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avalanche tips

Avalanche safety should 'spring' to mind Don't leave your brain at home, says Whistler Alpine Club By Chris Woodall The crocuses are poking through the grass and golfers have polished their clubs in anticipation of another swinging year, but it's same-old, same-old in the mountainous backcountry. There's loads of snow yet. The chances of getting crushed by an avalanche are as good now as they were at the height of the winter for hikers, skiers and snowmobilers deep in the backcountry, but even for mountain bikers venturing too close to the foot of avalanche alleys. "Before you even leave the house, switch your mind to backcountry awareness," advises Tomasz Jarecki of the Whistler Alpine Club. There are several steps to take that have nothing to do with climbing backcountry trails and everything to do with ensuring you'll get your butt safely home. First, though, think of those names that have appeared in this newspaper over the past year; names of people who died in backcountry avalanches. Most of them were expert skiers, were prepared and had a great deal of backcountry experience. Nineteen have died in Canada this season, 21 in the U.S.: 10 skiers, five snowboarders, five hikers, two snowshoers and 18 snowmobilers. They form a club you don't want to join. Whistler's favourite newsmagazine has a backcountry advisory, but it and the avalanche information line (938-7676) can be stale for the area of choice. Calling the ski patrol of a resort near where the trip will be can at least provide an overview of the situation in the immediate area of the hike, Jarecki says. You need to take some stuff. And you need to make a list and check it twice, just like the jolly guy in the red suit does. "Absolutely," Jarecki says of the list thing. "I've been skiing for years and I forget my goggles on occasion." If you aren't sure what kind of list you should have, B.C. Parks — 1-800-689-9025; or 898-3678 — has one for you. At the top of the list is to contact someone who'll get anxious if they don't hear you've returned. Be sure to tell them where you're off to. "There's no fear in people's heads," Jarecki says of folks bounding off for a lark in the backcountry. "It's like crossing a street to them: nothing's going to happen." For visitors, this can be a problem. If you are one, let the hotel's staff know where you've gone and when you may be back. As a last resort, call someone 'way back at home. "Everyone knows someone, even if it means calling someone back in the U.K.," Jarecki says. And when you get back, tell them so they don't worry when they haven't heard form you. Now that that's sorted, there's the gear for your backpack. Someone in your group (surely you weren't going to go by yourself!) should have an electronic transceiver that emits a peeping noise to locate you under the avalanche's snow. It would be better if everyone had one. A collapsible shovel. Dig it? You just might have to. A probe to poke into the snow where your companion might be buried — "It lets you pinpoint where the person is," Jarecki says. You won't have long to use the collapsible shovel to get your friend unburied. "It takes two experienced diggers 45 minutes to dig down 1.5 metres," Jarecki says. Can you hold your breath that long? Funny thing, though. Some people assume magic things will happen just by having the gear with them, but they never take time to learn how it works. "There was this guy who bought a transceiver and came back a month later for a refund," Jarecki recalls. "He said it didn't work because it didn't tell him where the avalanches were." If an avalanche occurs, the first thing to do is to keep moving, but you have to keep your wits about you even before then — reaction time to a slide of snow must be immediate. "Precious seconds will be wasted if you go, 'oh, is that an avalanche?'," Jarecki says. If you get caught, try to ditch skis and poles quickly. Try to "surf" or swim on top of the slide. (See related story on avalanche air bags.) But more than an avalanche can make life miserable in the back country. A severe injury or just getting lost can mean life or a quick death if you're not prepared. Never assume you'll be gone just a few hours. "Go with the premise that you'll break a leg and have to stay out over night," Jarecki says. Take extra water, for example. Two litres per person per day is recommended. Yes, you can always eat the snow, but that may do you more harm than good. The "yellow" snow aside, "snow dries you out: there's no minerals in it and not enough moisture to nourish you," Jarecki says. Bring food: fig newtons, Christmas fruit cake, Powerbars, and if you aren't afraid of them, pepperoni sticks. Then there's clothing. Of the natural stuff, "cotton kills, but wool's great," Jarecki says. The more distance you plan to go, the more sense it makes to carry an extra set of socks, gloves or other items. Matches and a candle are handy. "A match on its own won't heat or light much," Jarecki says. "Bring a cut up inner tube: it burns even when wet and for a long time." Although the sun sets later now than in January, packing a head lamp might make a difference for those last kilometres home in the dark. A small first aid kit should be included: band aids, mole skins (for blisters or rubbed-raw spots), and personal medicines — especially insulin if you need it. Even packing aspirins or ibuprofen means they're there to offset an injury's pain. One item people don't think of is a piercing whistle. "You can't yell very far, but a whistler carries," Jarecki says. And yes, take a roll of duct tape, Canada's favourite universal repair kit. It patches draughty holes in park land outhouses if that's where you're hunkered down for the night, and can be an effective bandage for savage cuts, or to tie splints to limbs. It may be daunting to have to carry all this stuff, but keep thinking about "the club." You don't want to be a member. But having said that, Jarecki says it can be just as bad to carry too much as to sneak off with too little. "There's a basic rule that if you don't have the gear or you don't know how to use it, don't go," Jarecki says. He quickly adds the second rule: "If the conditions are bad, then you can't go." Claiming ignorance is no excuse when going into the backcountry. "I don't think anyone can legitimately say they didn't know of the dangers," Jarecki says. "Of course there was this guy who thought 'out of bounds' was the name of the ski run." He may soon join the club.