When a large avalanche destroyed two lift towers at Fernie Snow Valley in February, 1979, it highlighted the potential for large and dangerous avalanches affecting the ski area.
Ski hill owner Heiko Socher decided it was time to expand Fernie’s avalanche program and recruited Dave Aikens as the Snow Safety Analyst and Pro Patrol Director. Aikens had been working for Parks Canada’s Snow Research and Avalanche Warning Section based in Rogers Pass, Glacier National Park.
He still contributes to the Fernie Alpine Resort forecast team today and is one of a series of ski industry experts who will give presentations as part of the 50th anniversary Fernie Ski Heritage Week next Thursday and Friday at Fernie Seniors Centre.
Aikens will speak on the history of snow safety in the Lizard Range, highlighting the people and practices that have shaped the local avalanche industry.
He says that, like today, the forecasting team in 1979 did everything they could to minimize the avalanche risk to skiers in Fernie – but with different resource levels and focus.
“We used the principles of snow research and science that focused on snow pack structure and how it would be affected by weather conditions,” says Aikens.
“Snow pack structure is still considered these days, but it has taken a back seat to intensive avalanche control using explosives. In the past we didn’t have the budget or the manpower to use that many explosives.
“When I formed the team, it was increased to four pro patrollers – it became many more than that today.
“We still started the day with the beautiful scenery and terrain of the Lizard Range, but a typical snow event control mission would begin with a few select targets being shot with the avalauncher gun to determine if and how the conditions were producing avalanches. Blasting is a lot more intensive now.
“Using stability and risk calculation, and working within the concept of acceptable risk, we opened or closed terrain to accommodate any activity.
“Even then there were no long-term trail closures – during intense storm periods we would close high risk areas and warm spells or thaw periods were also something we would respect.
“There were a few in-bounds avalanches but they were very rare.”
Aikens says one advantage of using less blasting was that the forecasters were better able to monitor the local snowpack and predict how it would react to changing weather conditions.
“Powder poachers” were a worry, so Dave began offering avalanche awareness courses. Aikens still instructs Avalanche Skills Training courses at the College of the Rockies.
“There may have been a lack of respect for the program in earlier times, so we had to get the locals on board,” he says.
“There used to be people who would brag about poaching a line in the bar – you didn’t really hear that after a while. As the program developed, anybody that started to brag about something like that was just considered ignorant, not a hero.”
Aikens was a founding member of the Canadian Avalanche Association when it was formed in 1982 and was presented with a CAA Service Award in 2011 in recognition of his dedication to the industry across three decades.
His presentation on the history of snow safety in the South Rockies region will highlight the contribution made by different individuals over the decades, and show the changes that have occurred in the industry.
• Hear Dave Aikens speaking on the History of Snow Safety in Fernie and the South Rockies at Fernie Seniors Centre at 4:30pm next Thursday, March 22.