Avalanche danger across the southeastern corner of the province is high, according to Avalanche Canada, which has issued a special public avalanche warning carrying through the weekend.
The warning covers mountainous areas including Lizard Range and Flathead, South Rockies, Purcells, Kootenay Boundary, South and North Columbia, Cariboos and North Rockies.
Avalanche Canada says the snowpack in those areas have a mix of weak layers and that the weight of new snow over the last few weeks has recently triggered large avalanches. Starting Friday, the pattern of avalanche activity is expected to change from naturally occurring triggers to more sporadic incidents.
“The decrease in natural avalanches coupled with improved weather and the long weekend is a classic situation where skiers and snowmobilers venture into more aggressive terrain where they might trigger avalanches themselves or be struck from above,” says Mark Bender, a senior avalanche forecaster for Avalanche Canada.
“People might be surprised by how large an avalanche can be triggered and how far it could run.”
While avalanche conditions are a part of the winter season, it’s unusual that the danger is so high over such a widespread area. Bender adds that avalanche conditions have peaked given recent snowfalls and warming temperatures.
“Since mid-December, we’ve been tracking several deeply buried weak layers in the snowpack and there’s the culmination of a few things that are going on here,” said Bender, in a phone interview. “Some of those are buried up to two metres deep in the snowpack and in many locations, the snowpack depth has doubled in the last four weeks, so that’s actually quite a lot of new snow and quite a lot of weight to sit on those deeply buried weak layers.
“There’s been several widespread avlanche cycles that have occurred involving the storm snow and wind slabs and those have been stepping down to these deeply buried weak layers.”
Part of the avalanche danger also recognizes that backcountry enthusiasts will be heading out to recreate once the weather clears up, as it is supposed to Thursday evening or Friday.
“With all of this new snow, it’s been kind of cloudy, and usually once you get all this new snow and you get a clearing, that’s when people come to get out and want to explore the backcountry even more,” said Bender, “because there’s lots of new snow for every one to get in there; there’s lots of pent up energy to get out there.
“It just happens to be really tricky avalanche conditions, we don’t expect through the weekend for the avalanche danger to be high, the danger will decrease slightly, but that makes it even trickier, in the sense that it’s not necessarily really easy to recognize that there’s a really heightened danger.”
Avalanche activity in the southeast corner of the province has been responsible for one fatality earlier in January, which claimed the life of a backcountry skier near Fernie.
Days earlier, Fernie Search and Rescue extracted a group of backcountry skiers who triggered an avalanche outside the Fernie Alpine Resort.
The special avalanche warning also extends to national parks terrain and Kananaskis country.
“While danger ratings might come down on the weekend, lingering hazard will exist on most aspects and elevations for several days after the storm breaks,” adds Bender. “Travelling safely in the backcountry for the next few days will require expert-level skills to avoid hazardous areas. If you don’t have the training to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain, please avoid the backcountry or hire a professional guide.”
If heading into the backcountry, make sure you have the proper training in an Avalanche Skills Training course, along with safety equipment such as a shovel, snow probe and a transceiver.