Avalanche Safety Over the Years (aka How to Avoid Becoming a Statistic)
Sep 24. 2018
No question about it, the backcountry has never been busier. Ask anyone who recreated in the backcountry 20 years ago, they’ll tell you. In that old-timey grandad yearning for the good ol’ times way: “Back in my day I used to have this mountain all to myself, not another ski track for miles!” they will reminisce. Now some backcountry touring areas like Rogers Pass are practically mogul runs. For sledders, the high elevation backcountry is still a relatively new playground, but they’ve caught on to the love affair with the mountains fast over the last decade and a half.
Now that modern mountain sleds and snowbikes make it possible to reach previously untouched powder stashes, staging areas are often overflowing on weekends. The mountains reverberate with the sounds of Brrraaaap! melding with the happy shouts of overjoyed skiers and splitboarders shredding fresh powder. Even snowshoeing and fatbiking is taking off in unprecedented numbers, as people explore their sport of choice in bigger and bolder terrain than ever before. People want their adventure, and with a plethora of modes to access avalanche terrain this should mean more avalanche accidents than ever. Yet that’s not what statistics in Canada are showing.
The deadliest avalanche accident on record was in 1910 in Rogers Pass when 58 men were killed
Every year, an average of 13 people die in avalanches here (based on a 10-year moving average). Despite the exponential growth of winter backcountry use, the moving average of avalanche fatalities has remained relatively steady and even fallen slightly over the past 2 decades (it was 16 at its highest point in 2004-05). This is not the case in all other countries around the world so why this trend in Canada? I doubt our backcountry has miraculously gotten safer over the decades. In my humble opinion it’s due to the effectiveness of Avalanche Canada’s (AST) avalanche skills training courses and their public avalanche bulletins. Last season close to 11,000 people took part in AST training courses. Why is this training so essential? Because learning to recognize avalanche terrain and read the warning signs are the first important steps towards avoidance. In 90% of avalanche incidents, the victim or someone in the victims party triggered the avalanche. In addition to that, rescue practice and preparedness are crucial to survival, there is no time to get help if an avalanche happens. The first 10 minutes are the critical window in terms of searching and extricating a victim. If they are rescued within that time, statistics show they have an 80% chance of surviving. After 15 minutes the rate of survival for a buried victim is only around 40%. After 35 minutes it’s less than 10%...
Canadian history is full of tragedy that has shaped modern avalanche awareness.The deadliest avalanche accident on record was in 1910 in Rogers Pass when 58 men were killed working for the railroad. We’ve come a long way in avalanche safety and education since then. Times have changed, sports are evolving and so is safety culture in the backcountry. Last winter 7 out of the 12 avalanche fatalities were snowshoers. Some people are speculating that this new sport, much like snowmobiling a decade ago, or backcountry skiing four decades ago, is gathering momentum. Untold numbers of enthusiastic adventurers are racing for summits and beautiful backcountry areas daily, without potentially being aware of any possible danger.
"After 15 minutes the rate of survival for a buried victim is only around 40%"
I believe it takes a whole community to keep our statistics down and that it’s important to spread a culture of safety and avalanche awareness, especially in the early stages of a growing sport. Avalanche Canada recommends that all people recreating in avalanche terrain get the gear (avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel), read the daily avalanche bulletin for their region at www.avalanche.ca and take an avalanche course. These are some of the options offered: (https://www.avalanche.ca/train... )
- AST 1 is a two-day course where you’ll learn the fundamentals of avalanche formation, and how to recognize avalanche terrain
- AST 2 is a four-day course that builds on the foundations of the AST 1 and introduces a more advanced decision-making framework for travelling in avalanche terrain.
- The one-day Companion Rescue Skills focuses on the critical skills needed to respond to an avalanche accident. This is a good introduction as well as a refresher.
- Managing Avalanche Terrain is a one-day field-based course for AST 1 graduates that introduces more advanced winter backcountry travel skills.
-By Martina Halik, Photographer, Writer, Adventurer (and subject in the film This Mountain Life)