Be Careful out there

Trent Ernst, Editor

 

The most recent snowfall was a boon to local sledders, who have been waiting impatiently for enough snow to cover the ground. “There have been lots of people hitting stumps and rocks,” says Sandra Cutler, who sits on the executive for the Ridge Riders Snowmobile Club.

And, while the most recent snowfall has decreased the risk of that, it has increased the risk of avalanches in the area.

On January 1, there was a report of an avalanche in the Bullmoose Area. “One person was fully buried,” says Search and Rescue coordinator Sarah Gamble. “Thankfully their party were able to rescue them with no injuries.”

A few days later, Ryan Shelly, owner and operator of Summit Avalanche Consulting went to check out the conditions in the area. He says that riding in the Holzworth Meadows area was causing 300 meter-long cracks to form across the slopes. “Play on simple terrain for a while,” he says. “Anything that can go will go right now.”

There hadn’t been any snow for about a month, says Shelly, but the last big snowfall left about a metre of new snow on the ground. “That’s a pretty substantial change to the snowpack. With these big changes in snowpack, in weather, it creates more pronounced layering in the snowpack, and the new snow is unwilling to bind with the older snow.”

And this, he says, leads to the extremely unstable conditions that this area has been seeing.

“I went out on January 3 to look for this avalanche. A week earlier, there had been only 30 or 40 cm on the road going in. This time it was full-on winter with a metre of new snow on the ground. As a result of the big dump, the snowpack was highly unstable. The snow fractured within the first five minutes of us testing a small slope. Not only did it start where we were, but the snow broke away across the whole slope, creating a second, larger avalanche on a slope about 100 m away.”

Shelly says he and the other riders went into the Holzworth Meadows area, where there were a number of large avalanches. “Basically every slope that could go went.”

What’s happening locally is mirrored throughout much of the province. Last week, the forecasters at Avalanche Canada extended a special public avalanche warning first issued on Christmas Day. The warning applies to the North Rockies, Cariboos, North Columbia, South Columbia, Kootenay-Boundary, Purcells, South Rockies, Lizard and Flathead, South Coast Inland regions, and the Sea-to-Sky region near Whistler and Pemberton.

“We had expected the problem layer to calm down by now but it’s still easily triggered,” said Senior Avalanche Forecaster James Floyer. “We have had numerous reports of skiers and snowmobilers involved in avalanches. Luckily there have been no fatalities, thanks to good self-rescue by the parties involved.”

Avalanche Canada is working on developing a system of reporting/forecasting Avalanche Risks for the Northern Rockies, but they need information.

Currently, they have a blog, where backcountry adventurers can share their information on snow conditions and sightings/observations. “What is needed is to get the message out to the backcountry users to report their information back to Avalanche Canada,” says Shelly.

But getting the information can be a problem, says Shelly. He points to the recent burial at Bullmoose. “Guys are worried they will be scolded for being caught in an avalanche,” he says. “It’s a negative scenario and they don’t want to be told they’re a risk taker. After the fact, I found out that it might have been some snowshoers who triggered the avalanche, but that’s second, third, fourth hand information.

Shelly says there is going to be a meeting being held in Kamloops next week about the Northern Rockies region, discussing with stakeholders on how best to move forward with the Northern Rockies. “Things are looking up. But we can always use additional public information. Even if there is a report, it will rely heavily on public reports. Just sending in a quick little blurb. Holding the information to yourself doesn’t benefit anyone. If we can get more specific information: ‘it happened here in this type of snowpack…’. The more information the better. “

If you have been traveling in the mountains, Avalanche Canada would appreciate your observations. Please send them to:  forecaster@avalanche.ca, or upload observations to their new Mountain Information Network on their website.

They warn that all backcountry users must be equipped with essential avalanche safety equipment. Everyone in the party needs an avalanche transceiver, a probe and a shovel. It’s equally important everyone has avalanche training and has practiced using this equipment. If an avalanche occurs, the rescue is up to you. There is no time to go for help.

Shelly says that, until conditions change, people should be playing it safe. “The best approach right now is to stay on low angle terrain,” he says. “Once it warms up, the snow will start to consolidate, and it will be much better. People don’t need to attack these slopes right now. If you go and try and high mark right now, it will avalanche. Once the new snow has time to bond with the old snow it will become more stable. But until further notice, treat it as highly volatile.

For avalanche information in the Northern Rockies, visit www.avalanche.ca/blogs.