Let’s Talk: Avalanche Safety

Let me start this post with a disclaimer – I am a newbie to avalanche terrain and only have level 1 training. I am not a reliable resource for avalanche safety. I decided to write this post anyways because I think a lot of people go out into the backcountry in the winter without understanding the risk. I went snowshoeing and camping for 3 years and told myself I was safe because I “checked the forecast” and only went on popular or “safe” trails. I was pretty conservative, but in retrospect, I didn’t actually know how to read the avalanche bulletins and I was unknowingly venturing into avalanche terrain. Without taking a course, I feel it’s hard to get the proper education on identifying avalanche terrain and my main goal with this post is to convince you to take the AST1 course. If your internal reasoning sounds anything like mine above, trust me, take the course.

Growing up on the East Coast, I 100% didn’t understand the threat that avalanches can pose. I figured they were pretty rare and the odds of me getting caught in one were low. In reality, in 90% of avalanche accidents, the avalanche was triggered by the victim in the accident. So while your odds of getting caught in a naturally triggered avalanche are slim, it’s easier than you think to trigger one. Human triggered avalanches are more commonly triggered by backcountry skiers and boarders rather than snowshoers because of the terrain type, but snowshoers are at risk from other phenomenon’s such as cornices. In addition, avalanche risk is generally at its highest after major snowfalls and that tends to be when lots of people crowd into the backcountry to enjoy fresh powder.

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Even if you don’t have avalanche safety training, if you’ve spent any substantial time snowshoeing, you are probably familiar with the avalanche bulletin. The bulletin is a regional mountain forecast issued by Avalanche Canada that tells you the avalanche danger level, problems to look out for, and additional details on the weather and snowpack. Users can also submit reports from their trips on any incidents or avalanche indicators they witnessed, so it’s a useful resource for assessing risk.

The bulletin has 3 parts that are all equally important, but unfortunately most people (myself included in the past) take one look at the danger rating and never make it past the first section of the bulletin, which contains a 3 day colour-coded rating system. There are 5 levels: low, moderate, considerable, high, and extreme. Level of caution depends on the user. Before I did the training I would comfortably go out in low and moderate conditions, but not considerable. However, I know a lot of users view “considerable” as fine and only stay home in high and extreme circumstances. After doing the training, I wouldn’t venture into avalanche terrain above low unless I had appropriate safety gear.

While it’s great to check the danger rating, the other sections of the report are just as important, particularly the problem areas. These tell you what avalanche risks to look out for, where to look for them, and how catastrophic they might be if encountered. For example, the problem below tells me that the chance of a storm slab avalanche in the treeline and above is actually very likely on all aspects of the slope, but not likely to be larger than a size 2 avalanche. But for the record, a size 2 avalanche is still fairly large and can kill you, so don’t be deceived by the fact that the scale goes up to 4.

Finally, the details section tells me what to expect in terms of weather and snowpack and how accurate the bulletin is. The summary below indicates that heavy rain and snow result in uncertainty around avalanche problems and inclement weather makes the mountains a particularly dangerous place to be at that time. The forecaster indicates further in the report (not shown) that because of significant precipitation, they only had a moderate level of confidence in their predictions, so they should be taken with a grain of salt and other risks could be present.

For me, the avalanche bulletin has become a critical part of my avalanche training and planning because it helps me in making decisions about when to go out or not and what to look for if I do go out. There are lots of ways to mitigate your risk in the backcountry. One is by avoiding avalanche terrain altogether – ie, if I’m not going to go to terrain where there is a risk of avalanche, then I don’t need avalanche safety training. There are some trail maps on Avalanche Canada that indicate the different types of avalanche terrain so that you can avoid challenging or complex terrain. But the bigger problem is that without training, I think it is somewhat challenging to identify what isn’t avalanche terrain. There is often information available on the internet about specific trails, but you are most protected if you’re able to identify avalanche terrain and hazards yourself (although I still highly recommend doing specific trail research as well).

Which brings me to the second part of avalanche awareness – staying safe by avoiding avalanche risks in the backcountry. Most of the terrain I’ve travelled through has been simple terrain, meaning low angle or forested terrain with lower risk of triggering an avalanche (beware though, avalanches can happen in the trees too, so don’t assume you’re safe just because you’re in the forest). However, I did unknowingly travel through some slightly higher risk terrain before getting my AST1. For example, Elfin Lakes and Zoa Peak are two popular winter snowshoe trails – the Elfin trail is all in simple terrain (green), but it does pass under some challenging and complex terrain (blue and black) that could potentially place you in the run-out zone. Likewise, if you go all the way to Zoa Peak, you pass through a section of challenging terrain, but if you just go as far as the sub-peak, you stay in simple terrain. Knowing how to read the terrain and identify potential problems or hazards (all taught in the training), allow you make smart choices when recreating.

