this moment when they know that something could happen, and they keep pushing it. It’s playing Russian Roulette.”