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!

Lightning Lakes Snow Camp

I know I said I was done with writing about Manning Park, but in addition to doing day snowshoe trips in the park, I have also snow camped there, so I want to share about that adventure too!

It’s been a challenging year for everyone with COVID-19 and our limited ability to travel and see friends. Fortunately the outdoors is a relatively safe space to spend time with friends, so we decided to go on our annual snow camping adventure. We made some notable changes – we all drove separately, prepared our own meals, and brought multiple tents. It wasn’t ideal because Brandon is the only one who owns a winter tent, but Carolyn decided to make do with her 3-season tent and we convinced Steve to join us this year! Steve did avalanche safety training with us this year, so he was interested in expanding his horizons.

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Originally we wanted to do Zoa Peak, but the avalanche risk was particularly high the weekend we went, so we decided to do Lightning Lakes instead since there is very little avalanche terrain there. To be on the safe side, we still rented avalanche gear and practiced finding each other’s beacons to get more familiar and comfortable with the gear.

I won’t spend too much time on trail details as I just wrote a separate post about the Lightning Lakes trail. It was possible to hike on the lake, so we crossed once on the first lake and then followed the trail along the edge of the second lake to the back. I’ve never gone beyond the edge of the second lake, but it’s not too far to snowshoe to the next lake, which is Flash Lake, so we decided to check it out. We weren’t keen on camping on Lightning Lake since there’s a lot of foot traffic and we thought Flash Lake might be more secluded.

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We didn’t see anyone along the Flash Lake trail, but the creek between the two lakes was not frozen and the head of the lake looked very sketchy. If we’d continued further, it likely would have improved, but we decided to turn around and instead found a nice clearing in the woods between the two lakes to set up camp.

Surprisingly there wasn’t actually a huge base of snow at Manning this year, so we didn’t have to dig too deep. In other years we’ve shared shovels, which made digging a bit slower, but this year we each had our own shovel, so even though we had multiple tents to dig out holes for, it ended up being a bit quicker than normal (or maybe we’re just getting better at it?). We dug deeper for Carolyn’s tent since it’s not a winter tent and we made sure to pack in a lot of snow around the edges for extra insulation. Fortunately it was only about -7 degrees overnight and with two people in the tent, they didn’t have any trouble staying warm.

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We all upgraded some of our gear this year, so Steve inherited some of Carolyn’s old snow camping gear and I got to test out my new -30 degree rated sleeping bag. It took me a bit longer than I anticipated to warm up in the bag (you’re only as warm as the heat you bring in with you), but after about an hour I finally got toasty and after that, quite warm. I ended up having to unzip a little bit and slept most of the night with one arm out of the bag, so I’m optimistic it will hold up in colder temperatures. There are very limited options for winter camping sleeping bags and even fewer are available in Canada. I still think some of the features of my bag could be improved, but I do think it was the best option available to me as a side sleeper.

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Like any snow camping trip, by the time you get to your destination, dig out your tents and make your snow kitchen, it’s more or less time to start getting ready for dinner before you lose daylight. We spent some time boiling water and enjoyed hanging out while we cooked our meals. I made the snow kitchen this year and I have to say I thought it turned out quite well! I made the counter/couch out of the pile of snow Carolyn shoveled out for her tent and then shoveled out a pit for one of the stoves. It snowed gently for most of the day and evening, but the clouds did clear a little bit and we got a glimpse of the stars before bed.

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It was around 7pm when we crawled into our tents. I read until around 8pm when I finally got properly warm and then hit the sack. I woke up around midnight to pee and then slept the rest of the night until 8am – definitely one of the better nights sleep I’ve gotten snow camping!

After breakfast we took down camp and then spent some time playing around with our avalanche gear before heading back out to the cars. It doesn’t take too long to hike back along the edge of the lake and we did a few photoshoots along the way. We all have a bit of an obsession with Gregory packs, so we take turns making attempts to get ourselves Gregory sponsorships – so far, no luck, but we still have fun!

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So overall it was a great first snow camping trip in Manning Park. Manning is a bit intimidating because it can get really cold there overnight, but fortunately for us it was pretty comfortable when we visited. Definitely have plans to go back and try camping at some of the other winter trails!

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Snowshoeing Similkameen River

This will be the final post in my Manning Park snowshoe series (for now). To date I’ve only explored the beginner trails, but now that I have avalanche safety training I’m hoping to venture further out in upcoming years. I go out to Manning Park a lot, sometimes camping and sometimes just for the day, but on this occasion Seth and I decided to rent a little airbnb log cabin in the Sunshine Valley for a weekend. The cabin was really quaint – it had a woodstove, which made it feel really cozy, and no cell service or wifi, so it was truly a proper forest getaway.

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We drove out on Friday night and then continued in to Manning Park on Saturday morning to go snowshoeing. We’d planned to do the Skagit River trail, but as it’s located right at the start of the park, and at a lower elevation, so it often won’t have fresh snow. On this occasion it didn’t, so we decided to save it for another day and continued on towards the resort to hike the Similkameen River Trail.

This trailhead starts just past the resort and is the same as the Windy Joe trail. You can park along the road just after the bridge and hike in along the river. Unfortunately we didn’t get the best conditions for it, the weather was good, but it was right after a wind storm, so there were a lot of fallen trees that we had to climb over and a lot of debris cluttering up the trail. Otherwise it was really nice though and I would love to go back and do it again.

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We followed the trail along the river past the turn-off for Windy Joe. After that, there’s another trail branch and it looks like you can cross the river and loop back on the other side of the river. This is what we decided to do, but I’d advise you to just turn around and go back the same way because the trail on the other side of the river is the nordic ski trail and snowshoers aren’t permitted on this trail.

Before doing that though, we continued further along the river trail to extend the time (it’s pretty short if you just go to the branch and turn around). If you’re keen, you can hike it all the way to the Monument 78/83 trailhead, but this is a bit of a roundabout route that would leave you having to hike back the highway, so I recommend just turning around whenever you feel you’ve gone far enough. We probably continued on for about a kilometre before stopping for lunch by the river. The Windy Joe lookout would likely also make for a fun day, but I think you may need avalanche gear for this trail, so proceed with caution.

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The Similkameen River also continues in the other direction from the trailhead and can be hiked in the resort snowshoe area as well, you just need to buy a trail pass for $10 at the resort to use that trail. There’s almost no elevation along the trail, so it’s great for beginners, and even with all the windfall, we still had a lot of fun exploring the trail! Definitely recommend!