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Backcountry safety for the next generation

Helping to keep skiing's fastest growing user group safe

Dave Mossop remembers exactly why he got into the business of making films. In November,1997, four of his high school friends perished in an avalanche near Fortress Mountain west of Calgary. The victims, three male and one female, were all between the age of 16 and 18.

"It completely changed all our lives in our high school grade," recalls Mossop. "As a result a lot of us are still really strong friends to this day including the three of us that founded the Sherpas."

While such a tragedy would normally lead to an aversion to the unpredictable and often unstable slopes of the Rockies, for Mossop and his friends Eric Crosland and Malcolm Sangster (the other two founding members of the Rocky Mountain Sherpas, now Sherpas Cinema), it was a driving force for them to get out deeper and further into the mountains than ever before. Diving into all the avalanche education that was available to them and spending as many days as they could at Rogers Pass — considered the pinnacle of Canadian ski touring as well as one of the most dangerous avalanche regions in the country — the trio gained their Canadian Avalanche Association's Operations Level 1 certification, the first qualification required for ski guides and avalanche technicians.

"As well as learning more about the backcountry and skiing more, we wanted to figure out a way to educate people about backcountry safety so the same (tragedy) wouldn't happen to others."

The knowledge the three friends gained feeds into every aspect of their snow films, but it was in 2008 when they released The Fine Line: A 16mm Avalanche Education Film that they set the benchmark of backcountry safety for their future work.

"You'd see dozens of ski and snowboard films show guys in avalanches then just cut to the next scene," says Mossop.

"I don't think the filmmakers intentionally wanted to glorify avalanches, but that was sort of the side effect of showing them like that. We wanted to show that that guy had no intention at all of being in the avalanche and if they could do it again, they wouldn't want to. Truly getting through to somebody who is at risk of going into the backcountry and getting into a situation, that's our challenge as filmmakers. Avalanche education is one of the hardest things to transmit. It's easy to transmit to people who already know (about the subject), but for people who are on the edge and don't understand that world yet, to have the language that speaks to them and to have the motivation well up inside that person to go and get educated, that's a beautiful challenge to a filmmaker."

Skier JP Auclair worked with the Sherpas on many film projects and was considered a part of its collective family, but an avalanche in Chile in September, 2014 killed Auclair and fellow athlete Andreas Fransson.

"You can be the most educated avalanche person in the world, and JP was, and very careful but that can still happen to you," says Mossop.

"Just like it happens to people who are going out for the first time. Your first day in the backcountry could be your last and that objective hazard stays the same throughout."

Last month veteran Whistler ski patroller Wayne Flann was caught in a size 2.0 to 2.5 slide while ski cutting a slope off Tenquille Peak in the Pemberton backcountry. Flann writes about avalanche conditions daily on his blog and has ski cut countless slopes during avalanche control operations, but his daily exposure to risky terrain meant that sooner or later he would be unlucky. He rode out the slide unburied, but is currently nursing a broken femur as a painful reminder of the unpredictable nature of the mountains.

Risk is a theme that Mike Douglas pursued in his feature documentary SNOWMAN, a story about his childhood friend Kevin Fogolin's involvement in a helicopter crash while performing aerial avalanche control in the Toba Inlet. The film also delves into the lives of Douglas and Fogolin and how they have managed risk — both mental and physical — throughout their adult lives.

"We tried to stay unbiased, we acknowledge risk in the film and people deal with it in different ways," says Douglas.

"(Fogolin) was very, very careful and very calculated, he had his procedures and checklists. He's very by-the-book. Then on the other side we had Shane (McConkey), who was way out on the end of pioneering new possibilities for human craziness."

While Douglas himself has subjected himself to plenty of risk throughout his career as a professional freeskier, there came a time when he began to step back from pushing his limits.

"I drew some lines in the sand, when we had kids I promised my wife that I would not BASE jump. Shane tried to take me BASE jumping a lot of times and I was like 'No, I'm not going.' I think those lines are up to every individual to interpret, how much risk you are willing to assume."

With his production company Switchback Entertainment, Douglas projects his conservative outlook onto his team, making sure that every member is comfortable in the terrain where they are filming.

