Alberta Avalanche Safety

By viola wallace | November 28, 2017

Backcountry adventure seekers live for the adrenaline rush that comes with hiking or snowmobiling through Alberta’s (and BC’s) avalanche territory in harsh weather conditions it’s just what they do. It’s pretty awesome if you know what you’re doing but if you don’t well let’s just say there’s plenty that could go wrong. Seasoned backcountry enthusiasts know the risks they face and are well versed in the science and art of predicting avalanche activity mitigating danger and getting out of a threatening situation.

And they should be. Avalanches kill more than 150 people annually around the world with about one third of those in Canada.  According to Avalanche Canada March is the deadliest time of year for avalanche accidents. From 2011 to 2016 24 of the 45 avalanche related deaths in Canada were snowmobilers. The organization indicates that while more than 8000 people take their avalanche safety training every year less than 15% of attendants are snowmobilers. While that stat can be interpreted in any number of ways I think the main point to take away is that your chances of survival in avalanche country greatly improves when you undergo safety training.

While avalanches are triggered suddenly there are usually plenty of warning signs to look out for before they happen.

What Creates Avalanche Conditions in Alberta?

There are two main types of avalanches: loose snow and slab. While both should be avoided slab avalanches carry the highest risks and are usually triggered by human activity. A snow slab is essentially a layer of snow on top of a weaker layer. There are a lot of factors that combine to give a snow slab a low moderate considerable or high risk of turning into an avalanche.  

Snow slabs carry the highest risk of avalanching during snow storms and 24 hours after a storm that has left 30 cm or more of fresh powder behind. This is because snowstorms that bury underlying snowpacks raise the chances of the slab fracturing. On top of snowstorm activity weather patterns temperature wind conditions slope angle terrain vegetation snowpack formation and the direction of the slope all combine to affect the avalanche risk level. These factors interact to bring a snowpack to its breaking point but it is usually the impact of a person on the slab that causes the break.

This is a lot to consider for the recreational backcountry skier or snowmobiler which is why it is important to rely on the experts get basic training and look at weather conditions when planning your route. Having safety gear proper training looking at an avalanche forecast and planning your route are all critical to keeping you and your party out of harm’s way.

Alberta Avalanche Safety Training

Avalanche safety training is a must. This goes for casual backcountry adventurers and even those who are accompanied by an expert. It is important for everyone to have the safety knowledge and training to know what to do to avoid or get out of a bad situation.

Organizations offer both online and in-person courses for different levels and depending on the types of activities you are engaging in. In-person courses are recommended as you will get the opportunity to practice skills and use safety tools. Courses will cover topics including avalanche formation and release terrain identification trip planning basics avalanche forecasting travel techniques companion rescue and safety equipment and how to use it. Advanced courses will include progressive terrain management techniques and safety. For more information or for resources to help you you can contact the following organizations:

Alberta Avalanche Safety: Gear and Preparation

If you head to your local outdoor adventure store you will find tons of safety gear options at all price points. Avalanche Canada recommends that everyone carries at a minimum an avalanche transceiver probe and shovel. It is also a good idea to bring a beacon orange straps slope meter/inclinometer airbag pack and emergency communication device.

When planning your trip and forecasting there are plenty of resources and even mobile apps that will give you access to avalanche incident databases safety tips forecasts and trip planning applications.

So before you head out to the backcountry this winter make sure that you’ve taken the proper precautions and have the right gear training forecast and plan to minimize safety risks. If you’re bringing your snowmobiles or using an RV as a base be sure to talk to your broker about ATV and RV insurance this winter. With all that done have fun!