Winter is on its way and for many of us these promise to be the most exciting months of the year. Backcountry skiing, snowshoeing, and winter mountaineering are all sports easily enjoyed in Western Canada. Nothing can compare to a beautiful day in the alpine after a fresh dump of snow – many visitors come to BC only in the winter seeking out recreation and adventure in our mountains.
As enjoyable and inviting as a day on the slopes or trails may be, though, there are often harsh, tragic realities that go along with the winter environment. This is especially true in the mountainous regions of our provinces. Frostbite, hypothermia and avalanches are all hazards that exist throughout the winter, even on the most spectacular of days. Fortunately for all of us, a little knowledge and awareness, combined with prudent decisions will go a long way to keeping our winter pursuits safe.
In any cold climate, frostbite (frozen flesh) and hypothermia (cooling of your body temperature) are always a concern in our mountains, even during spring, summer and fall seasons. Both of these cold related injuries can sneak up on the unwary person turning an otherwise pleasant trip into an agonizing struggle. The precautions that one can take against these conditions are quite simple, though. Proper planning before your excursion will allow you to ensure that you are prepared for any temperature. Clothing that insulates well and is non-constrictive (to allow for good blood circulation) is the first step. Make sure that you have multiple layers of clothing, to better allow you to regulate your body’s heat an not get wet from sweating too hard. Believe it or not, it is very easy to overheat while exerting, even in temperatures below –15 to –20. Pay special attention, to keep your extremities warm, as they are the furthest from your warm body core, and will be the first to start to freeze. Lastly, avoid getting wet at all cos – rain, snow and perspiration soaked clothing will cool you down dramatically and hasten the onset of either frostbite or hypothermia.
Now that you are prepared for the cold weather, you need to carefully choose where to play (or, where not to play). One of the biggest concerns are avalanches. Contrary to popular myth, avalanches are not random and unpredictable occurrences. This allows the knowledgeable backcountry traveler to make careful decision regarding when and where to travel (this said, even the most experienced expert often will turn around due to uncertainty!). The basic rule for all people traveling in terrain that may potentially avalanche is “Recognition and Avoidance.” Learn to identify the hazardous terrain, and stay away from it. How do you recognize avalanche terrain? Generally any snow covered slope that is steeper than 25 degrees incline, or terrain with such a slope above it, is considered avalanche terrain. Now, if you are skiing or snowboarding, this is where you want to be, right? So, the next step, is to determine if the snow is safe to venture onto at that time. This is the difficult part, and requires years of education and experience to gain confidence in the decisions required. While a variety of learned skills and, observations techniques are needed, the best source of information is by checking your local Avalanche Bulletin. In Canada, this will be found through Avalanche Canada at www.avalanche.ca. some basic clues often indicate a poorer “stability” and thus higher danger. Storms dropping 20-25cm or more of snow, especially if deposited over a short period of time or with high winds are an indicator of probable avalanche danger. Periods of extreme temperatures (Hot or Cold) often lead to instability, too. Excessive rainfall on existing snowpacks is another cause for concern, and the most obvious reason to stay off of a slope is if there are any signs of avalanche activity on nearby slopes.
However, always be aware that dangerous conditions often exist deep in the snowpack without any signs at all! Check the Avalanche Bulletins regularly and read teh detailed sections on snowpack to find out more about snow conditions in your region before venturing out.
The true key to safety in the mountains is avoidance of avalanche terrain. If you do choose to venture into these areas, make sure you have the knowledge and skills coupled with the appropriate rescue gear (beacons, shovel & probe) to be able to deal with all conditions, or travel with someone who does. Without these skills and knowledge, you are relying on one thing only – LUCK! (And luck can turn both ways). I always ask myself one question before heading into avalanche terrain, “What am I basing my decisions on?” If I don’t have adequate information about the terrain, snowpack and weather history, I turn around and practice the highly respected mountain travel technique of avoidance!
With proper planning, our mountains are a fine and safe place to play in the winter. Get out and enjoy, but play safe!