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Backcountry code in development

Public invited to submit ideas for new code
Corona Bowl avalanche This Class 2 slide in March 2013 buried three snowboarders, all survived. Experts now want to create a preliminary Backcountry Alpine Responsibility Code. Photo by Mark Steffens

When he thinks back on the avalanche near Corona Bowl on the edge of Whistler Blackcomb's boundary last March, guide Keith Reid calls it "pretty humbling."

A snowboarder was buried for roughly four minutes and two more were partly buried, after a snowboarder hiking above them caused a Class 2 slide. Everyone survived.

"It could have easily had multiple fatalities," said Reid, president of the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides.

The incident remains a stark wake-up call about what can happen when skiers and snowboarders ignore, or forget, the unwritten code of conduct in the backcountry — among them, cutting a path above skiers below.

It's something patroller/avalanche forecaster Wayne Flann is seeing more and more of these days with the explosion of backcountry users and it's the reason why he rallied the Whistler Museum to host its first Speaker Series of the year around drafting a preliminary backcountry code of conduct.

"It's more like (creating) an ethical code of conduct," said Flann.

The grassroots event on Saturday, Nov. 30 will bring together key members of Whistler's backcountry community and members of the public. The hope is that together they will create a preliminary Backcountry Alpine Responsibility Code, or BARC, based on the Alpine Skiers Responsibility Code — that familiar yellow card listing the rules of alpine ski resorts.

The idea is to make the backcountry experience safer for everyone.

Just this season, Whistler Blackcomb installed two Arc'teryx avalanche "beacon checkers" — one at Flute and one at the entrance to the Blackcomb Glacier East Col — with a goal of making the growing mass of backcountry users more savvy.

Whistler Blackcomb's backcountry website information has been beefed up too.

"There are so many people within the immediate backcountry of Whistler Blackcomb, there's so many people rushing to the same place, that it (the code of conduct) gets a bit loosey-goosey that way, to say the least," added Reid.

Flann thinks back to when he first began skiing the backcountry in 1979, a time when people would mentor younger skiers about the "unwritten rules of the road."

"All these little things we learned don't seem to be getting passed along," said Flann.

All the more important, he added, with the growth of backcountry users, particularly on the fringe of the ski area boundary, which is easy to access and gives skiers and riders a false sense of security.

On Monday, B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe warned backcountry users to be prepared for winter. On average, 10 people die each year in B.C. while skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling. Another 15 or more die from hypothermia or exposure to cold.

The Speaker Series on Saturday features a panel of backcountry experts including Blackcomb Avalanche Forecaster Ryan Bougie, ski guide Dave Sarkany, avalanche instructor Mitch Sulkers and Keith Reid.

Doors open at 6 p.m., the talk begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 ($7 for museum members) and there is a cash bar.

The panel wants to hear from you. Come with suggestions about making the backcountry safer for everyone.