For me, these were the two parts of the training that were most eye-opening. Sure, you also learn how to use a beacon, probe, and shovel to conduct a rescue, but so much of the training is about avoiding ever having to rescue someone or be rescued. The more you learn about something you didn’t know very much about, the more you realize how little you actually knew. This was very much the case for me with avalanche training. I was completely blind to so many of the risks that it would have been so much easier for me to walk into a scenario that I didn’t know how to escape from. Now, though I’m still a learner, I can at least acknowledge the magnitude of the information I don’t know.

Finally, the last part of the training is about avalanche rescue. What to do if the worst has happened. You learn to mitigate risk further going around avalanche terrain and by making sure to stagger your party on those occasions when you do have to pass through avalanche terrain so that if there is an avalanche, no more than 1 person will be buried, leaving multiple people to initiate rescue. If you’re not able to be rescued by your companions, it’s very unlikely you will be rescued at all. 91% of people survive if rescued within 18 minutes, after that survival drops to 34% in burials between 19 and 35 minutes.

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For this reason, who you recreate with is extremely important because you are potentially relying on your friends to save your life. For this reason, I did my AST1 course with 3 other friends and we practiced together on our snow camping trip last year. I don’t yet own my own beacon and probe (just a shovel), but I have been renting them since I did the training and hope to buy one soon. It’s great if one person in your party has training and can identify hazards and mitigate some of the risk, but unless you all have beacon, probe, and shovel and know how to use it, you will likely be shit out of luck in a real emergency. Fortunately, there are lots of AST1 providers, so I recommend signing up for a course to learn all about avalanche safety and prioritize your safety in winter conditions in the backcountry. I did my course with The Mountain School.

*stats from National Geographic via: https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-avalanches#fn3
**since writing I have acquired my own probe and beacon!

A Bucket List for 2022

The last time I made a bucket list on this blog was in 2015. I tried to make one for 2020, which was obviously a horrible fail, but now that things are starting to open up again post pandemic, I thought 2022 would be a great year to make a new bucket list! Unfortunately I wrote this post pre-omicron, which seems determined to undermine my plans, so I’m not sure how many of these I will get the opportunity to do, but I’m not super rigid about my bucket lists anyways. So here’s a few things I’d like to try and accomplish this year if I get the chance, organized by season. Leave a comment and share some of your bucket list items for 2022!

Winter Activities

  • Go on a snowshoeing fondue adventure
  • Go snowshoeing with my Trex unit (girl guides)
  • Build a snow cave
  • Go on a 2-night snow camping adventure
  • Ski Manning Park
  • Visit my cousin in Finland
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Spring Activities

  • Run once a week and do a road race if possible
  • Go on a backpacking trip with Trex
  • Get my Level 1 Kayaking certificate
  • Go on our annual May Long weekend camping trip
  • Go kayaking with Seth
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Summer Activities

  • Thru hike the SCT
  • Kayak Desolation Sound
  • Learn to identify wildfloewrs
  • Go on a multi-day trek with Trex
  • Overnight on the East Coast Trail
  • Hike to Twin Lakes
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Fall Activities

  • Visit a spa or hot spring
  • Make a long weekend trip to Portland
  • Go hiking in the Cascades
  • Finish my reading goal of 60 books
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ECT Series: Stiles Cove Path

When I first started hiking the East Coast Trail, I did a lot of the trails near St. John’s. It’s a long drive to get down to some of the hikes on the Southern Shore (especially since you need 2 cars for a lot of them), so it was easier to do hikes close to home. Stiles Cove Path runs from Flatrock to Pouch Cove; however, at 15.1km, it’s one of the longest trails on the northern part of the East Coast Trail, which means it was one of the last ones I did.

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When I was home this summer (2021), I decided it was finally time to tackle Stiles Cove. The weather was extremely variable the entire time I was home, meaning it was hard to predict if you would have a clear day, a foggy day, or a rainy day (or more likely, all three!). Most of my friends were working during the weekdays, so I decided to hike Stiles Cove solo. I’ve been doing a lot of solo hiking in NL in recent years and have come to really enjoy it. There are much fewer wild animals to worry about in Newfoundland – black bear encounters are very unlikely (and the black bears are very small and skittish) – so your most likely encounter is probably a moose. It’s scary when you see them due to their size, but usually they don’t have much interest in you.

