Waking up to avalanche risk in B.C.
The last couple of winters have been terrible ones for slopeside fatalities in B.C., with more than 20 people dying in avalanches in 2010 and 2011 alone. All too often, such deaths could have been prevented, says local mountain guide Brian Jones.
“We’re still seeing a lot of people out there who, in my opinion, are taking unnecessary risks,” says the Canada West Mountain School owner on the line from Squamish.
He points to the 2010 Big Iron Shootout near Revelstoke as an extreme example of how quickly things can go wrong to deadly effect. A wall of snow engulfed about 200 snowmobilers, killing two and sending dozens to hospital. The Canadian Avalanche Centre had issued a warning that weekend saying the avalanche risk in the area was “considerable”.
“That was one of those highly preventable situations,” Jones says. “It was a wake-up call for a lot of people. That shouldn’t have happened, but it still does.”
To help people avoid potentially dangerous situations when they’re out exploring the mountains, the CWMS offers avalanche-safety courses at local mountains geared to skiers, snowboarders, and snowshoers.
Jones, a California native, moved to B.C. with his family when he was seven and started exploring the mountains soon after. He started guiding in his early 20s and began working for the Canada West school in 1986 before buying it in 2003.
“One thing we really want people to realize is that avalanches are not a random, unpredictable occurrence,” Jones says. “We want people to understand the phenomenon of avalanches, the mechanics involved, and what goes on with snow structure, weather, terrain; anything that will ultimately lead to an avalanche.
“The key platform of the courses is awareness, the very practical skills involved in going out into the mountains and being safe,” he adds. “It’s about managing risk.”
Technological advances over the last decade in particular have led to the development of detailed avalanche bulletins, like those issued by the Canadian Avalanche Centre on its website. But people still need to learn how to accurately interpret the information.
“It can be overwhelming,” Jones says. “People might not be getting enough information, or they might open a bulletin and maybe just look at some small piece of information. They might filter it. If they really want to go skiing, they’ll look for the piece of information that says they can go skiing.”
That kind of thinking brings Jones to his next point: human nature and dynamics play a tremendous role in avalanche incidents.
In his courses, he asks participants how they would rate their personal tolerance for risk on a scale of one to 10, one for someone who would never go out unless it was guaranteed to be safe and 10 for someone who’s “going to jump off a cliff no matter what”.
“Most people fall in the middle, but every time we get a surprising number who will call themselves a 10,” Jones says. “When you define tolerance for risk, you realize not everyone has the same level. Every single person in every single group is different and is going to make different choices.”
One of the most common mistakes people make is following other people, Jones notes.
“One group of people may ski a slope and nothing happens, when in reality it wasn’t safe at all; they were just very lucky. The next group might be thinking it’s not a great day to ski, but they’ll think, ‘That group skied it, so it must be okay.’ They throw away all rational thought processes.
“It’s the classic ‘It’s not going to happen to me’ mentality, especially in those who are more experienced,” he notes. “If they get a little bit hardened—they’ve been skiing a lot, they’re good skiers—they’ve done the training, they’ve got the equipment, and they may have done everything right, then they make that one decision that everyone’s shaking their heads at, saying ‘Why did they do that?’ ”
The courses also involve practical instruction outdoors, where participants learn how to use three critical pieces of equipment everyone needs in the backcountry: a transceiver, a device worn around the neck that transmits an emergency signal; a probe, which resembles a collapsible tent pole that’s used to locate exactly where someone’s buried under snow; and a shovel, to dig that person out.
Although statistics vary, Jones says that the mortality rate is about 50 percent after being buried in the snow for 30 minutes.
“Time goes by really quickly in a high-stress situation,” he says. “Our goal is to try to educate people to understand what an avalanche is; what steps they can take to stay safe in the backcountry, how to minimize the risk of getting caught, and lastly, if all else fails, how to do an effective rescue.”
According to the Canadian Avalanche Centre, there were on average close to 13 recreational avalanche fatalities per year from 1997 to 2007 across Canada, with 76 percent of those taking place in B.C. Half of the fatal recreational avalanche accidents involved skiers and snowboarders; about a third were among snowmobilers.
Eighty-two percent of the fatal avalanche incidents happened when the regional avalanche danger rating was “considerable” or higher. Two-thirds of the fatal cases were preceded by recent avalanche activity, and signs of unstable snow were present prior to the accidents in 30 percent of the cases. Eighty-eight percent of the victims were male. Seventy-four percent died of asphyxia, while the remaining died as a result of severe traumatic injuries.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre offers courses in avalanche skills as well. Jones says that demand for such programs continues to increase.
“I’ve been doing this since the early ’80s, and back then it was almost a fringe element that said ‘I need an avalanche course.’ Nowadays it’s almost an accepted norm,” Jones says. “People are realizing you don’t have to be an extreme skier to get killed by an avalanche.”