A grader removes snow from Highway 3 about one kilometre west of the Kootenay Pass summit after a controlled blast last week. Photo courtesy of B.C. Ministry of Transportation

A grader removes snow from Highway 3 about one kilometre west of the Kootenay Pass summit after a controlled blast last week. Photo courtesy of B.C. Ministry of Transportation

Kootenay Boundary remains in unusually dangerous avalanche period

Avalanche Canada says it expects snowpack conditions to get better soon

The likelihood of avalanches in the Kootenay Boundary remains high according to a forecaster for Avalanche Canada.

James Floyer, the forecasting program supervisor with the monitoring organization, says the current state of the region’s backcountry is among the worst he’s seen in 10 years on the job.

“We get a period like this every two to three years,” said Floyer. “Certainly not way out of the normal but it’s one of those periods every two or three years where really the best thing to do is just to back way off and give the mountain some time.”

A weak layer within the snowpack is the cause of Floyer’s concern. Consistent snow falling over time leads to stable packs that are good for, say, ski conditions. Conversely, an uneven layer that is 40 centimetres to one metre deep in the pack may not stick well to the layers above it and leads to avalanches.

Floyer said slides are also occurring in unusual areas such as below the tree line and at low angles, leading to avalanches in places that should normally be safe.

A heli-ski operation working out of Nakusp has ‘drastically’ reduced the number of slopes it flies its guests to, as avalanche danger mounts in the area.

“At this point we’ve eliminated a lot of terrain, the potential ski runs that if conditions were good would be available,” said Rob Rohn, the director of mountain operations for CMH Heli-skiing. “We’re avoiding those now and just focusing on the runs that are mellower terrain, where we’re not worried about triggering avalanches.”

Near Whitewater Ski Resort earlier this month an avalanche sent one man to hospital.

“It’s not a time to thread the needle and think you can outsmart the dragon,” said Floyer. “The message we’ve been trying to give is it’s really tricky to really guarantee you’re going to be able to move safely through the mountains. We’re mostly through the woods, but maybe not completely.”

Despite the poor conditions, Nelson Search and Rescue has responded to just two calls related to the backcountry in the last month. That’s normal for this time of year according to Nelson SAR’s Calvin Beebe, who added his team is prepared to head out at any moment.

“We’re in communication with local avalanche professionals who support our team, just to make sure they’re ready to go and they know we’re ready to go and that we’ve worked out things that need to be worked out in advance,” said Beebe.

Floyer said he expects conditions to improve as temperatures fall again this week. Incoming flurries will stabilize the snowpack, although he said the weather complicates the situation.

“It’s unusual to see this high avalanche danger for such a prolonged period of time,” he said. “I suspect what will happen is we’ll move now into a regular period where danger will rise through the storms and then subside after the storms.”

Two reps for Adventure Smart, an organization that works to reduce the number of search and rescue calls through education, were at Whitewater last weekend talking to visitors about avalanches.

Sandra Riches, the provincial co-ordinator for Adventure Smart, said the message they try to relay is for backcountry explorers to remember what they refer to as the three T’s: trip planning, training and taking the essentials.

That includes letting family and friends know exactly where people are headed, taking avalanche safety and first aid courses, and packing essentials like a shovel and an avalanche transceiver.

Riches said the main mistake people make is thinking nothing will happen to them, especially in regions like the Kootenay Boundary where the backcountry is easily accessible.

“We don’t think about it do we? We’re heading off on a backcountry trip with our friends, we’ve planned it weeks, months in advance or it’s just a quick decision after work or on the weekend and we don’t think it will happen to us. …,” said Riches.

“When things are easy to get to we don’t always think that there’s danger related to that easily accessible trail.”

With files from Arrow Lakes News reporter John Boivin


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