Being prepared 

Avalanche Awareness week drives home need for the right knowledge and gear

The two charges went off simultaneously, dropping cornices and dumping an avalanche of snow on to the slope below. By the time the echo from the explosion had passed, there were two piles of avalanche debris stretching from the couloirs on either side of Faller’s Rock – the large cliff face that protrudes to skiers left of the Couloir Extreme down Blackcomb’s Chainsaw Ridge.

Members of the media were there Jan. 12 to witness the slide as part of the Canadian Avalanche Association’s annual awareness week. Speakers at the event included Canadian Avalanche Association director Clair Israelson, snowboarder Brian Savard and skier Eric Pehota of the Whistler Freeride Team, avalanche survivor Kathy Podborski, and Justin Trudeau.

Whistler-Blackcomb spends about $300,000 each year to set off avalanches within, and in some cases outside of the ski area boundaries. On a busy avalanche control day, after a snowfall or extreme wind conditions, eight teams could set off up to 140 kilograms of explosives.

They drop bombs from helicopters, hang them over cliffs, string them along on steel cables and launch them from mortars. Patrollers also set off slides by making ski cuts across steep slopes.

With 50 centimetres of snowfall the previous week, followed by high winds, large cornices had formed over Faller’s Rock. "People are walking on them and could fall down into the rocks," says veteran ski patroller and avalanche control co-ordinator Tony Sillinger.

"If there’s even a slight chance that an event could occur, we’ll take care of it. Even though deep down I know that it’s probably not going to happen, we take care of it anyway."

The problem is that avalanche prediction is an imperfect science at best, and requires a certain amount of educated guesswork. You can read avalanche reports, dig a snowpit, analyze snow crystals, make a ski cut and still be a victim. In the backcountry it’s a reality that cost two locals their lives last season.

The first rule of avalanche awareness is that there are no guarantees. Whenever there is a potential for a slide, however low, patrollers err on the side of safety and take whatever measures are necessary. In some cases that means closing areas, while in others it means taking some form of avalanche control.

The ski patrol has a perfect record – no in-bounds avalanche fatalities in the history of Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains. Out of bounds, however, is a different story.

"There’s a significant difference between the backcountry and ski area," says Sillinger. "We strive to keep as much terrain open every day so we max out our terrain through avalanche control techniques. That brings skiers into the area which causes snow compaction and increases stability. There are (snow) layers in the backcountry that don’t exist in the ski area."


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