Latest avalanche deaths highlight need to understand ‘tricky snowpack’ risks, experts say

On the North American “danger scale,” which is used to rate avalanche risk from one to five, a three sounds harmless: the risk is significant, but not high or extreme.

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distro scale

But the avalanche risk was three on Wednesday when a group of nine skiers and a guide were caught in an avalanche in the Purcell Mountains near Invermere in southeast BC. The snowstorm killed three people and injured four others, including tourists from Germany who were on a heli-ski tour to celebrate graduation.

On Thursday, avalanche risk remained at three across much of British Columbia, save for a high-risk area near Kitimat, as avalanche experts stressed the importance of understanding the danger scale.
Avalanche Canada forecaster Zoe Ryan said that while a three means a “significant” risk and the possibility of natural avalanches, human-caused avalanches at this level are likely. In fact, most avalanche fatalities occur at a danger level of three.

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That’s partly because risk is difficult to manage unless it’s obvious, she said.

“We’re dealing with a very tricky snow pack this winter.”

A hidden but widespread layer of weak snow at the base of the snowpack, likely caused by spikes in freezing temperatures in early winter, has created a dangerous situation that occurs about once every decade. The weak snow can give way and trigger avalanches.

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Despite the risk, which will likely continue until the snow melts, Ryan said Avalanche Canada won’t be telling people to stay out of the backcountry entirely, but is committed to providing information so they can “make good decisions.”

With a high danger level of four, traveling in avalanche terrain is not recommended, she said.

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On Thursday, Emergency Management Minister Bowinn Ma was asked whether the province should bar people from entering the hinterland if the risk reaches a certain level. She said the province is relying on Avalanche Canada to assess conditions, noting BC had not reached the highest risk level.

But Ma said she wanted people to be aware that many of the recent deaths have occurred among people who are “very experienced” or have been accompanied by experienced guides.

“Our back country is beautiful. It attracts people, which is why many people like living in British Columbia, that is why many people come to visit British Columbia. But as we’ve seen over the past few months, it can also be deadly,” she said.

Ma urged people to possibly postpone their trips until conditions are safer.

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Avalanche expert Pascal Haegeli said Avalanche Canada receives information from 150 teams from across western Canada, including mountain guide companies, ski resorts and highway management companies, who have established procedures to test snow cover and collect samples from the first snowfall through spring.

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The information is combined and synthesized for the public by Avalanche Canada, which he dubbed “the translator.”

Guide companies should conduct their own testing and assessments of the lands on which they operate, said Haegeli, who is an associate professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University.

The avalanche rating – from one to five – provides the most basic guidance for the public, with layers of information underneath, including the types of avalanches to expect and where, including their size and how easy it is to trigger them.

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Haegeli said he has confidence in Avalanche Canada’s established procedures. While the public has different understandings of avalanche risk, “the industry would be very aware of it,” he said.

It’s unclear if BC would consider closing the backcountry due to the avalanche danger.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, provincial parks were closed for a time, but crown lands remained accessible. In wildfire season, some have urged the government to shut down crown lands to avoid man-made fires, but the province has instead managed the risk with fire bans. The BC Wildfire Service can restrict access to Crown Land and has done so in areas where fires are burning.

Twelve people have died in avalanches in British Columbia this winter, including the Invermere avalanche. According to a coroner’s report, which found 77 people died in avalanches in BC between 2011 and 2022, an average of seven people die in avalanches across the province each year.

The highest number of deaths in a single winter during this period occurred in 2015-16, when 14 people died. That winter, five Albertan snowmobilers were killed in an avalanche on Mount Renshaw near McBride, BC

Ninety-one percent of the deaths were men, according to the coroner’s report, with snowmobiling being the most common activity.

With files by Katie DeRosa

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