If words like facets, whoomphing, depth hoar or trigger points aren’t part of your vernacular, you probably shouldn’t venture out of bounds at your local ski area or for that matter you should avoid the backcountry altogether because it’s what you don’t know that could get you into serious trouble.
Backcountry avalanches bury people around the globe each year, mainly due to people not being properly educated about the signs, dangers and deadly effects of snow or simply making poor decisions while in the backcountry.
The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) offers the Avalanche Safety Training programs (AST) as a tool to get people travelling into the backcountry educated on avalanches and backcountry awareness, giving them a foundation for further avalanche education.
Sol Mountain Lodge in the Monashee range east of Vernon B.C. recently held a four-day AST course and what a classroom it was. With skiable terrain three times the size of Whistler-Blackcomb, there’s tons of snow and different terrain to study at every turn.
Sol Mountain owner and lead guide Aaron Cooperman was the instructor during the AST course and his interest in avalanches and enthusiasm in the safe enjoyment of backcountry skiing was infectious.
“The AST courses are a great way for people to get basic avalanche knowledge and from there they can build on that foundation” said Cooperman. “The key to safe backcountry travel is understanding that there is no absolute answer—even guys in the business for 40 years probably won’t ever give you an absolute certainty when it comes to avalanches. The real key is understanding terrain and the consequences of that terrain. As the terrain consequences go up, so should your level of certainty and that only comes from education and experience.”
While skiing fresh deep powder is the ultimate goal for most backcountry skiers, those that are educated and backcountry savvy know this doesn’t mean charging a peak and skiing huge bowls or steep chutes to enjoy a day in the mountains. Avalanche hazard is based on the simple principle of “Risk + Consequence”. If you have the necessary knowledge of the avalanche risks at hand and you understand the consequences of terrain, only then can you make sound backcountry decisions to reduce risk.
“I think there’s a lot of people out there that have some awareness of avalanches but not a lot of knowledge. Knowing where you are or need to be and how avalanches start out in the backcountry can be a lifesaver,” said Morwenna Lane of Calgary an attendee at Sol Mountain taking her AST Level II course. “Get a book, take some courses, get out there with others and ask questions. You need to know the consequences of your actions and how to be safe in the backcountry.”
In addition to AST courses, one tool for those new to the backcountry is a card and guidebook called the “Avaluator” published by the CAC. When used in conjunction with current CAC avalanche bulletins, the “Avaluator” lets backcountry travellers assess avalanche danger through a series of questions and checklists allowing for solid risk assessment, sound trip planning and terrain evaluation.
“This type of course is absolutely essential for anyone going into the backcountry,” said Michael Nadler, a city administrator from Iqaluit, Nunavut. “We experienced such varied terrain, from high alpine and steep ravines to treed glades and creek valleys; it was amazing and really helpful with terrain recognition which is a crucial aspect of being safe out here.”