Archive for safety


Chloe, a gal with a hankering for fresh pow.

Chloe, a gal with a hankering for fresh pow.

Soon after moving to the Bow Valley, I signed up for my first Avalanche Skills Training Course. Keen to explore my new backyard, I wanted to garner the skills needed to be smart and safe while playing in the mountains.

That first course provided just enough information to make me wet my GoreTex snow pants and ski straight back to the lift lines. I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of information, understanding and evaluation of risk that travelling in the backcountry required. The mountains command an incredible amount of respect.

With little confidence in my fledgling touring skills, the thought of fumbling through the backcountry with fellow greenhorns made me shiver. On the other hand, I grappled with the exposure of putting my fate in someone else’s hands. Regardless of their experience or qualification, it didn’t feel right to blindly trust. Besides, I sweat through my merino at the idea of trying to keep up with (or holding back) my seasoned pro touring friends.

Girls just wanna have guns. (*Flex muscles!*)

Girls just wanna have guns. (*Flex muscles!*)

Humbled, I realized taking an avi course was just the first step of a life-long learning journey.

Soon after my AST 1 course, I was invited along on a women’s-only backcountry ski trip to Wheeler Hut (see page 21). Surrounded by a dozen women of varied ability, we relied on each other for decision making, safety and support. The more experienced gals took time to explain the sounds, feels and signs on the trail. Together we dug pits, analyzed crystals, and discussed why, when and where we would travel across specific landscapes and terrain. Then we skied, turn after endless turn of knee deep blower powder.

Often on trails, rivers and skin tracks, women have a tendency to slough decision making, and its associated responsibilities, to the guys. But when they’re not there? We ladies step up. Because we have to, and because we can. I left Rogers Pass empowered, educated and inspired to ski more, especially, with more gal pals.

Professional skier and Girls Do Ski founder, Leah Evans, is all about creating accessible, empowering and enriching experiences for females (14-55+) in the mountains. “We are cultivating a community,” says Evans of her organization. With a focus on education, development and fun, Girls Do Ski programs aim to dissolve the intimidation factor, encouraging and strengthening gals to become confident members of the ski community. Referred to as a “yogi” of skiing, Evans has a knack for helping gals transfer the confidence, growth and stoke they experience on the slopes back to their everyday lives.

As I’ve learned, formal training from an accredited Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) Program can get you started with a platform of backcountry knowledge, but the wisdom, awareness, and confidence required to travel safely in the mountains must be honed over time, through experience and with a little help from our girlfriends.

We get by with a little help from our girlfriends.

We get by with a little help from our girlfriends.

Get out with the Girls

Check out these 2014 Programs that bridge the gap between formal skills training and real-life ski experience. Build confidence, push your boundaries and connect with a community of ladies that love to rip!

Girls Do Ski

Knee deep in girl pow(d)er!

Knee deep in girl pow(d)er!

These ladies-only freeski camps include coaching from some of BC’s most accomplished professional female skiers, including Leah Evans, Izzy Lynch, Tessa Treadway, Sarah Frood, and more. Coaching is focused on improving technical skills and pushing personal boundaries in a safe and supportive environment.

In addition to their well known resort-based programs at Kicking Horse, Revelstoke and Whitewater Resorts, Girls Do Ski will be offering their first backcountry, cat skiing and heli skiing programs during the 2014 season.

Under 20? Check out Girls Do Ski’s ’20 Under 20’ program, a day of of skiing, inspiration and great prizes for the under 20 crowd.

Detailed information, dates, rates and registration for their insanely popular ‘Girls Day Out’ programs can be found online.

Putting their mission to ‘increase female participation in outdoor activities’ to work here in Canada, SheJumps is hosting their second annual Alpine Finishing School in BC. This all-women’s ski mountaineering course is for ladies looking to take their mountain skills up a notch. Diny Harrison, North American’s first female IFMGA guide will cover topics of glacier travel, crevasse rescue, avalanche safety, route planning, and navigation in a supportive and encouraging environment.

Girl Pow(d)er is CMH’s ladies-only offering through their Powder University, a series of heli-ski trips that help develop skier and rider’s skills in the deep, backcountry powder of the Columbia Mountains. Set at a comfortable pace, participants will strengthen their powder legs and confidence as they share their turns with a supportive group of ladies. Learn to rip powder with a level of encouragement that can only come from a tight group of females.

Hut bonding rules!

