It’s fairly apparent that this winter things aren’t normal. Avalanche conditions all over, whether in Europe or North America, have a lot of people talking of weak layers at the base of the snowpack. There are warnings all over suggesting we should be taking a conservative approach when out ski touring and off piste skiing.
As a guide at Northern Escape Heliskiing in Terrace, BC we’re fortunate not to have these conditions so far this year. In the past when we’ve had a persistent weak layer, which inevitably happens, it challenges us to use all of our experiences among the guiding team to make sure we travel safely in the mountains and then return back down to the lodge the end of the day.
So in a winter that’s definitely not normal, how do we, whether planning a big trip or just out for the weekend, minimise our risk while having fun?
As time rolls by the problem is that we start to see less and less activity on the weak layer at the bottom of the snowpack. People will inherently become bolder, gaining more confidence. No recent avalanches means stable conditions right? Well it could be that, or could also just mean people have been very lucky. False positives can lead us to progress into aggressive terrain well before its reasonable. All to often I’ve seen ski partners convince themselves to ski a slope rather than ask why they shouldn’t.
In heliskiing these types of conditions definitely force us to err on the side of caution. When guiding any group, if there is a potential for large climax avalanches, we’ll eliminate certain terrain features altogether. As a guiding team we pool our knowledge and past experiences to help us keep on the right side of the line. Terrain plays a key role in this and as a general rule the more unknowns we have the more we’ll step back to lower angle terrain and avoid exposure to large slopes overhead till things improve. Waiting it out and staying diligent is by far the hardest thing during this whole process when you have a persistent weak layer. It is obviously far better to back off a big line than take an unexpected ride in one.
The following are things worth considering for the rest of the winter given the avalanche conditions at hand:
If avalanche conditions don’t improve, consider going on a road trip to an area with safer conditions. Avoidance is by far the best way to limit your exposure.
Get your ski partners all on the same page for the days objective by planning your trip the night before. Use as many resources as possible, and follow weather forecast/avalanche bulletins on a daily basis as it’ll be easier to see trends.
Have a plan A, B, C & D – have a couple of options to your main objective. On several occasions I’ve had some very close calls because I didn’t have a good back-up route plan when avalanche conditions were touchy.
Listen to the older generations for guidance and mentorship, there’s a reason they’re still around!
If you witness or hear about large random avalanches take note. This is usually a sign that the deep layers will start to wake up with a trigger from: warming, new snow, cornice failures. Likewise it is best to stay away from shallow rocky areas on a slope or even certain valleys altogether.
Keep track of large steep slopes that haven’t avalanched yet. Avoid them as they might be primed and waiting to be triggered by a skier.
Once you’re out there, consider who or what is above you. Cornices, icefall, and smaller avalanches have the potential to trigger larger avalanches that can propagate around terrain. In busy, high use areas consider the possibility of other groups overhead triggering slopes onto you.
When things are getting complex and stressful remember to tone it down and to have fun in the mountains.
Take another avalanche course, professionals continually improve and progress their skill sets. Maybe it’s a good time for you and your friends to do a refresher.
More broadly, as the season progresses, be honest with yourself and reassess your winter objectives, bearing in mind the conditions at hand. When it doubt speak up and voice concerns and back off for another day when things improve.
So when you’re encountering an abnormal winter, particularly if you’ve never encountered these types of conditions its far wiser to take it easy. There will always be another season, and try to focus on the big picture rather than short term. Have fun with the rest of your season and enjoy the skiing!
- Words & imagery by Owen Day, Whitedot Ambassador, Heli Ski Guide, British Columbia