Backcountry users warned. Credit: Contributed.

Backcountry users be warned: Avalanche risk rising

Okanagan and Shuswap backcountry skiers and snowmobilers take note – avalanche safety warnings are currently on the rise.

  • Jan. 17, 2017 5:45 p.m.

Low snowpack levels combined with a current warming weather trend has raised avalanche safety warnings for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.

The Canadian Avalanche Centre, located at Revelstoke, reports that in higher elevation alpine snow areas, outdoor recreation enthusiasts need to pay attention to potential avalanche conditions.

“You want to make conservative decisions about where you go, you want to monitor carefully where new snow has fallen and now would be a good time to be riding on slightly lower angle type of terrain to reduce the avalanche hazard,” said James Floyer, forecast prevention supervisor at the Avalanche Canada office.

While the avalanche warnings are more dire in the coast region because of the forecast onslaught of rain this week after unusually heavy snowfall this past month, Floyer called the current avalanche situation a tale of two halves—areas with a thick or heavy snowpack level are much safer than lower snowpack that suddenly gets hit with a lot of snow.

While a heavy snow forecast this week in many Interior regions didn’t materialize with the same snowfall levels that were anticipated, the combination of fresh snow, wind and warming temperatures equals a recipe for avalanches, he noted.

He said wind-assisted snow crests forming on steep alpine ridges on top of existing low snowpack levels is an avalanche condition similar to waiting for a gun to go off, and a snowmobiler or skier can be the trigger.

Outside of the coast, Floyer said the eastern Rocky Mountains, northern parts of the Monashee Mountain range around Valemount, and parts of northwest B.C. near Smithers have particular shallow snowpack issues at the moment.

“In the warmer weather situations where you have a nice slab of fresh snow sitting on top of a weaker snowpack, that slab sitting on top can be a recipe for a potential avalanche,” Floyer said.

Mary Clayton, communication director for Avalanche Canada, said a predicted warming trend will send the freezing level higher and weaken the existing snowpack.

“You need to be aware when heading into the backcountry. For sledders, everyone in a group needs to be equipped with a shovel, probe and a transceiver,” Clayton said.

She added that Avalanche Canada’s website has constant updates on weather and avalanche conditions across the B.C. Interior.

Clayton said for Canada, 80 per cent of avalanche fatalities occur in B.C., and 50 per cent of those are B.C. residents.

The Columbia Basin area, in particular, remains an ongoing hotspot for fatalities, she added, due to access to terrain.

Dave Crawford, with the Kelowna Snowmobile Club which oversees maintenance and management of the Greystokes sledding trail system, the weather pattern in Okanagan region so far this winter has been more consistent, less of an exchange of cold and warm air masses coupled with excessively heavy snowfall.

“Our snowpack is generally more stable for sure than on the coast but you still have to take precautions when you are in the backcountry,” Crawford said.

He said there is steeper terrain around Mt. Moore and Jubilee Mountain east of Kelowna steep enough to create a potential avalanche situation.

“You need to have an avalanche awareness and just be aware of your overall situation to avoid getting into trouble,” he added.

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