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CAA simplifies avalanche prediction with ‘Avaluator’

New website, materials aim to improve backcountry safety

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John Kelly says the program is targeted mainly at beginners, but adds it will also be useful to more experienced backcountry users who have taken avalanche courses in the past. He stresses that the Avaluator is not meant to replace any aspect of avalanche safety but to complement the knowledge and certifications that already exists.

“It’s a tool, one of many tools people should bring into the backcountry. It can help a beginner to sort out what’s important from all the details, and it’s useful for someone more experienced as a reference,” adding that the information included on the Avaluator card is really a summary of best practices in given situations.

“It’s not meant to replace training, education or experience.”

An Avaluator kit is comprised of a simple card and booklet of decision-making tips that focuses on the four key components to avalanche safety: Trip Planning, Identifying Avalanche Terrain, Slope Evaluation and Good Travel Habits. There is also an online Avaluator Trip Planning Tool with a seven-step process to help people determine what the risks might be.

According to Kelly, the kit first asks you where you’re going — the avalanche rating for a given slope or area, as well as the current avalanche hazard rating.

“This should give you an indication as to whether that trip is recommended to that area,” he said. “If it’s a good day it will tell you to take the normal amount of caution, or it might tell you that you should think hard before going in somewhere and that you might need to take extra caution. The third level is in the red zone, that this trip is not recommended for today.”

The card also includes a checklist of things to look for, based on what’s been seen with prior avalanche accidents. Examples include signs of loading from wind or snow, whether it’s currently snowing, the aspect and steepness of the slope, and evidence of past avalanches. The more boxes that are checked off, the higher the danger rating.

Kelly hopes that some people will go through the Avaluator process and decide to call off potentially dangerous trips, or change their itinerary to lower the risk.

“Maybe in the course of your trip you can choose one option over another,” he said.

Kelly himself was on the expert panel that put together the Avaluator. Others on the panel include Bruce Jamieson from the University of Calgary Avalanche Research department, avalanche risk management specialist Pascal Haegeli, leading American avalanche expert Ian McCammon, and several others. Although Canada is the only country that rates terrain for avalanche risk, Kelly says the Avaluator can be useful in the U.S. as well. Whether or not the program would be of any interest in Europe, which has a long history of avalanche education, is yet to be seen.