Yesterday, we published an analysis of a viral avalanche video. Many of you responded, and we’ve seen a lot of positivity and maturity in that response. A very warm thank you to all of you who have contributed to the discussion, especially to Tom, who’s been a great sport. Tom’s willingness to face public scrutiny on this turned his bad day into a great learning opportunity.
We want to follow up on yesterday’s post with a couple of points. First, those of you who pointed out visible wind effect as another warning sign are absolutely right. Wind can affect avalanche conditions in a number of ways, including loading slopes, pressing snow particles into firm slabs, and creating snowpack inconsistencies that lead to trigger points. Wind can also be beneficial– for example, it can prevent persistent weak layers from forming by knocking over surface hoar. The effects of wind on Tom’s slope were visible in his video in the sweeping ripples across the snow. The Sea-to-Sky locals who are tuned to mountain conditions, folks with acute avalanche awareness, could very well have suspected wind slab problems without ever leaving the valley. It’s been blowing for a couple days.
We add this cautiously, as our intention is not to publish a complete report on Tom’s avalanche. Snowboard Canada is not a teaching organization, and is not part of the professional avalanche community. Some of you wrote to emphasize the importance of experience in gaining avalanche skills, to say you can’t just learn it from a book. That’s true. Stronger, you can’t just learn it from an online magazine. We’ll write on the importance of avalanche awareness in the future, and give advice on safe practice, but will again fail to be comprehensive.
Moving on. Yesterday, we said the following:
“There might have been a lot of other things that Tom did right. He might have checked the Avalanche Canada bulletin and seen mod-low-low. He might have done a good beacon practice with his partner the night before. He might have taken an AST 1, and learned some good red flags for likely avalanche activity.”
There’s a sentence there that needs better flushing out. Some of you have argued that Avalanche Canada’s danger ratings are misleading, or dismissive of real danger. And it’s reasonable to wonder why a slide as seemingly dangerous as Tom’s happened when the forecast said moderate danger in the alpine. We’d like to offer some explanation of Avalanche Canada’s forecasting process (spoiler alert, the upshot here is that the onus is on you for critical engagement). AvCan shares information with a number of technicians, organizations, and backcountry users who are trained to make rigorous observations of snowpack, avalanche, and weather activity. The forecasters who decide the danger ratings draw on information from sources like heli, cat, and lodge operations, ski resorts, and professional guides. They face a difficult job, because the regions their forecasts cover are very large, and avalanche conditions are dependant on very sensitive factors that vary between slopes on a single mountain, let alone between mountain ranges. Moderate danger in the sea-to-sky is a statement about Black Tusk, Poop Chutes, Brandywine, and the Tantalus Range (this is not an exhaustive list). Those four areas are wildly different, even in terms of how they interact with storms.
This may seem, at the surface, negligent. How can an official body, one responsible for your safety in the backcountry, publish such general information? Two points. First, AvCan is not responsible for your safety. You are. Second, the information in an avalanche forecast is much richer than danger ratings. Past that brightly coloured ‘moderate,’ though, reading them requires some background understanding of avalanche phenomena. These forecasts become less effective quickly if dumbed down. Boosting danger ratings to accommodate public ignorance starves informed users of essential objectivity. If AvCan caters to the lowest common denominator, the users who are most frequently in the backcountry (i.e. experienced and informed users) will not get the information they need to safely handle hazards.
If you read a forecast properly, you’ll have a great set of warnings and information that tell you what to look for, that do a wonderful job of beginning to limit your uncertainty. Uncertainty is a term that avalanche professionals use to describe a lack of information. Tom’s slide came with a high level of uncertainty. Observations like those made by Mr. Cote on Wednesday are the next steps in limiting uncertainty. Our post yesterday mentioned avoiding terrain unless you have a great reason not to. That great reason comes with bringing uncertainty to a very low level.
The skills you need to bring Avalanche Canada’s macro information to the micro level you need to safely ride the backcountry come with education. Last year, we organized a course with Avalanche Canada for our friends Blair Habenicht and Jason Robinson, part of a content rollout we’d scheduled for our next print issue. The rollout includes a video component, which we’ve decided to share today:
Still with us?
A final point: we stated that understanding the language of our analysis from yesterday is a prerequisite for using the backcountry. We stand by that, but would like to add a caveat. Throughout Canada, there is a rich community of guides and backcountry services that can take you, safely, into the mountains. You can ride your dream lines, even if all of this is overwhelming and intimidating, under the supervision of professionals. Please, if you’re not comfortable making critical decisions in the backcountry, look at hiring a guide as your way in.