Avalanche risk remains high 

Deaths of Sparwood snowmobilers a warning to all backcountry users

Fernie isn’t the only place to fear an avalanche this winter.

Rescuers and avalanche experts recovered the bodies of seven snowmobilers near Fernie on Monday. One more snowmobiler remained unaccounted for.

Two avalanches struck a party of 11 snowmobilers Sunday. All 11 young men were experienced snowmobilers from the nearby town of Sparwood. They were wearing safety beacons, while riding in the Harvey Pass area, about 40 kilometres from Fernie.

Three of the men dug themselves out and were found with minor injuries Sunday. Eight bodies have been found dead.

Avalanche forecasters are warning backcountry users of a weak layer underlying all the new snow that has fallen in Whistler in recent days. That weak layer will take some time to bond to the new, warmer snow and has increased the possibility of avalanches across the province.

Jan Tindle, an avalanche forecaster for Whistler Mountain, said Monday the local snowpack is developing with some “real weaknesses” in it, and that widespread avalanching could happen if a lot of snow falls on it. But cold temperatures are also a factor.

“When you get cold temperatures in a shallow snowpack, the snow crystals transform and they turn really sugary,” she said. “Right now that sugary snow is sitting on top of an ice crust that formed in early December.”

Anna Brown, a public avalanche forecaster with the Canadian Avalanche Centre in Revelstoke, told Pique in a Dec. 23 interview that the overall probability of avalanches had been reduced by the low snowfall.

But if the mountains start to get more snow, as they have the last few days, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers eager to head into the backcountry could trigger avalanches simply by adding weight to the snowpack.

“With the cold temperatures, the snow is becoming sort of looser and less cohesive in some locations,” Brown said. “In the future if we do get a really big dump of snow, it could cause us some problems.”

A Dec. 28 report from the Canadian Avalanche Centre shows a high risk for avalanches in alpine areas throughout the Sea to Sky corridor. The report shows that treeline areas could be at high risk for avalanches on Tuesday, Dec. 30.

A primary concern in the region is “windslabs” at alpine and treeline areas — these are layers of wind-deposited snow consisting of snow crystals that are broken into small particles by winds, and then packed together.

There are also weak layers of facets, grains that bond poorly to each other and create a weak snowpack.

As Brown tells it, it’s not hard for a skier or snowboarder to start an avalanche.

“The most common way of triggering an avalanche that people get caught in themselves is by their own skis,” she said. “Just in riding over the terrain you cause stresses in the snowpack. They release a fracture and that fracture actually may propagate wider than just the crack that your skis make.

“Then you may be standing on what’s like a slab of snow, and once that slab starts moving, it tends to push people over and that’s how they get caught in an avalanche.”

One of the biggest contributors towards increased avalanche hazard is the small snow crystals that came with last week’s cold temperatures.

“The recipe that we’re looking at right now has to do with the weak, sugary crystals that are sitting on the ground,” Brown said last week. “They are really not the type of surface that will adhere well to any new snow.

“You’ll be looking at some sharply increasing avalanche hazard through your region. That’s something to be looking out for.”

Anyone wishing to keep abreast of avalanche forecasts can go to Whistler Blackcomb’s Avalanche Advisory on its website. They can also go to www.avalanche.ca — that’s the link to the Canadian Avalanche Centre’s website, where you can find updates not only for Whistler, but for areas throughout British Columbia.


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