Snow Study: Staying Safe in Avalanche Country

A small group is gathered around Public Safety Specialist Matt Mueller at the end of a day of Level One Avalanche Skills Training. He’s just demonstrated a “compression test” – cutting a column of snow to check the density of each layer: in this case loose, sugary crumbs underneath a solid cap of wind-packed crust. After explaining to us how easily snow like this can loosen and slide downhill, he lifts up the column – about 70 cm high and 30 cm square – and passes it around, a chunk of snow so heavy that one of the group staggers under its weight and falls over.

Demonstrating a compression test at Avalanche Awareness Day in 2014. Photo: Catharine Findlay.

Demonstrating a compression test at Avalanche Awareness Day in 2014. Photo: Catharine Findlay.

What does Matt and his group have to do with avalanche safety in our mountain parks? The first thing this demonstration drives home is that snow is heavier than you might think. “Imagine a whole slope of this coming down on top of you,” Mueller says. Second, there are many ways to learn more, be the most informed you can to keep yourself safer when you’re venturing into the backcountry in winter.

Avalanche danger is a fact of life in Kananaskis and other Canadian Rockies regions. The four members of the Kananaskis Country Public Safety team spend an hour every morning during avalanche season checking and updating forecasting technology, contributing to the Avalanche Canada forecast for the region. The forecast includes data from five Kananaskis weather stations, and a look at conditions west of here, which can affect the weather in Alberta’s mountain parks. This includes information on avalanches reported in other regions – it’s been a remarkably quiet year throughout western Canada so far, mostly due to warmer temperatures and a stable snowpack, but that could change overnight.

Alberta Parks hosts Avalanche Awareness Day every January in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Photo: Steve Baylin.

Alberta Parks hosts Avalanche Awareness Day every January in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. Photo: Steve Baylin.

In winter months, around rescue calls, most of the team will go out on skis to observe conditions firsthand. They’ll check for overnight changes within the snowpack, the effects of wind on snow accumulation and density, and even the trajectory of the sun. While they’re out there, members of the team will collect updates for the Public Safety Facebook page, and often record another episode in their popular video snow report series.

This work all comes together with one goal: keeping the skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice climbing public safe and informed. With more and more people venturing into the backcountry in winter, Alberta Parks promotes basic understanding of avalanche safety for everyone. This includes carrying a transceiver, probe & shovel (and knowing how to use them), knowledge of basic snow science, recognizing avalanche terrain, understanding the different levels and dangers in the Public Avalanche Bulletin and knowing the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale(ATES). This means that even if a particular Kananaskis winter trail is rated as Low avalanche danger and lies in Simple (green) terrain, there is still some avalanche danger.

Photo credit Catharine Findlay

Photo: Catharine Findlay

This may be especially important in a stable season like this one, when it could be easy to fall into a false sense of security. “Next big snowstorm,” says Mueller. “We have to get people to hit the reset button.”

To get a more in-depth picture of the tools, technology, and terrain before heading out into K-Country this winter, plan to join us for the fourth annual Avalanche Awareness Day on Sunday, January 17 at Burstall Pass trailhead.

One thought on “Snow Study: Staying Safe in Avalanche Country

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s