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.

PSX_20210314_180305

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.

IMG-20200301-WA0035

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
IMG-20200301-WA0005

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
IMG-20210405-WA0016

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
HOP_4999

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
IMG_4406

Camping in the wind and rain at Kilby Park

This will be a short blog post about a short trip, but it was exciting enough that I decided it was worth writing about! My friends wanted to get one last camping trip in before snow season and booked up 3 campsites at Kilby Park over the Remembrance Day long weekend. They all drove out after the Remembrance Day service on Thursday and Brandon and I joined them on Friday evening after work. It ended up pouring all Thursday night and most of Friday, so I didn’t regret my decision. The rain finally stopped as Brandon and I were driving out and it didn’t rain again until the following afternoon.

But a little bit of information about the Kilby Campground. Kilby Park is located near Harrison Mills and it was my first time visiting the area. Historically there was a mill located in the area and Kilby was the location of the train station, so people travelling between Chilliwack and New Westminster would stay in the area. At the time there was a 14 room hotel, general store, and post office located at the train station, so visitors would often stay the night. Today, the original building has been turned into a museum and a small campground developed along the river to provide revenue towards maintaining the site.

20211113_082157

Like I said, I’d never heard of the park, but I was pleasantly surprised by it’s location. The campground is located right on the banks of the Harrison River where it empties into Harrison Bay and has gorgeous views. I would love to return in the summer and hang out on the sandy beach and go kayaking around the bay. On this particular trip though, it was pretty wet and chilly and the campground itself left a little something to be desired. The campsites are definitely intended for campers and RV’s and we were the only people staying there that were in tents. The sites have a strong parking lot vibe, with very few trees and little privacy. But the views really can’t be rivalled, so I wouldn’t be opposed to going back.

Brandon and I arrived just after sunset. The rest of our crew had been there for 24 hours already, so they had constructed a pretty good set-up, with several pop-ups over the picnic tables and fire. We’d gone on a pretty large wood finding mission before the trip and had stockpiled a huge pile of construction waste to burn through and keep us warm. Carolyn and Steve made our supper for the night and had cooked salmon and roasted veggies over the fire in tinfoil packages, which was delicious!

20211113_092637

Unfortunately, though we had foreseen the rain, we hadn’t accounted for the wind. It’s very rare that we get wind at all in BC and as we were eating dinner, the wind started gusting up off the water and lifting up the pop ups. We tried pegging them down, but the sites are designed for campers and the ground quality was poor, so we ended up having to guyline every corner of the pop-ups as well. Fortunately that did the job and they didn’t give us any more problems after that. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the fire and the break from the rain. Carolyn recently got a Golden-Doodle puppy named Jasper, so we loved getting to hang out and snuggle with him. I decided to leave Sadie home with Seth because she is pretty high maintenance and reactive and I didn’t think she would do well in the open-concept campsites (also I didn’t want to sleep with a wet dog).

20211113_114130

We camped in Brandon’s tent and I finally had another reason to use my -30 degree sleeping bag, which obviously kept me super toasty warm all night. I slept better than expected and we got up with the sun at 8am for a full car camping breakfast of eggs, bologna, and hash browns. We also had a fabulous view of several eagles and saw 3 of them hanging out along the beach throughout the morning. We later learned we happened to be visiting during the Eagle festival, so it was nice of the eagles to show off for us!

Having a look at the upcoming forecast, we made the decision to take advantage of the dry weather to take down the tents. We’d been planning to stay Saturday night as well, but it was calling for an insane amount of rain starting in the afternoon, as well as wind, so we figured we didn’t want to battle both elements and have to take home a ton of wet gear in the morning. This ended up being an excellent decision as this was the weather event that ended up flooding entire towns in BC. At the time, the forecast was calling for 150mm of rain in the Fraser Valley, by the end of the storm, some areas of the province ended up getting close to 300mm of rain. This resulted in heavy flooding and destruction in Merritt, Hope, and Abbotsford, as well as the flooding and collapse of several highways, causing BC to declare a State of Emergency for the third time in 2021. So if you have any doubts about climate change, please educate yourself because the effects are very real and devastating.

20211113_092558

Around noon we decided to check out the Kilby Museum. It’s only open on the weekends in the off-season, so we walked up the road and paid the $10 entrance fee to tour the museum. They’ve preserved the old hotel and store as much as possible and added several exhibits in the old hotel rooms about the development of the Fraser Valley through the years. We really enjoyed touring around and they have a really nice gift shop that also sells homemade pies! That’s where we learned about the historic use of the site and it was nice to learn something new.

20211113_134526

It started to rain a bit after that and most of our party took off to head home. We stayed a little bit longer and Brandon cooked up his infamous Thai chicken curry for us and Carolyn and Steve. It did start to rain in earnest then though, so we packed up as much as possible, just leaving the pop-up over the picnic table until the last minute. Unfortunately, because we had cut the trip short, we had a lot of firewood leftover. I’m the only person with a yard and fire-pit at home, so we ended up loading all the leftover wood aboard Brandon’s car and Seth and I now have a huge stash for next year!

It was around 3:30pm when we left and it was torrential downpour the entire way home. We were very satisfied with our decision to leave early and didn’t fully understand just how wise that decision was until news started to break the next evening about the devastation the rain caused. So in conclusion, the Kilby sites leave a little something to be desired, but I would love to return in the summer to take advantage of recreation activities in Harrison Bay and would totally recommend checking out the museum.

20211113_134750