Avalanche gear gets attention 

Guides association advocates climbers carry avalanche equipment when in avalanche terrain

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARC PICHE - GEAR UP ACMG Alpine Guide Sean Isaac carries climbing and avalanche safety gear in his pack, as he approaches the ice climb "Drip at the Centre of the Universe" in the Canadian Rockies. Canada's professional guiding association is publicly promoting that climbers, as well as backcountry skiers, carry avalanche safety gear when travelling in avalanche terrain.
  • Photo by Marc Piche
  • GEAR UP ACMG Alpine Guide Sean Isaac carries climbing and avalanche safety gear in his pack, as he approaches the ice climb "Drip at the Centre of the Universe" in the Canadian Rockies. Canada's professional guiding association is publicly promoting that climbers, as well as backcountry skiers, carry avalanche safety gear when travelling in avalanche terrain.

Backcountry skiers do it, and Canada's professional guiding association is publicly advocating that ice climbers and mountaineers also embrace the practice of carrying avalanche safety gear whenever they travel in avalanche terrain.

In a recently issued statement, the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides announced, "the ACMG is promoting the use of avalanche safety gear for waterfall ice climbing as well as for summer mountaineering when avalanche hazard may be present."

The motivation behind the decision stems from the ACMG's prime directive: the protection of the public interest. As such, the association is advocating for "a significant change in best practices for travel in avalanche terrain."

The practice of not carrying avalanche safety equipment — shovels, probes and transceivers (which both send and receive a signal) while ice or alpine climbing is not a uniquely Canadian one.

"Internationally, and not just in Canada, if you ask climbers about carrying avalanche gear while ice climbing or mountaineering, many will say they have never thought about it," said Canmore mountain guide Marc Piché, who currently serves as the ACMG's technical director. "The culture of climbing, historically, is to be as fast and light as possible, while carrying minimal equipment. Often, when decisions are being made about what to bring, avalanche rescue equipment doesn't make the cut."

Ice climbers expose themselves to lots of avalanche risk, particularly on approaches and descents, explained ACMG president Marc Ledwidge, recently retired from serving as visitor safety manager for Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks.

"In some cases it may reasonable to leave it at the base of the climb, and not carry it while actually on the climb," Ledwidge said. "Gear used to be heavy and unwieldy, but there's a lot of really lightweight, easy-to-use gear these days."

Unfortunately, the consequences of not carrying gear can be serious. In Europe on Mont Blanc's normal climbing route, a big avalanche two summers ago resulted in multiple burials and several deaths. Rescuers arrived quickly but chances of survival are higher when the person buried is wearing a transceiver. A similar situation on Manaslu in the Himalaya revealed most people involved didn't have the necessary equipment to deal with the avalanche rescue that ensued.

Closer to home, accidents on the Silverhorn route of Mount Athabasca, and at popular ice climbing venues have resulted in climbers being buried by avalanches when neither they nor their partners were equipped with the necessary gear to perform self-rescue.

"A recent incident where six ice climbers were caught in an avalanche, and which was publicly reported, was a close call," said ACMG President Marc Ledwidge.

Fortunately, in that instance, nobody died, but that's not always the case, he said.

"There have been a number of close calls over the years," Ledwidge said. "About five years ago an avalanche that came down on some ice climbers resulted in a full burial. If the partner had even had a probe, it could have made a difference."

Another related concern is the safety of rescue teams called in to retrieve bodies, as searchers expose themselves to avalanche hazard for longer looking for unequipped people.

Discussion began in western Canada a few years ago among professional mountain guides who are out in the field every day, which led to students enrolled in courses for ACMG certification at Thompson Rivers University being taught if they thought they would be exposed to avalanche hazard, they should take avalanche gear.

The ACMG has taken this step to issue a public notice after deciding it's not enough for professional guides to only have such discussion in-house. In recent years, the instructors of waterfall ice guiding and alpine guiding courses in Canada, and a number of European countries, have started to embrace the logic behind using avalanche safety gear in the same way as in their ski programs.

While the topic has been discussed on an international scale among the members of the IFMGA Accident and Risk Management Commission, of which Piché is chair, the ACMG is the first national guiding association Piché is aware of to take a public position.

"It's a cultural shift in terms of putting avalanche risk at the forefront of decision making in climbing activities," Piché said.

Still, said Parks Canada public safety specialist Steve Holeczi, the decision whether to carry avalanche safety gear is an individual, and a group one.

"Everyone has to make their own decision whether or not they carry avalanche safety gear," Holeczi said. "Some people don't want to carry the extra weight, others say they won't go if they think the hazard is too high, and some may not even think about it. People mainly talk about huge avalanches on ice climbs, as there is acres of avalanche terrain above many ice climbs. But even small avalanches can bury an ice climber, as most are in gullies which are terrain traps. Wearing avalanche safety gear should not make people go where they normally wouldn't, but it is there if things go south. Lastly, not all ice climbs are in avalanche terrain, and people can easily research those areas in guidebooks or online."

Among the logistics climbers should consider are whether the planned climb involves exposure to avalanche hazard, whether the hazard is on the approach or on the actual route, and what the current public avalanche bulletin hazard rating is.

"Is it a good day to be on that particular climb in the first place?" Holeczi said. "And probably the biggest logistic is getting your partners on board with the concept of carrying avalanche safety gear. Everyone in your climbing party needs to have a functioning beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use them."

Just like the cultural shift that took place in the 1980s when skiers became accustomed to the availability of avalanche transceiver technology, nowadays very few go ski touring without avalanche gear, Ledwidge said.

"We recommend that as a best practice, whether we have skis, crampons or boots on our feet," Ledwidge said. "We're not trying to tell people what to do; it's just part of our (ACMG's) mandate to encourage best practices with the technology available."

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