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backcountry advice

Backcountry Advisory For the Whistler area as of March 29, 2000 Is the avalanche danger unusually high at this time? Should backcountry travellers be going out into the mountains? Do skiers and snowboarders who leave the controlled ski area have a death wish? I believe that most people with any knowledge of the mountains would join me in saying "of course not." The issue of accidents in the mountains, especially those resulting in fatalities, is usually taken way out of context by the media. Avalanches are characterized as unpredictable monsters that lie quietly waiting for the opportunity to ambush innocent passers by. The truth is much different. Recent avalanche activity in our area has been notable due to the involvement of humans. Two avalanche-related deaths have occurred in as many weeks, others have been buried but escaped, while some just got lucky. Why this has taken place will never be answered. How to avoid avalanches is a skill not quickly learned, but we know there are ways to improve the odds in our favour. Southeast aspects have produced numerous avalanches over the past two weeks. A thin temperature crust that formed early in March is probably the bed-surface for these events. It lies under a layer of decomposing snow crystals. The bond between these layers is not very strong, but it has been strong enough to support a growing number of thin layers of new snow. Two weeks ago the slab depth over the weakness was 30-50 cm, by now it is close to 1 metre. Skier’s have triggered this weakness while alone and been buried to their chest. They have triggered this weakness (again alone) while stumbling around unequipped and oblivious to the hazard, being spared only by luck. They have triggered it while on the slope together with a buddy. In the upper metre of the snow-pack there are numerous sandwiches of windslabs, layers of decomposing new snow and temperature crusts. These thin layers are well bonded in some areas, yet fragile when tested by skiers in some of the terrain we like to travel. Terrain is a key to avalanche activity that doesn’t receive much attention here on the coast. Thin, rocky start zones, steep convexities, hanging slopes, differing aspects, all of these and more play a part in the formation of the snow-pack and therefore in the relative strength of the snow-pack. We seem to ski all of these. On Wednesday, March 29, 2000 the backcountry avalanche danger rating for the area around the Whistler/Blackcomb ski areas is CONSIDERABLE. This means that natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered avalanches are probable. Be increasingly cautious in steeper terrain. It is spring, so grab your equipment and a good partner and head out into the mountains. Just remember to pay attention to where you are, what you are standing on, above, or under, and practice the skills you have learned in order to be able to enjoy the spectacular and always special environment of the mountains.

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