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Staying out of harm’s way

Series of articles, workshop to shed new light on avalanche causes, safety

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Avalanches happen. And if you are a backcountry user, then there’s a chance they could happen to you. But while eliminating the risk is impossible, the Canadian Avalanche Association believes that with new tools, techniques and the proper knowledge you can reduce that risk significantly.

The CAA and Mountain Equipment Co-op have teamed up to offer a full-day workshop in Vancouver as well as a six-part series of articles on avalanche awareness and safety.

"It’s really designed for backcountry skiers, boarders, sledders, climbers, and it’s presenting what’s new in avalanche safety," explained Ilya Storm, a public avalanche forecaster for the CAA. "It’s taking the most important research and development from snow sciences, human decision making… and applying that, and applying the lessons we’re learning from avalanches and avalanche terrain into our decision marking.

"It’s for everyone who travels in the mountains, no matter what your experience level is. Even myself as an avalanche professional, I am looking forward to this workshop because we have nine top-notch speakers coming and I will learn new things."

The 2002-03 season was the worst on record with 29 avalanche fatalities in Canada, most taking place in B.C. The most serious events claimed seven lives each, including a group of private school students from Alberta, and happened within a two-week period. An average year sees about 15 avalanche deaths.

Following the tragedy, three different avalanche reviews were conducted, and numerous recommendations were made, including improved funding for avalanche education and forecasting programs. The provincial government, which cut $40,000 in funding from the CAA in 2002, committed to $125,000 in funding for avalanche safety programming. Parks Canada will contribute $100,000 a year to safety programming in parks, and Meteorological Services Canada is contributing another $75,000 for public warning services.

As a result of this new funding, the CAA was able to commit to three avalanche bulletins a week for every region, as well as fund emergency updates when they’re deemed necessary. In addition, the CAA has committed funding to improve communication between backcountry users, conduct research, and offer education programs.

"Avalanches are still one of the biggest natural disasters in Canada, they kill more people than any other weather event, including lightning," said Storm. "We want to build people’s avalanche awareness and make avalanche awareness part of Canadian culture. We recreate in and enjoy some of the most wonderful mountains in the world, and one of the things that comes with mountain activities and culture is the need to be more avalanche savvy. It’s really important that we get the message out there and make people aware that they can’t just go to the mountains without considering some of the risks."

The Backcountry Avalanche Workshop, sponsored by Columbia Brewery, takes place on Nov. 21 in Vancouver. The central topics are new Canadian avalanche initiatives, current avalanche research, terrain evaluation techniques, human factors and understanding the risk.

The list of featured speakers includes Bruce Tremper, the director of the Utah Avalanche Centre and author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain; Ian McCammon, avalanche researcher; Bruce Jamieson, author and associate professor of the University of Calgary’s Applied Snow Avalanche Research Program; Alec van Herwijnen, doctoral candidate at the University of Calgary’s Applied Snow Avalanche Research Program; Alan Jones, co-ordinator of the Public Avalanche Warning System at the CAA; Grant Statham, avalanche risk specials for Parks Canada; David Jones, communications expert with Meteorological Services of Canada; Pascal Hagel, project manager, avalanche decision framework for amateur recreationists and Avisulanche Consulting; and Clair Israelson, executive director at the CAA.

The program gets underway at 9 a.m. at the Ridge Theatre on Arbutus Street. It wraps up at 4:30 p.m.. Tickets are $40.

The online 2004 Avalanche Awareness Series will be available at www.mec.ca/avalanche, and will feature six articles by various experts between now and February. The first article, Trip Planning by Alan Jones, is already available. In addition to Bruce Jamieson, David Jones and Ian McCammon, articles will also be contributed by professional mountain guide and safety specialist Colin Zacharias and mountain safety programs specialist and Search and Rescue trainer Marc Ledwidge.

"There are simple things you can learn, like travel one at a time and carry the avalanche rescue gear, but there are some things you can do to improve even further, and new initiatives that can benefit you," said Storm. "We don’t have a (rules-based decision program) in Canada yet, a set of rules the experts in Switzerland came up with for making decisions in the backcountry, but it’s a work in progress to create a Made In Canada solution. We will be providing preliminary information about that initiative and about what we’ve learned so far.

"We really do encourage people to come out to the workshop, it might be the best thing they do this year," Storm said. "I would also encourage people throughout the winter to check in with our Web site at www.avalanche.ca for the series of articles on avalanches, and for our public avalanche bulletins."

The CAA began posting avalanche bulletins on Nov. 15.

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