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Accepting risks and assessing risks


"It's better than sitting at home dying of boredom watching CNN."

— John Seibert of Wasilla, Alaska, one of the survivors of Monday’s avalanche near Revelstoke, when asked what were the rewards of backcountry skiing.

Many people just won’t be able to fathom Seibert’s response after Monday’s tragedy, and will tsk, tsk those who continue to venture out into the uncontrolled and not entirely predictable conditions in the backcountry.

In the wake of Monday’s avalanche, which killed seven backcountry adventurers, and following every search and rescue effort for a skier, boarder or snowmobiler, there are calls for more regulation of backcountry operators, stiffer penalties for those who venture "out of bounds," and some sort of fine or tax to pay for the cost of search and rescue efforts.

But the fact is, most of British Columbia is mountainous, and until global warming really kicks in, those mountains will be covered in snow during the winter. Most of this terrain is crown land, belonging to all the people of British Columbia. It is only natural that people want to explore the mountains, and those who do should continue to be allowed to do so. The caveat is that people must prepare and educate themselves before they venture into the backcountry.

Consider a marine analogy. Every year there are thousands of people who venture out into the coastal waters of British Columbia in their boats. Some educate themselves about tides, charts, navigational buoys and other rules of the sea, and some just head out, perhaps with a road map or atlas, or no navigational tools at all. The point is, everyone is allowed to do it; there are few restrictions on who can or can’t operate a boat on the ocean. And while marine conditions can be predicted, they can’t be controlled.

In the hope of preventing tragedy on the seas there are a variety of state-funded safeguards, including the coast guard, hourly marine weather forecasts and bulletins updating navigational procedures.

By comparison, there is very little government funding or involvement in preventing tragedies in the mountains. Search and rescue teams are largely self-funded and made up of volunteers.

One of the primary means of preventing disaster in the backcountry is the Canadian Avalanche Association’s avalanche bulletin. About a year ago $37,000 from various ministry budgets that went toward the bulletin came under the axe of the province’s core review committee. Private contributions already made up about half of the $80,000 annual budget for the bulletin. An emergency $30,000 grant from the Canadian Avalanche Foundation kept the bulletin going through last winter.

This year the province has restored some funding and the budget for the bulletin is now up to $87,500. But that only allows the bulletin to be updated three times a week and to cover five regions of B.C. and Alberta. To update it daily and cover all nine regions would require a budget of $250,000 annually – money that would be recouped if it prevented just one or two helicopter rescues.

This week’s disaster on the Durrand Glacier likely wouldn’t have been prevented by more frequent updates to the avalanche bulletin. By all accounts the group was led by experienced guides who knew the snow conditions and did not take any foolish risks. The tragedy serves as a reminder of the untamed and unpredictable nature of the mountains.

Yet as John Seibert said, the risks of the backcountry are worth the rewards. He is not alone in that assessment. Interest in the British Columbia backcountry has exploded in recent years, among commercial operators and individuals. And the province promotes itself around the world as "super natural British Columbia," inviting people to enjoy the mountains of B.C. Interest in British Columbia’s backcountry will continue to grow, particularly if Vancouver hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Tourism is touted by the provincial government as one of leading industries for B.C.’s future, with much of the industry made up of the free enterprise entrepreneurs the Liberals champion. Tax cuts and reduced red tape are some of the tools the government feels tourism industry entrepreneurs need to thrive; so too is a dependable avalanche bulletin.

But aside from any financial arguments, the reason to fully fund the avalanche bulletin is that the mountains and the backcountry are integral to British Columbia, and part of what makes us British Columbians. There will be more avalanches and, sadly, more deaths. But many will also be prevented if British Columbians have accurate, up to date avalanche information so they can properly assess the risks.

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