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‘Made all the difference’: Avalanche training course in Squamish could be life-saving

Black Tusk Snowmobile Club's AST1 course planned for Brohm Ridge Jan. 27-28.

Friday the 13th of May 2022 was a very lucky day for Squamish snowmobiler Brandon Gray. 

The experienced rider suddenly found himself buried in two metres of snow during an avalanche in Brandywine Falls Provincial Park. 

He felt himself getting close to passing out, so he started saying goodbyes in his head, including to his wife and two kids, he recalled to The Squamish Chief.

But, lucky for him, he was with well-trained companions.

"Three other very knowledgeable gentlemen were there and that probably made all the difference to me coming home that day," Gray said.

"[That] companion rescue was spot on. It was dialed in—they knew what they were doing."

Being trained and sledding with others who are also well prepared if things go sideways makes all the difference, Gray said, which is why he enthusiastically promotes the Black Tusk Snowmobile Club's avalanche training courses at the Alpine Learning Center atop Brohm Ridge. 

The courses are open to the public. 

Gray is an active member of the club and is now in his second year as an apprentice avalanche instructor underneath the main, veteran avalanche safety instructor, Niko Weis.

Staying safe

Offering avalanche training isn't a new thing for the Squamish club—courses first started back in 2003—but as the sport has increased in popularity, they are becoming more vital. 

"We're pushing the information and the knowledge as much as we can. Everybody in our friend group and our riding group is definitely becoming more and more aware," said Payam Kavousian, communications director for the club, speaking of the growing awareness of avalanches in the region and beyond. 

"There's more people joining the sport. The backcountry is getting more and more busy. There's a lot more snowmobiles being sold and the sport is definitely blowing up."

According to the BC Snowmobile Federation, in 2022, there were close to a total of 115,000 registered snowmobiles in Alberta, Saskatchewan, B.C. and Washington State. 

In Canada, in 2022, about 51,000 new snowmobiles were sold; about 50,500 were sold in 2021, a 16% increase over the previous highest year of sales in 2000. 

Squamish's No Limits Motorsports has seen the uptick, too.

"Snowmobiling has grown immensely over the past decade," said the local company's Patrick Larkin. 

"Advancements in the machines and technology have made it easier to get into. Like many recreation activities, there was a huge boom during COVID. Also, the popularity of skiing and snowboarding has brought a lot of people into the sport to access the mountains and get away from the resort."

The annual Black Tusk club’s Alpine Safety Series courses (AST1 and AST2) are taught at the Chalet.

The next AST 1 course runs this upcoming weekend, from Jan. 27 through 28.

The $595 fee includes two field days of training, a night at the lodge and three meals.

Not to mention learning the history of the Chalet, which includes Frank Sinatra, according to Kavousian.

The upcoming course is suitable for riders who are total newbies, but there will also be plenty for those who have been sledding for years to take away, too, the men said.

“You will learn the skills and knowledge required to understand the risk of avalanches, recognize terrain and conditions that create them, reduce or manage risk while sledding in avalanche areas, utilize public avalanche bulletins and other decision-making tools, and effect a self or companion rescue using beacon probe and shovel,” the course description reads. 

Impact of climate change

These days, with climate change, backcountry conditions are often changing and riders need to know what to look out for.

"Our avalanche instructor has a saying. He says, ‘Normal is a setting on your dryer,’” said  Kavousian.

"There's no normal anymore. Every year, it's just curveball after curveball. Every day, it's a different scenario, different snowpack. Different weather patterns just result in different conditions."

Where new riders go wrong

Kavousian said the biggest mistake he sees new riders make is not knowing what they don't know, which creates a false sense of security. 

"They see their friends going out and they might see other people in front of them do something, and then they follow through with that and they might get into trouble. They don't know what the dangers possibly are."

While it is life-saving training, it is also hands-on fun, stressed Gray. 

“It's really cool when you really dive in and we do the companion rescue training. We hide beacons. We’ll hide two, three, four beacons for them and we make them find them in groups,” he said. For those doing it for the first time, that initial try is “carnage and chaos,” he added. 

“But after we've done a couple good demonstrations. It's amazing how much someone can progress in one hour by just doing some of these companion rescues, compared to not doing them and then getting thrown into the real-life scenario.”

Ideally, more families will take the course, the men said. 

Gray's nine-year-old son has taken three avalanche courses and loved it, he said.

There is a special deal for families with kids. (Contact for more information.)

The next level of Avalanche Training, AST 2, is being offered in March. That session is already full, but if there is enough interest, another session may be added. 

“I'm pretty sure that every one of our students walks away with the impression that they're not going to ride with people that do not know how to use this equipment properly and have not done the training,” Gray said. “Once they've done this, they realize that the people that they ride with are very, very, very important.”

Other courses

A 40-hour wilderness first-aid course is also offered at the Alpine Learning Center.

"Which is another wealth of information and an amazing set of skills and knowledge," Kavousian said, adding he and Gray recently took that course and highly recommend it.

That training has already been put into action.

On Jan. 6, during an avalanche training course at the Chalet, they heard about a rider, not in the course, who had hurt his back. 

He was out on his own in the late afternoon, as the sun was going down. 

A team on hand at the club,  including Gray, worked to reach, stabilize and take the man out by helicopter. 

"The students then realized at the same time how important it is to have this [training]. They realized how much things actually can happen in the backcountry," Gray said.

"That [wilderness first-aid] course that we did made me feel a lot more confident being there in that situation.”

The Alpine Learning Center also hosts other groups, like search and rescue organizations, that carry out their own advanced education courses for SAR members.

Find out much more about courses offered on the Black Tusk Snowmobile Club website.

**Please note that this story was updated to include a quote from Squamish's No Limits Motorsports, which came in after the story was first posted on Jan. 22.