"Last year we did a trip in the Dolomites in Italy, and we got into some pretty aggressive, cool terrain, and one of our guys just said, 'You know what? I'm not comfortable with this.' I said, 'all good' and we were out of there. I don't want people to feel like they're putting their lives on the line. There were days last year here in Whistler where every film crew in town was out filming in the backcountry and my team and I at Switchback said we weren't doing it, we'd go film on the hill instead. It's definitely something that you wrestle with in your mind. These guys are coming back with all this amazing footage, but at the same time you know that there's these big sleeping giants out there, these unstable layers. It's not worth it."

Next generation avalanche technology

Technology has contributed greatly to the rapid rise in winter backcountry recreation. From the humble beginnings of the hand-built SKADI avalanche transceiver (invented by Cornell University researcher Dr. John Lawnton in 1968), and the very first Dynafit "Low Tech" binding in the late '80s, present day backcountry gadgets have more or less followed the same design fundamentals over the years with incremental refinement.

But in an increasingly connected digital world, avalanche safety also has to move with the times, not just with tools, but with how information is presented. When people are unlikely to watch a YouTube video for more than two minutes, bombarding them with pages of script describing the regional avalanche forecast is not going to be an effective way to communicate.

"I think the biggest change we've seen and implemented here, has been the move away from heavily text-based products to more graphically-oriented products and shorter text blocks," says Karl Klassen, the public avalanche warning service manager for Avalanche Canada.

"It used to be that forecasts were a 8.5x11 inch page with 700 words on them or something like that. So we started breaking that down into chunk information and then over time moved away from writing paragraphs to writing bullet points and using iconography to help get the message across."

Last year Avalanche Canada gave its website a long-overdue overhaul, moving towards a map-based interface that instantly gives the audience a province-wide indication of regional danger ratings. When you zoom in on one particular region an "information card" pops up on the right hand side of the screen with a more in-depth analysis of snowpack, local observations and weather forecasts.

"Everything we do is geographically based," says Klassen. "

"People want to know where information is coming from and where it's applicable to, so we've moved to a map-based distribution system. It's designed to allow people to see more information without having to move from one place to another on the website. People can see where the danger ratings are higher or lower, and that might help influence where they choose to travel. It's going to be an ongoing process over the next couple of years before we finish all that, but that's the foundation of what we've built."

Just as digital data storage has migrated towards cloud servers, through its website Avalanche Canada hopes to generate a user-based network of backcountry observations. A similar database already exists in Canada for industry professionals known as the Information Exchange or "InfoEx," a closed online network where forecasters from guiding outfits, ski resorts, industry and government all submit their observations and assessments from nearly 15,000 data points. Subscribers to the InfoEx are all organizations employing Canadian Avalanche Association professional members that contribute to the network and can gain real time data from across western Canada, greatly enhancing their ability to manage local avalanche risks.

As powerful as the InfoEx is for the Canadian avalanche industry, it has its limitations. During the period of early winter and late spring most operations are not open and their forecasters are not contributing their observations. There are also vast regions in B.C. that do not have active ski industry operations, where recreationists ski tour regularly.

"We feel public information can help fill those gaps," says Klassen.

"Then we have many parts of the province where there is no professional operations but there are recreationists going out into the mountains on a regular basis. We see some of those regional data scarcity gaps being filled in certain places. We can't expect a crowd sourcing recreational data to become another Info Ex, but certainly we see the information we get from the recreational, non-professional or semi-professional community as augmenting what we get from InfoEx."

Recreationists rarely have the same level of training and experience as industry professionals, so Avalanche Canada isn't expecting data to the same level that the CAA expects from its InfoEx subscribers, but the sheer volume of backcountry users remains as a mostly untapped resource of information.

"It's not impossible we could get close (to the InfoEx standard) in some places if we reach out and offer some local training so the data we get from that is closer to the professional standard," says Klassen. "Will they ever be the same? Probably not. But will they help produce more and better forecasts in the province of British Columbia? Absolutely."

Klassen noted that recreationists are often looking for more than a forecast or avalanche bulletin, they want to know where the riding conditions are good and where the weather is suitable. With the new Avalanche Canada smartphone app, users can contribute photos and text information on both riding conditions and any avalanche-related observations, with all data geo-tagged to where the photo was taken and the post being sharable on social media networks.

"Our goal is to engage a high percentage of recreationists. We'd love to see everybody that's going out there have the app on their phone or come back to their computer at the end of the day and feed information into the system," says Klassen.

