New avalanche research looking into terrain choices

Simon Fraser University researcher Pascal Haegeli leading new project looking at terrain choices of avalanche professionals.

New research will hopefully provide more tools to help backcountry recreationalists decide where to go.

You’re going out ski touring with friends. You’ve read the bulletin but now you’re wondering — where should we ski?

New research at Simon Fraser University (SFU) hopes to provide more information to recreational backcountry travellers by looking at the practices of professionals.

“We want to better understand how mountain guides choose terrain to mitigate avalanche hazard under different types of conditions,” said Pascal Haegeli, the research chair in avalanche risk management at SFU. “We’re working with a number of operators to monitor how they assess the conditions, what type of terrain they chose and where they actually ski.”

The goal, he said, is to study what professional ski so that recreationalists can have a baseline of what’s acceptable terrain given certain avalanche conditions. “The idea is based on that information we can capture their operational expertise around that, and then hopefully extract the rules they use to make these choices,” Haegeli said. “Based on that information we hope to eventually develop tools for the amateur recreationalist.”

The new research position was launched by SFU in December. The five-year, $1.025 million project was created through a collaboration between the university, Avalanche Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Association, and Heli-Cat Canada. It is being led by Haegeli, an avalanche researcher with more than a decade of experience in the field.

Avalanche Canada is contributing $15,000 per year to the program and is also serving in an advisory capacity.

“The interesting thing about Pascal’s program to us is it’s a multi-disciplinary program,” said Karl Klassen, the avalanche warning service manager for Avalanche Canada. “It’s not just hard physical science, but there’s also human psychology and decision making stuff. There’s social science involved in his program that is of great interest to us because we know there’s more to making good decisions in the mountains than just doing hard science.”

Photo: Avalanche researcher Pascal Hagaeli is also an avid backcountry skier. Photo by Alec van Herwijnen.

The main focus of the research is a project that will track ski guides with several heli- and cat-skiing outfits in B.C., including CMH Revelstoke and Selkirk Tangiers Heliskiing. Guides with those companies are being equipped with GPS devices so researchers can see what runs they opened that day and what they actually skied. That information can be then be related to the avalanche conditions for that day.

“The operators have well established procedures how they assess conditions and how they document their process,” said Haegeli. “That provides a nice environment for doing this research.”

He hopes to eventually expand the program to recreationalists and other backcountry operations. “That would allow us to see what are the differences, where are the strengths and weaknesses of people, so we can start to look at developing tools that target existing users,” he said.

Klassen, who is one of the guides carrying a GPS this winter, said the research is an extension of the work that went into the Avaluator. In that case, guides were surveyed to see what kind of terrain choices were made depending on conditions. The research at SFU will take that to next level.

“What it’s doing is it’s creating an expert database that will help inform when it is reasonable to be in what kind of terrain,” he said. “There’s certainly days where it’s perfectly reasonable to go into very steep, very aggressive terrain. It’s just a matter of deciding when that time is.”

Haegeli is working with with one Masters student, one PhD student, and one post-doctoral student who is also a ski guide. They will be publishing research over the course of the next five years and are also working to turn the research into practical products.

Haegeli hopes the research will eventually lead to detailed terrain guides for backcountry users. He spoke of the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale, which currently divides terrain into simple, challenging and complex areas, and said he hopes that could be extended to develop maps that are condition dependent. Those maps could be accessed by the user when they head out.

“If we have a persistent slab that we know is in certain areas, maybe we can come up with maps that would take that into account,” he said. “How exactly those products will look like is unclear at the moment. It depends on the results that we get.”

Klassen said the tracking could lead to a baseline that could be used by recreationalists. They could get an idea of what a professional would ski that day, then make their own terrain choice based on their own risk tolerance.

“In a perfect world you’d be able to look at your device and see what a professional would do in these kind of conditions today in this kind of terrain,” he said. “Would they go here or not? That would help you decide if you’d be willing to accept the risk presented on that day or not.”

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The site plan for the Stoked Living development on Hay Rd. (Stoked Living)
Rental housing agreement approved for Hay Rd. project

Stoked Living development guarantees 10 rental units for 12 years

Revelstoke Fire Rescue Services. (File)
UPDATE: RCMP say fire at Rivers Edge suspicious

Second fire in less than a week in Revelstoke contained to one unit

Remembrance Day in Revelstoke, Nov. 11, 2019. (Jocelyn Doll/Revelstoke Review)
Revelstoke Remembrance Day celebrations different during pandemic

The Legion is asking you to stay home as a limit of 100 people are allowed at the ceremony

A municipal election is likely coming up in January. (Jocelyn Doll/Revelstoke Review)
City takes steps to host byelection by end of January

A ministerial order is required to temporarily change the Election Bylaw

Mount Cartier Court residents enjoy some shade. (Submitted)
Mount Cartier Court gets shade sail donation

Various local organizations donated funds for the project

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

Janet Austin, lieutenant governor of B.C., was presented with the first poppy of the Royal Canadian Legion’s 2020 Poppy Campaign on Wednesday. (Kendra Crighton/News Staff)
PHOTOS: B.C. Lieutenant Governor receives first poppy to kick off 2020 campaign

Janet Austin ‘honour and a privileged’ to receive the poppy

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Christie Mountain wildfire along Skaha Lake in Penticton, B.C. Thursday, August 20, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward - The Canadian Press file)
North Okanagan firefighters thanked for help in Christie Mountain wildfire

Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen send thank-you note to Vernon firefighters

In past years, Summerland has launched the festive season with the annual Summerland Festival of Lights. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival has been cancelled. (Summerland Review file photo)
Festival of Lights cancelled in Summerland

Annual November event normally launches start of festive season

The front door was smashed at Simply Delicious aroud 4 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, but nothing was stolen. (Cameron Grant photo)
North Okanagan business owners hit second time in three months

Simply Delicious broken into, but nothing was stolen

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Premier-elect John Horgan and cabinet ministers are sworn in for the first time at Government House in Victoria, July 18, 2017. (Arnold Lim/Black Press)
Pandemic payments have to wait for B.C. vote count, swearing-in

Small businesses advised to apply even if they don’t qualify

This Photoshopped version of the crosswalks near the entrance to the Salmon Arm Art Gallery on Hudson Avenue show what is proposed to help create safety for and show inclusivity to the LGBTQ2S+ community. (Salmon Arm Arts Centre image)
Tri-rainbow crosswalk and Progress flag requested to help make Salmon Arm safe

Council will consider budget requests to help make city inclusive to LBGTQ2S+ community

Penticton resident Seamus Kirby, 30, was sentenced to 16 months behind bars for fleeing from police in a stolen vehicle this April. (Facebook)
Prolific offender back behind bars

Seamus Kirby, 30, has a long history of crime in the Okanagan

Most Read