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It was foggy almost every morning, but on the morning I decided to hike Stiles Cove, the forecast was predicting the weather would clear up, so I decided to go for it. My Mom dropped me out to Flatrock on her lunch break and agreed to come back to get me 5 hours later when she got off work. It was drizzling on the drive out and Mom was convinced it was going to rain for my whole hike (she really hates the rain) and that I would regret it. Fortunately, she was wrong! It was pretty misty when I started the trail and the fog was hanging along the coast, so there wasn’t a whole lot to see at first. The trail starts along the rocky coast and you go inland briefly near the beginning to cross the river, where there’s a nice little waterfall. I hiked about a kilometer before stopping for a quick lunch. It was still overcast, but I could tell the fog was already starting to lift a bit and I had a nice view back into Flatrock.

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From there the trail hikes up towards Red Head Cliff. It’s only a few kilometres into the trail and already, I had a trip highlight! Red Head is beautiful! It’s a sheer red cliff descending into the ocean, with a big grassy head to explore around. What made it so beautiful when I visited is that the fog had moved out enough that it was now hanging around the horizon, making it hard to tell where the ocean ended and the sky began. I thought it was incredibly beautiful and I love getting out of the trees and hiking along grassy knolls, so I was already very satisfied.

The trail continues down the head and along the edge of a cliff around Red Head Cove where I stumbled upon a few trail workers. They were working on improving some of the boards over the muddy section and were the only people I saw the entire day until I started the hike into Pouch Cove.

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The next part of the hike is between Read Head Cove and Stiles Cove and is mostly in the woods. It breaks out of the woods a few times and I stopped to have another snack before continuing on. You can’t get to Stiles Cove on the trail, but the view down to the beach is gorgeous. It was still overcast when I passed by, but I can imagine that on a sunny day the water would be the brightest blue!

Again, the trail goes back into the woods as you continue towards Spout Cove, which marks the halfway point of the trail (7.5km). There are beautiful views through the trees as you approach the head and then you pop out on another grassy knoll. I could see this being a good camping spot if you wanted to do it overnight. There are no facilities, but I did notice a stream less than a kilometre away. I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I needed to to meet Mom at the end of the trail, but I couldn’t help stopping at Spout Cove because I had finally spotted some whales!

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Whale-watching seems to be all about timing in Newfoundland. Some trips I don’t see a single whale, and other trips (this one), it’s like I can’t get away from them! There were several of them fishing further out and eventually I had to tear myself away to continue the hike. I didn’t make it far though as I was walking closer to the whales I’d been watching. Every now and then there would be a break in the trees and I would take a peep out to check on their progress. I knew I was getting closer because I could hear them spouting and spraying water through the trees! Eventually I came to a small viewpoint and hiked down the stairs to try my luck again. It ended up being the best show of the day! I was so close to the whales and there were 4 or 5 swimming around and diving, so I watched for as long as my schedule could spare.

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After that it was back into the trees around Black Head North and I started making a better pace. The trail went in and out of the trees more, offering up some truly gorgeous grassy cliffside views (I’m a sucker for meadows if you haven’t noticed how much I talk about the grass). There are lots of sea stacks between Chimney Gulch and Shoe Cove – by now the clouds had finally broken up and I had a gorgeous sunny, blue sky day in which to finish the hike. I spent most of it chuckling at Mom and being very pleased with myself for starting the hike in the drizzle.

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Even though I was still running behind, I couldn’t help but stop again when I arrived at Shoe Cove. Though Stiles Cove Path is 15km long, Shoe Cove is the only part of the trail that actually descends to a beach. The rest of the trail is along the bluffs, which makes for beautiful views, but every now and then it’s nice to actually go down to the water. Shoe Cove is a very narrow sheltered beach with a river pooling at the end of the beach before running into the ocean. There was no one around and I couldn’t resist going for a swim. First I thought I would just go in the river, which was insanely warm, but I decided to try the ocean too since it was so sheltered and was pleased to find that that water was actually pretty warm too! I didn’t have a swimsuit, so I went in my birthday suit, which is really such a freeing experience when you’re the only one around. I let the sun dry me off on the beach before continuing on to finish the last 3 kilometers of the hike. I had service, so I let Mom know I was running a little late.

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But I didn’t need to worry, there’s an uphill section after Shoe Cove and then it’s a pretty easy hike into Pouch Cove. There’s one more viewpoint at George’s Point that I hiked down to, but regretted because then I had to hike back up again. The views coming into Pouch Cove are excellent! The trail is exposed as you come into town, which makes for a scenic end to the trail. My Dad picked me up at the Church in Pouch Cove and in all, my GPS tracked exactly 15km and 250m total in elevation gain. It took me just over 5 hours to hike the entire trail – I took lots of breaks, so I did have to hike pretty fast to finish in 5 hours. Also, the more people you hike with, the slower you will go, so I recommend giving yourself a bit more time if you’re hiking this trail.

Overall, Stiles Cove Path is incredibly scenic. It is a longer trail, at 15km, but I didn’t find it to be a very difficult trail and has minimal elevation gain overall, so I definitely recommend it!

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