Backcountry users are being warned

Backcountry users are being warned

Backcountry users be warned: Avalanche risk rising

Okanagan and Shuswap backcountry skiers and snowmobilers take note – avalanche safety warnings are currently on the rise.

Low snowpack levels combined with a current warming weather trend has raised avalanche safety warnings for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre, located at Revelstoke, reports that in higher elevation alpine snow areas, outdoor recreation enthusiasts need to pay attention to potential avalanche conditions.

“You want to make conservative decisions about where you go, you want to monitor carefully where new snow has fallen and now would be a good time to be riding on slightly lower angle type of terrain to reduce the avalanche hazard,” said James Floyer, forecast prevention supervisor at the Avalanche Canada office.

While the avalanche warnings are more dire in the coast region because of the forecast onslaught of rain this week, after unusually heavy snowfall this past month, Floyer called the current avalanche situation a tale of two halves—areas with a thick or heavy snowpack level are much safer than lower snowpack that suddenly get hit with a lot of snow.

In the Columbia Basin area, a prime location for tourist and local snowmobilers, the avalanche rating has gone up this week to high.

While a heavy snowfall forecast this week in many Interior regions didn’t materialize to the extent that had been anticipated, still the combination of new snow, wind and warming temperatures equals a recipe for avalanches, he noted.

He said wind-assisted snow crests forming on steep alpine ridges sitting on top of existing low snowpack levels is an avalanche condition similar to waiting for a gun to go off, and a snowmobiler or skier can be the trigger.

“In the warmer weather situations where you have a nice slab of fresh snow sitting on top of a weaker snowpack, that slab sitting on top can be a recipe for a potential avalanche,” Floyer said.

Mary Clayton, communication director for Avalanche Canada, said a predicted warming trend will send the freezing level higher and weaken the base snowpack.

“You need to be aware when heading into the backcountry. For sledders, everyone in a group needs to be equipped with a shovel, probe and a transceiver,” Clayton said.

She added that Avalanche Canada’s website has constant updates on weather and avalanche conditions across the B.C. Interior.

Clayton said for Canada, 80 per cent of avalanche fatalities occur in B.C., and 50 per cent of those are B.C. residents.

The Columbia Basin, in particular, remains an ongoing hotspot for fatalities, she added, reflecting a combination of being an outdoor recreation draw for people from across B.C. and Alberta, and array of access to outdoor terrain.

She recalled an accident in 2010 near Revelstoke, where two snowmobilers triggered and died in an avalanche that could have potentially claimed more lives of other sledders watching the race from a lower gathering point.

“A lot of it comes down to common sense and being intuitive to your surroundings, seeking a low risk tolerant option particularly if you find yourself in a terrain you are unfamiliar with,” she said.

Gord Bushell, Eagle Valley Snowmobile Club manager, said the current high avalanche rating is pointedly passed on to all customers for snowmobile areas the club looks after.

“It’s the backcountry and we want everyone to be aware of what’s going on. We want people right now to stay away from extreme alpine areas and instead play around in the meadows, stay way from above the tree lines,” Bushell said.

He said that advice is of particular importance to visiting snowmobilers from the prairies who are not necessarily familiar with local terrain or conditions.

“You have to be really cautious with them. It’s important for everyone to stay within your limitations and make smart decisions, not just for your own safety but for the safety of others who might be in the same area, ” he added.