by Canadian Avalanche Assocation @ Kicking Horse Mountain Resort
07.02.2006 -6 °C
Fancy being in one of these...?
One of my gripes with the casual skiing/snowboard fraternity is the blazee attitude that many seem to adopt when visiting the mountains. Perhaps this is because ski holidays have become packaged like other holidays like Disneyland and such rubbish, and as the moutains are billed as a safe place that humans have fully tamed. Pah! Anyone that has spent anytime in the outdoors will appreciate that nature is an untamed and untameable beast (amen) - the mountains are no different. A few swanky restaurants, some convenient lifts dotted around and a piste map with nicely marked runs doesn't mean we're in control here - stay humble and you stay safe. Avalanche awareness is invaluable for anyone who goes on a ski holiday and ventures off the groomed runs into the backcountry/off-piste. Even if you don't venture off-piste, don't think you're immune as Fernie found out at the end of Jan this year - oo er.
Kicking Horse and surrounding backcountry (e.g. Rogers Pass, Selkirk mountain range) is renound for the exposure to hightened avalanche risk, largely attributed to the extreme terrain and characteristics and quantity of the snow fall, but also because this area is a magnet for backcountry monkeys. Admittedly I am guilty of snowboarding for 14 years now with no formal avalanche training. So, to save my skin and understand this phenomenal force of nature a little better, I attended a 3 day Recreational Avalanche Course presented by the Canadian Avalanche Assocation (CAA) @ Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. It was probably the most valuable course I've ever attended.
The 3-day course was run by a Alison and Paul who both work for the KHMR Ski Patrol and active members of the CAA. (Alison appears in the Ski Patrol naked calendar as Miss April interestingly enough, no pic available I'm afraid.)
On the Friday night was the theory session which consisted of 3 hours solid of PowerPoint presentations (ouch). It took me back to the painful days back at the office, albeit the subject matter was much more interesting. Covered the different aspects of avalanches from categorisation, causes, effect of weather, the snowpack construct and and understanding terrain. Most interesting part was viewing pics of local terrain and analysing hiking routes, previous avalanche paths etc. Inadvertently revealed some stunning lines, cornices, drop offs etc that I have to christen that just so happen to be high avalanche risk, but atleast I know the dangers now and how to minimise risk.
Thankfully next two days was the practical stuff on the ski hill, phew! The Sat morning was a tour of the now familiar mountain to explore terrain and expose risks. Some of the lines I'd previously ridden I discovered are high risk for reasons I'd never thought of, oops - convex roles were previously a red carpet (bad), powder nestled underneath cornices were a cushioned landing (bad bad) and hiking up terrain traps like couloirs/gullies was an acceptable risk (bad bad bad - Mr X my guide in Chamonix pay attention, you know who you are!). Need to listen up for sure.
The afternoon was spent training how to use avalanche transceivers (radio devices worn around the neck to aid rescue if buried by an avalanche), by burying another transponder and trying to find it. Of course remembering to switch it on before burying it - many have been lost this way, ha ha! I found it very difficult to use as you have to home-in by detecting changes in bleep volume - perhaps my ears have been damaged through years of DnB I dunno - anyways, lots of practice required and finally got it.
Next was a demo of how to analyse the snow pack performed by Paul and other Ski Patrol chap who had the biggest side-burns I've ever seen. The purpose of this is to identify weak layers in the snowpack that may fail when triggered by a skier or natural event, causing an Avalanche. Basically requires digging a hude snow pit down to the base, and shearing the side-walls so absolutely vertical. You then inspect the sidewall to identify layers - some are visible to the eye, others you identify by density change by prodding a pencil/finger/fist into the snow. Any weak layers (low density) are weak layers. Here is Paul after finding the known 'November' layer (a bad spell of weather than continues to plague the snow pack in this region).
Strong layers consist of decomposed snow that has metamorphisied into rounds - these bind well together creating a strong layer. Of interest in the snowpack are any layers of facets or depth hoar. Both of these snow-crystal types are commonly created as a water vapour rising through the snow-pack which attaches itself to the snow crystals causing them to metamorphise into shapes that do not bind well together, hence are weak. Here is Travis using the snow kit to identify these crystals:
Next you physically test the strength of the snow-pack through a series of tests. Pictured below is the compression test. First you cut sections from the back wall of your snow pit using a snow saw in order to isolate a column to test:
Next you place a shovel on top of the column and tap 10 times with hand then elbow then full arm taps. A weak layer will fail early in the test, a strong layer will maintain to till stronger force is applied i.e. safe(r) to ski.
The tests seem kind of archaic but are only designed to give an indication of snow stability, and are not an absolute rule.
The Sunday morning was spent doing a live avalanche rescue scenario, with three buried victims. Got to use my new transceiver searching, and probing skills. The team managed to locate the first victim within 3 minutes of arrival on scene (quite chuffed with that), second within 10 mins and third within 30 mins - they weren't wearing a transponder! Was a fun exercise but excellent practice.
The afternoon was spent digging our own snow holes testing the snow pack, as Paul demoed the day before. I like digging holes - it's fun.
Well, if you got this far I'm amazed, I do go on a bit but I found this so fascinating. I hope I've inspired some interest in you and make avalanche awareness a feature in your next ski experience.
You can access an introductory RAC online course to while away the hours in your respective office if you like - some friends have done this and found it useful.
Thanks to Paul, Alison and the CAA for such a valuable experience!