Snowpack changes signal potential danger 

Large cornices form with warm temperatures, snow and wind

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO - snowpack A small inbound avalanche on Blackcomb Mountain recently was likely due to warming temperatures, recent precipitation and wind.
  • file PHOTO
  • snowpack A small inbound avalanche on Blackcomb Mountain recently was likely due to warming temperatures, recent precipitation and wind.

A weekend tragedy in which the bodies of five hikers were recovered at Mount Harvey, near Lions Bay, serves as a reminder to mountain users of the ongoing dangers due to changing snow conditions this spring.

Early reports suggest the snowshoers walked too far onto a cornice, which then gave way. Updates from an Avalanche Canada (AvCan) report the combination of warm weather, snow and wind all are contributing to large overhanging cornices this spring.

The rapid growth of snowshoeing and the easy access to mountainous wilderness is creating a situation that puts an increasing number of people at risk — including rescuers, said AvCan in a release this week.

There is also a level of concern about users who are new to the mountains and may not be aware of the well-established culture of winter safety that exists in Western Canada.

"There is an onus on individual users, groups and clubs to make themselves familiar with the resources available," said Gilles Valade, Executive Director of AvCan. "There are social media discussions about current conditions, online tutorials, and of course our daily avalanche forecasts at avalanche.ca. That's just a start but these basic precautions can make a world of difference.

"It's great to see people embracing the culture of our winter wilderness... but we always want everyone to come home after their adventures. That requires being aware of the hazards and preparing for them."

Avalanches are also occurring inbounds at Whistler Blackcomb (WB), and one recent slide caught Geordie Trusler unaware as he was skiing Big Bang on Blackcomb.

"I got knocked down — it couldn't have involved more than a couple of truckloads of snow," he said, and explained that bamboo poles that were placed alongside the run for an upcoming event probably saved him.

"I managed to catch one of the poles and turn around and get a ski in. I wouldn't have been buried by this avalanche, but I would have been thrown 50 feet (15 metres) over a cliff."

Trusler said he's witnessed many avalanches in 40 years of skiing Whistler Blackcomb, and he wears avalanche gear and knows what to avoid. But that day — a few weeks ago — he said he didn't see the interface between the raincrust and the wind-transported snow.

"It's the first time in many years I've been caught in an avalanche."

Another recent slide occurred inbounds at Chainsaw Ridge though Trusler said he feels WB is on top of changing conditions on the mountains.

"I think that the mountain does a heck of a good job," he said. "The avalanche forecasters are up against some pretty tough situations where you get wind and heavy snowfall and things can change within minutes. Conditions go from benign to dangerous and it's a really tough call," he said.

But local safety advocate Richard Kinar said the inbounds slide in Chainsaw Ridge was unacceptable.

"What happened on Chainsaw Ridge the other day was predictable and preventable and we're really lucky that nobody was killed," he said. "There have been many, many inbound avalanches this year in areas of the mountain that shouldn't have been opened. When you're skiing inbounds, you expect that snowpack to be managed."

Whistler Blackcomb would only respond by email on the issue. Wrote Kira Cailes, safety manager at WB: "Small slides and cornice releases inbounds are a part of the environment and not uncommon, even though extensive mitigation work is done."

Cailes also cited the difference in the snowpack this season due to the volume of snow coupled with cold temperatures.

"The safety of our guests is our No. 1 priority. WB employs four avalanche forecasters, all of whom are Canadian Avalanche Association Level 3 forecasters, the highest designation possible," Cailes said. "In addition to that, there are numerous Level 2 forecasters and snow safety technicians."

Under its master agreement with the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, WB has a responsibility to minimize the risk to the public, which involves maintenance of trails and providing specific services, but the agreement also cites the natural occurrence of avalanches within bounds. As well, the ministry states the number of people killed due to avalanches has not increased despite the surge in backcountry use.

According to a B.C. coroner's report released in late 2016, 70 people died while skiing between the winters of 2007-08 and 2015-16 in B.C. — an average of seven each year. Twenty-six snowboarders died over the same time period. About 40 per cent of the ski deaths were avalanche-related, and the next most frequent occurrence was falls — such as from a cliff — followed by collisions with the ground, trees, and falls into tree wells.

Locally, the deaths of skiers and boarders at WB over the past decade involve incidents such as falling from cliffs, hitting trees while skiing in gladed areas, or skiing into tree wells. In 2009, WB undertook to further discourage out-of-bounds skiing after the deaths of two people in two separate avalanches during a period of high-avalanche hazard. At the time, WB adopted a zero-tolerance policy on anyone caught in prohibited out-of-bounds areas, and also temporarily suspended sales of backcountry passes.

"Once guests leave the ski area boundary, even if it is only a few metres beyond the signs, they are in the backcountry," said Cailesl. "Everyone venturing into the backcontry should have the proper equipment and education and be prepared to use both. Extreme skiing comes with risks and it is important for skiers and riders to be ready for any eventuality. WB offers free avalanche awareness tours every day and Extremely Canadian offers steep skiing clinics, backcountry clinics, and AST courses."

Kinar believes the onus is on WB to increase its notifications on the dangers of avalanches and tree wells, for example.

"Why wouldn't we want to talk about making the sport safer?" he said. "Unless we start to address safety in a more meaningful way, and unless we start to progress the snow science from the experts to the users, we're going to continue to have these issues. Why wouldn't we want to keep everyone safer?"

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