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More snowmobilers paying attention to avalanche dangers

Backcountry users reminded of dangers during this weekend’s Avalanche Awareness Days

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When Nelson Bastien began snowmobiling in the Sea to Sky backcountry 30 years ago, he didn't think about the possibility of being swept up in a powerful avalanche.

But now, at 72 years old, he never ventures off in his sled without all the right equipment and the knowledge he gained from an avalanche awareness course.

"I wear all the gear, all the time," he said.

"There is absolutely a definite shift in interest (from snowmobilers) and a shift in people taking part in and communicating more about (the risk of avalanche in the backcountry).

"I'm also a director of the B.C. Snowmobile Federation and all of our literature and everything we communicate is pleading with these people to pay more attention and carry the right equipment."

It's also a message that the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is keen to get across, not just to snowmobilers but also to all backcountry users, and one of the reasons for the annual Avalanche Awareness Days, happening in the Sea to Sky corridor from Friday, Jan. 8 to Sunday, Jan. 10.

British Columbia's backcountry continues to beckon to skiers, boarders, hikers and snowmobilers - both the savvy users and the inexperienced.

"More and more people are going well prepared; more and more are going ill-prepared too," said Anton Horvath, Whistler Blackcomb's long-serving avalanche forecaster.

"It's a problem."

During Avalanche Awareness Days there will be a booth in Whistler Village on Saturday and Sunday manned by the dog handlers from the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) and local park rangers.

Weather permitting, B.C. Parks Rangers will also be on the Whistler Blackcomb boundaries at Flute Summit and the Blackcomb Glacier to talk to park users and raise the awareness of avalanche safety in out of bounds areas.

People are also welcome to take part in a film night with guest speakers at the Eagle Eye Theatre in Squamish on Friday, Jan. 8 at 7 p.m., which will showcase the award winning avalanche safety film The Fine Line .

And, conservation officers and community volunteers will also be on hand at the Cat Lake Forest Service Road (FSR) on Saturday and at the Rutherford FSR on Sunday.

"A lot of it is just to educate people about traveling safely in the backcountry," said Horvath.

Cam Campbell, public avalanche forecaster in the North Shore office of the Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC), said the Sea to Sky region is just coming out of a period of considerable or high avalanche danger due to a buried persistent weak layer of surface hoar.

That was most critical at lower elevations, he said, things like clear cuts and creek banks where the surface hoar was largest.

"It continues to be that way in some areas, particularly in the Duffey Lake Road area," said Campbell. "It's probably one of the more critical areas in the South Coast region right now."

Like the local snowmobile clubs, the CAC has also noticed a marked increase in awareness from snowmobile users, both in online forums and in avalanche courses.

That level of awareness may have spiked in the wake of the devastating avalanches last December, which killed eight snowmobilers near Fernie.

In fact, of the 26 avalanche fatalities last season, 19 were snowmobilers - 75 per cent.

"I think there's just an overall sense of much more awareness in that user group for sure," said Campbell.

"In the past skiers accounted for the higher percentage of fatalities and so we were targeting that user group. And in the past five years or so we've been targeting snowmobilers because we're seeing a growing trend in snowmobile use."

Technology is allowing snowmobilers to get further into the mountains in bigger and better machines.

"The machines now take us way beyond," explained Bastien. "We're now traveling through valleys and up hills that we couldn't get up back in those years, so the evolution is happening. Bigger machines, more distance, more risk, more death. But we're trying to combat it."

So is the CAC.

"We've identified them as the higher risk group these days probably because there's just more of them out there and they're traveling in more areas," added Campbell.

In addition to being an area director for the B.C. Snowmobile Federation, Bastien is also the president of the Powder Mountain Snowmobile Club, which has a trail management agreement with the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and the Arts. The club collects trail fees at Brandywine.

The agreement means the club must call the avalanche centre every morning and post the avalanche bulletin at the trailhead.

The club has also produced a map of the Brandywine territory this year, which highlights the groomed trails and the rescue caches in the area.

The water resistant map also shows some of the known avalanche paths. It is being sold for $5.

"There is an awful lot more being done and we're a part of it," said Bastien.

Perhaps as an indication of not just the increasing popularity of backcountry use but also the need to provide updated information to those users, the CAC is now producing daily avalanche bulletins on its website. Last year the bulletins were issued three times a week.

The message, said Campbell, remains the same: get the gear, get the training and check the bulletins.

To learn more about Avalanche Awareness Days or to access the daily bulletins go to www.avalanche.ca.

 

 

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