PETER LOUGHEED PROVINCIAL PARK – The beautiful winter weather arrived in the Bow Valley just in time for Christmas, bringing with it the presence of extreme avalanche conditions.
Teaching an avalanche skills training one (AST 1) course at the Alpine Centre last weekend (Dec. 21-22), Doug Latimer shared knowledge designed to give people the skills to mitigate risk and understand avalanche exposure to ensure they have a fun and safe time exploring the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains.
Latimer began teaching the precursor to AST 1 in the late 1990s. He said since that time, he has seen people taking active steps to have a safer experience in the mountains. He cited the long-term trend of fewer avalanche fatalities occurring each year, while at the same time more people are going into the backcountry as an indicator people are choosing to be careful and taking the time to learn how to explore potential avalanche areas safely.
“Any time you see fewer deaths, that’s always a very positive feeling,” Latimer said.
“I don’t really think of it as trying to reduce the number of deaths – it’s trying to offer people the resources and tools they need to get out and enjoy this place safely.”
Latimer said 76 per cent of all avalanche fatalities occur within 48 hours of a storm and involve slab avalanches – or when a sheet of snow breaks loose due to a weak lower layer in the snowpack. Classes like the AST 1 can help backcountry users understand the conditions that lead to these tragedies.
Avalanche Canada created the AST 1 class as an introduction to avalanche safety to teach students critical skills for exploring areas where there is the possibility of an avalanche occurring.
“There’s a lot of snow on the ground and it’s going to be fantastic skiing,” Latimer said. “But as soon as you step out of a controlled area like a ski hill, or the highway, you’re in avalanche terrain if there is any kind of a slope.”
While there are risks to heading out into uncontrolled terrain, Latimer said the AST 1 course gives people the skills to enjoy the terrain safely because they understand the types of environments they are choosing to explore.
“Unless you have the skills, it can be very difficult to recognize when you’re actually being exposed to potential danger,” he said. “There are a few simple questions that will really help indicate avalanche terrain – quite often there are quite a few indicators that the snowpack is unstable, or this might be a potentially dangerous area to get into.”
The AST 1 class takes place over two days. The first day is spent in the classroom where Latimer shared critical knowledge, basic skills, tools and resources with students. On the second day, Latimer and his class went out into the wilds of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park to learn how to use the skills and tools they learned by walking through the landscape and practicing basic search and rescue techniques.
“People start to realize fairly quickly that this isn’t that difficult to identify avalanche terrain and it probably, hopefully, gives them a sense of better understanding and confidence – confidence to make better decisions.”
Latimer said it is a rewarding experience getting to know people and see their skills improve over the years they spend exploring the mountains, especially when he sees someone who can become part of the conversation and make their own decisions and recognize safe locations to explore.
Catherine McLellan from St. Albert, Alta. said she was motivated to take the AST 1 course so she could safely start taking her kids out into the backcountry.
“Having the safety knowledge is pretty key,” McLellan said. “It makes sure we can go out safely as a family – that’s my goal.”
She said she appreciates how common-sense practices are encouraged in the classroom followed by the opportunity to practise what she learned in the real world.
It was an incredible experience having the chance to put theoretical knowledge from the classroom into action, she said, describing how the experience helped her set safe winter sports goals for her family.
“Knowledge is power,” McLellan said. “Now I’ve got the knowledge and now I can learn how to apply it. I’m good to go.”
One of the key resources Latimer said he highlights to his students is Avalanche Canada's avalanche bulletin, available at avalanche.ca, which allows people to make reasonable and informed decisions when heading out into potential avalanche territory.
“Every time you go out to check the avalanche bulletin ... that is a tremendous resource,” Latimer said.
He added the most difficult factor in teaching these safety mitigation techniques is factoring in the human element.
“The hardest part is for people to make the right decision, not because they don’t have the right information, but because they don’t want to change their plans, or they’re more focused on their goals,” Latimer said.
“It’s our own minds that we’re up against.”
Before visiting the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park's Black Prince Day Use area, Latimer shared with students how to keep safe based on the potential terrain they could choose to traverse while on the hunt for the perfect lines to ski.
Regardless of which terrain a group chooses to conquer, Latimer said it is important to always bring a transmitter and to be careful have it on, even if there is the least bit of uncertainty to ensure people can be found if the worst-case-scenario occurs and an avalanche hits.
In the end, it comes down to using common sense, looking at the landscape and deciding the safest way to proceed.
Latimer highlighted how people can choose the risk exposure they are comfortable with when out exploring and can limit exposure to, or ski right through avalanche paths — the key is that they know where the dangerous paths are.
Backcountry explorers may encounter conditions that are too dangerous to hike, or ski during the winter. But Latimer said there are always options to ensure one can have fun out in the snow.
He said there are probably no more than one or two days each season when the weather and snowpack are dangerous enough to prevent people from going into the mountains.
“The rest of the time there are always safe places to go and play,” Latimer said.
“So long as you understand what to look for and where to find the resources to find these places.”
Megan Grant from Invermere, B.C., said she feels confident heading out into the backcountry because of the safety mitigation techniques she learned in the AST 1 class.
“There’s a classic saying, ‘earn your turn,’” Grant said. “I’m here to earn my turn – taking the chairlift is kind of the easy path.
“It’s given me a new perception which is good,” she said.
It was exciting being able to take what they learned in the classroom and apply that to hands-on experience in the Black Prince Day Use area, she said, adding that it was a great experience being able to pick Latimer’s brain for tips during the outdoor adventure to ensure she knows how to stay safe so she can have fun.
Latimer said the only reason people go into the backcountry is to have a fun day out in the great outdoors. When people pass their safety threshold it can lead to feeling unsafe and a ruined day.
“Take the time to gain the information, or wait until conditions improve and come back when you do feel better – you’ll always get a second chance.”
Knowing the terrain and how to read the slopes gives Latimer the confidence to take his family out into the backcountry at almost any time of year, he said, and he hopes his students can reach that level of confidence with time and experience.
“I took my family out in high hazard that was heading to extreme and we all felt very safe,” Latimer said. “We went to a place where there was so little exposure that we really didn’t feel that there was any significant risk – despite hearing avalanches running around us we knew our location was quite safe.”
Jessica Grenier from Edmonton said she was new to outdoor sports and felt to succeed it was important to start understanding the terrain she would be traversing.
“I want to make sure that when I go out with people I can be safe with them,” Grenier said. “Who doesn’t want to be out in these beautiful mountains all year round.”
She said it is a stunning, experience being out in the backcountry because it offers people a chance to step back and engage with the spectacular beauty of the mountains and enjoy the fresh air.
The course offers students an insight into what one is capable. Grenier said if she can get out into the backcountry, it builds confidence because she can engage in new challenges.
There is no better feeling than pushing through and conquering terrain, she said, adding that there is an unbelievable feeling of accomplishment when you reach the top of your journey.
Grenier said she appreciates that a day of hands-on practice is included in the course.
“It shows you a lot of who you are,” Grenier said. “I think you can push your own limits and your own expectations of what you think you can do.”
The Alpine Club of Canada offers a selection of avalanche safety training courses including introduction to backcountry skiing for complete beginners, AST 1, managing avalanche terrain and avalanche skills training two for more advanced terrain and rescue scenarios.