The Avalanche Safety Disconnect
Remembering back to the days when I first started riding backcountry, I can honestly admit that I was somewhat naïve when it came to avalanche safety.
I wore a transceiver and had a shovel and probe in my pack, and I thought I knew what I was doing. But it wasn’t until I had been riding avalanche terrain for 5 years that I took my first recreational avalanche course. And boy, was that a turning point for me.
The reason I am telling you this is because I don’t want you to think that I am on a rant against all those “redneck” sledders out there. No, I am not. I was once one of those redneck sledders, Alberta born and raised in fact. I am setting the stage for how things can really change for the better. A change that I want to see happen in our sport before any more people die unnecessarily.
You see, after that first Avalanche Skills Training course (AST 1), I was humbled by the realization of my own stupidity. Recognizing that ignorance is not a method of survival against mother nature, I decided that I needed to learn more and get more experience. This was a really difficult time for me because I noticed that the people who had introduced me to the sport and had taken the time to teach me how to sled and get into the backcountry—those people were not quite on the same mission. I realized that if I continued on this static path with the same people, same decision making methods and same tactics, that it would be only a matter of time before we had an accident. It was time to move on and grow, tough as it was to move on without my friends, but it was the first important decision I had to make.
Since those days, I have met several like-minded people—and even if they don’t have the same level of training as I do, I am fine with that as long as they bring something to the table and are able to communicate concerns and challenge ideas. Over the last 5 years I have worked through several training courses with the Canadian Avalanche Association including the near completion of Operations Level 2. Once you start, there really is no ending. There is so much to learn and the funny thing is that the basics are straightforward, it is the uncertainties that are so intriguing—things like human behavior and decision making, including the different way you, yourself function in different groups.
Maybe it is the mountain town lifestyle and proximity to the backcountry that makes basic avalanche awareness so commonplace for us out here in Revelstoke. But of all the years I have been sledding in BC, this year has really got me frustrated at what I am seeing out here. I am at a loss for words at how disappointed I am in the displays of insanity I have seen this year.
I’ve witnessed multiple people in multiple areas riding without gear—no backpack and even a few times with no transceiver. I’ve seen riders highmarking each other all over the mountain and others sidehilling across huge avalanche chutes, even when Special Public Avalanche Warnings have been issued after storm cycles. During poor weather conditions, I’ve seen tourists ride big slopes with no idea of the start zone that lies above them.
How do these people even make it out of the parking lot? I would tell them to get lost if they were part of my group. On more than one occasion I have had to give a piece of my mind to a random sledder who decided to continue riding a slope above one of my clients while she worked to get her sled unstuck. These actions are not OK, and they should not be norm—but sadly I feel like they are.
The question I ask then, in this age of information, is this: where is the disconnect? How is this knowledge gap occurring when all I see are signs and advertisements promoting avalanche awareness and safety? Are we as avalanche professionals failing to promote avalanche safety properly? Is it not a priority for the weekend warriors to get informed? Is the information dull? I obviously don’t speak to everyone, I realize there are a tonne of people out there who deserve to be out there and have done all their homework. I just feel that I have seen a lot of riders out there this season who haven’t. And to me, that is upsetting.
And so I write this post to challenge you. Challenge you to challenge each other. Make better decisions. Stimulate better decision making in your group. Tell us what you think needs to happen to make it safer for everyone out there! What can we do to change the statistics and the lack of rapport that sledders can’t seem to overcome? Let’s start the discussion, let’s be the change.