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SPIN’s Winter Safety Tips: Resort & Slackcountry

 | January 11, 2021

Keep up with this mini-series of three winter safety articles that highlight hazards for Sun Peaks riders on or off the resort

Crystal chair skiing. File photo.

Risks are inherent to skiing. Instead of hiding from them, find out how to mitigate dangers on and off piste such as hypothermia and frostbite, variable terrain conditions and tree well hazards, with tips from local experts and industry leaders.

Decision making at the boundary rope can make or break a powder day. One run you and your friends are tearing up your secret stash, then you’re searching for what’s next and find yourself venturing beyond the rope that separates Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) from the unpatrolled sidecountry.

SPIN talked to SPR ski patrol director Charles Albrow to find out the best way to take advantage of the Sun Peaks slackcountry, how to handle yourself in freezing temperatures, avoid tree wells and keep your tips up and bases down on variable terrain.

Sun Peaks Slackcountry

Albrow recommended riders don’t go beyond the boundary unless they know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going.

“We see people who think going downhill will get them back to the resort and unfortunately most of the time that may lead you down to Whitecroft or Adams Lake [way].”

Albrow explained the biggest difference between in and out-of-bounds is that in-bounds is patrolled and controlled, meaning ski patrol checks runs and signage on a daily basis, responds to those in need and uses avalanche control tactics. But beyond the boundary it’s Search and Rescue (SAR) territory and if they’re needed, they come from Kamloops which means additional time to mobilize is necessary.

“My biggest concern is that people think that it’s all completely safe,” Albrow said.

The best thing that riders can do if they want to start exploring what’s beyond the orange rope is to get the gear, get the knowledge and get the forecast according to Avalanche Canada, local Avalanche Skills Training (AST) provider and ski guide Brad Harrison.

Avalanche danger ratings for the area can be found on Avalanche Canada’s website and posted throughout SPR or on the SPR website with additional information added by the resort’s snow safety team.

Albrow added that planning and practice before heading out are also paramount.

“A designated meeting place in case your cell phone dies is a good backup plan to account for everyone at the end of the day,” Albrow said. “Practice with your gear in Gil’s where it’s still considered inbounds, patrol can help you if need be and avalanche hazards are controlled. Get yourself set up for success.”

Albrow also acknowledged that people who are skiing the slackcountry sometimes re-enter the boundary after hours, which poses the risk of running into heavy machinery.

Looking beyond the boundary. SPIN photo.

“We have a lot of mechanical activity like winch-cats after hours and operators don’t expect riders to be out there.”

Winch-cat cables are strong enough to cut down trees, making them dangerous for people who can’t see them in the dark.

“We ask that people plan to be back in-bounds by 3:45 p.m. before we sweep the mountain at the end of the day,” said Albrow.

AST providers can be found on www.avalanche.ca, use AdventureSmart’s trip planning resources on www.adventuresmart.ca, and find the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides essential winter touring equipment list on their website to ensure you’re prepared before ducking the rope.

Cold Injuries

It’s not common to find temperatures dropping as low as -20C at Sun Peaks, but it can happen.

“Get a look at the forecast and know how cold it’s going to be for the day. Factor in windchill because it can be pretty extreme sometimes, especially at the Top of the World where it’s pretty exposed,” said Albrow.

Layering correctly and having enough food and water can help to prevent hypothermia and frostbite, he added.

“As soon as you see blanching of the face and cheeks, that’s when it’s time to get inside and find shelter and warmth, get right on it.”

Warming huts can be found at the Top of the World, top of the Morrisey Express lift, Sunburst Lodge, Village Day Lodge and the Annex if someone is in need of shelter and warmth. Bear in mind there are reduced capacities due to COVID-19 restrictions and you must wear a mask while inside.

Other symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, confusion, slurred speech, drowsiness and low energy. 

Symptoms of frostbite include white or yellowish-gray skin that looks swollen or waxy, is itchy, tingly, painful or numb and blistering in severe cases.

If any of these symptoms occur, make sure to seek warmth and medical attention immediately.

Tree Wells

Although tree well hazard is less common at Sun Peaks compared to the deeper snowpacks found on the coast, Albrow said it can still happen.

Jan Glowczynski skiing through the trees. Photo supplied.

“I’ve seen people six foot tall disappear into tree wells.”

According to the Canada West Ski Areas Association (CWSAA) website, people of all ability levels can fall into a tree well, riders should assume all trees have wells under them, to ski with a buddy, remain in visual contact with them, attach a whistle to your jacket zipper and if you’re a skier, consider riding without your ski pole straps attached to your wrist so your hands are not restricted if you do find yourself in a tree well.

Another resource, deepsnowsafety.org advised that if your partner goes into a tree well, to stay with them and call for help, evaluate the scene for safety and immediately begin snow immersion rescue efforts by first clearing any snow from the airway and continue further extrication efforts. They also warn partners to avoid pulling the victim out the way they fell in and instead, tunnel in directly toward the airway from the side.

Variable Conditions

Although most runs and features at Sun Peaks are open early season hazards can still be found, but Albrow said it’s good skiing for the most part.

“The biggest thing is just take it easy and warm up, make sure you’re in good shape, don’t go full send first lap,” he explained.

The CWSAA gives three actions to stay safe around others on the slopes: Be ready, plan ahead, stay alert. 

Furthermore, the Alpine Responsibility Code should be adhered to by anyone riding and it’s number one rule is to always stay in control, meaning you must be able to stop, or avoid other people or objects.
Visit www.skisafety.ca to learn more.

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