In the Trenches With AvCan’s North Rockies Field Team
“Wow, that sounds like a sweet job! You just get to sled around all day? How do I get hired?!”
This is the question Avalanche Canada’s North Rockies Field Team members are asked most often.
For many riders it sounds like a dream come true—getting paid to spend your days in the backcountry riding a brand new sled, with hotels, truck, fuel and maintenance all provided.
Our job is to gather snowpack, weather and avalanche observations in the field to help Avalanche Canada forecasters develop a public avalanche bulletin for this data-sparse region.
The area we cover, known as the Northern Rockies, spans from Mt. Robson at its southernmost point, north to Pine Pass and east to Tumbler Ridge and Kakwa Park. It’s an area that covers roughly 40,000 km2.
We also frequently ride in the Cariboo Mountains. For that area we are generally based out of McBride, Valemount, Prince George and Quesnel. This adds another huge chunk of terrain for our busy team of three!
A Typical Day for the North Rockies Field Team
A typical day in the field starts with about an hour of office work in the morning. This is done either from home or a hotel, depending on where we are currently based. While the team is technically based out of Prince George, BC, we are often on the road in some remote communities to be able to access staging areas all over the Northern Rockies and Cariboo Mountains.
Before jumping in the truck and driving to our chosen staging area, we formulate a trip plan that factors in avalanche hazard, weather, gaps in our current knowledge and any additional safety measures required.
Where we go each day depends on considerations such as where the biggest disparities in our snowpack data might be, and how many days we are working that week. We try to cover as many different locations as we can during a shift that can be anywhere from three to seven days long. We work twelve-hour days, and often four to six hours of that can be spent driving to a staging area and back—although we do try to spend as much time on snow as possible!
In the Field
Once in the backcountry, we view as much avalanche terrain as we possibly can. We’re looking for signs of recent avalanches or instability in the snowpack.
For access, we use sleds exclusively for probably 70% of our field days, but it’s nice to change it up for skis once in a while too. Being on skis helps us reach areas that have non-motorized access or are too densely treed for easy travel on a sled. Travelling on skis also lets us feel out the snowpack in an entirely different way.
Most often we hit up popular riding and backcountry ski areas that we’re pretty familiar with, but we also go exploring to more obscure places as well. If we are in a new zone we don’t know well or the visibility is poor, we use the Gaia GPS app on our phones to help us navigate.
Martina Halik, Avalanch Canada Field Team Leader““In the backcountry, we view as much avalanche terrain as we possibly can. We’re looking for signs of recent avalanches or instability in the snowpack.””
Throughout the day, we take note of weather factors, such as how strong the winds are, or how much it’s snowing. We’ll often perform snowpack tests to get a better sense of buried weak layers. These tests can be as thorough as digging a snow pit and scrutinizing individual snow crystals, or as quick as riding or ski-cutting a small, safe test slope to see if we can get it to crack or slide.
There are several remote weather stations that feed us information by satellite from specific riding areas, but getting our hands and shovels right into the snow to verify that information is still key.
If we find something really important we may give Avalanche Canada forecasters a call on our satellite phone, but otherwise we’ll wait until the end of the day to get in touch and report back.
Reporting and Outreach
In the evening we pull into a hotel (unless we are working from our home base that day) and relay our observations back to the Avalanche Canada forecasters in Revelstoke. From there, the forecasters will issue regular avalanche bulletins for the region.
We also post our information, including photos and videos, for the specific area we rode on Avalanche Canada’s Mountain Information Network and on our Facebook and Instagram channels. This gives riders additional ways to access valuable information.
Before COVID hit we would try and do a lot of outreach in the backcountry and at club events, but last winter  Avalanche Canada switched to live weekly online webinar sessions that turned out to be a big hit. People could watch from anywhere in the world and the sessions were all recorded so they can be viewed any time.
At Avalanche Canada we all feel it’s important to strive to create a culture where riders feel comfortable sharing their observations and experiences, without fear of being judged for their choices. We all have different risk tolerances after all, along with varying levels of snow science knowledge. We can’t all be expected to make the same decisions.
I always hope that passing on info about what hazards we are seeing will help riders make more informed choices during their riding days. I’m always happy to talk to anyone I meet in the backcountry to find out what they have seen as well—the more info we have, the more accurate the public avalanche bulletin can be.