Bring your brain

You can take all of the right gear and the fastest snowmobiles into the back country, but the best tool to bring is your brain.

This, according to Kris Hawryluik, a professional member of The Canadian Avalanche Association for 29 years and a Canadian Ski Patrol member at Big White, who spends at least six days a week in the back country region.

“Back country recreationalists should look to Avalanche Canada before heading outdoors, but basically in the field you have to be your own avalanche professional,” says Hawryluik.

Avalanche Canada issued a special public avalanche warning for recreational back country users on Friday and Hawryluik says recent storm snow activity has pushed the hazard higher than originally forecast.

“The forecast now for the Kootaney Boundary is considerable, and I do believe there is localized hazardous situations on certain slopes, and terrain,” he explains. “Choosing your riding terrain carefully is the key to being safe in these elevated conditions.”

Special public avalanche warnings give a generalized warning of what is happening in the back country, he said, but there is a lot of local variability on each run, drainage, and slope.

“When the risk is considerable and higher, the key is to not just carry a bunch of rescue equipment with you. It’s about understanding terrain and route selection.”

Besides taking an avalanche skills training programs look for a mentor to take into the back country, says Hawryliuk.

“Lots of the time we see people going into the back country with rescue equipment but that doesn’t really cut it. You have to be with someone who has experience and is familiar with local conditions.”

The best indication of instability of the snow is recent avalanche activity.

“We are seeing a lot of natural avalanches, right now, that is the precursor for additional avalanches to happen,” says Hawryliuk. “If you are seeing avalanche reports, or a public bulletin from Avalanche Canada, of large destructive type avalanches that is really the best information you can have.”

Hawryluik says a combination of wind and warm temperatures is increasing the avalanche hazard.

“Because of the wind, and rapid loading it is really volatile all day long and then you add the solar heating element to it and it is the perfect recipe for large avalanches.”

While the Special Public Avalanche Warning is ending today, Hawryluik says Avalanche Canada usually implements such warnings before a weekend, as people head into the back country.

“Everyone wants to go out and get into the mountains on all the fresh snow,” he explains, saying when hazards elevate outdoor enthusiasts shouldn’t avoid the back country, but they should chose terrain carefully. “Low angles, and simple terrain, don’t push it into the mountains and expose yourself to avalanche terrain. When the hazard is high you’re flirting with disaster.”

Professionals from ski resorts, heli-sking operations, highways and ski tour operations submit daily reports to Avalanche Canada to help form the basis for the public avalanche bulletins, says Hawryluik.

“We communicate a lot, and when in doubt we pick up the phone and talk to our nearest neighbour and talk to operations to see if everyone is seeing similar conditions, to help formulate the forecast in your area,” he notes when it comes to keeping on top of current conditions.

Hawryluik says the best advice he can give is if you see avalanche activity in the back country, turn around and go home, the mountain will be there tomorrow.



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