A Positive Sign: Good Terrain Choice on a Deep and Touchy Weekend
“Be careful up there today,” the trailhead attendant said as she handed over a trail pass for the day. “There are a lot of people up there and it’s touchy, so make sure you know what’s going on around you.” It was sage advice for a busy Sunday at Gorman Lake, one of the more popular sledding areas near Golden, BC.
A Recipe for Disaster
The day started with good visibility for the first time after a week socked in with heavy snowfall. The false sense of security that comes with blue skies combined with the intoxication of deep, fresh snowfall makes for a heady mix that is ripe for poor decision-making. Factor in a weekend crowd of hard-working, sledding depraved octane-addicts, and its easy to understand why the lady at the booth was dishing out cautionary advice to go with the trail pass.
By the time we hit the Gorman parking lot for a late start, word had already hit the street that both the Mountain Safety team at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and Golden SAR had their hands full dealing with avalanche activity. The news, coupled with already heightened concerns over the details of Avalanche Canada’s “High” bulletin rating put a damper on the group’s enthusiasm for what otherwise seemed like the start of an epic day.
The gang up at KHMR had several MASSIVE inbounds heli-bombing avalanche results on Sunday, March 19 2017.
Parks Canada was also seeing huge results Sunday on some of its avalanche control routes along the Icefield Parkway.
It turns out that the avalanche activity on Sunday was consistent with what Avalanche Canada had been preaching for days; that a low-probability, high-consequence event was underway in the Purcell and Rocky Mountains of BC and Alberta. Karl Klassen called it—the size 3 sympathetic inbounds avalanche at KHMR couldn’t have been a better example. The chance of an inbounds slope—that had seen heavy skier traffic since December—sliding to ground as a sympathetic result is stunning. Yet it did, and when you look at the results of the slide in the video, it was clearly a high-consequence occurrence.
They say that hindsight is 20/20. Looking back on the significant events that occurred just a few ridges to the south—as well as in the nearby Rockies—it’s clear that the snowpack at Gorman Lake on that sunny Sunday was tipping on the edge of disaster.
But knowing only at the time that conditions were likely to be more touchy than usual, it was with unanimous consent that the group chose a list of prudent objectives for the day: stick to low-angle terrain, stay out of runouts and keep an eye on other riders.
All the Ingredients for a Bad Time
Still, everything was primed that day for disaster to strike.
The parking lot was more crowded with trucks than usual, and it was clear that there would be many sledders riding the zone that day—a bad sign for good decision-making. In the search for untouched lines, competition for fresh snow will often push sledders into steeper—and more avalanche prone—terrain than they might otherwise ride when there is plenty to go around.
And after a week of storms rolling though, that untouched snow was bound to be deep. Any mountain sledder can tell you that riding deep snow has an intoxicating effect. It can easily lure riders into ever more slightly steeper and deeper lines when there is no negative feedback of instability at the surface.
Compounding the problem is the weekend-warrior mentality that is prevalent on weekends and holidays. It is the “I don’t get to ride much so I gotta make the most of it when I do” way of thinking, and both local and out-of-towners alike are subject to this blunder. Sunday is Funday, and the most must be made of it before heading back to employment drudgery for the week. Unfortunately, sometimes prudent decision-making is cast aside in pursuit of good times.
Pile on some sunny skies and the feeling of security that comes with being able to see where you’re going and what you’re doing, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
A Positive Sign
But disaster never came to be. In the areas that we rode—the Gorman and Upper Holt drainages—there were no burials, no near-misses, no human caused avalanches at all. So why, on a day when everything seemed ripe for avalanche involvements, were there none?
The answer is good terrain choice.
Despite all the factors that day luring deep powder junkies into blissfully untouched yet suspect terrain, by and large the sledders at Gorman Lake that Sunday resisted temptation and kept themselves to low-angle terrain.
It was a very positive sign to see. And it felt like something of a sea change in that as a group, the sledders there that day managed to temper their enthusiasm and terrain choices based not so much on the quality of the conditions—as they may have done in the past—but instead on the reality of the avalanche stability picture.
Now, not all decision-making was perfect that day. There was an instance of two riders making tracks up and down a particular slope that has a history of instability, including a nearly tragic sledder-triggered avalanche in that very spot just last year. There was also the case of the lone rider sitting for some time in the runout of an avalanche path that destroyed the Gorman Lake Rec Site outhouse a few years ago.
However, aside from these isolated incidents that should not be overlooked, for the most part it was surprising to see the vast majority of sledders making conscientious decisions to play it safe. It feels good to think that maybe things are getting better after all. And it’s a positive sign that each year the community of mountain sledders truly is becoming more knowledgeable and ready to make good decisions in the mountains.
So pat yourselves on the back, mountain sledders, for a good safe day of riding pow even when the avalanche picture was complex and the hazard elevated. Let’s keep gaining knowledge and experience and sharing that with others. Because if Sunday was any indication, it’s working. And that’s a very good thing.