"Whether that will produce enough data of a high enough quality to produce a regional forecast, that remains to be seen. But if nothing else it offers another source of information to other users and it may offer different kinds of products in the future. We may be able to produce a spot forecast in high use areas when conditions warrant."

The basic avalanche survival tools — transceiver, shovel and probe — have changed little over the years, with the exception of transceivers becoming more user friendly, especially for novice users. Avalanche airbags continue to iterate their designs, with Black Diamond this year releasing its JetForce series of packs, which utilize a ducted electric fan system to quickly inflate the airbag, which is the first such pack to not rely on compressed air canisters.

But as innovative as these survival devices are, they remain reactive tools. The avalanche victim might end up safely atop the debris with their oversized pool floatie safely deployed or be pinpointed, probed and excavated in sufficient time, but if you have to use any of the aforementioned avalanche safety devices, you've already made a mistake in your decision making.

A new company in the U.S. called AvaTech is trying its best to combat the reactive nature of avalanche safety through the use of a new tool, the AvaTech SP1.

After meeting in a product design course at MIT university, Brint Markle, Jim Christian and Sam Whittlemore collaborated on a class project to develop a tool that could more quickly gather data from a snowpack.

"I think we took on a project that was a little bit larger than the scope the class wanted it to be," says Whittlemore.

"(The professors) said that there should be 10 or less parts to the product, right now I think ours has a few hundred. We started to investigate different sensing technology to measure snow hardness and we really started to have things come together when we took a trip to Mt. Washington, New Hampshire in April, 2013. We knew we were onto something when we started to see some profiles similar to our hand hardness tests."

The SP1 device is an electronic unit connected to a probe with a penetrometer fixed to its tip. By plunging the probe into the snow, the penetrometer measures the varying hardness of each layer in the snow and instantly draws a graphical snow profile on its LCD screen. The traditional guide's method of taking a snow profile requires them to dig a snow pit and measure hardness of layers by hand. With the SP1 a guide can take dozens of readings a day.

"We're excited about it because it's an objective measurement and it lets you gather a lot more data very quickly," says Whittlemore.

"It's great for understanding spatial variability and temporal variability, picking up major weaknesses and seeing trends. I remember this day in March, 2014 when I was in Colorado with Ethan Greene from the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Centre). He and I were out testing this probe and we walked just a few hundred feet from the car and dug a pit. There was a buried surface hoar layer about seven or eight millimetres thick that we almost missed with our hand test, but when we probed it over a dozen times with the SP1 prototype, it picked up that weakness at the buried surface hoar every time. Cases like that, when you see it showing exactly what you want, is very encouraging."

But Whittlemore is quick to note that the SP1 is far from the "second coming" in the world of avalanche safety. The SP1 is only available to industry professionals with the expertise to put that gathered data into context, and at a price of $2,249, few backcountry recreationists could afford it anyway.

"(The SP1) only measures hardness from a penetrometer, it's not the same as measuring stability," says Whittlemore.

"While it's valuable for data collection and decision making it's still important to keep digging pits and to get in the snow and do the stability tests. Without context of the SP1's measurement you might see a structure that you'd expect, but it's hard to place a stability to that structure. The way I envision using it is to collect a signature of the snowpack very quickly and to see how that signature changes as you move."

Klassen has been following the developments of the SP1 but remains skeptical and at the most, cautiously optimistic.

"There's a saying that data is not information, information doesn't lead to knowledge and knowledge doesn't necessarily lead to wisdom," he said.

"It creates an incredible amount of data very easily but more data isn't always the solution to the problem that we deal with. It's not like a snow profile where someone digs a profile, looks at the layers, tests the bonds between those layers and determines their characteristics. It's just telling you that the layers exist."

As winter backcountry popularity continues to grow, so should the education and mindset of its user groups. The psychological pressures of group dynamics and desire to reap the reward of one's efforts can often cloud judgement of an individual or a team, sometimes with fatal consequences.

"So often we get caught up in the moment, you see that untracked powder slope, you want it to make those turns so bad that you can almost go into this tunnel vision," says Douglas.

"It's one of the toughest things I think we face as humans, we don't want to be the one who brings the group down. There's a lot of that peer pressure or tendency to defer judgement to the 'wisest' person in the group."

Take pause when you are faced with a critical decision. Speak up if you feel the group is missing a crucial step. Learn to love the process of turning around and leaving the objective for another day. It may save your life one day — or that of your friends.