Death, Taxes, and Avalanches

I hadn't in the slightest way understood that the vast majority of mountain slopes were waiting to bury me alive.

Understanding snow is important

Jeff Sotropa

As a resort skier and summer hiker taking my first steps into the winter backcountry, I hadn’t in the slightest way understood that the vast majority of mountain slopes were waiting to bury me alive. Death traps, plain and simple.

There’s nothing to debate about it. Decades of snow science assert that if you head up into the snowy wilderness there is every probability you could trigger an avalanche. It’s not just “perhaps” or “maybe”, it’s often “likely” and “considerable”. And that’s when you’re being careful.

Dave Quinn knows more about this than most. As instructor of the two-day Avalanche Skills Training 1 course at College of the Rockies, he is full of both wisdom and winsome irony on the subject.

“What I hope you’ve learned this week,” he says cheerfully to the recent class I attended, “is to be much more frightened next time you head up a mountain. “

We all laugh. Then swallow as the punch line sinks in.

“Seriously though,” he explains, “there is a lot to learn before you can safely enjoy the backcountry. With the proper gear, practice, information, and experience you can get out there for a lifetime of safe, exciting adventure. Respect is the name if the game.”

For years, Dave has studied snow, led troops of adventurers through all kinds of terrain, and taught dozens and dozens of classes in Avalanche safety. Dave knows the backcountry. He’s also the energizer bunny. But most of all, he wants to see people get out there for the joy of it — then get home safely. He’s gravely serious, with a contagious grin. You’d want him in your platoon.

I had always imagined avalanches on a grand scale. They’re impressive dust clouds surging over cliffs off in the distance. I now have a name for those: sluff avalanches. As impressive as they are, they are rarely deadly to humans.

The ones you want to avoid like an insurance salesman? Slab avalanches. (And no offence to insurance salesmen, I work in advertising.)

Just imagine three feet of snow on your metal roof. You’re standing under the edge of its eave. That’s a slab avalanche. It seems that a good portion of the Kootenay mountains is your metal roof waiting to happen.

What surprised me most was how little it takes to find yourself in avalanche conditions, and how prevalent they are on pretty well every mountainside. Just several inches of slab breaking free can be devastating.

All of this was brought home for me in an instant when Instructor Quinn, Mountain Man showed the class a particular YouTube video. He showed us dozens of examples online, and there are thousands more to watch. But what was so remarkable about this one was how unremarkable the conditions were. It was nothing. A whiff. I’ve seen that kind of slope countless times out my car window and never given it a thought.

Now I give it a thought. In the 15-second video clip, a sledder grazes by a 15-foot snowbank. In a heartbeat, the entire stash of powder is on top of him.

The audio commentary on his friend’s camera phone switches from friendly banter to something I can’t print here. Then a frantic effort to save his life. Save his life? Yep. And then we’re on to the next video example.

In the Avalanche Skills Training 1 course, you learn all about slope angle, wind and sun influences, snow pack, types of snow, the impact of trees, rocks and temperature. These are all really important, but they aren’t most important. It’s not so much the snow conditions or mountain environment that instigate deadly or harmful avalanches. It’s people and their brains.

“The biggest factor by far,” Quinn explains, “is the human factor. The smartest, most experienced people cause avalanches. It’s just that they did one thing they sensed they shouldn’t have. And then somebody’s probing around in the snow to find their best friend.”

The focus of our training was objectivity. You have to be detached and analytical. You have to be constantly in observation mode. You have to temper the stoke, think twice about just one more run, or avoid simply retracing a route without reassessing the scene.

“It’s like when you cross the street,” Quinn instructs, “you look up and you look down to see what factors might indicate avalanche conditions. And if there’s the slightest doubt about safety, you just don’t go there.”

Another critical lesson he reinforces is to travel with people you can trust. You’re leaning on each other’s judgment and influence on the mountain. They’re the ones you are depending on if it happens.

“If you go out alone,” he asks, “who digs you out? And if your buddies say, ah, it’ll be fine, but it might not be… do you really want to put your life in their hands?”

Good question, Dave.

A couple great tools are the avalanche website avalanche.ca and the bulletin. They provide regular updates for every Canadian region and most known routes. What’s sobering is that if you’re heading up toward even middling altitudes, avalanche conditions are often “considerable”.

This means, triggering one is ominously likely if you don’t exercise good judgment.

If you’re inexperienced, and if avalanche conditions venture from “moderate” into the “considerable” zone, then as Quinn suggests, “It’s probably a great day to spend at the resort. Leave the backcountry for another day.”

All this seriousness doesn’t dampen Quinn’s enthusiasm for getting out into the backcountry. On our full-day trek into the backcountry, it was a ton of fun as well as properly educational. We played hide the beacon, shoveling Olympics and finished with a brief but very worthwhile drop through a stash of powder – in the trees, of course, because that’s usually where the most stable snow awaits.

What a playground we live in, even for a depressing workaday town such as Cranbrook. It’s really a mountain paradise. The only thing is that these lovely mountains would just as soon eat you whole you as look at you.

So take your fun seriously.

If you’re planning on sledding, skiing, boarding or snowshoeing in the backcountry or even a resort’s sidecountry, do your loved ones a sluff-avalanche-sized favor: make sure you’ve taken an avalanche skills training course. The probability is “considerable” that your life depends on it this weekend.

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