Opinion » Editorial


Look at a topographic map of British Columbia and you will notice it’s different from a topographic map of Saskatchewan or Manitoba — B.C. is not flat. Mountains, and all that go with them, including valleys, gullies, creeks, snow, cornices, avalanches, rock slides, sudden weather changes and a dozen other natural hazards/splendours, are as much a part of British Columbia as governments that can’t balance their books. It’s difficult to go anywhere in British Columbia and not see mountains, and not be impressed by them. It’s little wonder that people are attracted to and want to explore the mountains. It has always been that way. So it shouldn’t be a surprise or a mystery why people want to explore what we now commonly refer to as the backcountry, but is in fact about 99 per cent of British Columbia. Two recent, tragic backcountry deaths in our area, snowboarder Darren Proctor last weekend and heli-ski guide Eric Smith the previous week, were grim reminders of the avalanche dangers that the mountains can hold, particularly at this time of year. The precise details of their accidents have not been — and may never be — determined. But one presumes, particularly in the case of Smith who was a licensed guide and was escorting paying clients, that precautions were taken to minimize the chance of an accident: snowpacks were studied, recent weather conditions reviewed and avalanche forecasts analyzed. It’s what explorers and backcountry travellers throughout B.C. and other mountainous areas have been doing for decades. The backcountry can’t be made entirely safe, which of course is part of its allure. But if people go into the backcountry with an understanding of the potential hazards and how to avoid them, some study of the conditions and a healthy dose of discretion, the backcountry should not be off limits. Indeed, how could it be made so? But going into the backcountry armed with knowledge is something different from the case of the two teenage girls who tragically lost their lives at Cypress Mountain last weekend. The girls, both of whom only started snowboarding last December, apparently ducked under a rope and ignored warning signs in order to go into an area marked out of bounds by the ski hill operator. These three tragic accidents have all been linked by the Lower Mainland media, and perhaps they should be: four fatalities in the mountains during quests for powder snow. But I can’t help thinking that obfuscates the problem — it’s not just the lure of powder, it’s the lack of understanding and respect for the mountains that is frequently the killer. Certainly, even the most experienced and cautious backcountry expert cannot eliminate all the risks; as mentioned above, that is part of the allure of the mountains. But with high-speed lifts and high-powered snowmobiles making the backcountry easily accessible to all, and films, magazines, competitions and commercials all extolling the virtues of "the extreme", the surprise is not that people have begun wading into the backcountry in increasing numbers. The surprise is, as one local search and rescue veteran has said, that there haven’t been more tragedies in the backcountry. The mountains are part of B.C. We need not fear them, but we must learn to respect them.