When you step into the backcountry for a day of ski touring there are some questions you should be asking yourself. Are you appropriately equipped? Have you checked the avalanche bulletin? Have you notified someone that you are heading out and when you plan to return?
Student volunteers from Selkirk College in Castlegar have been asking these questions directly at the boundary gates at Red Mountain and Whitewater resorts in the form of a physical survey.
It's all part of an investigation by BackcountrySkiingCanada.com to get valuable data on how decisions are made by people who use the backcountry.
Skiers and snowboarders who choose to cross the boundary into backcountry terrain around those resorts are being asked to fill out the survey.
But there is also a secondary benefit to having a volunteer with a clipboard at the backcountry gate, a benefit which would not present itself in an online survey.
"As well as being a good generator of data, it hits people where they are the most vulnerable," said Andrew Creighton from BackcountrySkiingCanada.com.
"There's a good educational aspect to it. If you're at a gate heading into the backcountry and somebody says, 'Hey are you prepared?' you really have to ask yourself."
From the 11 questions on the survey, information is gathered about level of preparedness, level of experience and education, and what equipment the backcountry user is carrying with them.
All the questions were vetted by the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) in anticipation of the data being helpful in the future development programs and training curriculums. BackcountrySkiingCanada.com is hoping to collect between 300 and 500 surveys this season with the volunteers spending a day a week at the resorts. In six days last month they collected 90 surveys.
Pascal Haegeli is the principal of Avisualanche Consulting and conducted extensive research for the ADFAR (Avalanche Decision Framework for Amateur Recreationalists) project for the CAC. The outcome of the ADFAR project was the Avaluator pocket card, a rule-based decision support tool now used by thousands of backcountry travellers.
"Any data that we collect about the user groups out there is useful for the CAC," said Haegeli.
"We simply learn more about what people do and how they think," he said.
Haegeli, who also holds the position of Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University, firmly believes that understanding the motivation, perception decision making processes of the target audience is key to improving avalanche safety.
"The human dimension of avalanche safety is something that we've been studying only over the last few years and I think it will be very interesting to look at how awareness changes over time," said Haegeli.
The survey currently being conducted serves not only to improve the long term safety of backcountry travel, but raises awareness with the question of "How prepared are you today?"
In return for their volunteer hours, the resort partners are rewarding the students with lift passes to their ski areas.
Vince Shuley is a participating member and contributor to BackCountrySkiingCanada.com