For years Tracey Billett was scared of the backcountry.
The Rossland resident spent several decades skiing the local hills, dreaming of hitting the virgin powder contained in the West Kootenay wildland, but never did.
Until now. Last year Billett ventured out for her first taste of backcountry skiing and was hooked.
On Saturday afternoon she spent a day on Red Mountain learning about how to read snow, the proper use of backcountry avalanche tools, and how stay on top of the powder, not getting buried in it.
“I was scared of avalanches before this. They always freaked me out so I didn’t go and stayed close to home,” she said. “But now that I have some more (knowledge) I feel better about going.”
Although the basics in the one-day workshop presented by Rossland Search and Rescue — as well as Castlegar and South Columbia SARs — require further refinement before becoming backcountry refined, the day attracted over 100 people.
“This is where a lot of people come that do (backcountry) stuff in winter that gets them into trouble,” said Castlegar SAR member Gord Ihlen. “So if we can educate them here, it’s preventive search and rescue. We could potentially stop a few incidents from happening.”
Despite four deaths in the backcountry already this winter — two in the West Kootenay — the conditions are not treacherous, said Rossland SAR president Dave Braithwaite.
Snow conditions in the backcountry are all relative to perspective, he said, and it comes down to good route finding.
“If you can recognize by simple observations, that you learn by coming to sessions like this or taking an avalanche course, that just teaches you the tools to learn and then you just grasp it,” he said.
Even if you didn’t have information but you had all of the right tools and knew how to use them you’d be able to decipher the snow in the backcountry on any given day.
And people received first-hand knowledge Saturday on how to use the basic tools for safe backcountry passage: snow probing; how to read the snow; building a snow shelter; and use of a transceiver.
Rossland SAR member and professional guide Jim Markin said it was the lack of snow that kept conditions good right now for skiing, riding and snowmobiling in the area.
“The major concern is once we get the weight of new snow on it,” he said. “The snow we have is weak, we just don’t have a whole lot of it to be at a critical mass.”
That lack of snow creates a worry with a dump of snow on the way this week that will weaken the existing mass, said Markin.
But when things get critical in the mountains, there is lots of information in the public sector for people to pull from, the best resource being the Canadian Avalanche Centre, he noted.