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Avalanche professionals converge on Whistler

Conference looks at the state of snow science, snow gear

Figuring out how snowpacks will behave in different circumstances can mean the difference between life and death in some situations. Last winter avalanches claimed 16 lives in Canada, and hundreds of others around the world.

While the toll is high, research is being done to advance the way avalanches are forecast, ways avalanches can be prevented, and to improve the odds of people caught in slides. Every two years the latest developments in that research are presented at the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW), with leading experts from around the world sharing information with professionals, the public and each other.

“Basically it’s a meeting of practitioners and theoreticians,” explained Helene Steiner, a heli-ski guide who took on the job of organizing this year’s event in Whistler, which is expecting more than 800 delegates from 20 countries from Sunday, Sept. 21 to Sept. 27.

“The practitioners include people like ski patrollers, mountain guides, people in avalanche safety, highway workers in the mountains — anyone who sticks their hands in the snow and makes decisions about safety. The conference gives them a chance to meet behind the scenes with the people developing safety equipment, or the university professors who study snowflakes all year long, the cohesion layers between snowfalls and how they bond.”

The trade show where manufacturers show off their products is open to the public, and backcountry enthusiasts can pay to attend the seminars and workshops taking place during the conference, or to attend the banquet and hear the keynote speaker.

This year the speaker is Sam Kavanagh, who lost his leg and a friend in an avalanche while ski touring. His story was featured in a movie called A Dozen More Turns.

Kavanagh almost missed the ISSW conference in his bid to represent the U.S. in the Paralympics, but was edged out in qualifying by a fraction of a second to another competitor.

“It’s always so interesting, snow is the medium I work in and I get to meet people from all over the world working in the same medium,” said Steiner. “There is a Russian expert who works in Japan but can’t get a visa, some Turkish experts that need a formal invitation from us to get a visa to visit, experts from Nepal, Bangladesh. It’s a lot of work, but it is incredibly rewarding.”

Most of the events take place at the Telus Conference Centre. The list of topics being discussed includes fracture mechanics and avalanche dynamics, transceiver technology, avalanche rescue, weather, instrumentation, snowpack modeling, hazard assessment, forecasting, mitigation, worker safety, propagation testing, stability, public education, and more. Each workshop includes a panel of experts and the latest research.

There are also a number of social events and side events like the Canadian Avalanche Association’s general meeting and the American Avalanche Association’s general meeting, as well as an opportunity for visitors to take field trips. One trip is a demonstration by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA).

ISSW meetings are held all over the worlds, says Steiner, and come to Canada every six years. The last meeting in Canada was held in Penticton in 2002.

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