Feature Story

Busy in the Backcountry

 | November 9, 2020

Industry experts warn to keep safe as users predicted to rise

Photo Paxson Woelber 

WRITTEN BY Nora Hughes

Winter is fast approaching and provincial experts say outdoor recreationalists need to prepare for a busy season in the backcountry, citing issues surrounding crowds and safety. With the La Niña forecast offering colder weather and more snow, stoke is high for the impending ski season, which will be further complicated by COVID-19 restrictions. 

Gilles Valade, executive director of Avalanche Canada, said he anticipated an unusually busy, record-breaking winter season with concerns about beginners venturing into the backcountry.

Last spring, Avalanche Canada cut their forecasting season short in an attempt to keep backcountry users safe. With many of its contributing sources put on hold during the province’s state of emergency, the organization was not able to gather the data needed to accurately forecast. The goal was to discourage unnecessary travel and risk taking in the backcountry to reduce the risk of straining the country’s healthcare system.

Looking to the upcoming winter, their message has shifted to getting outdoors but safely.

Many ski resorts have implemented protocols to keep guests and staff safe. New rules include limiting the number of participants allowed per day using reservation systems or limited sales. Some ski areas, such as Sun Peaks Resort LLP, limited the amount of season passes sold this year and cut down on daily lift ticket quantities to manage visitation levels. 

Such capacity limits, as well as travel restrictions, are expected to turn people to the backcountry to get their fix of skiing, just as people turned to outdoor recreation this past summer.

For Avalanche Canada, COVID-19 has added another level of complexity to an already difficult job. However, the messaging from the organization remained the same. 

“As usual, our messaging is always you can’t go into the backcountry if you haven’t had avalanche training,” said Valade.

Photo Robson Hatsukami Morgan

One such backcountry beginner is Kamloops resident Lloyd Bjorklund, who said he’s excited to get into the backcountry with his splitboard this season for the first time. Bjorklund is a season pass holder at Sun Peaks but plans to split his time between the mountain and earning his turns in the backcountry. 

He said his motivations are partially influenced by COVID-19 but also by a group of friends who have been going on backcountry adventures for a few years.

Bjorklund said he has been curious about what the backcountry has to offer over resort riding and felt this is the time to start. 

“I’m excited about going in the backcountry this year and unplugging from the everyday stressors of life. Getting back to the simplicity of just a human being exploring the mountains with just some close friends and Mother Nature.”

Bjorklund said he plans to be prepared to travel in the backcountry by getting educated and booked his AST- 1 course for December. He has also been following a weekly webinar series from Avalanche Canada focused on aspects of avalanche safety for different user groups. 

He is exactly the kind of participant who is driving an increased appetite in avalanche safety courses in the region. 

Brad Harrison of Colwest Alpine Adventures said he has seen solid enrollment in his AST courses for the upcoming season. 

“There are two courses sold out, and two are three quarters sold out.”

Harrison runs the courses in the Kamloops region, focusing on understanding, recognizing and avoiding avalanche terrain. It’s the minimum recommendation for beginner backcountry tourers to prepare themselves for the hazards that come with travelling in avalanche terrain. 

Harrison recommended everyone practise companion rescue on their first day out and urged people to travel with partners who are also educated on avalanche safety. 

“Don’t assume [they’re educated], because they’re the ones who are going to be saving you.

“You can have fun and still be safe.”

Valade from Avalanche Canada echoed the importance of these courses as essential for safe backcountry usage. 

“We’re talking an avalanche skills training course. They’re two days minimum, and that is the minimum certification you should get before you venture into the backcountry.”

In addition, he said proper avalanche safety gear is required and the user must know how to use it in the event of an avalanche. He cited another concern about safety this winter, similar to situations faced by B.C.’s search and rescue groups this summer.

“The other thing we’re concerned about is people accessing the backcountry through ski resorts, slack-country or side-country,” he said. “What’s going to happen is a lot of people are going to buy this new gear, and the easiest way to try it is to sneak out on the backside of a ski hill or out of bounds. As soon as you leave a controlled area, it’s avalanche terrain… doesn’t matter if you’re in the middle of nowhere or just outside of a ski resort, it’s exactly the same thing.” 

Photo Jason Abdilla

Jon Heshka, an associate professor at Thompson Rivers University who specializes in adventure liability and wilderness risk management and has trained and coordinated with search and rescue operations in B.C., also predicted a busy winter season. Search and rescue in B.C. is undertaken by volunteer groups.

“Increased exposure to risk, for rescuers, is now amongst all of the other precautions that they have to consider,” said Heshka. 

This summer, such groups saw an increase in incidents in popular areas like Squamish, B.C., and it’s assumed this influx of outdoor recreation will continue into the winter months. What is most concerning, in Heshka’s opinion, is the lack of conversation regarding risk levels.

“People in the spring got it. And then we kind of forgot about that. People are engaging in high-risk activities. We have to go back to where we were in April, in May,” Heshka stated.

“Because people can’t go abroad for trips, people will recreate locally. People who already ski, they’ll ski. People who can’t go to Hawaii or California, they might take up skiing. There’s where we’re going to see our spike.”

Provincial health experts have expressed going outside is beneficial during the pandemic and Heshka agreed. 

“Anything that gets people outside mentally, physically, emotionally, is good, but it comes at a cost.”

He said with an increased presence in the backcountry this winter, it’s vital recreationists keep in mind that it’s not just about individuals getting hurt but putting others at risk who come after you, such as search and rescue volunteers and other recreationalists. 

“It’s not about taking no risks; it’s about taking fewer risks.” 

Avalanche Canada focuses their resources on vital daily avalanche forecasting and education, but stressed it’s up to the community to take initiative to keep themselves and others safe in avalanche terrain.

“You need the training, you need equipment, you need to know how to use it, and you need to have seen the forecast and know what’s going on. Just because it’s closer doesn’t mean it’s safer,” said Valade.

To book an AST course this season, visit Colwest Alpine Adventures’ website for a full list of 2020-21 dates in the Kamloops region. 

For information on avalanche forecasting and safety click here.