Avalanche Awareness Week: Be careful out there!

Ryan Shelly

If there was ever a season to be conservative in Avalanche terrain, this would be your year! This last week, a special avalanche warning was issued for the Northern Rockies, including Tumbler Ridge. I suspect it won’t be the last.

My business has a contractual obligation to the communities of Northeast BC (including Tumbler Ridge) to report on the local snow pack. As I ran around the region over the Christmas holidays, I came to one major conclusion; this is not the year to go for that big line, that big pull, or ride that ‘exposed’ piece of terrain.

Why? Well, its not because I’m a big chicken, but I don’t have a high tolerance to risk either. This season’s snow pack in the North Rockies is essentially a textbook worst-case scenario style snow pack. It has all the necessary ingredients to make for the types of avalanches that could take a person’s life should you be in the wrong place.

Enough of the doom and gloom already! Where can a guy go to play and have some fun all the while not be risking more than he is willing? The true beauty of mountain snowmobiling is that a rider does not need to go onto the biggest and steepest slope in order to have fun.

Skiers have the problem of needing a slope in order to slide down a mountain. The slogan, “Good ski terrain is good avalanche terrain” does not apply to the mountain snowmobiler because he has the throttle to make up for the slope angle.

Sledding in the mountains, to me, means finding those technical tree lines or hunting around the mountain on different aspects to find where the deep powder snow is lurking.

The risk is tenfold though the minute a sledder decides to put his snowmobile onto a steep slope. Your risk goes through the roof because as a sledder you weigh a whole lot more than a skier; those extra few hundred pounds can make a huge difference.

So where can you go then? Well, just about anywhere.

The caveat are zones where you have no ability to avoid exposure to avalanches. If you are pulling a slope between 30 and 45 degrees, all bets are off. You better hope that luck is on your side because this season, the odds are definitely not in your favour.

As an avalanche worker, I try to avoid telling people where not to go. Having said that, the places where you better do your homework and assess stability are: Terminator and adjacent Alpine and tree-line slopes, Holzworth Meadow in Bullmoose and Albright Ridge. These are all great zones to find good snow, but the moment you ‘take a poke’ at the big exposed slopes in the immediate vicinity, you are throwing caution to the wind.

Beyond Tumbler, my other areas of concern would be Hasler and Beaver Creek, as there are certain zones where there is unavoidable overhead exposure to avalanche paths.

This season, play a sharp game out there, treat major avalanche slopes as though they will likely trigger with human presence. The reality is that the conditions may not improve, and if anything, they may worsen as we move into the warmer winter months.

What’s the upside? Well, even by excluding these areas, you still have 70 percent of terrain (if not more) available to you to recreate in safely in the mountains and on your sled. Don’t park your machine for the year. Just get out there and play a smart game!

Want to learn more? Take an avalanche course with us, check the Mountain Information Network on Avalanche.ca and support your local snowmobile club! See you out in the hills!

Ryan Shelly is the Owner and Operator of Summit Avalanche Consulting.