Central Okanagan Search and Rescue spent the day at Big White Mountain this past weekend to train its team on vital avalanche rescue techniques amidst high Avalanche danger throughout BC.
“It is incredibly valuable to train because we need to know what to do during an avalanche and the proper procedure for digging out and finding somebody who is buried in an avalanche,” explains Duane Tresnich, Vice President and Media Liaison for Central Okanagan Search and Rescue.
The team of Search and Rescue volunteers snowshoed five kilometres to the training site to simulate real rescue conditions.
“Snowshoeing in was to train our members that avalanches don't occur next to a highway, at least most don't, and we would have to snowshoe into the area,” says Tresnich.
The team then split into two groups working on two critical avalanche rescue skills needed in BC's backcountry.
“We are practicing our avalanche awareness and preparedness training, so we have several teams out now learning about probing and how to dig somebody out from an avalanche and another group learning about transceivers and our Recco device,” adds Tresnich.
Big White Ski Resort invited COSAR to practice on the mountain as the two organizations often work closely together to deal with out-of-bounds skiers and snowboarders.
Ski Patrol Director at Big White Ski Resort, Kris Hawryluik, says his on mountain search and rescue team are often first on the scene and are guided by COSAR.
Hawryluik says when people follow the rules and stay within boundaries the avalanche risk is minimal.
“I run an active and passive avalanche control program here at Big White. Our main objective is to mitigate avalanches, reduce them in size, and reduce the risk of exposing the public to avalanches here within the resort,” explains Hawryluik.
His ski patrol does this using two methods that cause mini-avalanches to stabilize the area before skiers get on the slopes.
“When we get out in the field we basically search and hunt out avalanches through avalanche start zones. If we deem that there is snow buildup or instabilities in the snow then we go out with explosives and we light and throw explosives into avalanche start zones. When they are forecasted to be of smaller size we ski cut the area, causing smaller avalanches ourselves.”
But, regardless of their hard work and constant warnings, many go out of the ski resort bounds, which this year is especially dangerous.
“This year with the snow pack, and the way the weather systems have been coming across through BC, it is turning out that it could be a very interesting and dangerous January,” warns COSAR's Tresnich.
With that in mind, COSAR has some tips to keep you safe and prevent them from ever having to dig you out of an avalanche.
“Let people know where you are going, don't traverse any known avalanche areas, if you are caught in an avalanche and you are a survivor get out and get help!” urges Tresnich.
“If you are traveling in risky areas you should always have a avalanche kit on you, which is a transceiver, a probe, and a shovel. And these need to be in your backpack, don't strap them to your snowmobile, they need to be on you,” adds Tresnich.
If you are prepared and have done your homework, Big White's Hawryluik doesn't want you to fear enjoying our gorgeous backyard.
“Don’t be afraid of avalanches, you know there are fatalities every year in British Columbia, but the best tool to bring to the back country is your brain,” says Hawryluik.
“All this other equipment (airbags, avalungs, transceivers, probes, tools) yeah they are great tools but the best thing to bring is your brain, go out there and do it wisely and you will do it for a lifetime.”
But he also has some words of advice.
“Skiers and snowboarders, snowmobilers, snowshoers, anybody that recreates in the back country of BC (not just Big White) should seek training from qualified instructors...then you also have to access information about current avalanche conditions in your area...then after that seek partners that have been there before, seek experienced mentors; that is the only way you can learn to travel safely in the mountains and enjoy it for a lifetime,” says Hawryluik adamantly.
Here in BC, with the exception of any Provincial or National Parks, lands outside of ski resorts are crown lands and everyone is welcome to recreate in it at anytime.
But both men warn that once you leave the safety of the confined ski boundary you are on your own, there is no ski patrol, no avalanche control work.
“Once you leave the boundary injuries, even a simple twisted knee, can kill you,” warns Hawryluik. “Train and practice in self rescue by using a transceiver probe and shovel.”