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Public playing safe in West Kootenay backcountry, says local SAR president

Despite worsening backcountry avalance conditions, people are getting the message and playing it safe.

Avalanche conditions are worsening as the advent of spring throws a tempest into the backcountry tea pot but people are getting the message and are staying safe, says the president of the region’s backcountry rescue team.

Rod Medland of the South Columbia Search and Rescue team said even though the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is issuing a high danger rating for the backcountry alpine people are already being cautious in the backcountry.

The avalanche danger is rated as considerable below the treeline as well, as wet weather has arrived to soak the snow.

But Medland said people are getting the message and are doing the due diligence to ensure if they venture into the great white yonder they do it armed with knowledge and information.

He pointed to the average volume of calls for rescues this year—four—as testament to how people are more prepared in what has been a tumultuous year for backcountry travel and avalanches.

“But a lot of people are knowing this. They are taking their avalanche training and this is what they are being taught, to read the snow. They are learning what is safe and what is not. These course are paying off,” he said.

The year in the backcountry has been characterized by varied conditions, said Medland. On weekends where storms have been forecast to come in and the warnings were issued people played it smart, said Medland.

“Skiers and sledders have been well behaved. A lot of the sledders in the area are playing it safe, riding roads, trails and areas that aren’t avalanche danger areas,” he said, noting the four rescues were of snowboarders.

Precipitation and warm temperatures are expected in the days to come creating new storm slabs at all elevations and new wind slabs in the alpine and treeline. The potential avalanche size is expected to increase as more snow piles up, warned the CAC.

“The 80-centimetre deep surface hoar/sun crust weak layer could be triggered by the forecasted warm temperatures and precipitation,” the report read.

The forecasted precipitation and warm temperatures add a significant load to the snowpack (possibly from 30 to 50 millimetres in water equivalent until today).

There was a report of some sluffing of snow in steep terrain up to size 1.5 on shaded aspects of the alpine, the report stated.

Gathering the avalanche information is the first step, said Medland. The second step is what people do with it.

“If they don’t pay attention, there’s no point,” he said. “But people are paying attention, they are going to the website, they are doing studies.”

According to a joint press release from the BC Coroners Service, the CAC and Emergency Management BC (EMBC), avalanche awareness has been improving as a higher proportion of backcountry users are carrying essential avalanche safety equipment—transceivers, shovels and probes. Avalanche airbag packs are highly effective when worn/deployed properly (including the leg-strap).

However, many still have not taken enough training to use that equipment with maximum effectiveness. A person buried in an avalanche can suffocate in minutes – long before help can arrive – so the ability to perform quick and effective self-rescue and companion rescue is vital.

Information about avalanche training courses is provided through the CAC. On the CAC website at people can find a basic online course, as well as information on introductory and advanced Avalanche Skills Training courses. This training is essential for anyone planning to venture into the backcountry as winter wanes.

Deadly slopes

Between Jan. 1, 1996, and Dec. 31, 2012, there were:

• An average of 10.1 avalanche-related deaths each year.

• During this period 127 avalanches caused 181 deaths. Twenty-nine of these avalanches caused multiple deaths.

• The average age of the decedents was 36.1 years.

• 90.1 per cent of decedents were male and 9.9 per cent were female.

• 68.0 per cent decedents of avalanche-related deaths occurred in the Interior region, including the Kootenay Boundary, 21.5 per cent in the Northern region, 8.3 per cent in the Metro region, 1.7 per cent in the Island region and 0.6 per cent in the Fraser region.

• 40.9 per cent of decedents were snowmobiling, 30.9 per cent were skiing, 18.2 per cent were heli-skiing, 5.0 per cent were snowboarding and 4.4 per cent were hiking or climbing.