Hut bonding rules!

“Considerable” Consequences

When avalanche conditions “improve,” is it really safe to get out there?

On February 27, 2012, the Canadian Avalanche Centre posted a new article by avi forecaster Ilya Storm on their Forecasters Blog. Ilya described how conditions were improving in the backcountry, but as a forecaster he was still worried. Turns out, when conditions move from Extreme/High down to Considerable (check out the Avalanche Danger Scale), instead of relaxing a bit, backcountry buffs actually need to amp up their awareness and decision making skills.

Photo courtesy the Canadian Avalanche Centre/Jordy Shepherd.

The graph above demonstrates why most fatalities occur when ratings are somewhere in the middle of the scale:

aLOW: When the danger rating is Low conditions are stable and avalanches are least likely, resulting in low fatalities.

b) EXTREME: An Extreme rating is a no-brainer signal either not to go skiing, or to ride super mellow terrain. Extreme ratings generally keep people safe by giving them advanced warning that they need to be extra cautious or by simply encouraging them to wait it out for less volatile conditions.

c) CONSIDERABLE: It’s in that middle ground, when conditions are Considerable, that one’s own decision-making skills are put to the test and the risk of fatalities goes way up. Say you check the CAC website and see that conditions have improved to Considerable and you’re itching to get out into that fresh snow. The question now is, how much risk are you willing to take based on your knowledge and experience? Your own knowledge, decision-making and terrain-reading skills are what you’re relying on out there. If you or your group are not confident in your ability to judge the danger of particular terrain features, localized snowpack and wind/weather affected terrain, don’t be fooled by simply relying on the CAC ratings to tell you if what you are doing is safe. It’s up to you, which is why so many more fatalities happen at the Considerable rating: the elevated risks associated with human error.

Despite all the careful effort put into testing slopes and providing backcountry skiers and snowboarders with a rating, risk levels are still difficult for the forecasters to predict. In his blog Ilya said he “can’’t tell you exactly where or when, or how large [one] will be.” All they can do is provide you with the likelihood of a natural and/or human-triggered avalanche.

It’s still possible to have a great time out there, but understanding avalanches as much as possible is the key to coming back home after an epic day out. Ilya said, “there will be clues to help you evaluate conditions, but they could be subtle and need a bit of detective work to notice. An open-eyed, curious but cautious approach should serve you well.”

The CAC website is full of information on current conditions. And the best thing you can do is take an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course to help build up your own decision-making confidence.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre (CAC) is a non-government, not for profit organization dedicated to public avalanche safety. The CAC came into existence in 2004 with the support and collaboration of federal, provincial and private sector agencies involved in avalanche safety.

Helmet, Shmelmet!

I’ve been thinking and talking about risk and reward a lot this summer and have found the conversations always lead to the same issue: what is reasonable risk? Obviously the idea isn’t to exterminate all risk from our lives or we’d all be playing Tetris instead of spending our days outside. But in our society the level of acceptable risk seems to be on a steady decline, and I can’t quite figure out why.

When I was a kid I refused to wear a bicycle helmet, not because it looked uncool (my helmet was a very cool shade of neon green), but because when I put that helmet on I felt like some element of my freedom was being taken away from me. These days, I would feel naked climbing or biking without a helmet, especially with crazy animals like this running around! So what’s changed?

Disaster Strikes

Carlyle and Zeno making do. Photo by Carlyle Norman.

Inevitably, no matter how much you try to pad yourself to avoid disaster, it will strike. Earlier in the month my climbing partner Zeno and I ended up marooned in an alpine cirque. Being out of cell range and without a radio, the best we could hope for was that someone would eventually notice our absence and decide to come looking for us.

After three days, someone did notice, but not before things got a little desperate (we spent our nights sleeping on someone’s old stash of gear that we found, which was comprised of old socks, PowerBar wrappers, and stuff sacks).

Lessons Learned

Obviously, taking precautions will never completely eliminate the chance for an accident. So, where do we draw the line? Does having a helmet, a radio, a SPOT or a can of bear spray actually reduce the likelihood of an unfortunate circumstance arising? Is there such a thing as being too prepared?

At the very least, unexpected and adverse experiences like the one Zeno and I endured, offer some time for reflection on the subject. Looking back, it definitely would have been nice to have a radio, although it certainly makes for a better story when you live through three nights with PowerBar wrappers for a pillow!